August 2018

The Nation Reviewed

The lost man of Larrimah

By Russell Marks
What happened to missing Northern Territory personality Paddy Moriarty?

If you were looking for a quirky outback yarn, this one would tick most boxes: a tiny remote town (Larrimah, a speck on the Stuart Highway 500 kilometres south of Darwin, population about 11, average age about 70) and its all-consuming, long-running feuds (which have produced, among other curiosities, rival town preservation societies); a pub called the Pink Panther (because it’s pink, and because of the life-size Pink Panther sitting on a chair out the front next to the gigantic brown stubby); crocodiles; wild pigs; sinkholes; and a local icon, Paddy Moriarty, 70, who vanished into a hot December night just before Christmas last year.

“Why are all the media here?” asks Greg Cavanagh, coroner. It’s June, nearly six months since Moriarty’s disappearance. Half a dozen journalists are crammed into the Katherine Local Court’s tiny number two courtroom for an inquest into what has become the talk of the Territory. There have also been national TV reports, international coverage and a podcast series.

“Your Honour, I think they’re going to write their book on it, a bit like Wolf Creek, in due course,” replies Kelvin Currie, counsel assisting.

“Yes, I suppose,” says the coroner dryly.

As a young lawyer Cavanagh was on Lindy Chamberlain’s defence team. Five years ago he featured on an episode of Foxtel’s Outback Coroner ; The Australian described him as bearing “a startling resemblance to the ageing Gary Cooper”. “Cav”, as he is known to Top End lawyers, is tall, hard of hearing (he complains in the open court that a hearing aid is out of the question: “Ten thousand dollars, I’m not going to pay that!”) and a master of the wry quip.

On the first day of the inquest, the witnesses – nine civilians (mostly residents of Larrimah) and two police officers – tell the court about Paddy and his relationships with everyone else in town, when they last saw him, and what they did to try to find him.

“He loved to chat and he loved talking to strangers,” says Pink Panther publican and local zookeeper Barry Sharpe. (One of his exhibits is Sneaky Sam, a 3.5-metre saltwalter croc who was investigated – and apparently cleared – over Moriarty’s disappearance.)

“Tourists would come by the pub every year specifically to see Paddy,” says Karen Rayner, who managed the pub until last year.

Irish-born Paddy Moriarty had arrived in Australia aged 18 and made immediately for the Top End. In Larrimah and Daly Waters – 90 kilometres south – he became an identity. Wearing a beige cowboy hat, blue singlet and thongs – and holding one of the eight cans of XXXX Gold he ritually downed every evening until his disappearance – the lushly moustached Moriarty even made the cover of photographer David Darcy’s 2013 book Every Man and His Dog.

The various witnesses more or less agree that between 6pm and 6.30pm on Saturday, December 16, Moriarty left the Pink Panther with his kelpie, Kellie, drove his quad bike the couple of hundred metres to his home, put a leftover Woolworths chicken (given to Kellie by a tourist) in his microwave, and vanished. He didn’t return the following morning to collect the lawnmower he’d arranged to borrow from Sharpe, or to watch Landline. (“That was sort of a little ritual we had,” Sharpe says. “We used to call it ‘going to church’.”)

Sharpe and others started looking for Moriarty on the Monday, December 18, and police commenced a three-day search on the Wednesday. Another four-day forensic search was performed by the Territory Response Group just after Christmas. No sign has ever been found of either Paddy Moriarty or Kellie.

On the second day of the inquest, the 74-year-old star witness, Fran Hodgetts, bustles in to give evidence.

She lives directly across the Stuart Highway from the disused service station Moriarty had lived in for a decade, and runs a Devonshire tea house out of her home.

They were neighbourly at first – Hodgetts brought meals over to Moriarty when he returned home following a triple bypass – but by 2010 their relationship was acrimonious.

Lining her front fence are a dozen blackboards listing, in tightly packed white text, the items on her menu. The prices aren’t included, which is just as well, because her pies are $13 and her scones are more. In response, Moriarty had put a sign out the front of his place, alerting tourists to the “best pies in town” – at the Pink Panther, for a competitive $5.

Their animosity is notorious in Larrimah, and to some she was the prime suspect in Moriarty’s disappearance.

At the inquest, Kelvin Currie takes Hodgetts through the many, many occasions on which she had complained to police about Moriarty, for such offences as warning tourists about her substandard food, stealing her red umbrella (an elderly resident, Arthur, told her he’d seen a similar one in Moriarty’s house), breaking a plastic fitting on a hose connected to her water pump (attending police found a perished O-ring) and depositing roadkill in her front yard. The last time he did this, she says, was four days before he vanished.

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

“Fucking million, million, millions of times,” she froths, each “s” sound a whistle.

Moriarty wasn’t the only one who didn’t like Hodgetts – “short, fat, abrupt, rude, overbearing unless you’re doing something for her or doing her a favour” is how Pink Panther bartender Richard Simpson described her in a statement to police. But did Paddy Moriarty end up minced into Mrs Hodgetts’ famous “buffalo” pies?

There is no evidence of that. (“I’m riddled with arthritis,” Hodgetts scoffs. “Imagine me carrying a dog and a bloody body.”) Nevertheless, it is the most delicious of the many speculative theories about what happened to Moriarty, which also involve sinkholes (maybe he fell into one?), wild pigs (maybe they ate him?) and enemies from his past.

But as the inquest unfolds, it’s clear the coroner isn’t much interested in these conjectures.

Kelvin Currie raises with Hodgetts the events of September 2017, when she had told police that Moriarty and her ex-husband Bill had poured oil all over her plants. “I couldn’t prove anything because everything was done when I went shopping at night.”

It was around this time that Hodgetts had welcomed 71-year-old Owen Laurie to her property as a resident gardener and handyman. “I swear to God, that man is as honest as the day is long,” she gushes to the court. “I love him to pieces as a person.”

Very little is known about Owen Laurie by anyone else. Most of the locals – all 10 of them – have never met him.

He is the last witness to give evidence. Three of Paddy’s closest mates, sitting in silent hope that the inquest will deliver some answers after six baffling months, lean forward in their seats.

Laurie tells the court that, within hours of them meeting, Hodgetts had told him all about her nuisance neighbour, Paddy Moriarty. “Fran likes to talk,” he says. He’s heard stories of Paddy “over and over and over and over again, ad infinitum”.

Coroner Cav and Kelvin Currie are particularly interested in a verbal altercation between Moriarty and Laurie that had happened three days before the disapperance. Later that afternoon, Richard Simpson caught up with Moriarty for a beer. “He told me that Owen had come out and told him to shut his fuckin’ dog up or he’d shut it for him,” Simpson recalls. “Essentially [Moriarty] said, ‘You shut your mouth, you old cunt, or I’ll take your knees out from under you.’ And then, like, a week later he goes missing and where’s the dog?”

During her evidence, Hodgetts recalls Laurie telling her about the exchange.

“Did he seem upset?” Currie asks her.

“I’d be lying if I said no,” she replies.

She says she also remembers telling 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.”

Some weeks before Moriarty went missing, Laurie had been planting along the front fence. Hodgetts advised him not to, given the risk that the plants would be poisoned. “Any fuckin’ bastard comes in here and poisons my fuckin’ garden,” Laurie told her, “and there will be the first murder in Larrimah.”

“I said it jokingly,” Laurie tells the courtroom. “You know, people say things like that. I had no intention to murder anybody over a garden.”

“People have been murdered for less, sir,” observes Cav.

Laurie, a former tent boxer and retired bore runner, lists his ailments – a bad ankle, a heart condition, high blood pressure and osteoporosis – to illustrate why he couldn’t have jumped a fence and attacked Moriarty. (Responds Cav: “My physical future is laid out in front of me.”) Laurie’s ageing frame can’t quite hide what would have once been a formidable strength.

“Would you regard yourself as a social creature?” Currie asks Laurie. He says no.

Later, he says, “I like to stay inside. I go on the computer and muck around on there.”

“At the end of your time on the computer, do you log off?” Currie asks.

“Yes.”

Following Moriarty’s disappearance, police had seized Laurie’s desktop. “See,” Currie tells him, “your computer remained logged on from 16 December through to 18 December.” December 16 was the evening Moriarty vanished. “The only time it wasn’t logged off?” Currie adds. Was something about Laurie’s routine different for those couple of days?

“Could be,” Laurie says.

Currie asks him what he did about a virus message he received the evening of the 16th.

“There’s a web page that you go to, but you’ve got to pay money for them to answer your question,” Laurie explains. “There was a telephone number … I think by then I might have gone to the phone box and rang that number and got no answer.”

Larrimah’s only phone box happens to be just next to Hodgetts’ tea house – and directly opposite Moriarty’s place. Its records show two calls made to an IT company, at 6.30pm and 6.31pm. Both went unanswered. Coincidentally, that’s just about the time Paddy Moriarty left the Pink Panther on his quad bike.

Owen Laurie declares he neither saw Moriarty nor heard his bike.

In a regular whodunnit, you turn the page and get the answer. Not in Larrimah.

“Thank you for coming along,” says Cav to Laurie. “You may go now. Cheerio.”

Police have their theories. But what’s missing is a body – two, counting Kellie – and, really, any conclusive evidence of anything.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

August 2018

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The ordinary and the extraordinary at this year’s event, and the perils of criticism

Image from ‘The Harp in the South’

‘The Harp in the South’ at Sydney Theatre Company

Kate Mulvany’s adaptation proves that Ruth Park’s epic endures

Feeding the Muppets

What does the Morrison government have to offer in terms of serious policy?

Paul Feig’s sophisticated ‘A Simple Favour’

This camp study of sociopathy is far from simple


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