SYDNEY, Australia – A distraught mother's scream 24 years ago that a dingo (search) snatched her baby from a camp site near Ayers Rock (search) in the Australian Outback (search) ignited one of Australia's most enduring mysteries.
An elderly man's claim that he retrieved the infant's bloodied body from the jaws of the wild dog has revived the case and — if true — could finally lead to the discovery of Azaria Chamberlain's (search) body.
Two-month-old Azaria disappeared from a campsite near the giant Ayers Rock monolith, also known by its Aboriginal name Uluru, in 1980.
Her mother, Lindy Chamberlain (search), now remarried and known as Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, was convicted of murdering her infant but later released from prison and cleared of the crime after fresh evidence supported her claim that a dingo took the child.
The mystery took a startling turn Sunday when a newspaper in the southern city of Melbourne published claims by 87-year-old Frank Cole that he shot the dog with Azaria's body still in its jaws while on a camping trip with three friends in August 1980.
Cole told the Sunday Herald Sun that he did not tell police what he did, fearing he would be fined for shooting the dog, thinking it was a rabbit he could use for pet food.
He said one of his friends took Azaria's body and never said what he did with it. All three of Cole's friends from the camping trip have since died, he said. Cole said he believed one of the men could have buried the baby's body in his Melbourne garden.
Police said Monday they would investigate the claims, which Cole said he made to clear his conscience.
"I think that we now need to make some inquiries to determine whether or not it's a valid statement or whatever it might be," said Christine Nixon, police commissioner in Victoria state, of which Melbourne is the capital.
"This is a matter that the whole of Australia has watched for many years, and it seems to me that we need to just go and establish the fundamentals, whether or not there's anything that we should be concerned about," Nixon said.
Lindy Chamberlain, who served four years in prison after being convicted of murder in 1982 and before being cleared of the killing, said through a spokeswoman on Sunday that she was aware of Cole's claims and believed they were a matter for police.
Australians avidly followed her trial in the 1980s and were split over whether to believe her story.
"The Dingo Did It" and "The Dingo Is Innocent," were common bumper stickers while she was on trial.
Azaria was the first recorded fatality attributed to a dingo attack in Australia and there has been only one fatal dingo attack since.
While police plan to investigate, Cole's claims also have been met with skepticism.
Paul Everingham, who was political leader of the Northern Territory province where Azaria went missing, said he doubted the claim.
"I find it hard to believe, maybe it's right but I'm not buying it. Certainly not at this stage," Everingham told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. He suggested the timing of the claim could have been linked to an Australian television network's movie, which is being made about Azaria's disappearance.
"I found it pretty amazing that someone would come forward at this late juncture, more or less coincidentally with the launch" of the television movie, Everingham said.
The story of Azaria's disappearance already was made into a 1988 Hollywood movie, "A Cry in the Dark," starring Meryl Streep and Sam Neill.
Everingham also cast doubt on Cole's claim he feared prosecution for hunting near Ayers Rock.
"I just find it very hard to believe that someone would have felt it necessary to hide the fact that he was hunting around Ayers Rock, if indeed he was," he said.
"And I would imagine that a gunshot in the vicinity of Ayers Rock would have had the rangers hurtling like a speeding bullet, if I could use a bad pun, towards the sound of the shot," he added.