The story be­hind this week’s ar­rest of Chris Daw­son over the mur­der of his wife

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - HEDLEY THOMAS

Sue Strath kept pes­ter­ing po­lice for years to in­ves­ti­gate the sus­pi­cious dis­ap­pear­ance of her friend Lyn Daw­son.

Lyn’s for­mer work col­league on Syd­ney’s north­ern beaches never be­lieved that the de­voted mother would take off without her chil­dren, her stake in a valu­able home at Bayview, her jew­ellery, and all her other pos­ses­sions.

Ms Strath’s years of urg­ing au­thor­i­ties to take the case se­ri­ously are now over.

On Wed­nes­day, po­lice ar­rested Lyn’s hus­band, Chris Daw­son, in Queens­land and he was ex­tra­dited to NSW on Thurs­day and charged with her mur­der.

“I feel re­ally re­lieved,’’ Ms Strath told The Week­end Aus­tralian yes­ter­day from her home near the waves of the north­ern beaches. “It’s like a big weight has been lifted off my shoul­ders. I don’t feel re­spon­si­ble any more for her.

“I’ve been push­ing for this for 36 years. And it’s a big weight and I think ‘Right, I’ve given it to the au­thor­i­ties now’.

“Some­one in au­thor­ity can take over.”

Through the 1980s, po­lice wrote Lyn off as a run­away mother, a sce­nario that was raised with jour­nal­ists by Mr Daw­son’s so­lic­i­tor Greg Walsh out­side a Syd­ney court­room on Thurs­day.

Mr Walsh said: “Can I just say this — whilst it seems most un­usual that a lady, with the great­est re­spect of Lyn Daw­son, would dis­ap­pear and not have any con­tact with her chil­dren — I mean that’s ob­vi­ously a live is­sue — it has hap­pened.

“I am aware of an­other case. So it does hap­pen.”

Asked whether Mr Daw­son be­lieved Lyn was still alive, Mr Walsh told jour­nal­ists: “He doesn’t know, he hon­estly doesn’t know.”

Ms Strath did not agree for a mo­ment that her friend would just walk away and never con­tact any­one in her fam­ily, work­place or friend­ship cir­cle again.

She was also aware of the se­vere strains in her mar­riage and the hasty move into the house of Mr Daw­son’s for­mer stu­dent at Cromer High School, babysit­ter Joanne Cur­tis, with whom he had been hav­ing sex.

Ms Strath’s con­cern that po­lice were not tak­ing the case se­ri­ously led her to lodge a for­mal com­plaint in 1985 with the NSW Om­buds­man about the lack of ac­tion.

Her de­tailed com­plaint let­ter and the in­ter­nal po­lice cor­re­spon­dence that at­tempted to play down her con­cerns were un­cov­ered from gov­ern­ment ar­chives dur­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions by The Teacher’s Pet pod­cast.

Her com­plaint did not suc­ceed and po­lice still failed to run a proper in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but Ms Strath per­se­vered.

By 1998, when a friend’s po­lice of­fi­cer hus­band Paul Hume was in a more se­nior role, her urg­ing led him to ask de­tec­tive Damian Loone to start a thor­ough probe. Those in­ves­ti­ga­tions were ex­haus­tive and led to two suc­ces­sive in­quests, in 2001 and 2003.

“It’s got a life of its own now,’’ Ms Strath said yes­ter­day.

“Now it’s in with the au­thori- ties and they can move on and do some­thing with it.”

Her proud daugh­ter Lulu Wilkinson, a mother of chil­dren the same age as Lyn’s were when she went miss­ing, grew up hear­ing about her mother’s friend.

“By lis­ten­ing to Mum over these many years, I learned the im­por­tance of friend­ship and loy­alty and per­sis­tence,’’ Ms Wilkinson said.

“It makes me in­cred­i­bly proud that oth­ers have seen those qual­i­ties in my mother now too.”

The Week­end Aus­tralian can re­veal Di­rec­tor of Pub­lic Pros­e­cu­tions deputy se­nior crown prose­cu­tor Craig Ever­son has been as­signed the high-pro­file case.

Le­gal ob­servers say they ex­pect Mr Daw­son to ap­ply for a stay of pro­ceed­ings in a bid to avoid fac­ing trial.

It can hap­pen to teach­ers any­where. They’re out in pub­lic and run into some­one from the past, from school. It hap­pened to Chris Daw­son midair on Thurs­day.

High above the ground, in seat 30A in the far back cor­ner of a Boe­ing 737-800, Daw­son saw a flash of recog­ni­tion pass over the face of a flight at­ten­dant.

“Your brother taught me at school,” he said as he served Daw­son a break­fast quiche and can of Coke.

A brief con­ver­sa­tion con­firmed that Daw­son’s twin, Paul, taught the at­ten­dant on Syd­ney’s north­ern beaches. Back then, the Daw­son twins were not only teach­ers but celebrity foot­ballers, turn­ing heads wher­ever they went with their iden­ti­cal mus­cu­lar builds, blond hair and con­fi­dent auras.

“That’s lovely,” Daw­son replied, ac­cord­ing to a wit­ness to the ex­change.

Or­di­nary talk, ex­cept on this flight Daw­son was awk­wardly crammed be­side two NSW homi­cide de­tec­tives. They were ex­tra­dit­ing him to NSW on a charge of mur­der­ing his wife, Lyn, on the north­ern beaches 36 years ear­lier.

Aus­tralia’s most fa­mous ac­cused mur­derer, Daw­son may have ex­pected to be recog­nised for other rea­sons.

An in­ves­tiga­tive pod­cast series, The Teacher’s Pet, by this news­pa­per and its na­tional chief cor­re­spon­dent, Hedley Thomas, has made the 70-year-old a house­hold name: 16 episodes with 31 mil­lion down­loads, fo­cus­ing on the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing Lyn Daw­son’s dis­ap­pear­ance.

Since his calm ar­rest at his Gold Coast in­vest­ment prop­erty on Wed­nes­day, his no­to­ri­ety has only grown. In Aus­tralia, the US, Canada, Bri­tain and New Zealand, the case is back at No 1 on the pod­cast charts.

The road ahead has al­ready been broadly mapped out. The bat­tle­lines are drawn and the punches tele­graphed, if you look closely enough.

First, there will be a con­tested bail hear­ing. The show­down will take place on Fri­day in Syd­ney’s Cen­tral Lo­cal Court. Daw­son had ap­peared briefly in the court via video link af­ter his ex­tra­di­tion flight this week; mag­is­trate Robert Wil­liams looked around and noted the “alarm­ing num­ber of peo­ple in the court for Daw­son”.

Daw­son could have pushed for his free­dom there and then, but the court was told the crown prose­cu­tor briefed on the case was not avail­able. This bought time for the lawyers of the ac­cused to sharpen their sub­mis­sions and clear the air a lit­tle of the smoke from the me­dia det­o­na­tion that his ar­rest had trig­gered.

Daw­son, whose main home is in Coolum on Queens­land’s Sun­shine Coast, wants to wait at the home of one of his broth­ers in Syd­ney while the wheels of jus­tice turn. Bail is al­most never granted on the most se­ri­ous crime in the book; the risk is too high of flight or in­ter­fer­ence with wit­nesses.

Daw­son’s age and clean crim­i­nal his­tory will be in his favour. He’ll say there’s no risk of re­of­fend­ing. His strong­est ar­gu­ment may be that he’s had al­most 37 years to flee, and never did.

But then, he’s also never been charged with mur­der be­fore.

Daw­son in­tends to plead not guilty, says his lawyer, Greg Walsh. So, within 10 weeks, by Fe­bru­ary 14, he will be served the prose­cu­tion’s large brief of ev­i­dence. It will re­veal to him for the first time the full po­lice case against him. His de­fence lawyers can ap­ply to cross-ex­am­ine wit­nesses to test some of the ev­i­dence. Or he can choose to skip the for­mal­i­ties and ask to go straight to trial in the Supreme Court.

Se­nior le­gal ob­servers tell In­quirer they ex­pect that in the months ahead Daw­son will ap­ply for a per­ma­nent stay of the pro­ceed­ings so he never faces trial.

Ar­guably, he was in the dock this week as a re­sult of the pod­cast series, which iden­ti­fied new ev­i­dence and wit­nesses who sub­se­quently talked to po­lice, and the tsunami of as­so­ci­ated me­dia at­ten­tion. That’s not to di­min­ish the role of the NSW Po­lice Force homi­cide squad, which has been dili­gently rein­ves­ti­gat­ing Lyn’s dis­ap­pear­ance since 2015, and whose ev­i­dence is yet to be pub­licly re­vealed.

Homi­cide squad com­man­der De­tec­tive Su­per­in­ten­dent Scott Cook pre­sented the brief to the NSW Di­rec­tor of Pub­lic Pros­e­cu­tions on April 9, five weeks be­fore the pod­cast’s first episode was broad­cast. In an ac­com­pa­ny­ing let­ter, Cook asked DPP Lloyd Babb to re­con­sider his of­fice’s pre­vi­ous po­si­tion on the case and to say that in his view there was now enough ev­i­dence to charge Daw­son.

Cook didn’t know, un­til it was re­vealed in the pod­cast series, that Babb had de­clared a con­flict of in­ter­est and could have noth­ing to do with the case be­cause Daw­son was his rugby league coach at Syd­ney’s Asquith Boys High School. Babb had been school cap­tain, and Daw­son a teacher there. Re­spon­si­bil­ity for the sen­si­tive Daw­son mat­ter had been qui­etly trans­ferred to a deputy within the Of­fice of the Di­rec­tor of Pub­lic Pros­e­cu­tions.

On Mon­day, al­most eight months af­ter his let­ter, Cook met a group of se­nior DPP lawyers at their of­fice in Liver­pool Street, Syd­ney. He walked out with the green light to charge Daw­son with mur­der. A war­rant was drawn up on Tues­day, and the rest is his­tory.

Would the DPP have acted without new wit­nesses iden­ti­fied by the pod­cast and the over­whelm­ing pub­lic in­ter­est, in all senses of that term? Or would it all have been too long ago, too hard? An easy pass in favour of put­ting fi­nite re­sources else­where?

Now, there’s a catch 22. If Daw­son does go for a stay, as ex­pected, he can ar­gue the global pub­lic­ity means he will never re­ceive a fair trial.

That’s not nec­es­sar­ily a huge ob­sta­cle for the prose­cu­tion; it’s not the first high-pro­file crim­i­nal case, nor will it be the last.

Where Daw­son may re­ally push hard was sign­posted on the day of his ar­rest, in a brief but care­fully crafted pub­lic state­ment is­sued by his brother Pe­ter.

“We are dis­ap­pointed at the de­ci­sion of the DPP as there is clear and un­con­tested ev­i­dence that Lyn Daw­son was alive long af­ter she left Chris and her daugh­ters,” it read. “We have no doubt what­so­ever that Chris Daw­son will be found not guilty, as he is in­no­cent.”

The key por­tion, be­sides the op­tics of fam­ily sup­port, was the claim that there was ev­i­dence essen­tially ex­on­er­at­ing Daw­son by prov­ing Lyn was alive af­ter the night of Jan­uary 8, 1982, when he is ac­cused of mur­der­ing her at the Bayview home, where they lived with their two young daugh­ters.

Walsh, Daw­son’s lawyer, elab­o­rated out­side the Lo­cal Court on Thurs­day. “Af­ter the dis­ap­pear­ance of Lynette Daw­son, there was ev­i­dence that she was ob­served by a num­ber of peo­ple,” he said. “Un­for­tu­nately, two of those peo­ple are de­ceased.”

The daugh­ter of one of these wit­nesses gave ev­i­dence at a 2003 in­quest into Lyn’s dis­ap­pear­ance, Walsh said. “She said, ‘my mother told me, and if she was here to­day she would say that she saw Lyn Daw­son’. An­other wit­ness also gave ev­i­dence to that ef­fect.”

Walsh said there were also two “very im­por­tant Bankcard trans­ac­tions” in the weeks af­ter Lyn van­ished that “re­gret­tably were never in­ves­ti­gated by the po­lice”.

“Po­lice should’ve con­ducted proper in­ves­ti­ga­tions and got wit­ness state­ments at the time, which would’ve in­di­cated prob­a­bly she was alive,” he said.

“There has been a sig­nif­i­cant de­lay in this case, and there’s been in­ad­e­qua­cies in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion by po­lice.”

Po­lice re­but these state­ments. But they are pre­sum­ably the key ar­gu­ments Daw­son’s lawyers will push at a stay ap­pli­ca­tion or trial — that he can­not prop­erly de­fend him­self be­cause of the pas­sage of time and missed op­por­tu­ni­ties and be­cause po­lice did not do, their jobs when Lyn first went miss­ing.

Again, it’s far from the first his­tor­i­cal mur­der charge, and po­lice to­day must play with the cards they have been dealt. The prose­cu­tion, to be led by the DPP’s deputy se­nior crown prose­cu­tor, Craig Ever­son, will have pow­er­ful counter-ar­gu­ments.

If a per­ma­nent stay is re­jected, Daw­son may seek a tem­po­rary one to de­lay the prose­cu­tion for years, un­til a jury’s mem­o­ries have dimmed. De­lay could cer­tainly be tempt­ing for Daw­son if he’s suc­cess­ful in se­cur­ing bail.

Which brings us to the ques­tion of whether Daw­son will ask for a judge-only trial. On the sur­face, it could seem ap­peal­ing to him, but his lawyers may view it as a risky strat­egy. A judge may be less likely to be swayed by ap­pear­ances, such as when the clean-cut se­nior ci­ti­zen sits in the dock.

Lawyer Walsh said yes­ter­day he was still as­sess­ing a large vol­ume of ma­te­rial from the case but did not rule out ap­ply­ing for a stay.

He was in­tro­duced to Daw­son by his brother Pe­ter. He ap­pears an im­pres­sive choice, strik­ing a calm and mea­sured tone as he talked of every ci­ti­zen’s “fun­da­men­tal right” to the pre­sump­tion of in­no­cence.

There’s a dif­fi­cult and high­stakes strate­gic bat­tle ahead.

‘There has been a sig­nif­i­cant de­lay … and there’s been in­ad­e­qua­cies in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion’ GREG WALSH CHRIS DAW­SON’S LAWYER


Homi­cide de­tec­tives ar­rive in Syd­ney with Chris Daw­son on Thurs­day morn­ing

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