In Australia town of 11 people, mysterious disappearance turns neighbor against neighbor
Authorities suspect foul play and have been treating the case as a homicide, with every single person in Larrimah â" all 11 of them â" being probed for clues.
LARRIMAH, Australia â" Dusk was falling on the sweltering hot day of Dec. 16, 2017, when Paddy Moriarty went to the Pink Panther, the only hotel and bar in the tiny, dusty town of Larrimah, to end the day with his usual round of drinks.
He downed eight beers, typical for Moriarty, a laborer who spent most of his life in Australiaâs rugged outback. Then he left for home with his dog by his side.
He was never seen again. Neither was his dog, a Kelpie named Kellie.
Four days later, when the police arrived in Larrimah, a Northern Territory town of 11 people, they entered Moriartyâs unlocked house to find a cowboy hat on a cooler box and a barbecue chicken still in the microwave.
The authorities suspect foul play and have been treating the case as a homicide, with every single person in Larrimah â" all 11 of them â" being probed for clues.
Topping the list of potential suspects â" at least going by the questioning in a recent inquest involving the townâs residents â" are a former Pink Panther bartender, who was one of the last people to see Moriarty, and a gardener, with whom Moriarty had fought just days before his disappearance. Detectives have also questioned the owner of a roadside teahouse, leading to morbid jokes about the filling in her meat pies.
But with no clear evidence or even a motive for Moriartyâs disappearance, every one of Larrimahâs residents is in one way or another part of the investigation â" with each pointing a finger at a neighbor or two, while denying their own involvement in what has become the latest mystery to capture A ustraliaâs imagination.
Larrimah is about the size of a city block and surrounded by head-high, impenetrable thick scrub.
Red dirt tracks are everywhere, and the main road through town has long been notorious for killings and mysterious disappearances, including a British backpacker who vanished 17 years ago. Itâs a pit stop for exhausted tourists driving north to south, but it is also a place where Aboriginal Australians, even today, refuse to live because they say it is haunted.
There are two gathering places for residents and visitors, the Pink Panther and Franâs Devonshire Tea House. The former is a musty pub and hotel where Moriarty, 70, was last seen.
âPaddy used to be here nearly every day, I miss him so much,â said one of Moriartyâs closest friends, Barry Sharpe, 76, the publican of the Pink Panther.
Behind him, out a nearby window, I could see a sugar glider, a small possum, clinging to a cage.
Sharpe said his passion i s nurturing the exotic animals he keeps behind the bright pink hotel, which he has owned for almost 15 years. The mix includes rare and exotic birds, snakes and a hulking saltwater crocodile named Sam, to whom some suspect Moriarty was fed after being slain.
All that Sharpe said he knew about the disappearance was that his friend did not show up for âchurch,â a Sunday morning ritual in which residents gather in the Pink Pantherâs front room to watch âLandline,â the nationâs premier rural-affairs program. It was then that locals sounded the alarm.
A three-day search by foot, on four-wheel-drives and from the air ruled out death by misadventure.
One of the last people to see Moriarty was Richard Simpson, the one-time bartender at the Pink Panther, who has a reputation for volatility.
âHe was every day drunk before lunch,â Sharpe said of Simpson, his former employee. âNot only smashed, but not very pleasant.â
Simpson scoffed at similar accusations when asked about them during the coronerâs inquest, a public hearing in which witnesses are questioned in open court. Upon being told that some people in Larrimah thought he had something to do with the disappearance, Simpson declared them all fools.
He instead suggested that the police should be looking elsewhere â" down the main road at Franâs.
The next day, thatâs where I went.
âIâve got no pies left,â a short woman with spiked blond hair shrieked from the kitchen. Recreational vehicles lined up outside as patrons spilled out to buy tea and pies, despite online reviews warning of ârubbish foodâ and questionable prices.
The cook, Fran Hodgetts, 75, has long prided herself on her scones and meat pies. She often tells visitors they are famous around the world.
Now, though, they are renowned for all the wrong reasons.
âI reckon heâs in the pie,â joked Robyn Duignan, a visitor from Victoria who had been following Moriartyâs case in the news and stopped by to see if there had been any developments.
âHe went through the mincer,â Duignan added from Franâs garden, a yard scattered with old toys and signs trumpeting Hodgettsâ culinary expertise.
Moriarty and Hodgetts were neighbors who often clashed, the police said. He lived directly across the main road from Franâs, and several people in town said it had annoyed him when her customers parked on his property.
As payback, residents said, Moriarty routinely told them not to eat her food because nothing was homemade or fresh, adding that even his dog would not eat her pies.
If Moriarty had enemies, he also had allies: Years ago, when Sharpe, the publican from the Pink Panther, decided his crocodile Sam was not enough of an attraction, he started selling his own meat pies. Moriarty advertised those pies in front of his house with a massive sign that read: âLarrimah Hotel Best Pies in Town.â
The testimony from Hodgetts, sitting on the stand in a tiny courtroom in the nearby town of Katherine, was part of an investigation by the Northern Territory coroner, a special magistrate assigned to determine the cause and manner of Moriartyâs death.
Early on, the focus fell on Hodgetts. Bobby Roth, a Larrimah local of 19 years, who used to wash dishes at Franâs, said the cafe owner didnât like Moriarty.
âShe used to say, âIâll kill Paddy,ââ Roth said at one point, breaking into tears.
But during her own testimony, Hodgetts ended up shifting attention to her gardener, Owen Laurie, 71, a tall, burly man known for keeping to himself, and for taking good care of the teahouse plants.
The questioning centered on an argument that he and Moriarty had about Kellie, Moriartyâs dog, three days before they disappeared.
That day, Kellie had been barking at Franâs fr om a spot in the middle of the road. An argument between Moriarty and Laurie ensued, according to testimony, with Laurie shouting at Moriarty to shut the dog up âor Iâll shut it up for you.â
Hodgetts went a step further, telling the court Laurie tried to âjump the fence.â
âI told him, âDonât do anything stupid,ââ Hodgetts said.
Laurie admitted to having a bad temper, but he denied any involvement, turning the courtâs attention back to where Moriarty was last seen: The Pink Panther.
Simpson no longer works at the pub. Sharpe said he was fired a week before the coronerâs inquest. He appeared to have moved on and has since been replaced by someone else, keeping Larrimahâs population steady at 11.
Around the bar, patrons still talk about Moriartyâs disappearance.
âChurchâ on Sundays has resumed, but without the charm Moriarty used to bring to it. Because Moriarty had no family in Australia, t he public trustee now controls his property. To keep an eye on anything that might look suspicious, his home has been fitted with security cameras, and itâs flanked by a large missing-person sign.
It includes a picture of Moriarty, smiling, with a question many in town are still asking: âWhat happened to Paddy?âSource: Google Australia | Netizen 24 Australia