An Australian former teacher who was the subject of an investigation by a wildly-popular true crime podcast has been found guilty of the 1982 killing of his wife.
The New South Wales supreme court on Tuesday found Christopher Dawson, 73, guilty of murdering his former wife Lynette Dawson, who he had wanted to leave so that he could pursue an uninterrupted relationship with a teenage schoolgirl known in the trial as JC. Dawson pleaded not guilty and has always maintained his innocence.
Lynette Dawson’s body has never been found and her disappearance from Sydney’s northern beaches remained a mystery for almost four decades, until a 2018 true crime podcast, named the Teacher’s Pet, triggered a groundswell of public interest.
The podcast, which was downloaded tens of millions of times and reached number one in podcast charts in Australia, the UK, Canada, and New Zealand, explored Dawson’s extramarital affair with a 16-year-old student, failures in the initial police investigation into his wife’s disappearance, and the unwillingness of prosecutors to charge Dawson, despite two coronial inquests concluding she was dead and that her husband was most likely responsible.
Months after the podcast began, police conducted a forensic excavation at the former Sydney home of Dawson, searching for Lynette Dawson’s body. The search failed to uncover any new evidence, but in December 2018, police charged Dawson with murder.
Prosecutors alleged that there was a strong circumstantial case, despite the failure to find Lynette Dawson’s body. They argued Dawson was motivated by a desire to continue an unfettered relationship with the teenager referred to in court only as JC, who he met while working as a physical education teacher at her school.
The case and the huge amount of publicity associated with the podcast raised significant concerns about Dawson’s ability to receive a fair trial. He unsuccessfully argued that the pre-trial publicity should cause his trial to be publicly stayed.
The trial proceeded before a single judge, Justice Ian Harrison, instead of a jury, to alleviate concerns about prejudice.
Dawson did not give evidence during the two-month trial, which finished on 11 July.
In handing down his verdict on Tuesday, Harrison said he was “left in no doubt” about the murder of Lynette Dawson.
“I am satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the only rational inference [is that] Lynette Dawson died on or about 8 January 1982 as a result of a conscious or voluntary act committed by Christopher Dawson,” the judge said.
Harrison rejected the possibility Lynette Dawson voluntarily abandoned her husband and children to vanish without a trace. He dismissed claims Lynette Dawson had been seen alive after January 1982 or that she had contacted her husband.
“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,” the judge said on Tuesday.
Lawyers for Dawson said Harrison could not find their client guilty beyond reasonable doubt, in part because the police had failed to properly investigate reported sightings of Lynette Dawson. They also argued the alleged motive made no sense because killing his wife would only create more problems for Dawson.
Harrison dismissed claims by Dawson that his wife had called him after the alleged date of her death as “lies”.
Harrison also dismissed several reported sightings of Lynette Dawson which occurred after 8 January 1982.
Between 10 and 12 January 1982, Harrison found Dawson picked up JC from South West Rocks, took her back to Sydney and told her: “Lyn’s gone, she’s not coming back, come back to Sydney and help look after the kids and live with me”.
Dawson’s lawyer, Greg Walsh, told the judge after the verdict that his client would probably apply for bail before his sentencing hearing. A date has not been set for that hearing. Walsh also said Dawson will probably appeal against the conviction.