'Dad, why are you going to so much effort?’ my son Alexander, then 18, asked, as we trawled through cobweb-strewn boxes filled with paperwork.
‘It’s powerfully important,’ I told him.
In the last box he handed down the ladder to me, I spotted a yellow folder labelled Lyn Dawson.
Excitement and hope pulsed through me. As a journalist, Lynette Dawson’s was the one story that had deeply troubled me for many years.
Sixteen years earlier, I’d come across the intriguing case of how Lyn Dawson, had vanished from her Bayview home in Sydney’s Northern Beaches in 1982.
She supposedly turned her back on two young daughters, and her husband Chris, a PE teacher.
A coronial inquest in 2001 concluded Mrs Dawson had been murdered, and that her killer was someone she knew. And I’d written an article about it for The Courier-Mail back then.
Despite a second coronial inquiry with the same finding in 2003, there was no prosecution, with lack of evidence cited as the reason.
Now it was 2017.
My father Hedley had passed away, aged 77, and my thoughts turned to the mystery of his mother, my grandma Gladys Olga Thomas, who’d vanished when she was 35.
While it was presumed she’d drowned in the ocean at Dee Why - and there was never any suspicion of foul play - my father looked for her in crowds for many years, willing her to come home.
I imagined Lyn Dawson’s daughters had similar longings.
'My grandma Gladys Olga Thomas vanished when she was 35'
Re-reading the evidence in that folder, sourced from police files I’d first read in 2001, I felt gripped.
The day Lyn vanished, Chris had allegedly dropped her at a bus stop, then taken their daughters to meet his mother-in-law at Northbridge Baths.
He’d received a call at the kiosk from Lyn saying she needed time apart. Lyn and Chris’ marriage hadn’t been all it appeared. He’d had a relationship with a schoolgirl, the couple’s 16-year-old babysitter.
She’d visited their home, and Chris had had sex with her while Lyn slept. His audacity surprised me – he’d moved the girl, known later in court as JC, into the family’s home two days after Lyn vanished.
In fact, Chris and JC married in 1984. After they split in 1990, she’d given a police statement over her suspicions that Chris had been involved in Lyn’s disappearance.
She said she’d been in Year 11 when Chris had made advances towards her. JC spoke of the day he’d claimed he’d tried to hire a hitman to kill Lyn, but thought better of it.
After Lyn did disappear, he’d told her, ‘Lyn’s gone, she’s not coming back.’
Chris maintained Lyn had called him a few times after she left, and there were some alleged sightings. But her family never heard from her again.
Inquest notes detailed how fragments of a cardigan with slash marks and possible blood stains had been found during a dig in the Dawson’s backyard.
Now I hoped my own investigation and publicity might bring a breakthrough in Lyn’s case, and get justice. So in November 2017, I started recording The Teacher’s Pet podcast.
'I hoped my own investigation and publicity might bring a breakthrough in Lyn’s case'
I enlisted my friend and audio engineer Slade Gibson to produce it. Often recording interviews at home, with lawn mowers in the background and my kids unstacking the dishwasher, there was some ropey audio.
Lyn’s brother Greg was the first person I interviewed. He spoke of Lyn’s love for Chris and her children, but noted bruises on her arms which she’d brushed off as walking into a benchtop or doorknob. It suggested domestic violence.
Greg’s wife Merilyn spoke of Lyn’s trusting mum Helena. ‘She wanted to believe what Chris was telling her, but she couldn’t believe Lyn had gone.’
Lyn’s dad, Len, was suspicious from the start, saying, ‘the bastard’s done her in.’ While Lyn’s other brother Phil, believed Lynette was buried at the Bayview home.
With every episode, I became more certain of Chris’ guilt – even if he’d convinced himself of his own innocence.
Speaking to Lyn’s eldest daughter Shanelle, I was struck by the cruelty he’d shown to her and her younger sister, telling them their mother didn’t love them enough.
‘I just don’t really believe for a second… that she would have left us willingly,’ Shanelle said.
The podcast gained momentum, topping charts here and in the US, the UK and Canada.
I became obsessed. It took over all my waking hours and I dreamed of Chris and Lyn Dawson.
As the 16th episode was about to drop in December 2018, I was running late to Slade’s studio when I heard Chris Dawson had been arrested. I could scarcely believe it.
'With every episode, I became more certain of Chris’ guilt '
In May 2022 Chris Dawson pleaded not guilty at a judge-only trial. His defence lawyers had argued that a jury could have been influenced by The Teacher’s Pet, denying Dawson a fair trial.
I was cross examined, and it felt like the podcast, which had been downloaded 70 million times, was on trial. I was a zealot about getting Lyn’s family justice, though.
JC’s testimony revealed grooming from Dawson. Cards sent to her at school were signed love always God to hide his identity.
Lyn was a good mum and always kind to her, but Dawson had used diamonds from Lyn’s rings to make one for JC.
That August, Justice Ian Harrison found Chris Dawson, then 74, guilty of murdering Lynette Joy Dawson, nee Simms. His motive was his infatuation with the schoolgirl he’d go on to marry.
In her victim impact statement, Shanelle, told her father, ‘The night you removed our mother from our lives was the night you destroyed my sense of safety and belonging in this world. You are not God.’
He stared at the floor.
In December he was sentenced to 24 years in jail, with a minimum of 18. This year he was convicted of carnal knowledge, over an unlawful sexual relationship with a student, and given three more years.
The podcast wasn’t a whodunnit, it was a ‘He done it’ – Dawson’s a scheming killer and I can’t see him ever disclosing where Lyn’s body is.
I’ve been moved by emails from women who’ve been in abusive relationships who said the podcast helped them.
To this day I remain good friends with Lyn’s family and hope the podcast and my book, The Teacher’s Pet, is a legacy for her.
I pursued a killer who had enjoyed 36 years of freedom. And it would not have happened if it hadn’t been for my grandma, Gladys Thomas.