Listen: Michael Chamberlain opens up with Leigh Hatcher in 2012 about the loss of his child Azaria, and his 32 year fight for truth and justice.
When the Mount Isa church pastor Michael Chamberlain and his wife Lindy Chamberlain headed to Ayers Rock for a camping holiday in 1980, their lives were about to change forever.
On the night of August 17 their 9-week-old baby Azaria disappeared from the family’s tent, and for the next 32 years they would fight the media, police and justice systems that wanted to believe they had killed their own child. Legal history was finally made when the Northern Territory Coroner ruled in 2012 that tiny Azaria was not murdered by her parents—but was taken and killed by a dingo.
Soon after, Open House presenter Leigh Hatcher interviewed Michael Chamberlain about his heart-wrenching journey through loss, grief, and one of the most infamous cases of injustice in Australia’s history. Here we revisit that compelling interview, after Michael’s death this week at age 72 from leukaemia.
Why did you feel it necessary to write your book Heart of Stone, 32 years after Azaria’s death?
From the third Inquest in 1995, something had snapped inside me. I started to skill myself as a writer and researcher. I had become a professional archivist. I had collected from day one, diary accounts, the newspaper and all the court transcripts.
You say the book is about getting justice for Azaria. But is justice ever possible for you and Lindy?
Justice, in an imperfect world, will only ever be imperfectly presented, if you are lucky and if you are alive still to see it. I am very fortunate that I was alive to see the day where the truth about how my daughter died was told in a Coroner’s Court – a Northern Territory one at that. But I have never had an apology from the Northern Territory Government and that might take a little longer.
Michael can you paint us a picture of your young family as you set off for that camping holiday to Ayers Rock from Mt Isa, where you were at the time a Seventh Day Adventist pastor?
Yes, well this is all very emotional still. The trip to Ayers Rock was quite a tough little trip in a smallish car. When we got to the Rock we were entirely overwhelmed. We saw a sign that said ‘Do Not Feed the Dingoes’ and that was about it. There was no warning at all about the trouble that dingoes were causing tourists. So we paid our $4 each and we had put our humble little tent up – never suspecting for one minute that we would have any problems. What we did not know was that a week before, a dingo had attacked a kid, almost in the same place where our tent was.
And on that night August 17 1980 you were the one that heard that now infamous cry?
Yes, the infamous cry. It was urgent, it was not loud but it was a worrying cry. I looked at Lindy and said ‘You had better go and attend to Azaria’. The next thing she saw was a dingo coming out of the tent, head down, shaking. Lindy didn’t see the child in the dingo’s mouth, it was heavy shadow, but she said ‘Get out!’ She went into the tent rather quickly and looked around but could not see Azaria because the bassinet was turned on its side. It didn’t take long for her to scream out ‘That dingo’s got my baby’. That was the horror sound which must have reverberated all around Ayers Rock on that cold clear night.
It was only a matter of seconds, we all tore out of the tent.
If you ever been to Ayers Rock and the desert surrounding it, it feels very, very threatening at night – no light. It all felt very hopeless early in the piece.
You were widely judged because of your calm outward demeanor.
I feel to this day perfectly justified in how I conducted myself, but that was misread badly. I think it was partly because of my Christian joy and the fact that I was Seventh Day Adventist. People tried to put the darkest interpretation that they could on it. I never realized how ‘anti’ people could be against religion.
You did not act like the public or the media or the police had expected. Why did you appear like that?
I am a Christian first and a minister of religion second, and peace and serenity pervaded my soul—I’m afraid I have lost a bit of it now! At the time as a leader in the church, as a person who ministers to others, you must hold things together. I just tried to keep a lid on myself.
There is public serenity but what about away from the public?
Oh despair, confusion, terrible dread, and the loss of a child of mine, of ours. And we were now going back to Mt Isa with one of our kids missing and in a horrible situation.
How were you and Lindy at the time?
We couldn’t talk about it. The trip back was really sombre. I went back as fast as I dare, but I couldn’t go that fast because my concentration was nowhere. We got back to Mt Isa full of dread. We were met by very empathetic people including members of our Church, but within days people were starting to question.
This is the Northern Territory, the Police and the media.
This was the police telling the media. My view is that somebody was behind the police, telling the police ‘this can’t be—we have to have another story’. Tourism was becoming a new means of very significant income for the Northern Territory. The tourism consequences, if it was known that a dingo had killed a child, could be quite drastic.
Are there words that you can use to describe what it was like to be at the center of the media storm that you and Lindy endured over so many years?
We were seen as pariahs and as guilty people – it was horrendous. Every time I heard a helicopter I thought they were looking for me. Any time the phone rang I thought – ‘Is this the media?’ and it sent horror and a shiver through my spine. They were trying to paint a picture of us being the nastiest most reviled people in Australia.
How did you endure that for so long Michael?
Look, it is a very simple answer. My hope and my life and my gratefulness is all based on the fact that Jesus Christ died for me. He paid the price and despite my infirmity, despite the fact that I am an imperfect person, he covers me. I am safe in Him, regardless of whatever happens to me on this earth. The second thing was that I knew I was innocent, and that I was right, and I had to go on for my family and for all those who were coming out of the woodwork to support us out of shock and anger.
The forensic biologist Joy Kuhl became a significant part of the story. She claimed she’d found 22 samples of foetal blood in your car. Tell us how that played out.
When I first heard it, in my heart I laughed. I thought, ‘You know nothing, where did you get this from?’ In the end, the Royal Commission, through a dozen or more experts from around the world, all declared there was nothing there. No blood whatsoever, no evidence. It was three things: milkshake (I remember spilling the milkshake), copper dust from Mount Isa – we’d been down the mine – and the final and most terribly judged thing – was the spray under the dashboard of my car which they said was a spurt of my daughter’s arterial blood. It was proven in the end – and I say proven beyond any doubt – to be a sound-deadener called Dufix 101 that is sprayed in all Toranas.
On October 19, 1982, Lindy is found guilty of murder, sentenced to life in jail with hard labour. And you are found to be an accessory. Can you take us to that moment when the verdict is announced?
I was stunned. I had not seen this coming. Because our own defence had said, after a summing up by the trial judge, that ‘No jury in its right mind could bring down a guilty verdict’. I was so stunned. It was a bit like the night of losing Azaria. I could not believe that I had been declared guilty when I thought that there was an undeniably weak and circumstantial case against us, once you broke through the forensic rubbish that was being presented.
Azaria’s matinee jacket was finally discovered in February 1986. By now Lindy had been in jail for four years.
That finding was quite out of the blue. It was almost mystical, the way it was found. [It was during a search for] a bloke who was walking around the top of Ayer’s Rock and fell down. They found him about three or four days later, already part of him had been consumed by dingoes.
Lindy had said there was a matinee jacket that would’ve caused the pooling of the blood around the neck of Azaria’s grow suit. The cuts on the matinee jacket, the teeth cuts, corresponded exactly to what was on the jumpsuit underneath. That’s a fact not generally known. The description of Azaria’s matinee was exactly as Lindy had said it was.
Fast forward to the Coroner’s ruling in June 2012, 32 years after Azaria’s death.
The third inquest had said that dingoes don’t have a propensity to kill kids. When the fourth inquest was open it came largely as a result of chapter 27 and 28 of my book, in which I demonstrated that dingoes do have a propensity to kill, including small children. This changed the whole dynamic and the Northern Territory coronial court said ‘we have to investigate this’, and they found in our favour—because they had to accept that dingoes will kill children.
Are there words that you can use to describe that moment when the Coroner handed down that ruling and also apologized to you?
Overwhelmed – everybody in that Court room was overwhelmed with emotion. First of all because of the just finding she brought down. Secondly, the humane way in which she brought it down and the empathy that she herself showed. She was clearly affected by something that happened to us 32 years ago.
Can I ask you about two emotions Michael – anger and bitterness?
I would hope that the graciousness that has been given to me to live my life through God through Jesus Christ would help me never to be bitter. That does not stop me from being angry and righteously indignant about injustice and about religious discrimination.
Three fundamental things which Jesus critiqued the Jews about were that they lacked justice, they lacked mercy and they lacked having a proper faith.
I try to apply those principles and I think they stood by me very well. They stopped me from going over the edge. Bitterness destroys you – righteous indignation empowers you.