At a large home in a leafy suburb of northern Sydney, a team of police officers on Sept 17 completed an intensive six-day forensic search for the remains of a woman who disappeared 36 years ago.
The investigators were hoping for a breakthrough in the mysterious case of Ms Lynette Dawson, a mother of two who went missing just two days before her husband Chris Dawson, a sports teacher, moved his schoolgirl lover into the couple’s home. Ms Dawson has never been seen since.
The fresh police dig followed renewed interest in the mystery after it was examined by a popular podcast, The Teacher’s Pet, which has been downloaded more than 19 million times in Australia and around the world since it was launched in May.
The case marks the latest example of a new criminal trial or investigation sparked by a true-crime podcast or television series. Like the podcast Serial and the television series Making A Murderer and The Jinx, The Teacher’s Pet, produced by The Australian newspaper, has led to intense public interest in this case.
Ms Dawson, a nurse then aged 33, was last seen in January 1982 when her husband, also then 33, dropped her off at a bus stop. Six weeks later, he reported her missing and later claimed that his wife had run away to join a religious cult.
After his wife disappeared, Mr Dawson’s 16-year-old girlfriend Joanne Curtis moved into the house and apparently wore Ms Dawson’s jewellery and clothes. Mr Dawson and Ms Curtis eventually married and had a daughter before divorcing.
Mr Dawson, a former professional rugby league player, has long been a suspect but has always insisted he is innocent.
Two coronial inquests in 2001 and 2003, conducted after police re-investigated the case and interviewed Ms Curtis following pressure from Ms Dawson’s family and friends, recommended that a “known person” – later identified as Mr Dawson – should be charged with murder. But prosecutors said there was not enough evidence to proceed.
The director of the prosecutor’s office at the time, Mr Nicholas Cowdery, said earlier this month that charges were not laid because the case was “very weak”. “Without a body, without knowing first of all whether in fact she is dead, without knowing secondly if she is dead, how she died, it’s very hard to mount a case of a reasonable prospect of conviction just on motive and the undefined existence of means and opportunity,” he told ABC News.
Ms Curtis, who is not a suspect, suggested to police during a police search of the house in 2000 that they look around the swimming pool. Police found a cardigan of Ms Dawson’s that reportedly had cuts consistent with a stabbing.
Police revealed on Sept 12 this year that they had begun a fresh search at the former house of Mr Dawson and his first wife.
The search was conducted by a special task force that has been reinvestigating the disappearance since 2015, amid ongoing concerns about the failure to resolve the case.
According to Fairfax Media, senior police claimed the dig was “100 per cent” prompted by the intense public interest since the podcast began in May. The forensic search involved a radar examination of the grounds around the home, followed by excavation of the soil, which was carefully sifted for evidence. But the search failed to find any human remains or fresh clues.
Police said this will not prevent them from potentially seeking to speak to Mr Dawson about the case.
“Detectives… are committed to providing answers to her family,” New South Wales police said in a statement.
Mr Dawson, 70, has not spoken publicly since the podcast began.
His daughter from his first marriage Shanelle, aged about 40, said her father was “lovable” and she struggled to deal with the public perception that he may have murdered her mother.
“There is huge conflict in that,” she told Channel Nine. “Especially people who are quite angry, and rightfully so, wanting answers about my mum. Yet there’s still that part of me that really loves my dad, and feels protective of him.”
In April, police sent a new brief of evidence to prosecutors to request that they consider whether charges should be laid.
New South Wales Police Commissioner Mick Fuller publicly apologised to the family of Ms Dawson for the failure by police to properly investigate the case in the immediate aftermath of her disappearance.
“We’re still, with some passion, chasing the offender for this crime,” he told ABC Television. “We won’t give up.”