Michael Chamberlain: Life, interrupted

Amid unimaginable grief Michael Chamberlain has endured public hostility, suspicion and ignorance in the pursuit of justice. ROSEMARIE MILSOM finds him at home and at peace.

Sitting on a fold-up chair beside an ageing caravan on a property outside Cooranbong dominated by rugged hills and pole-straight eucalypts, Michael Chamberlain appears changed. Suddenly, and markedly, the emotionless, dour manner that condemned the former pastor during his role in Australia’s most controversial and drawn-out legal saga, has gone. Gone, too, are the suit and tie he typically favours for media interviews. ‘‘I’m in my bush clothes,’’ Chamberlain smiles, though in his spotless brown riding boots, tidy jeans and black corduroy shirt, he is far from unkempt.


Rosemarie Milsom speaks to Michael Chamberlain. Detailed information on the pictures can be found in the gallery to the right of the page.

The reason for Chamberlain’s relaxed, even vulnerable, demeanour is the historical event that occurred a few weeks ago on June 12, the day after his firstborn daughter Azaria would have celebrated her 32nd birthday. Chamberlain sat in Darwin Magistrates Court next to his ex-wife Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton to hear the deputy coroner, Elizabeth Morris, conclude the fourth inquest into Azaria’s tragic and sensational 1980 death. His 16-year-old daughter Zahra from his second marriage to Ingrid Bergner was present, as was his and Lindy’s 38-year-old son Aidan and his wife Amber.

An emotional Morris said she was satisfied that the evidence was ‘‘sufficiently, adequate, clear, cogent and exact’’ that a dingo took 9-week-old Azaria from the family’s tent at Uluru, then known as Ayers Rock, ‘‘and that the evidence excludes all other reasonable possibilities’’.

Close to tears, Morris addressed the family: ‘‘Mrs Chamberlain-Creighton, Mr Chamberlain, Aidan and your extended families, please accept my sincere sympathy on the death of your special and loved daughter and sister, Azaria. I am so sorry for your loss. Time does not remove the pain and sadness of the death of a child’’.

Death certificates were issued to Lindy and Michael reflecting the findings.

Outside the court, Chamberlain told the media throng: ‘‘This battle to get the legal truth about what caused Azaria’s death has taken too long. However, I am here to tell you that you can get justice, even when you think that all is lost ... This has been a terrifying battle, bitter at times, but now some healing and a chance to put our daughter’s spirit to rest.’’

The fourth inquest concluded an inhumane ordeal that began on a moonless desert night three decades ago and upturned Chamberlain’s seemingly blessed life (see timeline). His vocation as a Seventh Day Adventist pastor, his developing career as a religious radio presenter, his marriage and the security and well-being of his children were destroyed by a volatile combination of religious prejudice, an unethical, frenzied media, ignorance, rumour, suspicion, police incompetence, flawed scientific evidence, government self-interest and a misunderstood, opportunistic wild animal.

Now, it is as though his life has begun again. ‘‘It took me a while to come down, to get used to it [the findings] I suppose,’’ says a reflective Chamberlain, who uses this expansive property as a retreat. ‘‘I’m realising for the first time in a long, long time I have permission to smile at people, permission to laugh, and I have permission to go back to where I was before this whole terrible thing happened.’’

In 1980, Michael Chamberlain was a gregarious, blond, buff, outdoorsy bloke, a dedicated runner with a passion for photography and holistic health (Adventist church members are vegetarian). With his equally attractive wife Lindy and two blond-haired sons, Aidan and Reagan, the Chamberlains were the Aussie family from central casting.

Chamberlain enjoyed his outreach role in Mount Isa and was being recognised within the church for the health and lifestyle radio programs he prepared and presented. He also wrote a weekly column for The Cairns Post.

Focused and goal-oriented, Chamberlain hoped the church would sponsor him to complete a PhD in health science at its prestigious Loma Linda University in the United States. ‘‘Adventism is about striving for a healthy balance in mind and body,’’ says Chamberlain, who at 68 can no longer sustain long-distance running, preferring a ‘‘gumboot shuffle of about three kilometres’’.

‘‘I felt that everything was coming together and the arrival of our daughter who we had prayed for confirmed that,’’ he adds, gesturing skyward with a closed left hand to signify the trajectory of his life at that time. He looks at me and his face is bright. ‘‘I also felt that if you kept the physical and spiritual sides of your life in balance, you should live long and well and be able to deal with problems that come your way.’’ Chamberlain pauses and the ethereal ping of a bellbird’s song fills the silence. ‘‘I never knew I was going to face problems of such titanic proportions.’’

Chamberlain has relived that fateful August night countless times, including his actions and demeanour after Azaria disappeared. ‘‘Contained, pedantic, too controlled perhaps,’’ is his assessment of his behaviour, which was widely interpreted as a PR disaster under the intense and relentless glare of the media spotlight, ‘‘but that’s part of my discipline and training and it’s partly to do with my upbringing. I was brought up in a conservative family, very Christian, [by] a beautiful mother and a very good dad, an honest man.

‘‘I was also utterly overwhelmed by what was happening, which was so far outside my experience. Once the media coverage intensified we were under constant scrutiny. We [Seventh Day Adventists] have an understanding of our future and though the physical loss of Azaria was horrible, we tried to keep a cap on that with the spiritual knowledge we would see our daughter again.

‘‘We were not prepared for the assault that came afterwards, the accusations,’’ he continues, his voice hardening. ‘‘That was the real challenge for Lindy and me and that’s what changed us both.’’

Inquests came and went, the couple were indicted, convicted and ultimately exonerated and compensated. And they divorced.

Chamberlain speaks reluctantly of Lindy and the state of their relationship. They do not have contact, but if they run into each other in Cooranbong – Lindy lives in Quorrobolong with husband Rick Creighton – they exchange pleasantries, under strain. Chamberlain says he is interested to read his ex-wife’s new book about forgiveness once it is published. ‘‘That’s all I’ll say.’’

In the first five years of the criminal proceedings and during Lindy’s incarceration in Darwin Prison, Chamberlain made more than 30 flights to the Northern Territory from Sydney (the family had moved to the Seventh Day Adventist Australian headquarters at Cooranbong, which at various times was under siege from the media). The family’s life was irreversibly fractured.

Chamberlain resigned as a pastor from the 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 found that as a man convicted of a sentence of more than 12 months (he got an 18-month suspended sentence for accessory after the fact of murder), he could not go to Loma Linda University, though he later completed a master’s degree in religion through Andrews University in Michigan. ‘‘It was anger that made me get through it [his studies],’’ he recalls. ‘‘It was anger with the Northern Territory government. They were not going to crush me.’’

He was appointed an Avondale College archivist, a pursuit that bore fruit because it inspired him to write his first book, Cooranbong: First Town on Lake Macquarie 1826-1996, attracting the attention of the University of Newcastle, which then invited him to do a PhD. His thesis for which he estimates he read or scanned 1million pages, centred on Adventist tertiary education. His skills as an archivist – and his tendency as a pedant – have been invaluable in the past four years as he researched and wrote his new book, Heart of Stone: Justice for Azaria, in which he documents and investigates the 32-year battle for justice triggered by his daughter’s horrific death. The book ‘‘seeks to be more than an autobiographical recount’’ and is a disturbing and at times distressing read (it is also frustrating because, due to the publisher’s haste, it concludes with the first day of this year’s inquest rather than the deputy coroner’s findings 3 months later).

Chamberlain’s forensic approach means that Heart of Stone is dense with documentary detail but the cumulative effect of each legal battle – and there were many – packs a powerful punch. Here it is in black and white – the evolution of the devastating smear campaign, the incomprehensible failings of ‘‘a surreal, Blade Runner-like justice system’’, the machinations of a biased media, the disintegration of a marriage and Chamberlain’s bouts of depression.

He was compelled to write the book because of simmering anger and disappointment about the finding of the third inquest in November 1995 when the then Northern Territory coroner, John Lowndes, returned an open verdict. Despite objective evidence supporting the dingo attack theory – including the growl heard by independent witnesses, the dingo tracks into and out of the tent, the drag mark in the dunes, and the circumstantial evidence of dingo attacks on young children at Uluru – the coroner left open the possibility of some other explanation, while excluding the Chamberlains from any criminal act.

‘‘For me it was just another political means of keeping the truth of how Azaria died out of sight,’’ he says. ‘‘Something snapped inside me after that finding and I decided if I was going to make my case stick, it would take time and I took a convoluted journey to get there.’’

Four years ago while working as an English and history teacher in the north-western NSW town of Brewarrina, Chamberlain realised it was too difficult to teach and write. ‘‘It was starting to niggle me really badly, so it was convenient to drop the mantle of being a school teacher and start writing, and I did so on the first of January, 2008.

‘‘I was very, very fortunate; everything I needed to draw on I could see in front of me in 24 cabinet drawers. I had all my diaries, newspapers, court documents, photographs, the works. It was all there.’’

More recent, savage attacks by dingos, including the 2001 death of nine-year-old Clinton Gage on Fraser Island, also motivated Chamberlain to push for a fourth inquest. The research required for the book and the demands of creating a strong narrative, helped Chamberlain build his case.

‘‘Michael’s determination throughout this ordeal has been unwavering,’’ observes senior Sydney Morning Herald journalist Malcolm Brown, who has reported on the Chamberlains since the early 1980s. ‘‘He has shown himself to be steadfast and has emerged from the experience as an honourable and astute man. I was worried the book would be repetitive, we all know the story, but it’s not – in fact it’s very powerful.’’

One of the journalists convinced early on of the couple’s innocence based on the evidence, Brown believes Chamberlain’s religion both condemned and sustained him. ‘‘Australians weren’t as tolerant of different faiths then and prejudice about Seventh Day Adventists meant they were falsely accused of all sorts of bizarre behaviour, and it just wasn’t true.’’

Says Chamberlain: ‘‘Our religious beliefs drove the mystery of the case, the unknown side. People don’t like not to know things and Adventism at that time was emerging from being very conservative, very Christian and biblically based. It was a church that was heavily cultured about standards and it was beginning to realise that relationships were just as important as standards and values.’’

The church stuck by the couple – not blindly according to Chamberlain. ‘‘They looked at the facts and they knew about the witness accounts from that night at Ayers Rock, they knew about the opinion of the Aboriginal trackers and park rangers [who all backed the couple’s account]. They would never have supported us if there was even a hint of guilt about us.

‘‘The church said they would not let us down and ... aaah,’’ Chamberlain exhales, eyes closed, ‘‘we will be eternally indebted.’’

But how could he maintain his faith given the horrific nature of Azaria’s death and the persecution that followed?

‘‘Without that moral support [from the church] at a time when you are under siege and your integrity has been stomped on, to have people stand by you ...’’ Chamberlain continues tearfully, ‘‘It’s like walking on a seashore in deep distress and you wonder why you’ve still got the power to go on and then somebody says to you, ‘I was with you while you were walking’. You say, ‘But there’s only one set of footprints’ and the reply is, ‘They weren’t yours, I was carrying you’.’’

Chamberlain pauses. He is upset and his voice is soft and stretched.

‘‘So often that’s been the case ... [pause] ... and in that respect, and in that context, I have had a fortunate life, so I give thanks.’’

There is an urgency in Chamberlain. He is determined to make up for lost time and is hard at work writing.

He has completed a screenplay about Jewish British-born convict turned bushranger Edward Davis, a Robin Hood-like thief who reigned from Maitland to the Central Coast before being charged with abetting a murderer, a member of his ‘‘Jewboy Gang’’, and hanged in 1841 at the age of 26. ‘‘It was all very unjust,’’ Chamberlain says. ‘‘He should never have been executed.’’

Sadly, Chamberlain’s 58-year-old wife Ingrid suffered a stroke last August and he has become her full-time carer.The ongoing physical complications prevented Ingrid from being by her husband’s side in Darwin on June 12, though the couple’s teenage daughter Zahra supported Chamberlain. It was the budding journalist’s first experience of a courtroom and she participated in a report for the Seven Network’s Sunday Night program, filming her experience on a handicam.

‘‘Did you see her?’’ asks a beaming Chamberlain. ‘‘She stole the show, thank god. All these years, she has been quietly watching and listening when it seemed like she was ignoring the whole thing.’’

Chamberlain provides a quick update on his other three children: Aidan, who was six and with Lindy when she saw a dingo take Azaria, is 38 and runs his own successful electrician business in Port Hedland; Reagan, who was asleep as a four-year-old in the tent when the dingo took Azaria from her crib on the ground, is also an electrician; Kahlia, 29, a nurse and ‘‘firebrand’’, is married and lives on Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands with her software designer husband.

‘‘I’m very proud of how my children have dealt with this,’’ Chamberlain says.

‘‘None of them have displayed risk-taking behaviour, which is a great relief for any parent. They are all wonderful people. I’ve got no grandchildren though,’’ he says with a laugh.

In Heart of Stone, amid the legal and scientific details and Chamberlain’s restrained or, in his words, ‘‘minimalist’’ account of the dramatic twists and turns of the past three decades, there is a handful of haunting paragraphs that describe the aftermath on the night of Azaria’s disappearance.

‘‘Sometime after [the search], nurse Bobby Elston, having comforted us both, took us to the Uluru motel and we were led to our room for the night, courtesy of the management,’’ he writes. ‘‘By now Lindy was feeling under pressure from the milk swelling in her breasts and needed an expressing pump to alleviate the problem. I remember her crying as she left the campsite over not being able to feed Azaria. It was a truly unbelievable moment for both of us. We were both aware that by now, if she was alive, she would be freezing and hungry ... an overwhelming helplessness pervaded our spirits.’’

I describe to Chamberlain how this intimate scene and the couple of others included in the book help reintroduce his beloved baby daughter. For so long Azaria seemed to be forgotten in the hysteria surrounding her mother and father. He is quiet.

Later, when I return Chamberlain to our original meeting place, Cooranbong’s sole cafe, so he can rush home to assist Ingrid (‘‘I’m on my way, dear,’’ he tells her by phone), he thanks me for my feedback about the book and my empathy.

As he opens the car door, tears overwhelm me. During my 17-year career, this has never happened – not in the presence of a person I have interviewed. I am mortified, but the tears will not stop.

I apologise and explain that I have grieved for two of my own babies, born too soon to survive. ‘‘The death of a baby is like no other,’’ I offer, awkwardly. He nods and tries to contain his own tears. We sit in silence for a long moment.

I want to say so much more; that the loss of a baby is a tragedy and is the end of a future lovingly imagined; that even if you are blessed with another child and life returns to its usual routine, the wounding pain forever remains, enclosed in your heart. But I don’t.

Michael Chamberlain already knows this.

Heart of Stone: Justice for Azaria by Michael Chamberlain is published by New Holland.

Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide