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‘I killerated old Paddy’: Twist in Outback mystery, but no arrests

Fran Hodgetts outside her Larrimah teahouse in 2018. (Matthew Abbott)

SYDNEY — An investigation into a suspected murder in a tiny Outback town took an unexpected turn as new evidence, including secret police recordings that appeared to implicate a suspect, led a judge to refer the case to prosecutors on Thursday.

“In my opinion Paddy [Moriarty] was killed in the context of, and likely due to, the ongoing feud he had with his nearest neighbors,” wrote Greg Cavanagh, the coroner for Australia’s Northern Territory.

Police have not yet made any arrests, despite the referral and the secret recordings, which were played in a dramatic court hearing Wednesday.

“Murder investigations are challenging, particularly when there is no body,” Northern Territory police detective Matt Allen said in a statement. “Cases of this nature are never closed until they are solved.”

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The mystery began on Dec. 16, 2017, when Paddy Moriarty — a mustachioed barfly with a mischievous streak — and his dog both vanished without a trace after leaving the pub in the town of about a dozen people. Hearings over the past two days hinted at a potential close to the high-profile saga, even as the proceedings once again set the remote town of Larrimah on edge.

“We are gobsmacked,” said Brent Cilia, whose grandmother, Fran Hodgetts, was questioned for the second time on Wednesday.

With no body and few leads, theories about what might have happened to the 70-year-old included being fed to one of the pub’s three crocodiles and ending up as stuffing in a neighbor’s pies. The case sparked a popular podcast, a book, two movie projects and a $200,000 reward.

Cavanagh’s 32-page report ends a four-year coronial inquest into the suspected death. But a parallel police investigation continues, with the spotlight now on the man who authorities say was caught on tape singing and talking about killing Moriarty.

Owen Laurie moved to Larrimah less than four months before the disappearance to work as a gardener for Hodgetts, who owned a teahouse across the road from Moriarty. Hodgetts and Moriarty had been feuding for years. She accused him of stealing her umbrella, poisoning her plants and throwing dead kangaroos onto her property.

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When Cavanagh convened a first round of coronial hearings in mid-2018, six months after the disappearance, Laurie told the court he’d had an argument with Moriarty a few days before he went missing. But Laurie, then 71, said he was too old for violence.

“I’d break all me bloody bones,” the former tent boxer said. “I have osteoporosis.”

Almost four years later, Laurie was again called before Cavanagh on Wednesday for the final two days of the inquest. That’s when the coroner’s office played recordings police secretly made inside Laurie’s home after Moriarty’s disappearance.

“Idiots, yeah, tell ‘em what I’ve done, hit with the … hammer,” Laurie said in a recording on Jan. 9, 2018, roughly three weeks after Moriarty went missing, according to the coroner’s report.

“They didn’t … find the hammer,” he said a month later. “Well, they can’t get me for anything.”

In another recording from February, Laurie played a guitar and sang, “I killerated old Paddy,” the report says.

“Smacked him on the nostrils with me claw hammer,” he said in another recording.

“You reckon there is a body somewhere and you want to find out who done it, and who did it,” he said in another clip. “I can tell you, you are not finding out.”

Laurie denied that the voice in the first two recordings was his and then declined to answer further questions, according to Cavanagh’s report. An attorney representing Laurie did not return a request for comment.

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Hodgetts was also called to testify again on Wednesday. Officials asked her about another new development: a witness’s claim that he had heard her discuss a plot to have someone killed shortly before Moriarty went missing.

Hodgetts, who appeared via video from Melbourne, denied the incident.

“I can tell you now, I never ever, ever, ever paid anybody to bump Paddy off,” she said, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

In his report, Cavanagh said the law did not permit him to include a “finding or comment that a person may be guilty of an offence.” But he noted that “the feud with Fran Hodgetts had been escalating” and that it was “likely that the new plants at Fran’s place were of some attraction” to Moriarty on the night he vanished.

Cilia said his grandma had nothing to do with the disappearance and was as “shocked” as anyone about the secret recordings of Laurie.

“She is probably the most gobsmacked person out of us all, because she was backing him, thinking he didn’t do it,” he said.

Cilia, who now runs the teahouse for Hodgetts, said his grandma was fully cooperating with police. He said her colorful comments, including admissions she had joked about killing Moriarty, hadn’t helped.

“Of course many times I said, ‘I’ll kill him,’ ” Hodgetts told The Washington Post a few weeks ago in a phone interview. “It’s a [manner] of speech.”

Asked about speculation she’d baked him into her pies, Hodgetts scoffed.

“It’d be a bloody big mess,” she said. “No, I couldn’t do that. I only do camel, buffalo and crocodile. Not human.”