It was Aug. 17, 1980, when 9-week-old Azaria Chamberlain disappeared from her family's campsite in Ayers Rock, Australia and her mother quickly became the prime suspect. Lindy Chamberlain insisted a dingo (an indigenous wild dog) had carried off the infant, and over the next three decades, her protestations of innocence became an international punchline. But last week an Australian coroner ruled that the baby really was killed in a dingo attack. The joke, it seems, was on us.
Following a media frenzy that would put the Casey Anthony case to shame, Lindy who had been crucified in the press for her icy demeanor was convicted of murdering Azaria in 1982. ''Everyone in the state, including the jurors, knew she was guilty'' before the trial even began, says John Bryson, who wrote the 1985 book Evil Angels about the mishandling of the case. When a piece of Azaria's clothing was discovered near a dingo den in 1986, Chamberlain's conviction was overturned and she was released from prison but the cause of Azaria's death was never officially determined. Two years later, the case was immortalized in the film A Cry in the Dark, starring Meryl Streep, who earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Lindy and uttered the now-infamous line ''The dingo took my baby!''
This oft-misquoted phrase made its way into the pop culture lexicon; its biggest splash came in a 1991 Seinfeld episode when Elaine does a Streep impression (''Maybe the dingo ate your baby!''), but it's certainly not the only one (see sidebar). ''The minute you hear the phrase, it sticks with you,'' says David Mirkin, a longtime producer of The Simpsons, who's credited with writing that show's ''dingo'' joke for a 1995 episode. ''It's like a hit song. It's an earworm.''
This most recent ruling comes after the fourth and presumably final inquest into Azaria's death. (The case was reopened following similar incidents of dingoes attacking children.) And, after living under a cloud of suspicion for three decades, Lindy (now Chamberlain-Creighton) said she's grateful to be fully exonerated at last. ''I think they have a huge amount of courage to admit that they were wrong,'' she told Radio Australia on June 13, adding that she's currently writing a book on forgiveness. ''The family and I and all the campsite witnesses are relieved and happy to be vindicated,'' adds Bryson, who has kept up with the case and the family. ''Lindy's recent statement contained a message of forgiveness. I'm not so forgiving.''(With additional reporting by Dan Snierson) Tragedy Turns Into Comedy
Funny because it's true? The Chamberlain case became a running joke in American pop culture.Seinfeld
Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), exasperated by a fellow party guest, quips, ''Maybe the dingo ate your baby!'' in a 1991 episode.The Simpsons
In 1995, Bart tells an Australian man, ''Hey, I think I hear a dingo eating your baby.''Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Werewolf Oz (Seth Green) plays guitar in a band (introduced in 1997) called Dingoes Ate My Baby.Family Guy
Brian and Stewie host a radio show, ''Dingo and the Baby,'' in 2006.