It was a compelling true crime podcast and it ended in a killer being brought to justice after 40 years.
The Teacher’s Pet featured the 1982 disappearance of Sydney mother Lynette Dawson, whose body has never been found.
On Wednesday, after a 10-week trial in the New South Wales Supreme Court, her husband Chris Dawson was found guilty of her murder.
Downloaded more than 30 million times around the globe, the podcast uncovered the torrid story of betrayal, police bungling and new information that ultimately forced police to reopen the case.
The Teacher’s Pet creator Hedley Thomas tells Karyn Hay Tuesday’s conviction vindicated the influential crime podcast and the long fight to bring justice for Lynette Dawson and her family.
After the trial this week, Hedley said he felt “wrung out”.
“It’s been a really long 24 hours. We spent five hours in court yesterday, hearing Justice Anne Harrison deliver the reasons and they were compelling, but also exhausting. There was so much detail and it went back and forth. It was a real roller coaster ride.”
The detail revealed was all too familiar to Hedley.
“The judge needed to explain why he was either accepting it or rejecting it,” he says.
“And that took some time because we’re talking about witnesses and their accounts. We’re talking about the claims that Chris Dawson had made about what happened when Lyn Dawson suddenly disappeared. Chris Dawson’s version was that his wife called him after leaving and told him that she needed some time away, she just wanted to have a few days away.
“And then she continued calling him to say she needed more time away. The judge wanted to test that and come to a view. His view was that Chris Dawson was lying about all of those claims. And he was lying out of a consciousness of guilt. But there’s so many other things that the judge needs to take into account. That’s why it took quite a while and the judge really only gave a summary of his full reasons. We expect there’ll be a whole lot more when it’s published.”
The podcast takes us to the northern beaches of Sydney, Australia in 1982. Mother-of-two Lynette Dawson vanishes, layers and layers of betrayal are peeled back, bumbled investigations unpacked and new evidence gathered.
Hedley always believed Dawson was behind his wife’s disappearance. The coroner believed there was foul play in the disappearance and as Hedley’s investigation continued he was further convinced of Dawson’s guilt. Friends and family of Lyn Dawson had always believed the same, he says.
“They knew Lyn would not voluntarily just walk away from her children, not have any contact with them again and in fact only contact the one person, Chris Dawson, whose conduct had made her so unhappy, given that he had wanted to start a whole new life himself with a school girl who became a babysitter in the family home,” he says.
Lyn Dawson was still prepared to cling to their marriage after discovering her husband’s involvement with the 17-year-old. She had been a babysitter and then lived with the couple, coming from a troubled home. Lyn saw helping her as an act of charity.
The couple had counselling to attempt to salvage the marriage after Lyn figured out what was happening behind her back.
“Lyn believed that after a marriage counselling session on the Friday afternoon, they would actually be able to put their relationship back together, that the marriage was not over,” Hedley says.
“She told her friends at the childcare centre that it had gone well, and that they would put it all right.
“They were seen holding hands going into the childcare centre after marriage counselling. But then she was never seen again.”
The idea that Lyn Dawson could just disappear and start a new life, as Chris Dawson had suggested to police, was strikingly improbable, he says.
“How would Lyn have started again? She didn’t have any assets. She couldn’t drive. She didn’t have much money. Chris said she had $500 in 1982, but her family said that was a nonsense. But, even if you had $500 you could hardly last very long. She didn’t work again. There was never any trace of her – no passport, no Medicare, no Centrelink, there was no driver’s license. There was no evidence she ever worked as a nurse again. All of these factors made it just so ridiculous.”
The fact police treated the disappearance as a runaway mother for eight years was a reflection of the prevailing culture, Hedley says.
“If a Lyn Dawson disappeared today, a young woman with two little girls and a valuable a home and a job and strong connections to family and friends – all of those factors make it just so suspicious.
“There would be a police task force immediately established to investigate really closely what was going on in her life. And police know from all of the studies and statistics that it is more than likely that the person or persons most close to the missing person to the victim, are usually the ones who need to be looked at more closely. None of that happened in 1982.”
In the early 1990s the investigation was again picked up after the former student who had become Chris Dawson’s second wife left him and returned to Sydney from Queensland’s Gold Coast.
When she returned to Sydney she went to police and told them she believed Dawson had murdered Lyn.
Hedley is coy over the question of whether The Teacher’s Pet had made a conviction possible.
“I think others are better placed to say, probably in the office of the DPP. But certainly, former detectives, senior lawyers, the family – they are all utterly convinced that it was the alarm, the concern, the anger that rose as a result of Teacher’s Pet that made a very powerful difference.
“It certainly caused some people to come forward and give statements to the police, where they hadn’t come forward before. And those statements were then considered by the Office of the DPP, and became perhaps influential in tipping the balance because the DPP had previously said no, on multiple occasions, when police said, ‘Look, we think we’ve got enough here, can you prosecute?’”
Justice Ian Harrison criticised The Teacher’s Pet for a “less than balanced view” on the case. Hedley admits he was concerned the podcast might also end up hindering justice. But he says it would have been wrong to offer a false balance to the story.
“I couldn’t change what I had done. I tried to put Chris’s side of the story, I asked him to give it. I offered him unedited interviews. It’s very difficult to balance a story, which involves evidence that is actually all against Chris.”
The location of Lyn’s body has never been discovered and Hedley isn’t optimistic Dawson will reveal that information.
“My own view is that Chris Dawson would only share information about that if he believed there was something in it for him, such as early release on parole. That’s years away, and it’s possible he could be dead before he’s eligible for parole.”
Dawson is now 74, reportedly suffering from dementia.
Hedley believes Lyn’s body is located somewhere near Bayview in northern Sydney. Dawson had driven there to pick up the babysitter whom he was determined to install in the house and make the stepmother of his children after he had killed his wife.
Dawson’s heinous crime was linked to his obsession for a teenager and a fear he would lose her. Lust and fear of loss seemed to drive him.
“He lost his mind over this teenager,” Hedley says.
“She was beautiful, and he took enormous risks to be with her. He had tried to leave Lyn in several different ways so that he could start a new life with her. When each of his attempts to leave his wife, to leave the family home, to start a new life with this student failed, he feared he was going to lose her. He was absolutely devastated at that prospect because she was the only person he believed he could have a happy life with. It was a very lustful attraction.”
The podcast’s title of Teacher’s Pet was one chosen after careful deliberation and Hedley is at pains to emphasize the school girl was also a victim.
“She was and groomed clearly by a man twice her age, a teacher, so an authority figure… The story is significantly about a murdering husband who manipulates a school girl and lies for 40 years.”
The podcast has been praised for being compelling and creatively rich, even though Hedley says the pressure of getting weekly episodes scripted, narrated and produced was overwhelming at times.
“I think that the people with whom I was working, the scenery, the places that I was visiting Bayview on the northern beaches, these are evocative places and the individuals, the characters, the witnesses,” he says.
“I wanted to try to convey their stories as authentically and honestly as possible, and hopefully, through the writing, that was done.”