When true crime podcasts are at their best, they can bring light to old cases, take them back into the public eye, inspire debate, and even, in some cases, prompt authorities to re-examine past crimes.
It is rare that things go further than that, though, like solving a cold case.
But it has happened and 2022 saw two major events in the world of crime and true crime podcasting. First, Adnan Syed was released from prison (due in part to the awareness raised by the podcast Serial) and now, someone has been charged with the murder of Lynette Dawson, the subject of the Australian podcast The Teacher’s Pet.
33-year-old Lynette Dawson, a nurse and childcare worker, was a married mother of two. She and her husband, Chris, had met at school when they were both 16. They married five years later, in 1970, at the age of 21.
Chris and his identical twin, Paul, were both professional rugby players, who later became PE teachers. It was while they were working at schools that Chris began to ‘groom’ one of his students, 16-year-old Joanne Curtis. Chris had noticed her a year before and then arranged the roll so that she would be his student.
Joanne had a difficult home life and was living with an abusive stepfather. She became the couple’s babysitter and later, even moved in with the family, at Chris’ invitation. It was during this time, in 1981, that he began to molest her.
Lynette, meanwhile, had started working at a children’s centre. She confided in a friend that Chris was violent towards her. Neighbours backed up her claims. They saw the couple arguing and Joanne swimming topless in the family’s pool.
Lynette discovered the molestation and confronted Joanne, after which, the teenager moved out of the family’s home and into Paul Dawson’s house.
It was not the end for Chris and Joanne, though. The two attempted to leave Lynette and the couple’s children and move away to start a new life together. However, Joanne later changed her mind and they returned. Finally, Lynette and Chris started marriage counselling.
On 8th January 1982, Lynette’s mother rang her (she later wrote in her diary her daughter sounded drunk). Lynette said Chris had made her a drink and that she was feeling positive about the future. The two were due to meet the next day, but Lynette never arrived.
Chris said he had dropped her off at the bus stop. He claimed Lynette had called him later that day and said she needed space. Chris also claimed that Lynette continued to ring him several times after that.
It was not until 18th February, six weeks later, that he reported her missing. He claimed she had joined a religious organisation.
Two days after Lynette went missing, Chris moved Joanne into their house. The two later married. Lynette’s clothes were still in her wardrobe, as were personal objects, like her contact lenses. Lynette’s engagement and eternity ring were turned into a diamond ring for Joanne, her wedding ring made to match Chris’ from his previous marriage.
Lynette was never found, but two coronial inquests determined that she was dead, murdered by someone she knew.
The Teacher’s Pet launched in 2018, the work of The Australian newspaper and journalist Hedley Thomas.
Thomas had first heard of the case in 2001 but did not begin looking into it properly until years later. When he did, he began an exhaustive investigation, speaking to Lynette’s family and friends, as well as the police. The result was a 16-episode series about the case.
It revealed details such as Chris telling Joanne he was considering hiring a hitman to kill Lynette before she disappeared. It brought up inconsistencies in his story. It investigated further claims that other students at the high school Chris worked at, as well as other local schools, had been groomed and that he was one of several teachers who sexually abused their students. It uncovered flaws in the police investigation.
The podcast became an enormous success, with over 60 million downloads, topping the podcast charts in different countries. Hedley and his producer, Slade Gibson, won Gold Walkley awards, which recognise excellence in journalism.
The podcast debuted in May 2018. In September of that same year, police dug up the garden of the Dawsons’ home, looking for Lynette’s body. They did not find anything, but Chris was arrested on 5th December. The podcast was credited with bringing enough attention to the case to allow police to finally reopen the investigation.
Chris’ trial began in May 2022. Due to the publicity surrounding the case, he was tried without a jury. In August, he was found guilty of the murder of his wife, Lynette Dawson. The 74-year-old was sentenced to 24 years in prison. He will be in his 90s before he is eligible for parole.