One of Australia’s longest-running cold cases has ended with the conviction of former high school teacher Chris Dawson for the murder of his wife Lynette in 1982, so he could start a new life with his then 16-year-old student.
On Tuesday, Justice Ian Harrison found Dawson, 74, guilty following a three-month trial that heard evidence gathered over four decades by police investigating Lynette’s disappearance.
Dawson had long denied any allegations of wrongdoing, claiming his wife had walked out on him and their two young children when they were just two and four years old.
But suspicion hung over Dawson for many years and allegations of his role in his wife’s disappearance found a new audience with the 2018 release of the “Teacher’s Pet” podcast by Australian investigative journalist Hedley Thomas.
The podcast examined the police investigation and gathered new evidence including testimony that Dawson had been having sex with the student, known as JC, when his wife disappeared.
During the judge-only trial, multiple witnesses claimed to have seen Lynette Dawson in the years after 1982, but one by one, the judge dismissed those sightings as mistaken or false.
Harrison said that while the verdict was unsupported by direct evidence, he was satisfied by the Crown’s submission that Dawson had become infatuated with JC, to the extent that he saw no other way to be with her than to kill Lynette.
“The whole of the circumstantial evidence satisfies me that Lynette Dawson is dead, that she died on or about 8 January 1982, and that she did not voluntarily abandon her home,” Harrison said.
“I’m satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the only rational inference that the circumstances enable me to draw is that Lynette Dawson died or on about 8 January 1982 as the result of a conscious and voluntary act committed by Mr Dawson with the intention of causing her death.”
Outside the court, Dawson’s lawyer Greg Walsh told reporters his client would appeal.
“Mr Dawson has always asserted, and he still does, his absolute innocence of the crime of which he’s been convicted, and he will continue to assert that innocence,” Walsh said, according to CNN affiliate Nine News.
‘Lynette Dawson is dead’
The Dawsons met as teenagers and later married and had two children. Dawson had long maintained that his wife had abandoned the family, and that he had spoken to her in the weeks after her disappearance.
Those claims were dismissed by the judge, who said it “defies common sense” that a woman “supposedly desperate to leave her marriage” would phone him to provide updates on the “status of her decision to leave.”
“I’m satisfied beyond unreasonable doubt that Mr Dawson’s reported telephone conversations with Lynette Dawson after January 1982 are lies,” Harrison said.
Harrison also found that claims Lynette Dawson used her credit card soon after her disappearance were fabricated and that sightings of her in later years were mistaken or false.
“I’m satisfied that none of the alleged sightings was a genuine sighting of Lynette Dawson,” Harrison said.
The Crown submitted evidence of exhaustive searches involving interviews and public records that showed Dawson hadn’t used her passport or accessed the health, tax or any other Australian public system since 1982.
He said he also reached that conclusion based on the fact that no one had come forward with information regarding her disappearance despite intense publicity over the case, including the “Teacher’s Pet” podcast, coronial inquests in 2001 and 2003, and several television programs.
Evidence from babysitter
The judge recapped the relationship between Dawson and JC, his former student who later became his wife.
The court heard she was a student in his physical education class at Cromer High School in Sydney. By the time she left school, they were in a sexual relationship and he had become infatuated with her, the court heard.
Harrison said he found evidence from JC to be “truthful and reliable.”
The court heard JC family life was difficult; she lived at home with a “violent, aggressive and controlling” stepfather in a cramped apartment where there was excessive drinking. She had turned to her teacher for support and guidance, Harrison said.
“(JC) was understandably attracted to any relief she could obtain from a less than perfect domestic situation,” Harrison said in the ruling.
In 1980, JC started babysitting for the Dawson family, the court heard. Dawson was also giving her driving lessons, and one day while they were in the car, he professed his love and kissed her.
They had sex about one week later, when she was 16 years old.
After that, they would regularly have sex in his car, Harrison said, recounting JC’s testimony.
On these occasions, Dawson would tell his wife he was studying at the library.
The same year, the violence at JC’s home had become intolerable and she moved into the Dawson family’s house. JC said Dawson would sing “cruel songs” to his wife, and they would have sex when Lynette was in the shower or had fallen asleep.
The Crown alleged Dawson was obsessed with JC and within days of his wife’s disappearance on January 8 he drove his former student back to his house. The Crown’s case contended that he was “not prepared to waste any time before installing her in his home.”
Harrison said: “By the time the relationship became a sexual relationship, Mr Dawson was becoming confronted with the stark reality that he could not remain married, yet still maintain his ever more intense relationship with (JC).”
Escaping to a new life
Harrison delivered his verdict over several hours on Tuesday, offering detailed analysis of evidence submitted by multiple witnesses during the three-month long trial.
Harrison pointed out that a number of witnesses had died during the decades between Lynette’s disappearance and the start of the trial in May. However, he said examination of those witnesses’ testimony suggests their evidence was not crucial to its outcome.
Harrison said he wasn’t convinced Dawson was violent toward Lynette Dawson, but there was no question the marriage was in trouble. “The circumstances point persuasively to a conclusion that Mr Dawson decided that he would end his marriage and move on with (JC),” Harrison said.
The marriage between JC and Dawson ended in 1991, and Dawson disputed some of her evidence as the words of an aggrieved ex-wife. Harrison found JC had become swept up in a situation over which she had little control.
JC gave evidence of Dawson’s controlling behavior, saying he monitored the places she went, the friends she made and the clothes she wore.
That obsession with JC was enough to motivate him to kill Lynette, Harrison found.
It’s still unclear what happened to Lynette Dawson.
Harrison said evidence did not reveal how Dawson killed her, whether he did it with the assistance others or by himself.
“(The evidence) does not reveal where or when he did so, nor does it reveal where Lynette Dawson’s body is now. The charge of murder in this trial is unsupported by direct evidence,” he said.
Yet, he said he found the evidence presented by the Crown to be “persuasive and compelling.”
The judge ordered Dawson, who was sitting in court to hear the verdict, to be taken into custody.
This story has been updated