Joanne Curtis with her daughter Kristin and stepdaughters Sherryn and Shanelle.
Joanne Curtis with her daughter Kristin and stepdaughters Sherryn and Shanelle.

My life with Chris Dawson: the schoolgirl’s story

Joanne Curtis sat in the witness box describing her life with Chris Dawson, the charismatic, controlling football star.

It was February 2003, and I was in Westmead Coroner's Court which was crowded with the relatives of missing Lynette Dawson, plus reporters like me.

The story of an extraordinary and tragic life was emerging from the attractive blonde woman in the box.

Joanne Curtis answered each incredible new question in a low and steady, firm voice.

They included questions about Joanne swimming topless in the Dawson family pool, sorting through Lyn's clothes after she'd gone, supposedly off to a religious cult, and life as wife number two.

Hanging on to Joanne's every word in court were aunts and uncles of Lynette Dawson, who had travelled from country areas to join her brother and sister and stand up for missing Lyn.

Joanne Curtis with Chris Dawson, their daughter Kirsten and missing Lyn’s daughters, Shanelle and Sherryn.
Joanne Curtis with Chris Dawson, their daughter Kirsten and missing Lyn’s daughters, Shanelle and Sherryn.

They had heard stories about Chris Dawson's flirtation with schoolgirls, and about Joanne Curtis.

But at the time, Lynette Dawson's aunt told me, Chris Dawson's film star looks had Lyn's family transfixed.

"He was just so gorgeous, of course you believed him," Lee Fletcher said.

But by the day's end they would tearfully embrace a weeping Ms Curtis in the court complex grounds, Lynette's aunts, uncles and cousins hugging her as they cried too.

As one of the aunts told me, "He gave Joanne a dog's life. I bear no malice towards her."

Since that day of her evidence at Lynette Dawson's inquest, Joanne Curtis has maintained a 15-year silence.

Police have alleged she will be a major witness at any forthcoming trial of Chris Dawson, who on Thursday was charged with murdering his then 33-year-old first wife in 1982.

The charge follows The Australian's award-winning investigative series The Teacher's Pet, which has attracted a worldwide audience since its podcast launched in May.

This is what Joanne Curtis revealed in 2003 about her life with Chris Dawson, before and after Lyn's disappearance.

In 1980, at the age of 16, Joanne Curtis began an affair with a teacher at Cromer High School in Sydney's north, Chris Dawson.

Football star Chris Dawson and Lynette in 1966 before they married and had children.
Football star Chris Dawson and Lynette in 1966 before they married and had children.

She was an attractive blonde teenager from a troubled home.

Following a dispute with her stepfather, she became the full-time live-in babysitter to Chris and Lynette Dawson's two young daughters, Shanelle and Sherryn.

As Ms Curtis told the inquest she and Chris Dawson would meet at the Time and Tide Hotel, just 700m from her school.

He gave her driving lessons, and they began having weekly sex.

"(We) sometimes went to a Manly park … just to have sex, every week."

In 1981, Joanne moved into the Dawson family home at Bayview near Newport in Sydney's northern beaches, as full-time babysitter, escaping her own home life.

When Lyn Dawson was out, Joanne would sometimes swim topless with Chris in the pool, not thinking much of it at the time.

"I went topless, that's just the way I was," she told the inquest.

Around that time, Ms Curtis also spent time with Chris's twin Paul Dawson "and his girlfriends" who were students at another local school, The Forest High School.

Counsel assisting the inquest asked whether she and the girlfriends of Paul Dawson were secret and if there was a "secret rivalry" between the twins over "their behaviour with young girls".

Lyn and Chris Dawson, above with one of their daughters, lived at Bayview in Sydney’s north.
Lyn and Chris Dawson, above with one of their daughters, lived at Bayview in Sydney’s north.

"There was competitiveness there, but I didn't know about any other girls with Chris at all," Ms Curtis replied.

"Chris … was the one living up to his brother. I believe Paul was leading Chris.

"Chris was very impulsive and quick to get angry. Paul was much calmer and self-controlled."

In the last few months of 1981, Joanne noticed that towards his wife Lyn, Chris became "very cold".

"He used to sing songs to her that had double meanings, that he didn't care about her, that she was physically unattractive," she said.

"Just digging away at her, singing songs that were hurtful to wear her down, just upset her.

"I wasn't looking at her reactions. I wasn't sensitive to what she was going through obviously."

Asked by counsel assisting the inquest about an incident when "Lyn caught you and him together", Ms Curtis said it had happened once when she was sitting on his lap in a kind of "children's game".

"She confronted him and we were standing in a triangle and she was talking to him, 'what are you doing?'

"She was angry, angry and surprised really."

Ms Curtis was also asked about whether Lyn Dawson was "very susceptible to religious influences".

"Not if it meant taking her away from her children," Joanne replied.

In January 1982, Ms Curtis took off from Bayview, 500km away to South West Rocks on the NSW Mid North Coast with her sisters and friends on an end of Year 12 camping trip.

Joanne Curtis has not spoken publicly about her life with Chris Dawson since giving evidence in 2003. Picture: Matrix
Joanne Curtis has not spoken publicly about her life with Chris Dawson since giving evidence in 2003. Picture: Matrix

She also wanted to get away from Chris Dawson.

While she was away, she phoned him every day because "he begged me to. He told me he needed me. It meant someone wanted me."

Asked if she had nowhere to go, nowhere to live, Ms Curtis replied "that's right".

On January 9, 1982, Lyn failed to meet her mother, husband and children at Northbridge Baths, an aquatic centre on Sydney's north shore.

Six weeks later, Chris Dawson reported his wife missing.

Joanne Curtis had returned from South West Rocks to Bayview where she told the inquest she "had to go through" the now absent Lyn's clothing, and put them in plastic bags.

"They were put into a linen cupboard in the hallway," she said, "they were to be taken over to Lyn's mother.

Police from the NSW homicide squad search the pool area at the Dawsons’ former Bayview home in Sydney. Picture: Hollie Adams
Police from the NSW homicide squad search the pool area at the Dawsons’ former Bayview home in Sydney. Picture: Hollie Adams

Within months of Lyn's disappearance, Chris Dawson proposed married to Ms Curtis, which he continued to do "frequently until he got the answer he wanted".

Chris Dawson and Joanne Curtis would not marry until 1984, and meanwhile she struggled returning to the family home with his children in residence.

"He had access to me 24 hours a day," Ms Curtis told the inquest, "I tried to get away at some time

"He was violent. There were some times when I locked myself in one of the bedrooms and he would try to break the door down.

"I didn't like being there. I didn't like looking after his children.

"I just wanted to do what people do when they are 18."

Ms Curtis wanted to enrol in a TAFE Child Care Certificate course, but because it was full she studied a secretarial course three days a week.

But looking after Chris Dawson's children, "it was made very difficult for me to do it".

Chris Dawson asked his twin Paul's wife Marilyn to look after the girls until the eldest, Shanelle, went to school.

Ms Curtis, who described Marilyn Dawson as "kind" towards her, said her sister-in-law was the only person she saw for years.

In December 1984, Chris and Joanne moved to Queensland and built a house in the street next to the one that twin Paul Dawson lived in with his wife.

Joanne Curtis was brought into the family home as a babysitter to his daughters (pictured with Ms Curtis above) by Chris Dawson.
Joanne Curtis was brought into the family home as a babysitter to his daughters (pictured with Ms Curtis above) by Chris Dawson.

By that time, Ms Curtis had given birth to her and Chris's daughter, Kristen.

"He was even more possessive of me and rejected Kristen because he wanted me to himself," Ms Curtis told the Coroner's Court.

"He wanted the girls [Shanelle and Sherryn] to look after Kristen while we spent time together."

Behind the two metre wall of their new house which Ms Curtis's described as a compound she told the court she did "as I was told", even wearing what Chris Dawson told her to.

"There was conflict around my ability to look after Sherryn and Shanelle," she told the court.

"He wanted me to be their mother.

"It was very confusing because I didn't feel like their mother, I felt like the mother of my own child.

"It was impossible to do what he wanted.

"He would stand over me in front of them and if I didn't treat them as little princesses … if I disciplined them in any way he would yell.

"He objected to me speaking to them in anything but a sweet voice."

Ms Curtis said ensconced in the new house during her daughter's infancy, "I didn't leave the compound".

"We had a six foot fence and I only saw Marilyn for years.

"When Kristen got old enough to go to play group I took her down.

"His reaction to me going to play group was severe.

Lynette Dawson also featuring on Chequerboard before her 1982 disappearance.
Lynette Dawson also featuring on Chequerboard before her 1982 disappearance.

"I came back and said this person is allowed to do x, y and z in their marriage …

"He chose what I wore, if I was going somewhere he would have to approve it."

Ms Curtis told the inquest that on one occasion she had been to a birthday party, bought G-string underwear, and put it on.

"He said 'Are you only going to wear that for me?' and I said 'no as the need arises'.

"He became very angry and grabbed me around the neck and subsequently tore it off me.

"He let me go before I passed out."

Ms Curtis said on another occasion she and Chris had been in the driveway of their house and he complained about her inability to be the mother of his children and "he punched a windscreen".

In February 1990, Ms Curtis decided to leave Chris Dawson. She fought and won a custody battle for daughter Kristen, who is now herself a mother.

Lynette Dawson’s brother Greg Sims and sister Pat Jenkins attend her 2003 coronial inquest at Westmead Coroners Court. Picture: Stavro Sofios
Lynette Dawson’s brother Greg Sims and sister Pat Jenkins attend her 2003 coronial inquest at Westmead Coroners Court. Picture: Stavro Sofios

 

Back in 2003, outside in the courtyard of Westmead Coroner's Court, after Lynette Dawson's family embraced Ms Curtis, they said they hadn't known the young woman's plight back in 1981.

"You see, we didn't know, we didn't realise that Joanne had nowhere else to go," Lee Fletcher said.

"At the beginning we were in such a state of shock we couldn't anticipate that (Lynette) wasn't coming back.

"For years our minds were in a turmoil."

Lynette Dawson's mother had died only 18 months before the inquest, never to know what had happened to her beloved daughter.

candace.sutton@news.com.au

Joanne Curtis arrives to give evidence at the 2003 inquest into the disappearance of her ex-husband’s first wife, Lyn Dawson.
Joanne Curtis arrives to give evidence at the 2003 inquest into the disappearance of her ex-husband’s first wife, Lyn Dawson.
Lynette Dawson with one of her young daughters before she went missing in 1982, her body never located.
Lynette Dawson with one of her young daughters before she went missing in 1982, her body never located.
The Bayview house where Lyn Dawson was last known to be living before she vanished.
The Bayview house where Lyn Dawson was last known to be living before she vanished.
Joanne Curtis (centre) was a troubled teen before becoming babysitter to Chris Dawson’s daughters Shanelle and Sherryn (above).
Joanne Curtis (centre) was a troubled teen before becoming babysitter to Chris Dawson’s daughters Shanelle and Sherryn (above).
Lyn Dawson’s family, sister Pat Jenkins (left) and Greg Sims (second right) at the 2003 Coroner’s inquest.
Lyn Dawson’s family, sister Pat Jenkins (left) and Greg Sims (second right) at the 2003 Coroner’s inquest.
As a young mum of Kristen (centre), Joanne Curtis felt unable to act as the mother of Lynette Dawson’s daughters, Shanelle and Sherryn.
As a young mum of Kristen (centre), Joanne Curtis felt unable to act as the mother of Lynette Dawson’s daughters, Shanelle and Sherryn.
Chris and Lynette Dawson on their wedding day with his twin Paul, left.
Chris and Lynette Dawson on their wedding day with his twin Paul, left.
Lynette was just 33 when she vanished.
Lynette was just 33 when she vanished.
Joanne Curtis (above with her daughters and Lynette Dawson’s) said ex-husband Chris wanted her to treat them like ‘princesses’.
Joanne Curtis (above with her daughters and Lynette Dawson’s) said ex-husband Chris wanted her to treat them like ‘princesses’.
Twins Chris Dawson and Paul Dawson back in their younger days.
Twins Chris Dawson and Paul Dawson back in their younger days.
Chris Dawson arrives at Sydney Police Centre after being extradited from Queensland. Picture: Dan Himbrechts
Chris Dawson arrives at Sydney Police Centre after being extradited from Queensland. Picture: Dan Himbrechts
Joanne Curtis told a 2003 inquest that Chris Dawson had rejected their daughter initially because ‘he wanted me to himself’. Picture: Matrix
Joanne Curtis told a 2003 inquest that Chris Dawson had rejected their daughter initially because ‘he wanted me to himself’. Picture: Matrix
Paul (left) and Chris Dawson on the ABC program Chequerboard several decades ago.
Paul (left) and Chris Dawson on the ABC program Chequerboard several decades ago.
Chris Dawson outside his home in Coolum, on the Sunshine Coast in May this year. Picture: Lyndon Mechielsen
Chris Dawson outside his home in Coolum, on the Sunshine Coast in May this year. Picture: Lyndon Mechielsen


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