Last orders: On December 16, 2017, 70-year-old Paddy Moriarty left an Outback pub and leapt onto his quad bike. Glued to routine, he visited the Larrimah ‘Pink Panther’ Hotel daily to polish off eight tins of ‘XXXX Gold’, a mid-strength lager, before taking the two-minute drive home.
His red kelpie, Kellie, sat to his back as they took the highway bisecting Larrimah, an Australian hamlet of a dozen people. It’s two hours south of the next town and small enough to make Paddy’s native Abbeyfeale look like London.
They made it home: Paddy’s wallet, a cooked chicken he received from a tourist earlier that evening, and his quad were all there when police arrived days later.
But Paddy wasn’t home. He and Kellie haven’t been seen for two years.
“It’s hard to imagine the emptiness of the landscape around Larrimah,” Australian reporter Caroline Graham says. “It was described to us as ‘flat and featureless’, which seem like mundane descriptors – but if you were to get lost there, those words are terrifying.”
The Stuart Highway runs for 3,000 kilometres and divides Australia east and west; Larrimah’s a rare speck of life along its monotonous, scrub-flanked Northern Territory stretch.
“The nearest fuel stop and grocery store are 90 kilometres away,” says Caroline’s fellow reporter, Kylie Stevenson. “Because of this, Larrimah’s pub wears many hats; it also acts as a caravan park, post office, restaurant, and bus stop.”
The Pink Panther Hotel isn’t luxurious but does its best to draw custom. It’s bright pink to catch the eyes of highway motorists, and owner Barry Sharpe kept hundreds of exotic animals out back: mostly birds but also wallabies, snakes, lizards, and three crocodiles – one of whom has no eyes and is named after Ray Charles.
But while on a writing retreat in Larrimah three years ago, Kylie met a moustachioed Irishman who added as much Outback character as any of those creatures.
“I’d take a break from writing and wander into the pub, where I’d often find Paddy and his previous dog, Rover, having a few quiet beers,” she says. “He was very friendly and always up for a yarn. I remember being surprised when he said he was originally from Ireland; he had no hint of an accent.
“He said he’d come to Australia on the Fairstar as a teenager and had worked on cattle stations across the Top End. I remember asking him what his life in Ireland was like, and he said it was one of freezing cold and poverty.
“To me, he seemed like a typical Outback bloke: a guy who was comfortable living on the land, who was always up for a laugh with his mates, and happy to chat with anyone who wandered into the pub”.
Looking for a body:
Police say they first received a report three days after Paddy’s disappearance, though Caroline believes one was possibly made sooner. Paddy didn’t attend Sunday-morning ‘Church’ – when he went to the pub to watch rural-affairs show ‘Landline’ – and Sharpe went to check on him. He wasn’t home, but nothing looked awry; it seemed as though he’d just popped out.
But residents’ worries deepened as days slipped by.
Whenever that first report went in, police arrived in Larrimah on December 19 to a scene “completely undisturbed”, with Paddy’s vehicle and quad parked outside.
“The bed was made; he had food on the table; he had dog food for his dog, Kellie”, Detective Sergeant Matt Allen told ABC television. “It’s completely out of character for Paddy… He has a strict routine where he attends the pub, has eight beers a day and comes home before dark”.
Police searched on foot, on motorbike, and by helicopter, battling offensive heat, harsh landscape, and even their emotions.
“Many of them knew Paddy and had spent time with him in the pub or working on stations together,” Caroline says. “As the days wore on, the searchers must have been increasingly aware that they were running out of time; you simply couldn’t be in that environment for long without realising how dangerously hot it is.
“They all spoke of the nightmarish realisation they were no longer looking for Paddy; they were looking for a body.”
It’s possible Paddy wandered off, got lost, or fell victim to Larrimah’s terrain, which is said to include sink-holes. But Kellie had also vanished, and police combed the region but found nothing.
Sinister theories became the most plausible. Police called off the search on December 23, and a murder investigation began.
Larrimah is an accidental town. When funds ran dry for the North Australian Railway, intended to run the length of the country, construction was called off just a few miles beyond the town.
It therefore served as a railhead until the line closed in 1976, but community spirit kept things afloat thereafter. The town had a community veggie patch, a beautiful rail commemoration, and in 1998 its locals toasted a National Tidy Towns award.
Stranded in the Aussie Bush, residents had to fight for each other. Now they fight against each other.
As personalities clashed – for whatever reasons – cracks widened. Civic pride crumbled under claims of theft, arson, harassment, assault, vandalism, slander. Residents argued over naming the town’s two streets; over ‘covert’ speed-bump installation; over a pet buffalo that was shot and eaten. By the mid-noughties, the town’s once-exemplary progress association had split into two rival groups.
And the venom spread to matters beyond town upkeep. Some people liked Paddy; others didn’t.
Fran Hodgetts ran a tea house across the road, and she used everything from crocodile to buffalo to camel as pie filling. She faced allegations of using Paddy as an ingredient, but forensic examinations uncovered “no evidence…whatsoever” to support such a revolting theory.
But there was tension between Ms Hodgetts and Paddy; he warned tourists off her pies and told national television his dog would avoid her food.
“Look, Paddy had thrown a kangaroo under her window, probably more than once,” Sharpe told Kylie and Caroline’s podcast series ‘Lost in Larrimah’ in 2018.
“One time, a donkey got run over…Paddy went and cut its penis off and threw that up her driveway.”
“In Katherine Local Court in October 2016, Fran claimed that Paddy poisoned her palm trees, stole her umbrella, abused her customers, destroyed her furniture, and cut the cord to her security cameras,” Kylie says. “One night, she says, he put a newspaper cut-out of her under her fence, smeared in human faeces.”
Paddy denied the allegations and the judge dismissed the case. Ms Hodgetts had no proof.
She shared insults with more locals than Paddy, though; her fury at others selling pastries in the town is noted, and police also said the majority of past call-outs to Larrimah stemmed from arguments she had with her ex-husband, not Paddy.
She didn’t like the Abbeyfeale man but stoutly and consistently denies involvement in his disappearance.
“I don’t know where he is”, she told ABC television in 2018, “and I’m not sad that he’s gone.”
Life before emigrating:
No-one knows what happened Paddy after December 2017, and details of his life pre-Australia are similarly vague. He left Ireland in the mid-60s, aged just 19 – and we don’t know much else.
Even his birth cert – obtained by Australian police – takes some decoding thanks to the registrar’s cramped, knotted handwriting.
He was born in Limerick County Hospital, Croom, on March 30, 1947, and while there’s no record of a father, his mother was Mary Teresa Moriarty of Dromtrasna O’Brien, Abbeyfeale.
“She died in 1995,” Caroline says. “A number of people in Ireland – and Irish-born people living elsewhere – have recognised her name and come forward as potential relatives…However, none of them have specific memories of Paddy, so it’s possible he might have been adopted, fostered or spent time in a care facility.
“Police have even done some DNA testing but haven’t found conclusive evidence of a familial link – which is not uncommon in these circumstances.
“Paddy doesn’t have a next of kin in Australia and, although he told some people that he had children with an Afghan-Aboriginal woman he met while working on a cattle station, he is not listed on the birth certificate of any child.
“So for his friends in Australia and police, finding a relative or link to his life in Ireland has become very important. Particularly in a case like this, where there’s so little closure”.
Limerick City and County Councillor Francis Foley (Fianna Fáil) is Paddy’s cousin: his grandmother and Paddy’s grandfather were siblings. Foley may have met Paddy’s mother, Mary, but he can’t be sure. If he did, he was too young then to remember it now.
“I met one or two of Mary’s sisters, and I knew of her,” he says. “I might’ve met her, but when you’re 12, 14, 15, it means nothing and doesn’t stick in your head.
“She moved away at some stage, and I didn’t know of Paddy until I heard he’d gone missing. But yes, from what we know, he was from Abbeyfeale.
“I think there’s a cousin of Mary’s living in Limerick city as well. I have another first cousin here in town, and some of the Moriartys are living in England. I understand it was one of them who provided DNA. I haven’t given DNA, but if Australian police ask, I’d have no problem whatsoever.”
When news arrived that ‘one of their own’ was missing, Abbeyfeale took note. Some commented on Paddy’s likeness to Pattie – his grandfather – and to other members of the Moriarty family.
But no-one actually remembers Paddy, and there’s no evidence that he returned after 1966.
“It caused fascination, especially when the story broke two years ago,” Foley says. “To think what might’ve happened him, it’s very sad. There’s no sign or trace of him.
“At this stage, there might never be.”
The local dump was part of Paddy’s routine since moving to town in 2006. Every morning he’d walk there with his dog before helping Sharpe with jobs at the pub. A weekly carton of beer served as payment.
Police now combed the dump for evidence but found none. Divers, detectives and forensic investigators searched the local dam, to no avail also. Police even probed the whispers that one of the Pink Panther’s crocodiles had eaten Paddy but found nothing to support this theory.
“The wild donkeys outnumber residents,” Kylie says of Larrimah’s wildness. “You’ll also find giant feral pigs, buffalo, many birds of prey, and lots of venomous snakes.
“Given the couple of days it took to report Paddy’s disappearance, it’s possible if he had wandered off, encountered a snake or had a medical emergency of some kind that wild animals could have interfered with remains.
“But police are confident they still would’ve found something – his clothing or his dog, Kellie – had this happened.”
Police have questioned everyone in Larrimah since December 2017 and all deny involvement.
In mid-2018, an inquest began two hours north in Katherine. It was unusually soon to hold a sitting, but most people in Larrimah are aged the wrong side of 70, so it was necessary.
“The main event at the inquest was the appearance of Owen Laurie,” Kylie says. “By the time of the inquest he’d lived in the town for around eight months, none of the residents there could even say what he looked like.”
Laurie was Ms Hodgetts’ gardener at the time Paddy vanished. ABC reported he and Paddy argued over their dogs days beforehand, though Laurie denied there was any aggression.
“Owen said ‘There’s going to be trouble,'” Ms Hodgetts told the court. “I said ‘don’t do anything stupid…I don’t want to come back and see you in jail’.”
According to Russell Marks’ report for The Monthly, Laurie listed his ailments “to illustrate why he couldn’t have jumped a fence and attacked Moriarty”.
Laurie also attempted calls from Larrimah’s telephone box that evening, but police believe these were unrelated to the disappearance.
“I swear to God, that man [Laurie] is as honest as the day is long,” Ms Hodgetts said. “I love him to pieces as a person.”
Laurie denies any involvement in Paddy’s disappearance.
The inquest was adjourned and is yet to resume. It’s been held open to allow further evidence.
Larrimah was already struggling. Then Paddy disappeared, and further pain followed.
Barry Sharpe sold the Pink Panther in 2018 and said at the time that he had terminal cancer. NT News has reported that he died last month.
Fran Hodgetts also received a cancer diagnosis and has left town for treatment. She’s unlikely to return.
Police can’t say much about their persons-of-interest list except to say they have persons of interest, and the list remains unchanged from last year. The same can’t be said for Larrimah.
“Paddy is a palpable absence in Larrimah,” Caroline says.
“His house is under the care of the public trustee, and there is a huge sign with his picture on it out front, pleading with travellers for information.”
Two years on, police have no official suspects. They vow to continue their investigations for as long as it takes – but there’s little sign of a breakthrough that would lead to solving the Paddy Moriarty mystery.
Caroline Graham and Kylie Stevenson hope to publish a book about the disappearance in 2021. If you have any information on Paddy’s life pre-Australia, please e-mail either firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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