Thu, Sep 08, 2005 - Page 4 News List

Dingo `murder' keeps Aussies rapt

DOGGY DEATH Almost 25 years after the event the Australian public still can't get enough of the case of the mother, her missing baby and a wild dog


A quarter of a century on and Australians are still in thrall to a 1980s murder trial in which a mother accused of killing her baby maintained that a dingo did it.

That the harrowing tale still has mileage was evident yesterday, when the National Museum in Canberra announced to great fanfare that a little black dress worn by the lost child would go on display.

Lindy Chamberlain was eventually acquitted. A wild dog got the blame for the death of eight-week-old Azaria at a camp site in the shadow of the Uluru [Ayer's] rock in the continent's eerie red center.

And that, you think, should have been that.

But the bizarre incident on Aug. 17, 1980 -- it's the only recorded account of a dingo taking a baby -- still occupies a hallowed nook in the national psyche.

That's why queues are expected at the museum in December, when the dress with red lace and matching bootees goes on display. The expectation is that visitors will flock to see an artefact that for some would seem distasteful, even ghoulish.

It's not the garment that Azaria was wearing when she was snatched from the tent. That outfit is stored in a vault at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine in Melbourne.

The clothes in the vault were found among boulders and trees at the base of Uluru, 450km from Alice Springs, a week after the disappearance.

"You had to be a mountain goat to climb into where they were found," Frank Morris, the now-retired senior police officer who led the initial investigation, said last year.

What's up for viewing in December is the dress shown in newspaper photographs of the time that conspiracists said proved Chamberlain was the type of person who could kill her own flesh and blood. They reckoned that dressing a baby in black was proof positive of witchcraft at work.

The black dress is a totem of the time and a worthy addition to the national treasures, according to the museum's Sandy Forbes.

"It's very hard to explain," Forbes said. "But it's really up there with the iconic objects of this country."

Chamberlain served four years for murder, but was released in 1986 and exonerated in 1988 -- the same year Meryl Streep and Sam Neill starred in the Hollywood film, A Cry in the Dark, that told the story of Azaria's disappearance.

Australians were split over Chamberlain and her story. Some bumper stickers read "The Dingo Did It" and others, more provocatively, "The Dingo Is Innocent."

Chamberlain herself, speaking last year, said she no longer felt besieged by the controversy.

"Most of the weight is now off my shoulders," she said. "People know that I didn't kill my daughter."

Still, the disappearance and the trials retain their fascination for the country.

Guy Hansen, a curator of the show that will feature the dress, said of the disappearance:

"It's an event which entered political historical consciousness. If you think back over 20th century Australian history, there are probably only two dozen events which every Australian knows about and talks about, no matter what sport they follow or what side of politics they are on."

Chamberlain donated the dress, and 200 other items with a connection to the disappearance and trials, to the museum.

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