By Michael E. Miller
Larrimah, Australia: Before the "missing" posters and media attention, the homicide investigators and Hollywood movie scripts, this tiny town in the middle of the Outback was known for its pink pub where parched drivers could stop in for a cold beer and a glimpse of an eyeless crocodile.
But then one of the town's dozen residents disappeared, vanishing with his dog after leaving the bar for home, barely 200 yards (180m) away. And suddenly Larrimah found itself in the national spotlight, with the few remaining locals feeling the glare.
With no body and few leads, theories abounded about what might have happened to Paddy Moriarty. Some suggested the 70-year-old was fed to one of the pub's three crocodiles or baked into a pie by a bitter rival and served to tourists. Other potential culprits included a sinkhole, a serial killer, a snakebite and a simple heart attack.
But little could explain how the man and his dog went missing. And despite a four-year investigation that has spawned a popular podcast, a book, two movie projects and a $200 000 reward, the mystery dubbed "an Outback Agatha Christie" remains unsolved.
The resumption of a coroner's inquest has rekindled hopes that Moriarty's fate will finally be illuminated. During the first day of the two-day hearing, the inquest heard recordings in which a man appeared to implicate himself in Moriarty's killing.
Even as Larrimah longs for an answer, however, the struggling Northern Territory town remains divided over whether to move on from the mystery or monetise it.
"It's been what, two, three years?" grumbled longtime resident Karl Roth as he finished a beer at the pink pub one afternoon last month. "I'm over it."
But for Brent Cilia, the grandson of the pie lady whose incinerators the police searched for signs of Paddy, there's no such thing as bad publicity.
"The more people want to know and talk about it, the better," Cilia said. He has taken over his grandma's teahouse, where he happily tells customers stories as he offers up pie and signed copies of a book about the disappearance. "If they ask me where Nan is, I tell them she's on the run."
About 30 000 people are reported missing every year in Australia, a vast and rugged continent with relatively few inhabitants. But few cases have received more attention than Moriarty's December 16, 2017, disappearance.
One reason was the absence of clues. It was as if Moriarty had evaporated. When worried neighbours eventually searched his house, they found a chicken in the microwave, ready to be served to his dog, a kelpie named Kellie. The hat he wore everywhere to hide his bald spot was on the cooler. And the quad bike he'd ridden home was there, as were his truck, bank card and cash.
Another reason was Kellie. The dog's simultaneous disappearance suggested something sinister.
Police scoured the area on foot, by car and by helicopter. They searched the dump, the caverns and the dam, according to news reports. As they interviewed the 11 or so remaining residents of Larrimah, however, investigators said they were focusing on Moriarty's feuds.
Chief among them was one with Cilia's grandmother, Fran Hodgetts, a small woman in her mid-seventies who lived across the road from Moriarty and owned the teahouse. The two neighbours had been arguing for years.
Hodgetts took Moriarty to court over accusations he'd stolen her umbrella, poisoned her plants and thrown dead kangaroos onto her property to rot. She lost the case, but there was no question that Moriarty was what Australians call a larrikin: a mischievous character who could rub someone the wrong way.
Hodgetts has consistently denied involvement in Moriarty's death. She admitted she'd talked about killing him, but insisted she had been joking. And when police emptied her incinerator and septic tank, they found no remnant of her rival.
"Oh, everyone was guilty," Bill Hodgetts, Fran's ex-partner, said of the atmosphere in town at the time. "Fran, she was the number-one suspect for ages."
Bill said he'd had a beer with Moriarty the night before he disappeared and had promised to let him borrow a lawn mower. But Moriarty never showed up to retrieve it. Asked what he thought happened to Moriarty, Bill shrugged.
"I haven't got a clue," he said. "But whoever done it, they done a bloody good job of it."
With temperatures in the Outback in December regularly topping 100 degrees (38ºC), the chances of Moriarty being found alive quickly dwindled. But it wasn't until about a month later, when big-city news outlets caught wind of the feud with his foul-mouthed, pie-baking neighbour, that his disappearance began gathering national attention.
"Missing man may have been baked into pie," ran the headline of a popular TV programme's episode on the disappearance. Newspapers in Ireland, where Moriarty had grown up, published stories.
The journalists who dug deepest were Kylie Stevenson and Caroline Graham. Stevenson was one of the few to have met Moriarty, during a writer's residency in Larrimah a year earlier. She and Graham began working on a podcast about the town, whose mixture of lawlessness and absurdity seemed to capture something about the country's idea of itself.
"We are all kind of consumed by this notion of the Outback, even people who live in cities and don't travel out there very often," Graham said. "Extraordinary things happen (there) all the time because people aren't necessarily living their lives by the rules. So it is possible to adopt a blind crocodile and create this expansive enclosure for it."
Their podcast, "Lost in Larrimah," is part investigation into Moriarty's disappearance and part love song to a vanishing way of life.
Six months after Moriarty vanished, the territory's coroner convened an inquest.
"How many times have you said, 'I'm going to murder him'?" an official asked Fran Hodgetts.
"Millions of times," she replied with an expletive, before adding that her arthritis made the idea impossible.
"And that's what stopped you from killing Paddy?"
"No, no," she said. "That's not my nature. I'm a lover, not a fighter."
Officials also questioned her gardener, a former tent boxer named Owen Laurie, and the pub's former bartender, Richard Simpson, who allegedly had had their own disputes with Moriarty. But both men denied any involvement. Simpson told the 2018 inquest that Moriarty was his "mate." Laurie admitted he'd argued with Moriarty but claimed he was too old to hurt anyone.
"I'd break all me bloody bones," the 71-year-old said. "I have osteoporosis."
The inquest was suspended after two days, but police kept investigating. Last year, they announced a $200 000 reward for what they now considered a murder.
"It is hard to keep a secret," Detective Sergeant Matthew Allen said at the time. "Someone out there knows what happened."
It's now more than four years since Moriarty set down his last beer and walked out of the Larrimah Hotel, commonly called the Pink Panther after the pictures, statues and stuffed toys of the cartoon character that adorn the pub. In that time, the town has changed a lot, and also very little. Barry Sharpe, the pub owner, sold the place and then died of cancer. Simpson, Laurie and Fran Hodgetts moved away.
Yet the town and the pub keep going, as does the mystery.
And while Larrimah was once split over Paddy's personality, it is now divided over whether to put the ordeal behind it, or embrace it.
Listen: Lost in Larrimah
The media attention, particularly the podcast and the book, have made Larrimah a magnet for true-crime aficionados from as far away as Ireland and the United States.
"Stopped to try a pie and see if the story is true," a visitor wrote in the guest book in December.
Another was more blunt: "Where the hell is Paddy?"
Cilia moved to the town in 2018.
"I sit all the people down and get them food and drinks, and then I tell them, 'Story time'… that Nan chopped him up and put 'em in the pies," he said. "I have to have a bit of respect, too, because it's still someone who's missing. It's still a human. But I'm not going to let my business fail from it. I'm going to let it grow."
Cilia doesn't think his grandma did it, but he has inherited Fran's flair for the dramatic.
In addition to running the teahouse for his grandma, who is recovering from cancer in Melbourne, Cilia also helps manage the hotel. But he doesn't make as many jokes there, he said, because its new owner doesn't want it to be known for its infamous missing patron.
The new owner did not respond to a request for comment. But the Czech couple he hired to run the place don't dwell on the disappearance, either.
"We're trying not to live in the history," said Ondra Hadas, 31. "We are focusing on the future."
Part of that future is their son, Larrimah's first child in decades.
As Hadas and his family sat in front of the hotel one morning last month, Karl Roth and his wife, Bobbie, sat outside their home across the street, drinking coffee and discussing the inquest.
The long-time Larrimah couple hadn't been asked to testify this time around. They hoped the hearing would provide closure, but they hadn't caught wind of any news.
"As far as Paddy, there's been no word, no nothing," said Karl, an Australian veteran of the Vietnam War. A woman did stop in Larrimah last year to say she'd seen a kelpie that looked like Kellie, he said. But the dog wouldn't come to her, and no one was sure it was Moriarty's dog.
"I think we're all suspects," Karl said, before correcting himself. "Oh, well, I know we're not. I know we didn't do anything, but I guess we're all on the list somewhere."
The couple wasn't confident the inquest would provide any answers.
"There's a lot of empty space out there," Karl said. "We could always blame the aliens, I suppose."
Wednesday's hearing might not have provided answers, but it did deliver some twists. The coroner's office played what it said were secret audio recordings from Laurie's home, in which he appeared to be talking and singing about killing Moriarty, according to media at the hearing.
"I killerated old Paddy," Laurie reportedly said. "Struck him on the head and killerated him."
"You… killed Paddy and hit him on the head," he reportedly said in another recording. "Smacked him on the… nostrils with me claw hammer."
Laurie denied that the voice was his and then declined to answer further questions because he did not want to incriminate himself, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
In another twist, a witness said he had overheard a discussion between Fran Hodgetts and another person, now deceased, about a plan to kill someone. Hodgetts, appearing via video from Melbourne, denied it.
"I can tell you now, I never ever, ever, ever paid anybody to bump Paddy off," she said, according to the ABC.
On a humid evening last month, Cilia was working at the hotel when his grandma called and agreed to speak to a Washington Post journalist. Now in her late seventies and in poor health, Hodgetts denied having anything to do with Moriarty's disappearance.
"They can't blame me because they've got nothing on me," she said.
Hodgetts wasn't sorry her nemesis was gone, however. In fact, she thought his disappearance had been good for the town.
"Well, it's put Larrimah on the map, hasn't it?"