You’ve probably heard the phrase, “The dingo ate my baby” at least once in your life. Elaine mimicked an Australian accent as she said it on an episode of SEINFELD in the 90s. Oz’s band was named Dingoes Ate My Baby in the BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER series, and the phrase was even used to mock Robert Downey Jr.’s character in TROPIC THUNDER. The words became a punchline, and lost their meaning as it carried down through pop culture like a bed time story. But, the true story behind the phrase is no joke; the true story is about a horrifying child death—and a grieving mother who was falsely accused of her murder.
August 17, 1980 was like any other hot and sticky Summer night in Australia. Lindy and Michael Chamberlain took their family camping in Uluru (now known as Ayers Rock), a national park in a central part of the country. While all seemed normal, the family didn’t realize how vulnerable and exposed to the elements they were when they set up camp that night. The night would prove to be far from typical.
Hours after setting up camp, Lindy and Michael were having a barbecue with other campers when they heard cries coming from their tent. It was their 2-month old daughter, Azaria. When Lindy approached the tent, she saw a wild animal shaking its head violently and growling. The animal fled, and Lindy was shocked to learn Azaria was missing from the tent.
Lindy frantically ran from the tent shouting that a dingo took her baby, and she chased after it into the night. A search team was called in to help find the missing child, but all they found was a dirt-covered jumpsuit Azaria had been wearing when she disappeared.
Immediately, police were suspicious of Lindy. When the mother appeared on local news, she described her daughter’s apparent death in horrifying detail. Even more concerning, the public couldn’t believe how casually the mother described the scenario.
As the case carried on, and Lindy appeared in front of the cameras everyone insisted she wasn’t behaving like a grieving mother. She looked too pretty, she was too well-dressed, she wasn’t crying enough, she wasn’t showing enough emotion, she had smiled too much—she wasn’t behaving exactly how they imagined she should behave.
So, they assumed she was guilty.
The authorities thought the dingo story was absurd and farfetched. They believed that Lindy murdered her daughter, and buried her in the desert.
Their theory was that Lindy brought her crying child out of the tent and into the family car. She stifled her daughter’s cries by slitting her throat. They came up with their theory after a miniscule drop of blood was found in the family car, and traces of blood were around the neckline of Azaria’s jumpsuit.
Lindy and Michael went on trial for the murder of their daughter, and it all played out on TV like a drama series. It would become the most publicized case in Australian history, sensationalizing the death of the infant and creating a villainous mother, every step of the way.
Despite eye witnesses corroborating Lindy’s story, and confirmed sightings of dingoes in the area, no one wanted to believe the dingo story. Everyone was convinced the mother killed her child, because it was a much better, more evil story.
The Chamberlain’s religion was even brought into the case too. The couple were believed to be a part of a Satanic cult that sacrificed babies, and Lindy was turned into a witch burned at the stake at the hands of local news reporters.
A then-pregnant Chamberlain was found guilty of the murder of her daughter, and sentenced to life in prison. Her husband, Michael, was charged as an accessory. Chamberlain would spend 3 years in prison for a crime she did not commit.
It was another person’s disappearance that would lead to the truth behind Azaria’s death. A hiker had been rock climbing in the area the family camped that night, and he fell to his death. When a search party recovered his body, they found a missing jacket in front of a dingo lair. The jacket belonged to Azaria.
The jacket was a crucial piece of evidence because Lindy had insisted her daughter had been wearing it the night she was taken. Then police learned that the blood found in the family car wasn’t blood at all.
The Chamberlains were released from prison, but the state didn’t confirm their version of events until 32 years later. The couple was rewarded $1.3 million for their wrongful imprisonment, but they would never get back what they lost that fateful night. Their reputations were ruined. The Chamberlain’s were pariah’s in Australia. Azaria was still dead.
The media played a huge part in how events turned out for the Chamberlain’s. News reports and sensationalized stories changed the public’s opinion of the pair, and crucified Lindy before she even had a chance in court.
It’s not far off from the influence media has had on cases in the U.S. From the Menendez Brothers, to OJ Simpson, and even Casey Anthony, we’ve fed off real life crimes like they were written for us to consume. The media can have a massive effect on a criminal case, skewing how the story unfolds and how a suspect appears to the public. And sometimes, the court of public opinion can prove to be more powerful than a court of law. Lindy Chamberlain found that out the hard way.