By NEIL MERCER in Childers

Lonely drifter who spoke of death and disaster
Robbie Long was a troubled soul. In the weeks leading up to the Childers fire, death and suicide were never far from his thoughts. He also talked a lot about fighting and how to hurt people. Hurt them badly.

He always had a story to top the one just told, and the locals sometimes found it difficult to distinguish fact from fantasy.

The 37-year-old is now at the centre of a tragic story that is only too real after police named him as a person they strongly believe could help them over the fire at the Palace Backpackers Hostel early on Friday morning that killed 15 young fruit-pickers.

What is known about Robbie Long is that he drifted into the little heritage town around March and got work picking fruit and vegetables.

He moved into The Palace and soon was a regular at the Federal Hotel in the main street, so much so that it was almost his second home.

"He was a very lonely individual, desperate to have people like him," said the publican, Mr Chris Woods.

And after a while a few did, although it appears that he only had acquaintances, not friends or the attention that he craved. To some he was unpredictable. Others say they sometimes found him just gazing into space.

On June 8, he left a note at the Federal's Hole in the Wall bottle shop, ringing the buzzer to make sure that it was found. It was a suicide note, neatly folded and addressed to a barman. In it, Robbie Long said something had happened that day, but he was not specific. Life was not worth living.

"I immediately phoned the police," Mr Woods said.

"Obviously we were concerned for his safety."

That same day, Robbie Long disappeared from his usual haunts. With him went a lot of money that he had borrowed from patrons and others.

"People were getting to like him; they lent him money, $200 in some cases," Mr Woods said.

He had won sympathy from some in April with a sad story about his daughter. "He said his daughter had died from leukaemia." Coincidentally, that very night the hotel was holding a leukaemia fundraiser.

Last month, he told a woman at the hotel that something even more terrible had befallen him. "He came in and said, 'My two daughters have been killed in a car crash in Darwin'. I really felt for him. I put my arms around him - he really did look upset."

He borrowed $300 from one person to go to the funeral, but locals say he never went.

Robbie Long was in Darwin in 1997 but there have been no deaths of children associated with him and police believe he does not have any children.

He also became friendly with a 21-year-old local woman he met while picking zucchinis, and told her a similar story.

"He seemed all right at the start," she said. "But he was a bit out there. He would just say whatever he was thinking, just speak his mind. When he was sober he was reasonably likeable. When he'd had a few he could be very annoying."

Robbie Long constantly boasted to the young woman's 20-year-old boyfriend of his fighting prowess and, if the stories are true, his opponents were often backpackers.

"He told us he did have fights at The Palace, he was always getting into fights at The Palace. When his kids died he laid a few blokes out at The Palace. Or so he said."

He told the young woman that he was contemplating suicide. "He said life was not worth living; he said he wanted to kill himself. I told him, 'Don't be stupid'."

It seems that Robbie Long did not have much luck with women, or even with pets.

"He really wanted a dog," the woman said. "I went to get him one, but it died before I could give it to him."

Then there was the one-inch punch.

Robbie Long boasted to the boyfriend of his martial arts prowess.

"He was going to teach me the punch - using the fingers and the force of the arm pushed into the sternum [from about an inch away]."

While Robbie Long went missing from his usual haunts on June 8, he was still working just out of town and also frequenting The Palace.

A backpacker, Mr Darrin Hill, said that until a couple of weeks ago Robbie Long been living at the hostel but had fallen behind with his rent. However, he was still slipping in late at night and sleeping on a couch.

There was a dispute, Mr Hill said, and the owners told Robbie Long he was no longer welcome.

In the week or so before the fire another note was slipped under the door of the hostel, indicating that he was going away and that his father would pay his debts.

On Thursday night, he was again at The Palace. It is believed he was seen drinking at the rear of the hotel with two English backpackers.

Mr Hill said Robbie Long had told an English couple on the night of the fire to keep their windows open and to be near the fire escape.

"They were very shaken up," he said. "They didn't believe him; they only got out because their next door neighbours got them out. Otherwise they never would have made it."

Robbie Long always wore the same clothes, Mr Hill said.

"He was an oddity in the hotel, really, because he was so much older than us."