Saturday, August 20, 2022

The Teacher’s Trial: Has A Podcast Actually Solved A Murder?

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A missing woman, a handsome and somewhat famous young man with a twin brother, a 16-year-old schoolgirl… The Teacher’s Pet was one of 2018’s biggest podcasts – and with good reason. But now, there’s a new chapter in the 40-year-old mystery, with a new court case and a new podcast, The Teacher’s Trial.

True crime podcasts can be a lot of things: riveting, mind-boggling, disturbing and sometimes, quite terrifying. But one thing they’ve all had in common– perhaps until now –  is that they’ve left their listeners hugely frustrated.

If you’ve listened to many, you’ll know the feeling – an uneasy, dissatisfied pit in your stomach, when, come the final episode you’re inevitably left with more unanswered questions than answered ones. So… who really did commit this crime? Is the wrong person really behind bars? Is the killer walking free?? IS THIS EVER GOING TO BE SOLVED?!?! Why did I listen to this and get so involved? AGGGGH.

It’s a genre that has absolutely boomed in recent years, with chart-topping podcasts like West Cork, Lost Hills and – of course, the one that launched the entire existence of podcasts, Serial. And while those may have all centered on an unsolved crime – or put into question who really did do it – since the completed or airing of those podcasts, the killer either still remains unknown, or the same person is behind bars still serving time for the crime.

But now, in a rather staggering turn of events, we’re in the midst of one of the wildest murder trials to ever take place – and it’s one that has come about, largely from an investigative true crime podcast.

If you tuned in, you would have been one of the captivated millions to listen to The Teacher’s Pet in 2018 (aka, the years before things turned to hell). Journalist and reporter from The Australian, Hedley Thomas, was behind the podcast and describes himself as having a particular interest in shining a light on and investigating murders of Australian women.

He came across the story of a young woman, Lynette Dawson, who up and vanished in 1982 when she was 33, and, upon further investigation, he discovered a story that at times seems so unbelievable, even a soap opera likely would think it too farfetched to run with. It’s a story he’s returned to over the years, so, when podcasting emerged as a new way to engage with audiences, he knew he had the perfect story to revisit for the new medium.  

As the hit podcast delved into the case, Hedley began to question the role that Lynette’s husband, Chris Dawson might have played in her disappearance. Chris – a handsome former rugby league player who played for the same team as his identical twin brother – is alleged to have done a few things around the time of his wife’s disappearance that seem, well.. a little unusual.

And after tuning in, Australians – and listeners from around the world – were quite unhappy about the whole thing and began begging for authorities to do something about it. So much pressure mounted that by the end of the year, Chris Dawson was arrested and extradited to New South Wales where he was charged with the murder of his first wife, nearly 40 years after she went missing.

While police and prosecutors have played down the role that the podcast played in his arrest, the timing is uncanny. The day that he was handcuffed came just months after the series had close to 30 million downloads. The podcast, which includes compelling interviews with dozens of people who knew Lyn or the couple, was made then unavailable in Australia after his arrest, fearing it would interfere with legal proceedings. (Thankfully, you can still tune in here in NZ!)

And it was a fair concern – now, finally, after several delays (many thanks to Covid), Chris Dawson’s trial is just wrapping up, but without a jury. Instead, a lone judge will decide his fate. The podcast and media attention that surrounded that initial podcast was so intense that trying to find a jury of men and women who would not already have some level of familiarity with the case was deemed an impossible task.

Chris and Lynette Dawson on their wedding day IMAGE: supplied

Now, Chris’ fate rests in the hands of one man. And it’s expected that a verdict may take weeks – perhaps even months – once the trial finishes up. But, unlike a jury trial, the judge will have to give a full explanation of how he comes to his decision.

The case itself is compelling, disturbing and incredibly frustrating. Chris is charged with more than just his wife’s murder, but another rather disturbing crime – but we’ll get to that soon.

In recent weeks, much has been made of bruises that multiple witnesses saw on Lynette in the weeks leading up to her disappearance and how she came to get those. One witness, a close friend Roslyn McLoughlin, described a bruise she saw on Lynette’s leg as being the size of a grapefruit. But alongside these observations, a common theme keeps emerging – despite people seeing signs that something was perhaps not quite right with Lynette, or that her safety might be compromised, no one seemed to ask about the bruises and how she might have got them.

Witnesses have said that it was the 80s, and it just wasn’t a polite topic to bring up.

“Domestic violence back in those days was not discussed,” Roslyn told the court (which the defense contested, asking, ‘You have absolutely no idea whether it [the bruise] was caused through domestic violence or otherwise, do you?’ to which Roslyn replied, ‘okay, no’.)

It begs to question what would happen today? Are we now comfortable in asking our friends, neighbours or colleagues about any unusual bruises and pressing them about it if we suspect they might be covering up the truth about them?

Many of those friends are now women, and men, in their 60s and 70s who are filled with regret about what they didn’t do or say at the time, wondering if they could have somehow prevented her disappearance.

It’s hard to listen to at times, but, if you’re looking for expert commentary and summary of what’s going on (this trial is not open to the public), once again The Australian has launched a follow-up podcast: The Teacher’s Trial, to follow the case. Again, you’ll occasionally hear Hedley Thomas, but this time he’s very much in the background as he has been called to give evidence during the trial – meaning, he wasn’t able to listen to the testimony of others until he had been on the stand. He’s obviously been itching to be more heavily involved – but on occasion we do hear selected recaps plus bits and pieces from his original podcast. Then, in the final weeks things become quite surreal when Hedley himself becomes part of the trial.

So… what do they think happened to Lynette, what other charges does Chris Dawson face and what is it that makes this story so batshit crazy??

Well, here’s a quick recap:

Lynette and Chris Dawson seemed to have it all. Chris, who was once a professional footballer, now earned his keep as a popular high school teacher and occasional model, while Lyn was an attractive young woman who worked as a nurse and in childcare. The pair – who had two young daughters – had done quite well for themselves financially, living in a beautiful home they had built above Sydney’s northern beaches.

They lived not far from Chris’ twin brother, who was also a school teacher – although not at the same school – and their incredible closeness was even documented once on a TV show special. Both the twins and their respective wives were interviewed – Lynette seen laughing as she talked about the realities of being married to a twin who shared such a close resemblance – and bond – to his brother.

A devoted mother, Lynette lived for her daughters – she’d just commissioned a young artist to draw portraits of the pair. So it came as a shock to many who knew Lyn, when Chris told them that his wife had left, perhaps even to join a cult, and it didn’t sound like she was coming home.

Her family were in shock – Lyn’s mother had spoken to her on what may have been her last day alive, January 8, and they discussed that they would meet up, along with the two girls, at a swimming pool the following afternoon.

But Lyn never turned up – instead Chris, the girls and their grandmother got on with things. Chris had dropped Lyn at the bus stop that morning to go shopping, so they assumed she’d lost track of time and was still at the shops. That is, until Chris was told there was a phone call for him at reception – a phone call that he says was his wife telling him that she wasn’t coming to the pools and she needed some time away.

Strangely though, Lynette left behind all her belongings – including all her jewelry, clothes and contact lenses – and made just two small charges to her bank account in the weeks after she disappeared.

Stranger still, despite this, it took Chris Dawson six weeks before he went to the police and reported her missing.

And here’s where things take a turn from hmm…that’s a bit strange, to… jaw-dropping.

See, before Lyn went missing, a young 16-year-old female student from the school Chris taught at, became the children’s babysitter. That might not have been particularly in itself – but soon, this young woman actually moved into the Dawson home. Soon, neighbours, Lyn’s friends – even Lyn herself – began to have suspicions that Chris may be having an affair with the young school girl.

Then, on the day Lyn supposedly called to say she wasn’t coming home – it’s alleged by the schoolgirl, who is now a 50-something woman, that Chris moved her right into the marital bed where Lyn used to sleep and was encouraged to help herself to any of Lynette’s belongings. She says Chris told her Lyn wouldn’t be coming back and she could help herself. She also alleges that Chris told her he had hired a hitman – something that more than one other witness in the trial has also told the court that Chris asked them about hiring.

A year later, while still no one besides Chris had heard from Lyn again, he filed for divorce. Another year later he married his schoolgirl lover.

The story may have well ended there, another case of a missing woman that never got solved and slipped through the cracks, but in 1990 that marriage broke down and his second wife (along with the young daughter she had with Chris) moved back to Sydney. That’s when his second wife went to the police with a disturbing allegation. She told them, and Lynette’s family that she believed Chris had murdered his first wife.

An inquest was almost immediately held in February 2001 off the evidence given, but while the Deputy State Coroner, Jan Stevenson, determined that Lynette had been murdered and that the killer was likely someone she knew, the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions, Nicolas Cowdrey QC, assessed that there was insufficient evidence for a criminal conviction. Then, two years later the State Coroner recommended Chris Dawson be charged with the murder, but again, the director refused on grounds that there was a lack of evidence.

But now – perhaps thanks to The Teacher’s Pet podcast – enough evidence has mounted for an arrest to come about. Chris has pleaded not guilty and has vehemently maintained his innocence since Lyn disappeared. He also faces another charge – carnal knowledge with a girl between the ages of 10 and 17 while he was still a teacher at Cromer High School.

Over the past two months we’ve heard from a range of witnesses including Chris’ second wife, his twin brother, sister, plus various friends, colleagues and acquaintances of Lyn and Chris.

As the prosecution wraps up their case, everyone is now eagerly waiting to see if the defense will put forward Chris Dawson himself to give evidence.

To follow the case, tune into The Teacher’s Trial – it’s well worth a listen.

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