Chris Dawson will likely spend the rest of his life behid bars for the murder of his wife Lynette four decades ago, bringing one of Australia’s longest-running murder cases to an end.
The 74-year-old former professional rugby league player and school teacher was earlier found guilty of murdering his wife and disposing of her body in 1982 so he could have an unfettered relationship with a then-teenage babysitter, known only as JC.
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On Friday, Justice Ian Harrison sentenced Dawson to 24 years in prison, with an 18-year non parole period, saying: “Mr Dawson will likely die in jail.”
Dawson, who was dressed in his prison greens in a packed courtroom in the NSW Supreme Court, did not react when the sentence was handed down.
Lynette’s family and supporters were also in the courtroom, wearing pink clothes and pink ribbons.
The case, that remained unsolved for 40 years, was brought back to the public attention in 2018 with The Australian’s popular Teacher’s Pet podcast.
Later that year, police charged Dawson with Lynette’s murder.
Following a two-month judge-only trial earlier this year, Justice Harrison found Dawson guilty although he acknowledged there was no physical evidence, meaning it was not possible to say how Dawson killed his wife.
Dawson continues to maintain his innocence, and Lynette’s body has never been found. He has filed an appeal for his conviction.
Following the Dawson case, NSW passed a new law, removing the option of parole for murderers who do not reveal the location of the body – meaning Dawson may never qualify for parole.
In handing down his sentence, Harrison took into account the delays in the case, the media scrutiny and Dawson’s health.
He said Lynette’s murder was “objectively very serious” and was “neither spontaneous nor unavoidable”.
“Lynette Dawson’s murder was also committed for the selfish and cynical purpose of eliminating the inconvenient obstruction she presented to the creation of the new life with JC that Mr Dawson was unable to resist,” Harrison said.
“Lynette Dawson was faultless and undeserving of her fate.”
Harrison accepted Dawson benefitted from the delays in the trial.
“Mr Dawson has for 36 years been at large in the community and been living a normal life,” he said.
Harrison rejected claims the “avalanche of publicity” behind the four-decade-long mystery served as extra punishment, which should shorten the jail sentence.
“Mr Dawson has now been convicted of the crime which attracted the publicity in question. In those circumstances, as harsh as it may sound to say so, Mr Dawson is now the author of his own misfortune,” Harrison said.
Dawson suffers from a fractured hip, a fractured rib and was recently diagnosed with a depressive illness, as well as mild cognitive impairment.
The fact that Lynette’s body has never been found was an aggravating factor in sentencing Dawson, Harrison said.
Dawson’s non-parole period will expire on August 29, 2040, meaning he will be aged in his 90s before he can apply for release from jail.
His maximum jail term will expire on August 29, 2046.
Lynette’s brother Greg Simms said he hopes Dawson “lives a long life in order to serve that sentence”.
“Today marks the end of a long, painful and challenging journey,” Simms said outside court on Friday.
“At last we have justice for Lyn and that was our main aim.
“For our family, Lyn will always be remembered as a happy, gentle, loving daughter, sister, mother, niece, aunt and friend.
“Chris Dawson discarded her. The Dawsons disregarded her.
“From today on, we would her to be known as Lynette Joy Simms.
“No sentence is long enough for taking someone’s life. We respect and thank Judge Harrison for his sentence.”
Simms thanked family, friends, prosecutors, police and the media.
“We didn’t really believe this day would come,” he added.
“What we need now is to find Lyn and put her to rest. It’s our time to be living our lives without having this hanging over our heads.
“Chris Dawson has had 40 years of freedom. Now it’s our turn.”
While Simms said he doesn’t believe Dawson will ever give up the location of Lynette’s body, NSW Police Homicide Squad Commander Danny Doherty said the case would remain open because she’s never been found.
“After four decades, since Lyn Dawson went missing … today, the gavel of justice came down on Chris Dawson,” Doherty said outside court following the sentencing.
Dawson’s lawyer Greg Walsh, who has represented the 74-year-old for four years, said he would no longer be working on the case.
“There’s no winners in a tragic case like this,” Walsh said
“Lynette’s family have lost their daughter, sister, mother and the extended family has also suffered, as has the community.
“As far as Mr Dawson is concerned, he will now spend, in all probability, the rest of his life in jail and will not have the relationship that he otherwise would have with his own children and his family.”
Lynette’s final days
During the trial this year, the court heard from dozens of witnesses, including testimony from people who had previously given statements to police and had since died.
The court heard Lynette initially appeared to have a happy marriage, but by 1981 there were tensions in the Bayview home about the presence of JC.
It was told tensions eased when Dawson briefly left the family in late 1981 but that Lynette had little money and did not know what the future was going to be.
Lynette’s sister Patricia Jenkins said the mother-of-two was greatly distressed before she vanished in 1982 after becoming “cowered” by her husband Chris Dawson, the court was told.
The last time Jenkins talked to her sister was on New Year’s Day 1982 when Lynette told her of a “sad Christmas” and a yacht party that Dawson attended.
“I’ve not seen her since then, not heard from her since then,” Jenkins said.
Lynette disappeared without a trace in January 1982, leaving behind her two young daughters. She was 33 at the time.
On January 11, 1982, when she did not arrive at work, Warriewood Children’s Centre manager Barbara Cruise said Dawson claimed over the phone that his wife had gone away and he did not know when she would return.
Dawson reported his wife missing six weeks after she disappeared.
“I am satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Lynette Dawson has neither been seen nor heard from since on or about 8 January, 1982 and that she has been dead since that time,” Justice Harrison said in handing down his verdict.
Dawson and JC
Harrison found the motive for the murder came down to one thing: Dawson wanted to pursue a relationship with his teenage babysitter and former student, known in court as JC.
Dawson pursued JC through the final years of high school, allegedly leaving notes of love and affection in her schoolbag in 1980 and 1981, the court heard.
In one Christmas card, he referred to JC as “petal”. Another card sent by Dawson on JC’s birthday in 1981 referred to her as his “lovely beautiful bub”, the court heard.
She said this attention from Dawson, whom she felt could be trusted as her teacher, was different from her life at home where her parents would drink heavily and her stepfather was controlling, violent and abusive towards her mother.
JC said she would spend the night at Dawson’s home while she was hired to babysit his children, that she used to swim topless in his pool, and that he kissed her for the first time while giving her a driving lesson.
She stayed at the Dawsons’ home while completing her HSC where she said Dawson was distant to his wife.
The court heard Dawson made Lynette sleep by giving her alcohol so he could have sex with JC. Dawson’s barrister Pauline David suggested that statement was false.
In late 1981, over Christmas, Dawson and JC left to start a new life in Queensland.
But that plan was aborted when JC felt sick on the drive there and wanted to return to Sydney because she missed her family.
Wanting out of the relationship at the time, JC told the court she took a trip up to South West Rocks with her family in early January 1982. On a phone call during this trip, Dawson told JC his wife had left him, the court heard.
Returning to the Dawsons’ Bayview home, JC said no one else was there. She moved in and a few weeks later was allowed to pick some of Lynette’s clothing to keep as her own.
When asked where his wife was, JC said Dawson gave various explanations, including that she had gone away with “religious people” and that she had been seen variously in Perth or the NSW Central Coast.
JC said she was sceptical of the explanations, describing them as a way to “fob her off”, saying Dawson never provided any concrete evidence behind his claims.
The topic of Lynette’s disappearance was brought up only once as the relationship deteriorated, the court was told.
In 1990, JC made a statement to police claiming Dawson had tried to hire a hitman to kill his wife in late 1981 but then changed his mind, the court heard.
But in his verdict, Harrison said he was not satisfied “that any such conversation occurred”.
“I am satisfied that the prospect that he would lose JC so distressed, frustrated and ultimately overwhelmed him that, tortured by her absence up north, Mr Dawson resolved to kill his wife,” Harrison said.
Sightings and phone calls
During the murder trial, the court heard Lynette had been seen walking around alive and well on two separate occasions after her disappearance.
Former neighbour Peter Breese said he saw Lynette working as a nurse at Rockcastle Private Hospital, now known as South Pacific Private, in the Sydney suburb of Curl Curl, where he went for a nose job in June 1984.
Breese’s wife Jill also claimed she had seen Lynette as a nurse at the same hospital while visiting her husband.
Another witness, Ray Butlin, also recounted a sighting of Lynette by his wife at a fruit stall in Kulnara, north of Sydney, some time after she allegedly disappeared.
Footage was also played of testimony given by family friend Elva McBay, who has since died, claiming she saw Lynette for a few seconds in March 1983 on Macquarie St, Sydney during a visit by Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
But Justice Harrison concluded: “I am satisfied that none of the alleged sightings was a genuine sighting of Lynette Dawson.”
Dawson’s defence also argued Lynette had left on her own accord.
In his closing statements, crown prosecutor Craig Everson SC argued suggestions Lynette abandoned the home were ludicrous because of her outlook and future plans at the time.
Not only was she looking forward to one of her daughters commencing school in early 1982, but she had prepared a surprise 66th birthday party for her mother on January 30, and had commissioned artist Kristin Hardiman to take sketches of her children.
The Crown also rejected any purported sightings of Lynette in the years after her disappearance as vague, fleeting and unreliable. While some were mistakes and misunderstandings, others were outright lies, Everson said.
Ultimately, Justice Harrison agreed.
“I am equally satisfied that there is no reasonable possibility that Lynette Dawson left her home and family on 9 January 1982 by voluntarily disappearing with the intention never to return or to contact anyone again,” he said in his verdict.
In a police interview from January 1991 played to the court, Dawson said his wife left their home and rang him three times in early 1982 saying she needed time to think things through after the couple experienced marital issues.
Dawson told the police that a religious sect had asked his wife to join them before her disappearance. He also said that during a 1985 high school reunion, he had heard she had moved to New Zealand.
“I am satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Mr Dawson’s reported telephone conversations with Lynette Dawson after 9 January 1982 are lies,” Justice Harrison said in handing down his verdict.
“I do not accept that Lynette Dawson, a woman allegedly determined to abandon her home and family and to disappear from sight and all that she had would at one and the same time continue to remain in contact with the very person who was on this analysis the reason for her departure.
“The contention that Lynette Dawson, a woman supposedly desperate to leave a relationship, would be inclined to provide telephonic updates concerning the status of her decision to leave is simply absurd: it defies common sense.”
– With AAP
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