It was never a dingo howl in the first place, just a growl in the Central Australian darkness, before a dingo snatched tiny Azaria Chamberlain in its jaws and made off. But the howls have continued ever since from the crude and bigoted, and it has been galling to Michael Chamberlain, who with his former wife Lindy was exonerated of involvement in the death of his daughter Azaria.
The Federal Court decision in Darwin 20 years ago on Monday to quash the convictions - Lindy for murder and Michael for being an accessory after the fact of murder - lifted a great weight from the couple and paved the way for a substantial compensation payout. But the Chamberlains, and their children, have not been allowed to forget.
In 2003 Michael Chamberlain, divorced from Lindy and remarried, and having gained a PhD from Newcastle University, was employed by the NSW Department of Education and sent to Brewarrina in the state's far west for three years to teach high school English. He took to the task readily, adjusting to the fact that all his students were Aboriginal. The white high school students were being educated "out of town", sent to boarding school and elsewhere. Michael, part of a staff of 23 at an "eight point" school - the highest hardship rating for teacher appointments - applied himself well and identified with the Aboriginal people. He had a long-standing gratitude to the Pitjantjatjara people, the traditional owners of Uluru, who backed up his and Lindy's account that a dingo took Azaria at Uluru in 1980. "They were absolutely fearless," he said. "They told the truth as they knew it."
Chamberlain had to make adjustments at the school. He required that his students leave their exercise books in the classroom, for instance, so he could ensure they were there ready for use the next day. Otherwise, in all probability, the books would never have been seen again. He managed the Brewarrina Brumbies Rugby League team that got into the grand final in the far western championship. He agonised for the Aboriginal people. He knew their future lay in grasping literacy - normally a cinch for children from families in the mainstream population, but not for children coming from such disadvantaged backgrounds. "Seventy per cent or more of them have special education needs," he said. He was never troubled by the students about his past troubles. But in the town at large came the odd dingo howl. "One man, an Aboriginal, accused me of murdering my baby," said Chamberlain. "I said that his brothers and sisters at Uluru - Nippur Minyintiri, Barbara Twikadu, Nui Mintri, Daisy Walkabout - knew the truth. But it did not do any good. He assaulted me twice and I had to get an AVO taken out against him. He was convicted of assault and jailed."
The New Zealander, now 64, migrated to Australia in 1965, and started studies at Avondale College, a Seventh-day Adventist Church institution at Cooranbong, a small town in the Lake Macquarie hinterland which the church had chosen for its Australasia and Pacific headquarters.
He married Lindy in 1969, and would probably have passed below the national radar like millions of others. It was only incidental, he said, that they went to Uluru in August 1980. "I wanted to go to Darwin to catch barramundi," he said. "But Lindy had been to Uluru before, at the age of 16, and wanted to go again. We meant to spend three days there, then go on to Darwin. We arrived on the Saturday, August 16, and Azaria was taken the following night."
The events that followed have been well documented. Chamberlain has lived through them a million times, including his actions such as seeking black-and-white film the day after Azaria disappeared. "To this day I am adamant that I was in alarm mode," Chamberlain said. "I had never heard of a dingo attacking a white child. I was absolutely trying to hold onto my grief. The way I thought then appeared to be a rational thing to me." Inquests came and went, the couple were indicted, convicted and ultimately exonerated and compensated.
Following the upheaval, and his divorce, he remarried in 1994. His new wife, Ingrid, lived some of the time in Brewarrina but there was not enough work for her and she and their daughter Zahla lived most of the time at Cooranbong. In 2006, at the end of his rural stint, he and Ingrid resettled in Cooranbong and continued teaching - Michael at Central Coast schools - and enjoyed Zahla's company. Lindy, remarried to Rick Creighton, also lived at Cooranbong for a time, before they travelled to Port Hedland, Western Australia, for Creighton to go into property development. Lindy's father Cliff had died and her mother Avis Murchison had moved to a nursing home. Michael's elder son, Aidan, had his own electrical business in Port Hedland and younger son Regan was working for him. Kahlia, born in November 1982 when Lindy was serving a sentence at Darwin's Berrima jail, was travelling.
In the aftermath of convictions and appeals, pressure had built on the Territory administration, brought about by a growing chorus of protest from lawyers, politicians, scientists, community activists and sections of the media. The Territory's then solicitor-general, Brian Martin (he later became chief justice), had written a report in 1985 recommending there be no inquiry, but that was immediately attacked by critics who claimed the report was flawed.
When Azaria's matinee jacket was found at the base of Uluru on February 1, 1986 - proving Lindy told the truth at least about Azaria wearing the jacket when she disappeared - a royal commission led by the former Federal Court judge Trevor Morling was appointed. Lindy was released from prison on February 7.
Chamberlain believes the Territory administration caved in because of the headlines of protest it would otherwise face. Evidence on the identification of blood allegedly found in the Chamberlain car had become untenable because of a series of scientific challenges. The blood evidence had been critical to the prosecution case against the Chamberlains.
The marriage had been badly dented by the trauma. "I could not see it [a deterioration in their relationship that precipitated divorce] but there was a lot of unhappiness," he said. "We can theorise whether things would have been different had all this not occurred. We would not have had the same pressures." They presented a united front at the royal commission. Justice Morling found in March 1987 that the convictions of both had been unsafe and that a judge equipped with the information that had been available to the royal commission would have been obliged to direct a jury to acquit. The Chamberlains continued as before, but under strain. Whatever those pressures were, it was quite obvious from Lindy's account of the case in Through My Eyes that all was not well between them. "A few of my scouts told me what was in the book and I said, 'I don't need to really get into it,' " he said. "I have read it in the last few months. She has focused on a few things that I thought would not have been appropriate."
Financially, Michael Chamberlain and Lindy Creighton-Chamberlain are well off, Michael having gained "a six-figure sum" in compensation, Lindy twice as much. But the trauma runs deep from those dreadful events. He resigned as a pastor from the Seventh-Day Adventist ministry the day in 1984 the High Court decided by a 3-2 majority to dismiss his and Lindy's appeals against their convictions.
He has not tried to get back to the ministry. "I did not think it would work," he said. He found that as a man convicted of a sentence of more than 12 months (he got an 18-month suspended sentence), he could not go to Loma Linda University in Southern California to do a postgraduate degree. "They might not have let me back because I was a person of unsavoury character," he said. "You are marked for life. I was not allowed to vote. It is like having a social AVO taken out on you."
Michael did do a master's degree through Andrews University in Michigan. "It was anger that made me do it," he said. "It was anger against the Northern Territory. I said to them, 'You cannot beat me. You cannot crush me.' They were not going to put me down." He was appointed an Avondale College archivist, a pursuit that bore fruit because it inspired him to do his PhD thesis on Adventist tertiary education. He dabbled in property and cared for his three children as best he could.
The couple were still together when the Chamberlains applied for their convictions to be overturned. They were disappointed the Territory administration chose to oppose the application and retained the services of the Sydney silk Michael Adams (now a Supreme Court judge), who presented a 43-page report on why the convictions should remain on the books. In September 1988 the then Territory chief justice Sir Austin Asche, and justices John Nader and Sir William Kearney, upheld Morling's findings.
Said Asche: "To my mind they provide ample basis to conclude, on the new material investigated with such great thoroughness and care by the commissioner, that the result of the original trial is now attended with sufficient doubt to justify this court, on that material, in quashing the convictions."
Chamberlain said the judges went further than any other appellate court following a royal commission. "They spelled out that what they meant by quashing the guilty verdicts was not just that we were not guilty, but that we were innocent. I was ecstatic Lindy was more speechless than me. All she could do was hang onto my arm."