Knives Outback

A man is presumed murdered. In this town of 12, everyone is a possible suspect.

Mitch Moxley
Aug 20 · 30 min read

In the hours before he went missing, never to be seen again, Paddy Moriarty had beer on his mind.

Each morning around 9 a.m., Paddy would hop on his red quad bike with his dog and head for the Pink Panther pub for morning chores — cleaning the toilets and showers, raking leaves. The retired 70 year old, a former ranch hand born in Ireland who sported a mustache and had a heart condition, had been paid weekly with cartons of his favorite brew. After a few hours of work, he’d settle in at the bar for his daily drinking session. Most days, he would drink eight cans of XXXX Gold, an Australian lager. Eight beers — seldom more, never less.

The path from the far end of town, where Paddy lived in a converted service station, to the door of the bar passed the homes and businesses of nearly every resident of Larrimah, a dry, dusty, and cartoonishly small hamlet in Australia’s Northern Territory, a vast swath of rugged country largely devoid of people. The Outback town was once the effective terminus of the North Australia Railway, and it thrived for a time. During World War II, the Gorrie Army Base was nearby, Australia’s largest during the war. But in 1976 the railroad shut down, and through subsequent decades, the Larrimah population dropped from 100 to 50 to 25 — finally to 13.

The remaining townsfolk were mostly in their 70s, the youngest around 50. Things moved slowly in Larrimah, barely at all, and that’s partly what appealed to its residents. “We don’t have Friday, Thursday, or Tuesday,” a former Larrimah resident named Maurice Darvy told investigators. “We just get up and go to work.” It was the type of town where everybody knew everybody’s business, which, like any small town, could be a blessing and a curse. It also attracted a trickle of tourists traveling up and down the Stuart Highway eager for a taste of a long-lost town and the companionship of some real-life frontierspeople.

But behind the veneer of chummy quaintness was simmering discontent and infighting among the dozen-odd fiercely opinionated and unyielding men and women who lived in Larrimah. In the dusty hot house, the smallest dispute could blossom into a years-long rage. But the vitriol had never led to any serious violence between the residents. And although people sometimes went missing along the Stuart Highway, no one had ever been murdered in Larrimah.

On his way to the pub that morning, Paddy passed by the sites of many of these feuds: squabbles with neighbors about shop signs, about the proper time of year to burn brush, about insensitive remarks and barking dogs. He instigated several of these spats himself. Paddy was garrulous and at times entertaining, but he also had a darker reputation. “I don’t know if … you’d call [them] enemies,” the proprietor of the pub, 76-year-old Barry Sharpe, later testified, but, “Paddy used to needle [people] a bit. I’d put it more down to [him] being a bit of a larrikin, really.” Larrikin — a shit-stirrer.

After the two-minute drive along the highway that bisected the town, Paddy was greeted at the Pink Panther by a large statue of its namesake cartoon character out front, sitting in a lawn chair and holding a bottle of beer. It sat beside a roughly 16-foot-tall Darwin Beer stubby made of concrete and built in the 1970s, when the Larrimah Hotel boasted the highest sales of two-liter Darwin beers in the Territory.

Sharpe enticed travelers with an animal menagerie in the back, which he built, cultivated and maintained himself. It featured cockatoos, lorikeets, parrots, finches, possum-gliders, snakes, and manatees. But the real draw were crocodiles he’d owned over the years: Sneaky Sam was the main attraction at the time. The animals cooled their hulking bodies in a man-made water pit surrounded by a rusted iron fence.

Paddy took his place at the bar, filled with bric-a-brac and kitsch Australiana. On any given day, Paddy chatted with regulars and tourists who stopped by to have a drink or a bite to eat, or to get a glimpse of the croc. Some Larrimah residents would describe Paddy himself as an attraction at the pub, spinning yarns from his time on the ranches and greeting arriving tourists with a hearty, “G’day folks, where ya from?”

And so it was on that sweltering day, December 16, 2017, that Paddy sat down to nurse a series of cold XXXX Golds in his koozie — beers, it turned out, that would be his last. Paddy Moriarty and his dog were about to vanish without a trace, kicking off an investigation that would turn the town upside down and spark international media coverage. Initial concern for his wellbeing soon gave way to darker rumors of murder.

In this town — now down to 12 residents — everyone was a possible suspect.

Detective Sergeant Matt Allen pulled into Larrimah on December 24, 2017, eight days after Paddy’s disappearance, via the town of Katherine, a five-hour drive from Darwin, where he worked in the crime division at Berrimah station. Allen was a soft-spoken investigator with over 22 years of experience. He had close-cropped hair and blue eyes, and he wore the detective’s uniform of a long-sleeve dress shirt, tie, and sunglasses.

Australia’s Northern Territory

He loved the Outback, the romance and adventure of that landscape. At age 18, he was the victim of an assault on the Gold Coast, and had his first interaction with police — he gave a statement, helped create a computer-generated image, and had a forensic photographer document his injuries. While he was recovering from the assault in the hospital, he saw a recruitment ad in the local paper for the Territory police featuring a photo of a police Toyota Landcruiser in the Outback. That could be me, he thought. A win in an Australian Rules Football betting pool covered his airfare to Darwin to complete his police testing. He got the job, and was stationed in Alice Springs, where he later met his wife. The couple would go on to have two children.

Allen was no stranger to perplexing cases — people tended to disappear in the Territory, and Allen sometimes spearheaded the investigations. This was different, though. A missing man, presumed dead. His dog, vanished. An undisturbed home and whispers of ill-will in a town where nearly all the residents were over the age of 50 and could be listed on one side of a Post-it note. The tiny hamlet turned crime scene was, as Allen says, “a once-in-a-career case.”

Still, Allen couldn’t let speculation involving sinister plots color his investigative process. Collating the clues, he and his team of four investigators set out to piece together the events of Paddy’s final known day in Larrimah.

The last evening he was seen, according to witnesses, Paddy drank more than his usual eight cans of beer. Had something been troubling him? He ordered his final drink — which he called his “Last Supper” — before heading out sometime after 6 p.m. The bartender, Richard Simpson, who worked for Sharpe, told investigators that Paddy had a slight “wobbly boot,” but he wasn’t more intoxicated than normal.

A family of tourists had arrived at the Panther in the afternoon. They met Paddy briefly and one of the children had taken a shine to Paddy’s dog, Kellie, a red Australian sheep dog. As Paddy set out for home, the children’s mother went upstairs to the floors that housed the hotel to grab a half-eaten roast chicken purchased at the supermarket. She gave it to Paddy to feed Kellie.

Before leaving, Paddy told Barry Sharpe, the bar owner, he’d be around the next day, a Sunday, to pick up a lawnmower.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said.

“Right-o, Paddy,” Sharpe replied.” See you tomorrow.”

Sharpe saw Paddy and Kellie hop on his quad and head down the highway to his single-story home. There, Paddy evidently put his hat on the cooler and his glasses on the table, where they would later be found, and the roast chicken in the microwave. He started preparing dumplings for dinner.

Sharpe told Detective Allen that when Paddy didn’t show up to pick up the lawnmower or to watch the rural affairs show Landline, a weekly ritual locals referred to as “going to church,” he found Paddy’s absence unusual, but not alarming. Although he had his rituals, Paddy would, on occasion, leave town unannounced to visit old friends in Daly Waters, his former home, or travel elsewhere in the Territory.

Sharpe went to Paddy’s home on Monday, he explained to Detective Allen, to check on him. The front door was locked, so he entered through the open screen door in the back.

“Paddy, you here? Paddy, you here?” Sharpe said. The house, according to Sharpe, was undisturbed: hat on the cooler, glasses on the table, chicken in the microwave.

The following day, Sharpe called the couple Mark and Karen Rayner, two of the youngest people in Larrimah — he in his sixties, she in her late 40s — and regulars at the pub. Karen had been the manager of the Pink Panther up until a few months prior, and she still did the accounting as a favor to Sharpe. She and Mark considered Paddy a friend; Karen and Paddy would watch cooking shows together.

The Rayners hadn’t seen him either, and they were irked — and more than a little surprised — that he’d been missing for two days and Sharpe hadn’t told them or called the police. In her estimation, it just wasn’t like Paddy to disappear like this. Karen demanded Sharpe call the authorities, and she and Mark went over to Paddy’s to look around.

Mark searched around the property and down the well, along the road that intersects the highway, and down to the dump. He worried that Paddy had gone for a wander and been bitten by a snake, or that he’d had a heart attack.

The Rayners went looking further out in the countryside. They walked around outside of town, zigzagging across the intersecting roads, long enough that Mark got sunstroke. There was no sign of Paddy or his dog. This is serious, they thought.

Detective Allen and his team were faced with a perplexing scenario when they arrived the following Sunday. Paddy’s home looked as if he intended to leave his apartment only briefly. Sensitive about his baldness, Paddy rarely went anywhere without a hat, yet there it was on the cooler. Cold dumplings were on the table. The glasses he wore every day were also left in the apartment. His wallet had over $200 inside, and his truck and quad were still in the shed. Rain showers had hit the area in the days around the disappearance, and in a stroke of bad luck it was possible they had washed away any physical evidence surrounding the property.

The police conducted three days of searches — on foot, by vehicle, and by helicopter — covering roughly 50 miles around Larrimah. They searched the dump, sent divers to skim the waters around the dam, and scoured the nearby limestone caverns. It was plausible Paddy had wandered off and fallen ill. After all, he had a heart condition, he drank roughly ten beers that day, and the terrain around Larrimah could be treacherous. But he was also an experienced bushman, and he was fit, despite his heart. Paddy walked his dog to the dump every morning but wasn’t known to go far afield in the evenings. And what about Kellie? Even if Paddy had suddenly died, Allen reasoned, the dog would have turned up somewhere, or alerted searchers to a body. Allen contacted animal shelters in the region looking for Kellie, with no luck.

Detectives are careful not to jump to conclusions too quickly, but the circumstances of the case increasingly pointed to foul play.

Allen, during his interviews, had found an undercurrent of tension among Larrimah’s remaining 12 residents, one that stemmed from years of escalating feuds both small and large, unusual even for a tiny town where everyone knows each other’s business. For example, residents had been divided about how to preserve and restore the old railway precinct, a fight so bitter that rival associations were born. New feuds emerged amid sweeping accusations, and everything from harassment to assault, arson, and intentional poisoning of plants occurred within the few-mile confines of the town. Residents fought over the names of the town’s two streets, a pet buffalo that was shot and eaten, a peacock fed to a crocodile at the Pink Panther in a fit of revenge, and a rogue speed bump someone installed in secret.

Paddy Moriarty seemed to be at the center of many of these disputes. And troubling facts would soon emerge — gunshots heard outside the Pink Panther the night before Paddy’s disappearance and a mysterious fight between Paddy and another man on the side of the highway only days earlier.

When the exhaustive searches turned up nothing, Detective Allen had no choice but to turn his attention to a criminal explanation.

The Pink Panther, which in addition to being a pub, hotel, and ad hoc zoo was also the town’s Greyhound bus station, its post office, and the center of gossip, was the natural place for Allen and his team to start looking for answers. The crocodile out back, which would provide the perfect means of disposing of a body, did not escape investigators’ notice.

The Rayners were upset with Barry Sharpe for waiting so long after Paddy’s disappearance to call the police. He also had the means of disposing of two bodies — one human, one dog. But, police learned, Sharpe and Paddy were friends. Not only did Paddy work at the pub and spend his days there, but the two sat on the board of a local progress association. In his testimony, Sharpe would describe Paddy as “excellent company. …He loved to chat and he loved talking to strangers. Anybody new that would come in, he’d always say hello to them and try and get a conversation going. He was that sort of bloke. He was just a happy-go-lucky bloke.”

There was another character connected to the pub, however, who most certainly had friction with Paddy: Richard Simpson, who tended bar for Sharpe. Simpson was in his fifties, with a round, ruddy face and a long, wheat-colored beard kept in tight, cascading curls. He often consumed alcohol to the point of severe inebriation, a state he could reach before noon. Several times a month, Sharpe had to tell him to abandon his shift and go home.

On at least one occasion, Simpson’s behavior had become outright hostile, and it wasn’t hard to connect these outbursts to the pub, an institution that seemed to provoke his jealousies. One night, prior to Paddy’s disappearance, while Karen Rayner worked on invoices at the pub, Simpson had shown up intoxicated. Agitated and unprovoked, he ran into the office and accused her of stealing.

“What you’re on about?” Karen asked.

Simpson told her that she and her husband were no longer welcome at the Pink Panther. He became incoherent, rambling from one topic to another. “Your family is in big trouble here,” he warned Karen, his meaning veiled but menacing, before running off.

As the rumor mill churned during the investigation, some Larrimah residents had already suggested that Simpson, who had taken OxyContin in the past for a broken back, had grown increasingly enraged at Paddy’s growing stature at the pub — that Paddy was more of a “second in command” to pub owner Sharpe than Simpson was.

The thread was compelling but seemed thin, until police uncovered another potential reason for bitterness. It was suggested that Simpson and Paddy were also involved in an ongoing dispute over their dogs. Paddy had loved dogs. For years he and his previous companion, Rover, a black border collie, were inseparable, even leading to a gentle rib in town that Rover was Paddy’s wife. When Rover died, Paddy got Kellie, who went with him everywhere and enjoyed the same revered status. But Kellie was shy and uncomfortable around other people and dogs, and Paddy did what he could to protect the animal.

Simpson, meanwhile, owned a pair of temperamental “American staffies,” which Sharpe characterized during the investigation as untrustworthy. In the small town, frequent run-ins between animals could provoke emotional responses more appropriate for disputes involving blood relatives. Simpson’s dogs were loud and potentially dangerous, a threat to the docile Kellie. Not a man to hold his tongue, Paddy could be nasty when enraged, and with undercurrents of a potential rivalry making things prickly between the two men, was it feasible to imagine Simpson flying into a drunken rage?

Added to that, Simpson was also one of the last people to have seen Paddy alive, and working at the bar gave him access to the scaly man-eater out back. Witnesses said Simpson was at the bar when Paddy left for home on his quad bike, but since Paddy lived alone, there was no way to ascertain at what time, exactly, he went missing.

Later, however, Detective Allen’s team tested Sneaky Sam’s watery habitat, but found no evidence of human remains. Searches of the Pink Panther also turned up nothing of note.

Without forensic evidence, all Allen had to go on was speculation and suspicion, and that wasn’t enough; a wrongful arrest risked the entire investigation. Confronted about his possible involvement in Paddy’s disappearance, Simpson scoffed off the mounting whispers, calling those suspicious of him “goddamn fools.”

And besides, if it was rivalries Allen was after, Simpson could easily point Allen to one for the ages. There was no rivalry in town like the years of boiling rage between Paddy and the local tea shop owner, Fran Hodgetts.

To ask who threw the first kangaroo was, perhaps, to get lost in the details. But, as police found, various tales of roadkill tossing pointed to one undeniable fact: Nobody in Larrimah despised one another like Paddy and Fran.

Hodgetts’ tea shop was in a converted police station and jail along the Stuart Highway. Weathered stuffed animals — SpongeBob Squarepants, Tweety — dangled from the veranda out front. In the back of the shop were a set of ovens that Fran used to cook meat pies with fillings ranging from camel to crocodile. Investigators took special note of those ovens.

But the defining characteristic of the tea shop, at least in the context of a probable murder investigation, was its proximity to Paddy Moriarty’s house, situated just up and across the highway. That proximity had put Fran and Paddy into each other’s daily orbit and made them subject to an escalating cycle of ire and retribution.

“She didn’t like Paddy. She was always accusing Paddy of stealing things from her property and she didn’t like him,” Bobby Roth, Fran’s former dishwasher, testified. “She used to say, ‘I’ll kill Paddy.’”

Through detailed interviews with Fran and others, Allen determined that Fran and Paddy had been cordial in the past. They had known each other for decades, and Fran had taken food over to Paddy after he’d undergone bypass surgery and stents implanted in 2006.

But things started to erode when Paddy grew frustrated — and increasingly ornery — about the tourists parking on his side of the highway, as well as about the ever-growing displays of signage outside of Fran’s Devonshire Tea House, all of it written in black and white script: “Brecky Waffles,” “Buffalo or Beef Pies,” “No Toilets.”

In response, Paddy took to belittling Fran’s pies, which was tantamount to attacking her livelihood.

“Fran has got the worst pies, and I’ll fucking tell you that,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Murray Mclaughlin in an unaired 2011 interview. “I used to go over there and the dog wouldn’t eat Fran’s pies.”

When Barry Sharpe began serving pies at the Pink Panther, giving Fran an unwelcome spot of competition, Paddy posted a sign on his side of the street, directly across from Fran’s, alerting passersby to the “Best pies in town,” above the Pink Panther at the Larrimah Hotel, where the $5 savory treats were also considerably cheaper than Fran’s $13 offerings. As tensions between the two escalated, Paddy started calling Fran “bush pig” in conversation with others.

That’s when the kangaroo throwing started. The pair were both known to drag dead kangaroos, common finds along the desolate highway stretching through the territory, onto each other’s properties. Once, after Fran threw roadkill into Paddy’s yard, Paddy allegedly shoved the backend of a dead kangaroo through the louvre windows at the rear of the pie shop so that it would cook as soon as she fired up the oven in the morning. On another occasion, he was accused of cutting off a kangaroo’s penis and throwing it on her driveway. Just a few days before he vanished, Fran accused him of dropping yet another dead ’roo outside her bedroom window.

Fran regularly reported Paddy to the nearby Mataranka police, who would come to town and investigate but find little evidence to support her claims. The dispute escalated to the point where Fran filed for an “order of protection” against Paddy, the equivalent of a restraining order.

“He started pinching stuff, pinching umbrellas from here, damaging my property and give me big heaps of cheek and telling customers not to come in, putting broken glass under car wheels,” Fran told the ABC in an interview. “I had trouble with him all along. Big, big trouble. He started stirring shit around town about what I was doing in the kitchen and how much I was selling my pies for. …Because he was very jealous. Very jealous of what I’ve got here.”

In Katherine Local Court, in October 2016, Fran accused Paddy of a litany of abuses — each small enough in its own right, but to her mind they formed a kind of cumulative torture and a serious threat: stealing her umbrella, destroying her furniture, cutting her security camera, placing a newspaper under her fence smeared with human feces. A judge dismissed her claim, citing lack of evidence. This only increased her frustration with Paddy. In the months before he disappeared, she would tell anyone who listened about her contempt for Paddy. Maurice Darvy, who worked for Fran for a spell, testified that seven days a week she would swear at Paddy across the Stuart Highway, shouting “Why don’t you go back to Ireland!”

One of her regular sounding boards, Owen Laurie, a 71-year-old retiree who was rehabilitating Fran’s garden in exchange for housing, was warned to keep special watch over the plants. Paddy had been suspected of attacking Fran’s garden, pouring oil into the soil and once allegedly poisoning $5,000 Australian dollars worth of golden cane palms. In fact, Fran suspected that Paddy did not act alone in this act of sabotage but had an accomplice: her ex-lover, Bill Hodgetts, whose fickle loyalties had thrust him into the center of the escalating dispute.

Years of abuse, lost business, unsympathetic police: It was easy to find motive in Fran’s feud with Paddy. Those pie ovens, which could crank hot enough to render a man down to nothing, aroused more than a little suspicion as well.

Detective Allen’s team searched the tea shop and tested her meat pies. They checked her incinerator, her freezer, and the shed out back.

Alas, the searches yielded nothing of use — the meat cooked in Fran’s ovens was neither human nor canine, according to the experts. There was also the question of stature. Fran, suffering from arthritis, was no match physically for Paddy, or even Kellie the dog. If the crime in question involved moving bodies, as disposal almost certainly would, it was inconceivable that she would have been able to pull it off.

All this led the case investigator to conclude that if Fran had been involved somehow, it defied belief she acted alone.

While Allen interviewed residents, so did reporters. Australian media became infatuated with the story of the mysterious disappearance and, more keenly, a potential small-town murder. Theories flew everywhere as the country watched the investigation practically in real time. Alongside the fed-to-the-croc scenario, some conjured Sweeney Todd and surmised Paddy might’ve gone through the mincer into Fran’s meat pies.

Camera crews regularly descended on the town. Fran Hodgetts and Barry Sharpe became household names, and the story of Paddy Moriarty appeared in newspapers from the U.S. to the UK. A paper in his native Ireland tried to trace his family roots and his journey to the Northern Territory. Fran, especially, seemed to relish the media attention, denying any involvement while sullying her missing enemy across the highway at once. “I don’t know where he is,” she told the ABC, “but I’m not sad that he’s gone.”

Other Larrimah residents were as perplexed by the case’s strange circumstances as the media was. It was a town of fewer than a dozen residents, and as Barry Sharpe told an interviewer, “To my way of thinking, one of them’s a murderer.”

As the weeks and months went by and the media scrutiny intensified, the pressure mounted on Detective Allen and his team to provide answers.

Circumstantially, Fran was the most obvious suspect, albeit an imperfect one. Could Bill Hodgetts, her one-time lover, be the missing puzzle piece?

The two were never married, although they were together for decades and she took his name. Bill was a prolific drinker; he was known to consume two cartons a day — an astonishing 48 beers — in his prime, before switching to light beers several decades before and earning the nickname “Billy Light Can.”

Billy Light Can and Paddy had known each other for years, in their younger days running into each other over drinks in towns around the uppermost part of the Northern Territory where Bill worked as a trucker and Paddy as a ranch hand.

In Larrimah, however, their relationship was tested amid Fran’s and Paddy’s acrimony. Bill was often called upon to intervene, telling Paddy to back off. Sometimes it got heated.

Once Bill and Fran separated, however, and she kicked him off the property, allegiances shifted. Stricken with cancer of the jaw, Bill moved into a trailer near the Pink Panther, where Paddy worked. The separation was not cordial, and Fran and Bill fought over money. Soon Fran was sure Bill was helping Paddy torment her, cutting the wire to a CCTV camera she’d installed and then poisoning the garden Owen Laurie was working so hard to restore.

A woman named Bobby Roth washed dishes for Fran for a short time, and her husband, Karl Roth, did some handyman work. They found Paddy rude and obnoxious when drunk, unimpressed by his “Irish temper.” Karl, who worked in fire and rescue for 18 years, had recently confronted Paddy for starting fires during the windy and dry time of year, when wildfire risk was highest, and the confrontation grew quite tense.

Bobby Roth reported hearing gunshots outside the Pink Panther the night before Paddy’s disappearance. Several people in Larrimah kept guns; Karl Roth himself was a firearms enthusiast from his days in the Australian Army, and he kept eight guns at home. Simpson said shots at the pub wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. Sharpe even kept a shotgun at the pub, which he occasionally discharged to kill falcons who preyed on his birds.

Could the shots have been someone practicing their aim before the big kill?

There loomed, too, the persistent and less enticing possibility that it was all just an accident after all, or maybe even a random crime with no motive whatsoever. There was consideration of other phenomena, too. Many Australians believe the remote area around Larrimah to be haunted. To the local Aboriginal population, the region is kadaitja — spirit country. The surrounding countryside is dry, dusty, and dense with shrubs. After a rain, sinkholes can drop as much as 50 feet into the earth. Wild pigs and boars can devour a body without leaving a trace.

Stuart Highway, which stretches through the region and runs right through Larrimah, has an equally ominous reputation. The 2005 horror film Wolf Creek, about a madman who hunts captured travelers, was inspired by the real-life backpacker killers Ivan Milat and Bradley Murdoch, who had gone on separate killing sprees travelling Stuart Highway. Peter Falconio, a British backpacker, was shot and killed in 2001 near the Northern Territory town of Barrow Creek, after he and his girlfriend were ambushed by Murdoch; his body was never found. Richard Roe, a 40-year-old Northern Territory man, went missing from the town of Katherine in 2016, a suspected victim of drug-related foul play. Detective Allen worked the Roe case, a mystery that remains unsolved and added more pressure on the police to crack the Moriarty case.

Could an outsider have killed Paddy? It was possible. Hundreds of travelers and drifters in caravans and trucks stopped in Larrimah for a bite to eat or drink every year. Some would spend a night in the caravan park surrounding the Larrimah Hotel, the small inn above the Pink Panther bar.

But there were too many plausible leads to believe this was random. And there was one clue that stuck out like a jagged edge, sharp and incongruous. Three days before his disappearance, Paddy Moriarty was seen arguing with a mysterious man on the far end of town. The fight was intense, nearly coming to blows, and the other Larrimah resident was so reclusive few could even say what he looked like.

Outside the Katherine Court House, a single-story, peach-colored structure across the street from a McDonald’s, members of the national and international media pointed cameras and microphones at the overwhelmed but assured residents of Larrimah filing inside.

After nearly six months and 100 interviews with residents, among others that knew Paddy, Detective Allen was out of time. The advanced age of everyone in town and the shifting theories propagated by media and locals would make the case harder to solve, not easier, as weeks and months ground on. It was time for a drastic step.

Territory authorities had agreed to call for a coroner’s inquest, an unusual event for criminal cases but a move fit for finding answers in Larrimah, where everyone had a story to tell. Allen had handed over the contents of his investigation to an appointed judge and lawyer, and almost all residents of Larrimah would be interviewed under oath to answer the question stumping a nation: What happened to Paddy Moriarty?

The two-day inquest was held in tiny Courtroom Number 2, roughly five-by-four meters in size. The judge, Territory Coroner Greg Cavanagh, sat behind a large table. At one end of the table was Deputy Coroner Kelvin Currie, a lawyer who would question the witnesses. At the other end sat a pair of lawyers representing a few of the Larrimah residents who figured on needing the extra protection. Observers and journalists squeezed into every other inch of the room. Also among the crowd were a few curious tourists and several friends of Paddy who made it known that they suspected foul play.

On the first day of the inquest, the Coroner’s Office appeared ill-prepared for the attention the case was receiving.

“Why are all the media here, Kelvin?” Judge Cavanagh asked Currie. “We will need that chair for people that are going to give evidence, won’t we?”

“We will, your Honour,” Currie said. “We will need a chair.”

The circus of the inquest soon gave way to the gravity of the proceedings, and as the hearing went on, attention returned again and again to Fran Hodgetts. When Bobby Roth, Fran’s one-time dishwasher, took the stand, she told Currie that Fran had given her $30,000 (more than $22,000 USD) to hold for her, ostensibly to hide it from Bill, Fran’s ex. But Fran had arranged to have the money picked up in the interim, perhaps suggesting something had changed. During their search of Fran’s property, the police also found $7,000 (around $5,200 USD) in a plastic bag in the freezer.

Was this just the savings of a woman who didn’t trust banks, or could it have been intended as payment to someone? What, exactly, was Fran planning to do with all that money?

In the tiny courtroom, the full weight of Currie’s questioning came down on Fran as she sat in the witness chair. Meticulously, Currie walked through the many grievances she had with Paddy.

“How many times have you said, ‘I’m going to murder him’?” Currie asked.

“Fucking million, millions, millions of times,” she replied. Then she added, “I’m riddled with arthritis. Imagine me carrying a dog and a bloody body. Oh, come on.”

“And that’s what stopped you from killing Paddy?”

“No, no, no, no. That’s not my nature. That’s not my nature. I’m a lover, not a fighter.”

Fran became flustered as the questioning went on. She said that she had been watching a documentary on tuna the night of the disappearance. She called herself the victim, and said that police and media harassment had harmed her business, and her health.

“I’ve had my incinerators done, I’ve had my septics pumped out, I’ve had my house done three or four times with nothing — nobody found anything. I’ve had — you know, I had my freezers in my shop, lids open, looking in my freezer, you know. How do you think I feel?” She went on: “I don’t lie, I don’t bullshit. And I’ve been through hell. Now this six months that I’ve been here, I’ve been abused and accused and blackmailed. And you know what, I’ve got breast cancer now through this, I’ve just found out lately, because of worry.”

It looked bad for Fran. But then, as she sat in the witness chair, Currie moved the lens of suspicion away from her.

On December 13, 2017, three days before Paddy’s disappearance, his dog Kellie had wandered over the highway and up to the fence along Fran’s property. Pink Panther bartender Richard Simpson, who had witnessed the incident and disclosed it to investigators, heard Kellie barking and then a man’s angry shouting.

Kellie continued to bark, and Paddy crossed the road toward the pie shop. As Paddy restrained Kellie, Simpson saw Paddy and another man have an angry exchange over the pie shop fence.

The man was Owen Laurie, Fran Hodgetts’s gardener.

During the inquest, Kelvin Currie attempted to get to the root of Fran’s relationship with her gardener.

“I take it what you’re saying is you wanted Owen to protect you from Paddy?” he asked.

“Not protect me, to help me look after everything and keep everybody off my property, to stop people from doing things to my property,” a distraught Fran replied.

“But the person you wanted help with — ”

“The only person that had ever helped me is Mr. Owen, and he’s the only one who’s been honest, hasn’t taken anything, pinched anything. He’s an honest man.”

Laurie, like Fran and Paddy, was a septuagenarian, but in his younger days he had toured parts of Australia as a “tent boxer” — a fighter who got in the ring for cash to entertain small-town crowds. He worked various labor jobs around the country and ended up in Larrimah after responding to a newspaper help-wanted ad for a gardener.

When Laurie called Fran about the gardening job, she had instructed him to come to the remote town, bring a blanket, and spend the night. “We’ll have a chat,” she told him.

The next morning, she and Laurie sat at a table. She was shaking with frustration and told him everything that had been happening with Paddy. She told him about the alleged stealing and harassment, the dead kangaroos. And she told him about the poisoned garden.

Laurie wanted nothing to do with the feud, but he needed the job and the place to stay. Once in Larrimah, he spent his days in solitude. He worked the garden with pride and reluctantly went over to Fran’s to eat or chat when she asked him to, but otherwise kept to himself, spending his evenings on his computer. Despite living in a town with only 10 people, nobody in Larrimah besides Fran could even describe Laurie.

One afternoon, Fran spotted Laurie planting trees along a fence line. “Don’t put them there, Owen,” she told him. ‘The boys can poison them.”

“Any fuckin’ bastard comes in here and poisons my fuckin’ garden,” Laurie said, “there will be the first murder in Larrimah.”

On December 12, four days before his disappearance, Fran saw Paddy drag a dead kangaroo onto her property. The next day, before she headed out to buy supplies in Darwin, Fran told her gardener about it.

“Paddy threw a kangaroo while you were away yesterday on the property.”

“I know, I can smell it,” he said. “I’ve just had words with him. About the dog coming over the road.”

According to Fran, Laurie told her about his exchange with Paddy and said he went to jump the fence to confront him (which Laurie would deny). Paddy ran across the highway inside his property. “Fucking weak piss,” Laurie said, according to Fran’s testimony.

Before she left for Darwin, Fran told Laurie: “Don’t do anything stupid because I’m going to Darwin and I don’t want to come back and bail you out of jail.”

“Did he seem upset?” Currie asked her on the stand.

“Angry, yeah, angry, yeah. I’d be lying if I said no. Yeah, he was angry.”

A few days after his disappearance, police swarmed Paddy’s home. Fran, across the way, would later tell police that as they came, Owen Laurie called her upstairs to look at what was going on. She assumed it was some kind of drug bust.

“And Owen says to me,” Fran recalled, “the first thing he said was, ‘Oh, I thought they came for me.’”

“I’ve got osteoporosis, mate,” Laurie told Currie, explaining how he couldn’t have killed Paddy. “If I did something violent like that it would break all my bloody bones.”

Laurie acknowledged that he’d had words with Moriarty about his dog, but denied that it was heated, or that there were threats exchanged between the men. When Currie pointed out that Laurie had originally refused to come to the police station for an interview, he evaded that, too, claiming that he was a solitary person and would happily agree to a police interview — at his home.

When Currie asked about Laurie’s comment about “the first murder in Larrimah,” Laurie replied: “That was joking. It was said jokingly. People say things like that. …I had no intention of murdering anyone.”

“People have been murdered for less,” Currie replied.

“I guess so.”

The circumstantial evidence, however, was difficult to ignore. Among the most damning revelations was Laurie’s own account of his whereabouts the evening Paddy disappeared.

Around dusk on December 16, 2017, a message had appeared on Laurie’s computer screen from a virus detector that his computer might be infected. It provided a phone number to call for a solution. He tried to Skype the number, but it didn’t go through.

Around the same time, Paddy Moriarty finished his “Last Supper” at the Pink Panther, accepted the roast chicken from the traveling family, and headed home on his quad bike with Kellie on the back. It was around 6:30 p.m.

Laurie left his lodging on the grounds of Fran’s tea shop and made his way to the town’s only phone box along the highway, where he made two unanswered calls to the virus hotline.

The calls were made at 6:30 pm. and 6:31 p.m. The pay phone was directly across from the home of Paddy Moriarty.

Fran Hodgetts defended Laurie during her testimony, insisting that he couldn’t have done it, that he was a good man. But even she wavered when presented with a timeline of events.

Currie read aloud her statement to police: “‘I’m putting these little bits together, and I’m thinking, ‘Hang on, this is. …Look, my hair’s standing up on my arms.’”

“You’re putting it together,” Currie said to Fran on the stand, “that he was the person — ”

“No, no — ”

“ — who killed Paddy.”

Circumstances seemed to point in that direction, but that wasn’t enough for an arrest and indictment. The police found no physical evidence to support the theory that Laurie killed Paddy. There was no incriminating DNA found in his car or on any of Paddy’s vehicles. No physical evidence turned up in any of the searches of Fran’s property, either. Whatever happened to Paddy Moriarty that night, a thorough job was done of it.

After the inquest was adjourned and the tiny courtroom cleared, Hodgetts and Laurie reportedly rode in a car together for the trip home.

This past February, the police renewed and increased their offer for information to $250,000 for anyone that knows something.

No one has claimed it.

Owen Laurie left town not long after testifying. No charges have been filed in the case. Some individuals have been cleared, police say, and others have not. When asked recently about Laurie, Detective Sergeant Matt Allen said, “The investigation is still ongoing with him.”

The Moriarty case still consumes Allen. He can’t help but wonder whether he and his team missed some crucial detail that would have cracked it open; he says they’re all better investigators because of the case. “I would have liked to have met Paddy,” Allen says. “It’s difficult to comprehend that despite the amount of time and effort put into the search for Paddy, we still can’t find him. Something is just not right about his disappearance. Someone out there must know what happened to Paddy.”

Fran Hodgetts eventually left Larrimah, too, to live with her daughter in Melbourne and finish treatment for breast cancer.

On a recent phone call, she insisted again that she had nothing to do with Paddy’s disappearance and says the police have told her they know as much. She also stands by what she told the inquest, that she believes Laurie didn’t kill him either.

With her cancer in remission, she plans on returning to the Northern Territory soon. There, she expects to find Larrimah better without her tormenter across the highway.

“He was a horrible man, nobody liked him,” she insists. “He caused a lot of trouble in Larrimah before he disappeared. …Whoever done it, whatever happened to him, it was a godsend.”

Some have gone, others have arrived, and the population of Larrimah stands at around 10 — a few short of the days, not long ago, when an Irishman in a cowboy hat and mustache drove across town to the pub on his quad bike with his dog.

Friends of the missing man still come by the bar from time to time, asking about him, hoping, perhaps, that it was all a ruse after all, that one day Paddy Moriarty might miraculously reemerge, claim his seat at the Pink Panther, and order a fresh can of XXXX Gold — a larrikin to the end.

MITCH MOXLEY is a writer and editor in New York whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, The Atlantic, The Best American Travel Writing, and other publications.

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Mitch Moxley

Written by

Mitch Moxley is a writer and editor in New York who has contributed to GQ, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and many other publications.

Truly*Adventurous

Truly*Adventurous is a digital magazine built with reckless faith in the power of longform storytelling. We commission original true stories from some of the best nonfiction writers working today. Subscribe at trulyadventure.us/signup