The Cult of Chris Dawson: For 40 YEARS cops shielded wife-killer from justice, as he moved on with babysitter
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA: In 1982, Lynette Dawson, 33, disappeared after her diabolical husband claimed she had joined a religious cult. Lynette was never seen again but her slashed clothing was discovered buried in the back garden. However, the police made no arrest or inquiry even though everything screamed murder and pointed at her husband, Chris. Yet for 40 years, police in the Dawsons’ exclusive suburb of Sydney refused to accept the obvious.
Their family and friends rejected all accusations as idle gossip until this week, a supreme court justice in New South Wales delivered a guilty verdict in a statement that lasted five hours. The inescapable conclusion was that Lynette was killed by her controlling husband. The complexity of the judgment reflected a case so convoluted that it inspired Hadley Thomas' 20-hour podcast 'The Teacher’s Pet', a true-crime hit around the world that has been downloaded more than 60 million times.
Chris and Lynette's relationship
Ex-professional rugby league star and teacher Chris Dawson met Lynette in 1965. She was 16 years old and he was one year older. By 1970, they were married and had two young daughters. In 1981, Dawson was obsessed with 16-year-old former pupil Joanne Curtis and moved her from an abusive background to his house, telling his ingenuous wife that Joanne was to be a live-in babysitter. When Lynette's friends and family finally started to question her husband’s behavior, she disappeared. After a rapid investigation, the authorities concluded that the young mother had vanished of her own accord, and refused pleas for the file to be re-examined. Many people suspected that the last thing Sydney’s police and politicians wished to see was a probe into a case with strong implications of rampant sex abuse in the city’s high schools, a pandora's box nobody wanted to look into.
Dawson played rugby for Sydney’s Newtown Jets in the 1970s, which made him a hero. He then became a physical education teacher at Cromer High School, where both staff and pupils treated him as a star. Dawson would bring in pictures of himself from his days as a model for pupils to admire. But what was even more strange about Chris Dawson was his relationship with his twin brother Paul. The two men were inseparable, both played for the Jets and went on to be teachers and neither seemed to exist without the other. They bought neighboring plots in Sydney’s Northern Beaches the so-called ‘insular peninsular’. There they built houses for their wives and daughters.
Lynette and Paul’s wife Marilyn seemed resigned to their husbands always being closer to each other. Outside the family, many others thought this odd but the Dawson twins were protected by their sports stardom. Lynette's two daughters, Shanelle and Sherryn, were her world. While her husband seemed increasingly distant, she devoted her life to the children.
What really happened?
One babysitter reported that Dawson seemed physically threatening to Lynette, exploding over the smallest disagreements, including arguments about money. But the couple hid their tensions from the world, and Lynette’s mother Helena Simms in particular was convinced she had the perfect son-in-law. When Dawson moved his teenage lover Joanne into the house, Lynette tried to welcome her. She told her own mother the girl was vulnerable, and that Chris was being kind and protective by giving one of his pupils a roof over her head.
Lynette refused to listen to friends who warned that Joanne was a threat to her marriage, even though the girl had a habit of swimming topless in the family’s pool. In 1982, Dawson and his teenage lover walked out, apparently leaving to start a new life together, and this left Lynette startled. After a few days, Dawson was back, without Joanne. He admitted to the affair, but insisted it was over, and agreed to go to marriage counseling. On the evening of January 8, 1982, Lynette phoned her mother Helena to announce that her marriage was past its rocky patch and that she and Chris had seen a counselor. Apparently, after the session, they had held hands. The last thing she told her mother over the phone was that Chris had just brought her 'a lovely drink’ that he’d made himself.
The next day, Lynette was supposed to meet her family at Northbridge Baths, where Dawson worked part-time as a lifeguard. She didn’t turn up. At the pool, Dawson was called to the phone, and returned saying that he’d just spoken to Lynette, who had told him she was leaving town for a few days to ‘get her head together’. Dawson’s first response was to drive 300 miles to the caravan park where Joanne was staying, and bring her back to his house, Bayview. He claimed he needed her help with the children. Within two days of Lynette’s disappearance, Joanne was sharing Dawson’s bed and wearing her jewelry. Over the next few weeks, Dawson claimed to have heard from his wife on a couple of occasions and began suggesting that she had joined a religious cult and was never coming back.
Though her passport and clothes were untouched, he claimed she had used her bank card - a fact police accepted without proof when they made superficial efforts to find Lynette.
Even when Dawson dumped all Lynette’s possessions at her mother’s house and filed for divorce, her family were reluctant to believe ill of the teacher. It was only when he married Joanne and sold Bayview to move north that they began to suspect him.
Joanne and Chris divorced after six years and it was then that she went to the police with some shocking claims. Though she insisted she had no proof that the missing woman was dead, Joanne said she knew Dawson had considered hiring a hitman to have his wife killed. The teacher was questioned again and gave a written statement to police about Lynette’s disappearance, which made no mention of his affair with an ex-pupil.
The case was buried once more until pleas emerged from Lynette’s family. Police eventually agreed to dig for a body in the garden of the Dawsons’ old home.
A limited search discovered her favorite jumper, apparently slashed to pieces, but no other remains. Campaigners kept calling for an inquiry until a coroner agreed to examine the evidence. Dawson did not attend the hearing but was represented by his older brother Peter, a lawyer. Faced with overwhelming circumstantial evidence, the coroner ruled in 2001 that Lynette had in all probability been murdered. Two years later, a second coroner confirmed this finding. Yet, police refused to investigate further and the Director of Public Prosecutions ruled there were not sufficient grounds for prosecution. This was the question that drove Hedley Thomas, an experienced reporter who had followed the story for years, to launch his own investigation with the backing of his newspaper, The Australian.
Hedley Thomas uncovers the truth
Thomas figured out why authorities were desperate to keep the case under wraps. Numerous former pupils, boys as well as girls, from Cromer High came forward to say they were sexually abused by a ring of male and female teachers. The systemic pedophilia extended to other schools and involved adults from far beyond the education system - in the police, in politics, and in sports. One man said teenage girls were treated as a ‘fringe benefit’ for teachers and that most pupils were well aware of what was going on, even if they were not involved. Group sex was commonplace. What Chris Dawson was doing with Joanne was only the tip of a shocking scandal that, over the years, many people had helped him to cover up.
Lynette’s daughter Shanelle, 44, believes the investigation ‘doesn’t look good’ for her father. Her sister Sherryn, 42, refuses to believe her father could be involved and called the podcast ‘a witch-hunt’.
Police excavated the garden at Bayview but found nothing. Despite this, Dawson, now married for the third time, was arrested at his home in Queensland in December 2018 and charged with his wife’s murder. He was, detectives said, "a little taken aback." After four-and-a-half years of legal wrangling, and no hope that Lynette’s remains would ever be found, Justice Ian Harrison ruled on Tuesday that the weight of circumstantial evidence left ‘no doubt’ that Dawson, 74, had killed Lynette.
For her part, Joanne, now in her late 50s, gave evidence against Dawson, claiming she was treated like a sex slave and had later feared for her life. The judge described Dawson’s lies as "absurd’ and ‘fanciful." Calling his relationship with Joanne "a possessive infatuation," he said, "I am satisfied that the prospect that he would lose Joanne so distressed, frustrated and ultimately overwhelmed him that, tortured by her absence up north, Mr Dawson resolved to kill his wife." He dismissed claims that Lynette chose to leave and never make contact again as "frail speculation." According to him, it "defied common sense" that she would remain in contact with her unfaithful husband but not with her adored daughters.
Reporters described the murderer as "ashen and dazed" after the verdict, and said members of Lynette’s family were in tears in court. Chris Dawson has already declared his intention to appeal. Meanwhile, Hollywood stars Joel Edgerton and Eric Bana are each thought to be planning film versions of the story.