Could the disappearance of Paddy Moriarty end up unravelling an entire town?
Watch the first episode of our new YouTube series on the disappearance of Paddy Moriarty.
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could keep a secret in a town as tiny as Larrimah.
Here, 10 residents live within spitting distance of each other on a featureless stretch in Australia’s remote outback, 500 kilometres down the Stuart Highway from Darwin.
But almost a year on from the day locals first raised the alarm, the disappearance of Larrimah man Paddy Moriarty, 70, and his kelpie Kellie remains a disturbing mystery.
Despite extensive searches, public appeals and a coronial inquest, police appear no closer to unravelling the truth.
Larrimah — already a dysfunctional tangle of disputes and disagreements — is now in a state of disarray.
Long-time local publican Barry Sharpe has sold his Pink Panther-themed watering hole, along with his large pet saltwater crocodile Sneeky Sam.
The disappearance of Paddy Moriarty and his kelpie Kellie remains a disturbing mystery. (ABC News: Tim Madden)
Up the highway, the Devonshire tea house advertising scones along with buffalo and camel pies remains open, but proprietor Fran Hodgetts says the last year has taken a devastating toll on her health and her business.
There are others contemplating a “permanent break”.
Last year one man and his dog vanished. But almost all of Larrimah, as it exists now, could be swallowed up in the wake.
Police have interviewed every resident. All say they had nothing to do with Paddy’s disappearance.
There are persons of interest being investigated outside of Larrimah.
Each resident has their own theory about what may have happened.
Lead investigator Detective Sergeant Matt Allen is treating it as an unsolved homicide.
While he can’t completely rule out misadventure he feels compelled to consider the “worst-case scenario.”
“Somebody out there knows what happened to Paddy and Kellie,” he said.
“It’s difficult for people to keep secrets; often they want to tell someone.”
Detective Sergeant Matt Allen is vowing to continue the search for any evidence of Paddy or his dog Kellie. (ABC News: Terry McDonald)
There are a lot of ways to go missing in the outback.
Larrimah’s remaining residents have had plenty of time to mull them over.
“Wild pigs. Dingoes … crocodiles. There’s plenty of ways to get rid of a body, isn’t there?” mused the oldest local, Len Hodson, 82.
Such disappearances aren’t unknown in the NT — the Stuart Highway fairly vibrates with stories of murder and mayhem.
“It’s been going on for years where people have just disappeared off the face of the earth and no one’s got an explanation for it,” said Larrimah man Barry Burke, who goes by the nickname “Cookie.”
Barry Burke or “Cookie” as he is known around town says he fears Paddy’s fate will never be known. (ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)
According to then-bartender Richard Simpson and other witness accounts, the Irish-born pensioner spent the afternoon of December 16, 2017 at the Pink Panther Hotel.
It’s estimated Paddy drank about 10 mid-strength beers over a number of sweltering hours, just a couple of cans above his daily average.
As the sun was setting, he fired up his red quad bike and departed, his kelpie riding shotgun.
A few hundred metres from the pub, in his own home, police say evidence confirms Paddy microwaved some leftover chicken for his kelpie and prepared some frozen dim sims for himself.
Long-time local publican Barry Sharpe sold his large pet saltwater crocodile Sneeky Sam. (ABC News: )
And then, with no sign of a struggle or suggestion of a planned exit, the man and his red dog were gone.
If there’s one thing that unites the estranged residents of this place, it’s that they all believe Paddy is dead, most probably killed.
Why are they so convinced there’s been foul play?
Publican Barry Sharpe says Paddy Moriarty did odd jobs at the Pink Panther in the mornings and spent his afternoons sipping mid-strength beers. (ABC News: Neda Vanovac)
To understand that, you have to understand Paddy Moriarty.
And you need to understand an isolated spot where emotions run high, feuds run long, and personalities are larger than life.
Until they’re not.
And when something goes wrong, it can go wrong on a spectacular scale.
As publican Barry Sharpe puts it: “10 people live in this town; to my way of thinking, one of them’s a murderer.”
The abundant plush toys in Larrimah outnumber the residents by at least 10 to one.
Grinning stuffed pink panthers ride bicycles in the pub beer garden, while ageing teddies adorn the entrance.
At the tea house, they hang from the rafters, arranged in formation on tables, sit around a miniature picnic bench, and are even sometimes given as gifts to those who stop in for a meal.
The abundant plush toys in Larrimah outnumber the residents by at least 10 to one. (ABC News: Neda Vanovac)
Larrimah is situated on the dead-straight artery running down the guts of Australia from Darwin to Port Augusta.
Most tourists don’t see these decorations; they barely slow down as they whizz past at 80 kilometres per hour, preferring to take a break at the hot springs north in Mataranka or at the quirky pub south in Daly Waters.
Larrimah flourished during the boom of World War II, but has steadily declined.
Some speak wistfully of the days when there were 40 or 50 residents, and children played in the park.
There were Irish Ashes held every year, and a big Christmas do.
But kids grew up and people moved away, until fewer than a dozen were left, most of them now aged in their 70s. All are white. Only three are women.
“Larrimah, you need to see it to believe it,” Detective Sergeant Allen said.
“There’s no mobile phone reception. You can’t even pull up and get fuel for your car there.”
For those who live here, this state of isolation is normal. But outsiders see it differently.
English comedian and journalist Dom Joly went to the town more than a decade ago, to film part of a documentary series.
“Larrimah is like nowhere else I think I’ve ever been; it’s like if you dropped a kind of weird bar in a post-apocalyptic sort of scenario,” he told the ABC.
The pub’s exterior crawls with fuchsia bougainvillea, while a giant seated concrete Pink Panther statue sits in a lawn chair next to a huge beer bottle, nursing a Territory stubbie.
“I’ve stayed in a lot of places, in weird places in the world: North Korea, Syria, The Congo … and the Larrimah is up there on remoteness, weirdness,” Mr Joly said.
“But it was a decent place and the people were brilliant.”
The series includes a scene where the international visitors and local drinkers get into a verbal bar brawl over the best word for being drunk.
“Rat-arsed” and “wankered” are options shouted across the room, with a Territory competitor offering up “circumcised with a VB lid”.
Among the local revellers, was a recognisable moustachioed figure, Paddy Moriarty perched on a bar stool. He was a feature of this irreverent environment, a daily visitor to the pub.
“He was part of the hotel, he was the greeter if you like, the concierge,” the local mechanic Mark Rayner said.
But how had a man born in the cold, wet south-west of Ireland ended up living in this tiny place in the Australian tropics in the middle of nowhere?
International man of mystery
Paddy Moriarty was a teenager when he stepped onto the Fairstar passenger ship in Europe in 1966 and set sail for Australia.
“He came from Ireland, and there was some pretty wild men back in those days,” said David Graham, a regular at Larrimah’s pub.
Little is known of Paddy’s family history: he was born in Limerick.
His mother Mary Teresa Moriarty has died. No father was listed on his birth certificate.
Australian police searches have turned up no evidence of siblings or children. He never married.
“I’ve never had a missus, just me dog, no dramas,” he’s quoted as saying in a 2013 book.
Paddy Moriarty and his previous dog Rover on the cover of the 2013 book Every Man and His Dog (Supplied: Murdoch Books)
Back in the 1960s, Paddy went to Brunette Downs cattle station, between Tennant Creek and Mount Isa.
“He’s quite a fit fella — he used to be a ringer — he actually won the 1996 rodeo in Darwin,” said Detective Sergeant Allen.
After decades of stockwork, Paddy turned up in Larrimah more than 10 years ago.
When he first went missing, police had little to go on to build a profile — no computer, email, mobile phone, or social media.
Just an old bloke with a seldom-used landline who told stories about his station life to friends and visitors at the pub.
In the end, police notified Interpol and Irish police in the hopes of finding his family.
An interview conducted by the ABC with the Irish public broadcaster RTE in February this year ended up unearthing a missing link.
A listener in Limerick heard the town Abbeyfeale name-checked as Paddy’s place of birth, and recognised the key detail police had to go on — his mother’s name.
Police are now confident they have located Paddy’s extended family.
Two people agreed to do DNA testing. Police think that while they are Paddy’s relatives, the relationship is too distant to be reflected in the analysis.
They’re keeping the material on file in case technology improves.
But with no confirmed links, Paddy’s possessions are now in the hands of the public trustee, including his deserted house.
In the past, travellers might have stopped in Larrimah for liquid refreshments at the pub, or a pie at the tea house.
But now there’s a new attraction, where some tourists slow and snap a photo or get out for a closer look.
It’s Paddy’s abandoned property, with a missing persons poster tied to the fence.
Paddy’s abandoned property, with a missing persons poster outside, has become a tourist attraction. (ABC News: Neda Vanovac)
The tuna fishing alibi
Fran Hodgetts wakes up to that missing persons sign across this highway every day. It is visible from her bedroom window.
Pictured is the neighbour who she’s accused of making her life hell, both before he disappeared and after.
Fran and Paddy were locked in a decade-long dispute; in an interview with former veteran ABC reporter Murray McLaughlin in 2011, Paddy admitted to telling potential customers not to eat at Fran’s tea house, and encouraging travellers to buy pies from the Pink Panther instead.
“He started stirring a lot of rubbish, he was carting yarns from here over to the pub,” Fran said.
Paddy had a vested interest, of course. He spent most afternoons at the hotel and he also helped out in the mornings cleaning the pub’s toilet block.
Back in 2011, Paddy declared Fran’s pies were of such poor quality his dog wouldn’t eat them.
“Fran’s got the worst pies and I’ll f***ing tell you that,” he said, chuckling and sipping his beer.
Barry wrote off Paddy’s messing with Fran as “larrikin behaviour.”
But Fran’s version of events is much darker.
She claims Paddy sabotaged her business, stealing her sun umbrella, putting crushed glass under customers’ tyres, dumping dead kangaroos on her property, and poisoning expensive plants in her garden.
She called the police numerous times.
Fran Hodgetts said police searched her property and seized items including a hacksaw, but she strongly denies any knowledge of what happened to her neighbour. (ABC News: Neda Vanovac)
A few months before Paddy’s disappearance, Fran had hired a new gardener for her business, Owen Laurie.
Owen rarely left the teahouse property. Most locals didn’t have a clue what he looked like.
When Paddy went missing, police spent the 2017 Christmas break interviewing everyone in town.
Because of the history between Paddy and Fran, officers closely questioned Fran and Owen, conducted forensic searches of the property, drained her septic tank, and took away Owen’s laptop and car.
Those investigations have not led to any arrests, and both Owen and Fran deny having anything to do with Paddy’s disappearance.
“I don’t believe in retaliation,” Fran declared two weeks after Paddy disappeared.
“I believe in karma.”
She said she and Owen were home the night their neighbour was last seen.
But she maintains she didn’t hear anything unusual.
She said she told police she recalls watching a tuna fishing documentary in her bedroom, and she would have spied anything strange over the highway from her window.
That’s significant, because in Larrimah, sound carries.
The plants at Fran’s Devonshire Tea House are tended by gardener Owen Laurie. (ABC News: Neda Vanovac)
The clash of the neighbours at the top end of town wasn’t the only disagreement in Larrimah.
Ask any resident whether they all get along, and they shake their heads.
Retired fire and rescue volunteers Karl and Bobbie Roth, who still keep their hard hats by the door, stay largely to themselves and steer clear of the pub.
Fran hasn’t set foot in the pub for 10 years, and accuses Barry and his regulars of trying to drive her out of town.
She’s very upset by her characterisation in the media, since news of the pie wars came to light, as a “pie lady”.
“I’m not a pie lady,” she insisted.
“Call me a scone lady, I don’t care. Call me a Devonshire tea lady, that’s what I am. Even though my pies are famous.”
Fran Hodgett has been leaving pies off the menu and focusing on scones since the disappearance of Paddy Moriarty. (ABC News: Neda Vanovac)
Len Hodson and Fran’s ex-husband “Billy Light Can” Hodgetts can often be found at the pub.
They agree that in a town of 10, many people studiously avoid each other.
“It just doesn’t work,” Len said of the clashing personalities.
“You get that in all small towns, I think.”
Cookie said he’s been banned from the pub for stealing chocolate bars, a charge he strongly denies.
He claims the accusation is absurd because he has “sugar diabetes”.
Cookie and Paddy didn’t always get along; he said Paddy was the kind of bloke “who’d cause trouble in an empty house”.
“I had a couple of run-ins with him, he was bad news in his own way,” he said.
“He done more harm to himself than anyone else because he just dribbled a whole lot of shit.”
Cookie said Paddy got mouthy after a few beers.
“He used to piss me off and I’d want to grab him by the neck and break his bloody neck … but it never happened,” he said.
Larrimah’s oldest resident Len Hodson says personality clashes are part and parcel of small town life. (ABC News: Neda Vanovac)
Of all the odd details about the Paddy case, it was the fact that there was also no trace of his red and brown kelpie Kellie that cemented police suspicion.
“The dog would have come back,” Larrimah’s mechanic and close friend Mark Rayner said firmly in answer to the question of whether there could be an innocent explanation.
About six weeks into the investigation, once the helicopter and ground searches were abandoned, police tried a different approach.
Detective Sergeant Matt Allen made a public appeal to any animal shelters — including interstate — that may have recently acquired a kelpie matching Kellie’s description.
“I actually received an anonymous letter from someone suggesting I do that,” said Detective Sergeant Matt Allen has now told the ABC.
The appeal was unsuccessful. No sign of Kellie has ever been found.
One of the few photos of Kellie, Paddy Moriarty’s kelpie. Other photos show him with his previous black and white dog, Rover (Supplied)
The investigating officer is now calling for whoever penned that letter to come forward.
“If you did write the anonymous letter to me, detectives would like to speak to you,” he said.
Police have searched houses and backyards, including a visual inspection of crocodile Sneeky Sam’s enclosure at the pub, sifted through the local dump, and taken hammers and a hacksaw from Fran’s tea house.
Officers have taken no action in relation to that search. Fran said the hacksaw was used to cut up dog meat.
Police returned to Larrimah on the Mother’s Day weekend in May to conduct another land search around the town including on horseback.
But none of that led anywhere, either.
For a town where locals keep strictly to themselves, an inquest in June this year, six months after Paddy vanished, was uncomfortably crowded.
Almost everyone in Larrimah was called to give evidence at the Katherine Courthouse for a fast-tracked coronial inquest brought forward due to the “advanced age” of most residents.
“It is likely that someone in Larrimah has evidence that might be helpful in establishing what happened to Paddy,” counsel assisting the Coroner Kelvin Currie told the court.
Bobbie Roth told the court that when she worked in Fran’s kitchen, Fran had threatened to kill Paddy.
Her husband Karl was questioned about those comments and said he thought it was a throwaway line and there was no plan behind it.
When that evidence was later put to Fran on a sweaty October afternoon at her tea house, she laughed it off.
“Everyone says it,” she said.
“You say, ‘you do that again and I’ll kill you’; matter of speech, I couldn’t hurt a flea.
“If you’re going to do it, you’re not going to run around telling everybody you’re gonna kill him.”
Tea house gardener Owen Laurie told the inquest he knew nothing about the disappearance of Paddy Moriarty. (ABC News: Lucy Marks)
Her gardener Owen Laurie told the inquest he had heard stories from Fran about her disagreements with Paddy, and her suspicions that he poisoned her plants.
But he told the court he was joking when he said: “If anyone touches my garden it will be the first murder in Larrimah.”
Both Owen and Fran protested to the coroner that they were too infirm to have killed Paddy.
“I couldn’t do it anyway, I’m f**king riddled with arthritis, imagine me carrying the dog, come on,” Fran said.
“I’ve got osteoporosis, mate,” said Owen.
“If I did something violent like that it would break all my bones.”
Owen agreed that a few days before Paddy went missing, his dog Kellie ran across the road near Fran’s garden and the two men had a disagreement.
But he said it wasn’t aggressive.
Paddy Moriarty’s ute and quad bike parked in his backyard, another reason police suspect something sinister. (ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)
Owen’s computer was seized and analysed by police, revealing he had a reason to step out of the tea house property to use the public phone located on the highway on the night Paddy went missing.
The records showed something that had not been raised publicly before the inquest.
He received a computer virus alert message and two outgoing calls were made from the public phone box at 6.30pm and 6.31pm, both to the number provided in the message.
That was at about sunset, when witnesses recall Paddy and Kellie leaving the pub for the last time.
“Whilst you were there, either near the front of the property or the phone box, did you see Paddy coming home from the pub on his red quad bike with his dog Kellie on the back?” Counsel assisting Kelvin Currie asked.
“No,” Owen replied.
Later his Owen’s barrister Matthew Littlejohn asked him if he had anything to do with Paddy’s disappearance.
“No,” was his response.
A year after Paddy vanished, Larrimah seems as though it’s shrunken in on itself.
Residents agree that the whole vibe has changed.
Bartender Richard got booted from the pub for drinking as much as he was serving, and left town.
Barry has prostate cancer, and sold the pub at the end of October, along with almost his entire menagerie — although the crocs are staying.
Mark Rayner and his wife Karen are thinking about moving on. So is Cookie, who has a girlfriend in Tasmania.
Len, who’s 82, says he owns property down south.
But Billy Hodgetts isn’t going anywhere, and neither is his neighbouring ex-wife.
Billy Hodgetts is one of the residents who wants to remain in Larrimah. (ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)
Fran revealed during the inquest that she has been recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I hear from people that ‘when this is over, Fran, are you going to leave?’ I said, ‘I’m not going anywhere’,” she said.
“I’ll die here.”
During the police investigation, Fran was also questioned about another missing persons case, that of New Zealand man Jamie Herdman.
She was one of the last people to see him before he vanished and the case was raised by police when Paddy disappeared.
“Oh, now I’m a bloody serial killer?” Fran recalls responding.
Mr Herdman was 26 years old when he went missing from the Stuart Highway in 2006 and had visited the tea house just beforehand.
Fran said she gave him sandwiches and he “didn’t look well”.
She denied any link to his disappearance and said she even put up missing posters to help find him and was thanked by his family for her efforts.
Detective Sergeant Allen said there was “no evidence to indicate any link whatsoever between these two cases”.
Larrimah up in lights
Since Paddy’s disappearance, things have shifted in town. Despite half the residents planning to leave, others are moving in.
Fran’s 24-year-old grandson recently arrived in Larrimah to help run the tea house. He’s brought the age average down by decades and propped the population back up to 11.
There’s change in the air from outside, too.
In late October, the Wubalawun people won an 18-year fight for native title rights over Larrimah, gaining one-square-kilometre of ownership covering the town.
Traditional owner Jimmy Wavehill helped lodge the claim seven years ago.
“We help each other, we do our best, and we got our country back,” he said.
Claimant Alan Moroney said there was a lot of untapped potential and his people are considering mango farming, preservation of species such as the Gouldian finch, and starting Aboriginal ranger programs.
“Now we can open up to places that have never been opened up before,” he said.
He has his eye on the northern end of town, where Paddy lived, to build new houses.
“Bring our children back home, they [can] run the town,” he said.
Jimmy Wavehill says the Wubalawun people are looking to build houses and start businesses. (ABC News: Neda Vanovac)
Despite Paddy’s disappearance, residents say they feel safe in Larrimah.
Fran Hodgetts does, although she’s recently added new security cameras to her property and locks her doors at night.
She wants Paddy to be found to put an end to the mystery.
“I’m sick and tired of being the bad guy, I’ve got to get this monkey off my back,” she said.
Despite the loss of his mate, Barry from the pub feels safe, too.
“It’s not somebody going around belting people on the head, I put it down to a deliberate target on Paddy, it’s no random psychopath running around the place,” he said.
In life, Paddy was a memorable fixture at a dilapidated outback drinking hole.
But in suspected death, his name has been plastered across some of the biggest mastheads in the world: The New York Times, The Guardian, The Times of London.
The story of his vanishing, and the strange, ferocious small-town hatreds that swirl around this landscape have captivated audiences across the world and been the subject of the Walkley Award winning podcast Lost in Larrimah.
“I think Larrimah was a place before that no one really cared about,” said podcast co-creator Kylie Stevenson.
“Since Paddy’s disappearance it’s really kind of made a name for itself which is quite sad.
“They’ve had journalists from all over the world turning up, knocking on their doors asking them questions, tourists ask them questions.
“Everyone kind of wants to know what happened, everyone has a theory on the mystery.
“That’s how they have to live now … fielding those questions from people who are intrigued.”
An award-winning podcast was released earlier this year on Paddy Moriarty’s disappearance and life in Larrimah. (Supplied: The Australian)
Recently an American film crew flew in with plans to make an extended documentary.
And Paddy’s relatives in the UK and Ireland have also been approached by a reality television production house keen to tell the story.
With a rueful smile, Karen Rayner acknowledges Paddy would have liked all the attention.
“He always wanted to be famous,” she said.
“But not like this.”
Larrimah local Karen Rayner says Paddy Moriarty was loved and is greatly missed. (ABC News: Neda Vanovac)