The mysterious disappearance and suspected murder of two secret lovers on a camping trip is ‘very, very close’ to being solved, according to the police officer leading the search for the missing couple.
Russell Hill, 74, and Carol Clay, 73, have not been seen since quietly sneaking away for a trip to Victoria’s remote Wonnangatta Valley on March 20, 2020.
Detectives now suspect the couple may have been murdered by another camper who torched their campsite to cover their tracks.
Police earlier this week released images of the charred remains of a battery, chairs and a bucket from the campsite as they hunt for a mid-1990s model Nissan Patrol 4WD seen leaving the valley that weekend.
Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Shane Patton said on Thursday he was confident officers would solve the 20-month long missing person investigation.
Russell Hill (pictured, left) and Carol Clay (right) are believed to have been murdered during a camping trip
Mr Hill’s white Toyota Landcruiser (pictured) was found with minor fire damage at their burnt campsite near Dry River Creek Track in the valley on March 21
‘We are getting close, very very close,’ he told ABC Radio.
Detective Inspector Andrew Stamper said the ‘best theory’ was that the driver of the Nissan Patrol may have had a ‘confrontation’ with the elderly couple over a camping spot by the river.
Their burnt out belongings were found in an odd location, away from the best spot that would have been picked by a veteran camper like Mr Hill.
Police found the charred remains of camping chairs, a battery and a gas canister bucket inside the couple’s tent.
Detectives believe it is unlikely the couple would have put them there and were moved into the tent by the killer before he set fire to the scene.
‘It’s a theory, but it’s probably the best theory we’ve got at the moment,’ Mr Stamper admitted.
‘The only reason we can assume that Russell didn’t camp in the best spot, was potentially there was somebody already there.
The mid-1990s model Nissan Patrol (pictured) is now central to the investigation because painstaking video analysis has managed to account for every car exiting the remote valley that weekend – except the blue 4WD
The bucket (left) was used for Mr Hill to put his gas canister in and like the battery (right) , they were unlikely to be brought inside the tent where they were found by detectives
The charred remains (pictured) from the couple’s campsite have been released for the first time
‘There’s been some sort of argument and maybe it’s escalated from there.’
The camping site the suspected killer is believed to have set up at in March last year had been sought after among those who entered the rugged section of bush.
Nestled upon the river, it is a camping site Mr Hill liked to use while there on previous occasions.
But when police found his gutted tent, it was not in that perfect camping spot, but some 100 metres away.
Police found a burnt out scene at the couple’s campsite last March (pictured), but no trace of the elderly campers
Mr Stamper, who only recently travelled back to the camping site himself, said Mr Hill would have bumped into the other camper as he went to the river to retrieve water.
‘We believe, that based upon what we know about Russell and how passionate he was and how experienced he was in that area and the camp in general, that it would make sense for him to go to a certain position which has access to the river, a nice little campfire already made-up, but the position that he actually chose … is not as good,’ he said.
‘The only reason we can assume Russell didn’t camp in the best spot was potentially there was somebody else already there.’
Missing Person Squad Inspector Andrew Stamper on Monday. He believes police have made a major break through
Mr Stamper said if Mr Hill’s interaction with that camper became confrontational, he would have been unlikely to have taken a step back.
‘We know that Russell, albeit a very peaceful and law-abiding man, he worked in the wilderness in that area,’ he said.
‘He worked tough jobs so he wasn’t someone who would … take a backward step. So there has been some sort of argument and maybe it’s escalated from there.’
The 4WD (pictured in a police sketch) has roof racks, side steps, off-road tyres and a bulbar. The box trailer is ‘fairly standard’ but has been fitted with ‘off-road wheels’
While Mr Hill had made contact with a mate over his CB radio upon reaching the camp site, he made no mention of anyone else being there or any such conflict.
Police were unable to locate any clues from the other camper’s site.
An image of the camper’s vehicle was captured by cameras used to identify people entering the rugged terrain in an effort to keep track of who is on the mountain for their own safety.
But Mr Stamper would not reveal if the cameras had captured the vehicle’s registration plate.
‘The image we are releasing is the best image – I don’t want to go too far into what we’ve got, but that’s the best image that we’ve got,’ he said.
Police again appealed for anyone in the public who may have information on the vehicle to contact them.
The seasoned detective said time was running out for those responsible to explain what happened to the couple.
Whoever was behind the wheel of the Nissan 4WD is yet to contact Victoria Police.
The owners of a white ute, which police had been keen to speak with, had come forward and was subsequently ruled out as a suspect.
The pair went missing in the Wonnangatta Valley, more than 200km north east of Melbourne
‘We’ll keep going. We’ll never stop,’ Mr Stamper said of the investigation.
The 4WD has roof racks, side steps, off-road tyres and a bulbar. The box trailer is ‘fairly standard’ but has been fitted with ‘off-road wheels’.
Inspector Stamper said the killer had tried to cover their tracks by burning Mr Hill’s campsite and using the trailer to move the bodies.
‘My belief is that this was not planned or premeditated attack it was just something that happened quickly which probably means whoever did it would have acted quickly in trying to conceal them,’ Mr Stamper told 60 Minutes.
‘The person who carried out this is probably just an ordinary member of the community who is operating in a normal job and carrying a significant load on their mind.’
From the earliest stages of the investigation detectives had wondered why the couple set up their campsite away from the river in a less secluded spot (shown above) but Inspector Stamper now believes it’s because somebody else was already camping there when they arrived
In the initial stages of the case, authorities suspected the couple had simply run off together, but neither has accessed their bank accounts since their disappearance.
Possessions belonging to the couple were found inside Mr Hill’s Toyota 4WD at the scene.
The only things missing were their mobile phones and a remote control drone.
Mr Hill’s wife Robyn, 71, said she had no idea her husband was with another woman when he went missing.
She said her husband had been friendly with Ms Clay for decades but was unaware they were travelling together.
Another working theory was that the pair had become lost, but given Mr Hill is an experienced outdoorsman with knowledge of the area, that would appear extremely unlikely.
Multiple major search operations involving drones, helicopters, mounted police, search dogs and ground crews have also come up with nothing.
Russell Hill and Carol Clay (pictured) were last heard from on March 20 last year, with Mr Hill’s wife unaware he was travelling with another woman
Mr Hill (above) had recently retired and was an experienced outdoorsman who reportedly knew the remote Alpine region of the Gippsland well
In an emotional television interview, Mr Hill’s two daughters Colleen and Debbie (pictured) visited the campsite for the first time and said they believe their father was murdered because he would never leave his family
An ‘overheated’ mobile phone charger was initially believed to have set their campsite on fire and burned their tent, table and camping chairs but now detectives have completely changed their tune, saying the blaze was deliberately lit.
Inspector Stamper acknowledged the early stages of the investigation may have been hampered by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.
‘We understand that initially, given the confusion around Covid-19 and state-wide lockdowns that people may have been reluctant to come forward, or that someone may simply have missed our repeated appeals for information,’ he said.
The area is notorious for blood-thirsty hunters illegally killing deer, who often use thermal imaging with their high-powered rifles
Homicide Squad detectives who scoured their burnt out tent, table and folding chairs (pictured) are convinced Mr Hill, 74, and Ms Clay, 73, were murdered and likely driven away from the grisly scene
‘But if you are the driver of this blue Nissan Patrol, or you know who is, we would urge you to come forward – if nothing else, so we can eliminate you from our enquiries and move forward.’
In an emotional television interview, Mr Hill’s two daughters Colleen and Debbie visited the campsite for the first time and said they believe their father was murdered because he would never leave his family.
‘I really don’t believe he could be alive, he wouldn’t hide,’ Debbie Hill said.
‘You just hope someone will speak up if they know something to help the situation… We just want to know what happened and where he is.’
MISSING CAMPERS THEORIES
THE BLUE NISSAN PATROL
Homicide detectives now suspect a person travelling dark blue Nissan Patrol got into an altercation with the couple which turned deadly. Investigators theorise the person may have driven their bodies away in a trailer.
SHOT BY HUNTERS
Locals believe the pair may have been shot and killed after Mr Hill’s drone unwittingly caught illegal hunters in the act. Large numbers of deer carcasses were found near the burnt out campsite.
MURDERER STALKING THE AREA
A friend of Mr Hill said hunters in the area has seen a ‘sinister’ figure lurking near their campfire.
THE ‘BUTTON MAN’
An ‘oddball loner’ expert bushman known as the ‘button man’ for his habit of making buttons out of deer antlers became a person of interest after the disappearance, but there is no evidence he is linked to the disappearance.
KILLED BY UNKNOWN ATTACKERS
Police acknowledge that some other unknown attackers could have set upon the campers.