Joanne Curtis pictured as a schoolgirl (left) and in more recent years (right).
Joanne Curtis pictured as a schoolgirl (left) and in more recent years (right).

Schoolgirl at centre of cold case that gripped the world

The Sydney schoolgirl at the centre of a murder case that has gripped the world was just 16 years old when she first had sex with her physical education teacher Chris Dawson.

Joanne Curtis is now a 54-year-old woman who shares an adult child with Dawson but reportedly hasn't had another relationship since splitting with him in 1990.

In many ways, time has largely stood still for those directly affected by the suspected murder of Dawson's wife Lyn who vanished in 1982, as he pursued an illicit affair with their children's babysitter, Ms Curtis.

But almost 37 years on, a major breakthrough in the cold case brought on by The Australian 's award-winning podcast The Teacher's Pet has today turned everything on its head.

The retired football player, 70, was this morning arrested in Queensland over the disappearance of Ms Dawson and will be extradited to New South Wales where it's expected he'll be charged with her murder.

Two coroners have previously heard Dawson, who was then 32 years old, wanted his wife, 33, out of the way so he could be with a much younger Ms Curtis. She was a Year 11 student at Sydney's Cromer High School when she first met Dawson who was working there as a sports teacher.

He had noticed her in Year 10 and fixed the roll to ensure she would be in his class.

Soon after becoming her teacher, Dawson invited Ms Curtis to be a babysitter for his two young daughters. The teenager- who came from a broken home with an abusive stepfather - accepted the offer.

Joanne Curtis, former second wife of Chris Dawson, arrives for inquest into the disappearance of Lyn Dawson at the Westmead Coroners Court in Sydney, 2003. Picture: Glenn Campbell
Joanne Curtis, former second wife of Chris Dawson, arrives for inquest into the disappearance of Lyn Dawson at the Westmead Coroners Court in Sydney, 2003. Picture: Glenn Campbell

Towards the end of the year, Dawson and Ms Curtis had sex for the first time at his parents' house in Maroubra. It marked the start of a secret affair which saw Dawson regularly make his wife a drink to ensure she went to bed early so he could have sex with Ms Curtis.

A coronial inquest was later told the couple started a sexual relationship when Ms Curtis was 16 and Dawson was 32.

Lyn Dawson with one of her daughters at her Bayview home in 1978.
Lyn Dawson with one of her daughters at her Bayview home in 1978.

In 2003, Ms Curtis told the coroner that Dawson invited her to move into his family home while she was studying for her HSC, in October 1981.

"I had nowhere else to go," she said.

At the inquest, Ms Curtis described Dawson as "very cold" towards his wife.

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

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

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During the inquest, police advocate assisting the coroner Matt Fordham told the court that on several occasions from 1980 onwards, Dawson placed love letters in Ms Curtis' schoolbag, and "invited her to marry him".

It's unknown if Ms Dawson was aware of the affair but it was no secret at Cromer High. Neighbours of the Dawson's also claimed to have seen the schoolgirl swimming topless in the family's pool.

Ms Curtis previously told the court that Ms Dawson had confronted her about the schoolgirl's relationship with her husband.

"(She) said to me: 'You've been taking liberties with my husband'," Ms Curtis said.

"I didn't know what to say." It was the last time Ms Curtis ever spoke to Ms Dawson.

Just two days after his wife went missing, Dawson moved Ms Curtis into his family home in Bayview, about one year after their affair started. It's believed Ms Curtis slept in the couple's bed and wore Ms Dawson's clothing. She also took on the role of stepmother to the Dawsons' girls although she was still legally a child herself.

Ms Curtis said years later in her police statement: "All I know was she'd gone, he said right from the word go she wasn't coming back."

"Maybe that (the possibility Chris had killed his wife) was always in the back of my mind..." she said.

Joanne Curtis was approached by A Current Affair following the release of The Teacher’s Pet podcast series.
Joanne Curtis was approached by A Current Affair following the release of The Teacher’s Pet podcast series.

In 1984, two years after his wife's disappearance, Dawson and his Ms Curtis wed at their home on January 15. He was 35 and she was 19.

In a bizarre symbol of his commitment to his teen lover, Dawson gave Ms Curtis one of his missing wife's rings to wear at the ceremony.

They went on to have a daughter together but Dawson allegedly resented the child because he wanted Ms Curtis to himself.

The couple split in 1990 and Ms Curtis soon went to police and urged them to search the property for a body.

Ms Curtis told police in 1998 the situation was "very strange for everyone".

"I mean I tried to leave on a number of occasions because I didn't want, I didn't want to be in that situation with him," she said.

"I didn't want to be in a relationship with him. I wanted to get away … because I was just a kid.

"I was kept right in the dark and I was quite oblivious to, to lots of things, I was just under this sort of spell, I suppose."

Asked if Dawson had been "distressed" by the disappearance of his wife, Ms Curtis told police: "No, I don't think he was distressed."

"I think he was, you know, he had what he wanted," she said.

"That was what he wanted, that was his, his goal was to have me and have the children and have the house and have no Lyn … He was ecstatic, as far as I am concerned."

During the interview, Ms Curtis described Dawson as controlling.

"I did as I was told," she said.

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

Chris Dawson has been arrested in Queensland on behalf of NSW Homicide Squad detectives investigating the 1982 disappearance of Northern Beaches wife and mother, Lynette Joy Dawson. Picture: NSW Police
Chris Dawson has been arrested in Queensland on behalf of NSW Homicide Squad detectives investigating the 1982 disappearance of Northern Beaches wife and mother, Lynette Joy Dawson. Picture: NSW Police

Ms Curtis reportedly still resides on the northern beaches in Sydney, near her daughter and where her life first became forever intertwined with Dawson's, and forever changed the trajectory of her life.

A close friend of Ms Curtis' told the Daily Mail that the effects of the relationship between the pair had lifelong effects on the mother-of-one.

"She's a victim and she's a survivor," the friend said.

Appearing in Southport Magistrate's Court on Wednesday, Dawson appeared downtrodden when his application for bail was refused. Queensland magistrate Dennis Kinsella declared he did not have the power to grant it and Dawson was taken into the custody of NSW detectives.

Mr Kinsella said the case would hinge on allegations of Dawson's illicit affair and the deterioration of his relationship with his wife. 

Dawson is expected to be extradited to NSW where he will be charged with murder. He is likely to appear in Parramatta court on Thursday.

Joanne Curtis was a schoolgirl when she moved in with Chris Dawson just days after his wife went missing.
Joanne Curtis was a schoolgirl when she moved in with Chris Dawson just days after his wife went missing.
Chris Dawson with Joanne Curtis and his children. Picture: Supplied.
Chris Dawson with Joanne Curtis and his children. Picture: Supplied.

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