Thanks to the success of The Teacher’s Pet podcast Australian police have arrested the husband of Lynette Dawson whose disappearance in 1982 has been the subject of the popular crime podcast.
From the outside, Lynette Dawson was a beaming 33-year-old living an enviable life. In 1970 she married footballer Chris, her handsome high-school sweetheart. The couple had two little girls and moved to the Northern Beaches, an area of Sydney, where she worked as a nurse and then in a nursery, and he became a PE teacher.
One sun-soaked day in early January 1982, Lynette vanished. Her close friends knew she was having marital problems, and Chris told them she’d gone to a religious cult to think about their relationship. He did not report his wife missing for nearly six weeks.
Yet within days of her disappearance, Chris asked his not-so-secret lover Joanne Curtis to move in with him and his daughters. Add in the fact that Joanne was his 16-year-old pupil – and that she was soon spotted wearing Lynette’s jewellery and clothes – and you’ve got the makings of one of the most bizarre stories imaginable, one that is the focus of the hugely popular podcast The Teacher’s Pet.
If you’re worrying about spoilers, don’t be – these events from 36 years ago are shared at the start of the podcast. And it’s not ruining anything to say that, despite two separate coronial investigations both believing Lynette had been killed, but now Dawson’s husband has been arrested.
Making a killing
Journalist Hedley Thomas worked with The Australian, one of the country’s biggest newspapers, to create The Teacher’s Pet and finally uncover the truth about what happened to Lyn. When the first episode dropped in May, the podcast became an instant hit in Australia and word has spread across the world. Downloads have now surpassed 17 million and it has hit No 1 on iTunes in Britain, America and Canada.
There are hundreds of true crime podcasts and TV shows, but what makes The Teacher’s Pet stand out is the fact it deals with a cold (unsolved) case and its story is still evolving. Unlike Serial or Making A Murderer (both due to return this autumn) which looked back on past possible miscarriages of justice, episodes of The Teacher’s Pet were produced weekly, allowing the direction and content to develop as new leads emerged and forgotten evidence was unearthed.
Despite initially intending to run for just eight episodes, at the time of writing there have been 14.
But where has the new rise in the popularity of unsolved crimes come from? Kevin Hoffin, lecturer in criminology at Birmingham City University, says we have been fascinated by cold cases since the days of Jack the Ripper. He says, “The Teacher’s Pet is especially compelling because the investigation is unfolding in real time. Audiences don’t want to just be passive listeners. People want to feel they are part of the story, hunting the truth.”
Lisa Nishimura, Netflix vice president, agrees. She believes that subscribers consume series such as The Keepers, about the unsolved murder of a nun in Sixties Baltimore, in a new way: “The shows really drive you to want to engage in a conversation, creating a cultural moment where the work becomes part of the zeitgeist.”
As our interest in cold cases hots up, podcast creators and TV networks are racing to reopen long-unsolved crimes. In the UK, the unsolved 1965 murder of Wakefield teenager Elsie Frost was investigated in 2015 BBC podcast Who Killed Elsie Frost?. The family have called for a new inquest after the prime suspect died earlier this year.
The BBC also raised listener involvement to the next level earlier this year on their innovative podcast Death In Ice Valley. Recorded weekly like The Teacher’s Pet, it investigated the discovery of a woman’s body in Norway in 1970, and invited listeners to share insights on a Facebook group to shape the next show. Think solve-along instead of sing-along.
The hugely popular podcast Cold Case Files (inspired by an Emmy-nominated TV series of the same name) explores some of the hardest-to-crack murder cases. Elsewhere, independent podcasters have stirred the pot and tried to find answers that have evaded police and journalists.
Payne Lindsey’s series Up And Vanished delves into the case of beauty queen Tara Grinstead who went missing in 2005. Thanks to his work, two arrests were made last year. Similarly, podcast Minds Of Madness helped force police in the US to reopen an investigation into the 2012 death of a 22-year-old male football player.
According to psychologist Dr Tara Richards, the possibility for a cold case’s narrative to be advanced partly explains the genre’s mass appeal.
“There’s not much scarier than serious crimes that go unsolved,” she says. “Stories of injustice have universal appeal. For fans of cold cases there is real power in believing that one of us could help play a part in the fight for justice.
“Unlike true crimes stories where people have pled guilty or been convicted, cold cases have the potential for greater drama. People can feel pleasure from the adrenaline rush, and deep satisfaction when positive discoveries are made.”
Yet despite so many dogged investigations, figures suggest only 1% of cold cases are solved and, according to a Home Office report, almost a quarter of all UK murders remain unsolved. Some even suggest that fans of the cold case genre don’t want resolution, because cases that remain unsolved can reach the stage of urban legend.
Grace Harrison disagrees. As co-creator of Foul Play magazine, the first female-led, non-sensational true crime magazine, she believes most women respond to cold cases with “an extraordinary level of empathy and a strong desire for crimes to be solved. Perhaps we feel a deeper level of injustice because historically women are so often the victims.”
Does the predominance of shows focusing on female victims mean these stories appeal more? This is possibly explained by the fact women are the lead consumers of the genre. And Harrison says that there are now so many explorations of true crime – often created by women – that things are more balanced.
She adds that women can even feel safer thanks to hearing details about cold cases. “It can be about self-preservation, as female fans can actually learn what to do or not to do in dangerous situations.”
The course of justice
The time we spend listening to the various ways in which innocent women have been abducted, raped and murdered can feel deeply conflicted.
But there’s no denying the positive role our global true-crime addiction can play in capturing culprits and delivering justice. If there wasn’t such a big market for cold-case investigations, they would cease to be made.
Will The Teacher’s Pet end four decades of mystery? The global media has jumped on the story, there have been new testimonies and fresh work on retained evidence. Lynette’s daughter Shanelle has broken her silence, and the family’s babysitter – another student at Chris Dawson’s school – has also gone public with her story.
Now, Chris is to be charged with murdering Lynette Dawson, New South Wales (NSW) authorities said.
Images: The Australian / Getty Images