Forever Missing

Azaria Chamberlain was on her first camping trip in her life. At two months old, it’s unlikely she would remember much of it, but it may have been the first time she felt nature’s fresh air on her soft cheeks, or the first time she ran a small hand over a grainy boulder.

Her parents Lindy and Michael pointed out hillsides as they held her, whispering facts about the Uluru land in Australia. A picture of Lindy holding her baby up on the sand shows her beaming into the camera. Azaria appears full of wonder. None of them believed anything could go wrong on this trip.

It was August 17, 1980, and everything did go wrong.

Baby Azaria and Lindy Chamberlain.

Baby Azaria and Lindy Chamberlain.

When Lindy and Michael woke up, their daughter wasn’t in the tent with them. They raced outside, throwing open the tent’s canvas door. They looked for footprints, disturbed earth, any signs of where she may have gone.

Despite the parents telling police their child must have been taken by a dingo in the middle of the night, Lindy was convicted of murder and Michael convicted as being an accessory. Lindy spent three years in prison before a piece of Azaria’s clothing was discovered near a dingo lair. While she was released, speculation remained around her involvement in her daughter’s disappearance.

It took over 30 years until a coroner, who tested the clothing sample, agreed with Lindy that her daughter must have been taken by a dingo in the middle of the night and dragged back to its lair. While the body still has never been found, Azaria was declared dead years after the day she had gone missing.

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Investigators need to identify a suspect as soon as they can, especially in a missing persons case. Fingers are pointed, theories are expressed, and sometimes the wrong people are arrested.

Sometimes the wrong people are found, too.

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Louisiana was just as humid in 1912 as it is today, but the intense wildlife and weather doesn’t keep locals from enjoying a family trip similar to the Chamberlains.

The Dunbars set out for Swayze Lake in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana on a fishing trip, where the parents Lessie and Percy’s first-born son went missing. The four year old’s disappearance sparked an eight month long search, making national news across the country. Theories spouted he may have fallen into the lake and eaten by an alligator, while others suggested he was abducted.

No one would have guessed piano and organ repairman William Cantwell Walters would become involved in this case all the way in Mississippi. He was traveling through the state with a boy matching the description of Bobby and having the same age. While Walters claimed to have been given custody of this child by the boy’s own mother, police arrested him for kidnapping.

The boy was sent home to the Dunbars, who were no doubt surprised and relieved. It’s likely the boy approached the parents apprehensively, while they wanted nothing more than to wrap him in their arms. After eight months of their son missing, they probably were still coming to terms with the fact they would never seen their son again. They were most likely edging toward believing he was dead. They couldn’t believe they were looking at their son.

But was he their son?

A side by side photo of Bobby Dunbar (left) and the boy found eight months later (right), published in a newspaper in 1914.

A side by side photo of Bobby Dunbar (left) and the boy found eight months later (right), published in a newspaper in 1914.

In North Carolina, Julia Anderson claimed the boy was hers. Unfortunately, her testimony didn’t carry much weight because this would mean it was the third child she bore out of the wedlock, and the two before were deceased.

When Lessie Dunbar first met the boy, she had her own apprehensions despite her excitement. Something seemed off about the boy. Perhaps it was his confused reaction to see the people who were supposed to be his parents. After checking him thoroughly, Lessie said she recognized the same scars and marks on his body as Bobby’s.

When Julia Anderson was presented with the boy, he was lined up with four others. The boy himself appeared to not recognize the woman standing before him. While she too recognized the scars and marks on him, she wasn’t completely sure of his identity either.

Anderson’s uncertainty was all it took to confirm this boy was Bobby Dunbar. He was sent back to be officially reunited with the family. Walters was found guilty in court of kidnapping and sentenced to prison. Meanwhile, Anderson continued to fight for the boy despite her previous confusion. She even resettled in Poplarville, Mississippi where the trial took place, marrying and having seven children.

While in court it was settled that the boy was Bobby Dunbar, and while the boy lived out the rest of his life under that name, not everyone was convinced. Years after Bobby died, one of his granddaughters looked into the incident to see what she could find. What originally started as curiosity lead her to serious doubt that her grandfather was a Dunbar at all. She looked back at the case, the accounts, even interviewing relatives who could recall the events. Bobby Dunbar Jr. gave consent to the Associated Press in 2004 to run a DNA test. The results revealed he did not contain Dunbar blood.

Where the real Bobby Dunbar ended up returned to an unsolved case. In 2008 the granddaughter officially stated she suspects the four year old boy was eaten by an alligator when he fell into the lake unbeknownst to his family. A family that was reunited, and felt that way for several decades, was suddenly torn apart. Identities were changed, lost, muddled, and a boy remains missing almost one hundred years later.