The key to unlocking the mysterious disappearance of campers Russell Hill and Carol Clay may have gone up in flames in a fire that destroyed their campsite.
At the time, the blaze was deemed to be non-suspicious.
But months after the pair vanished without a trace, doubt has been cast over the police theory that a phone charger set the camp alight.
As grieving relatives of the pair on Monday learnt that remains found last weekend in Victoria’s High Country were not that of Mr Hill, speculation continues to dwell that the pair may have succumbed to foul play – and the fire may have been deliberately lit after all.
Mr Hill (above) had recently retired and was an experienced outdoorsman who reportedly knew the remote Alpine region of the Gippsland well
A fire that destroyed the pair’s camp site was deemed at the time not to be suspicious. But as time went by, detectives began to fear the worst
Police released images of the pair’s burnt out campsite with Mr Hill’s car parked beside it (pictured) in a remote area of bushland in Victoria’s Wonnangatta Valley
Mr Hill, 74, and Ms Clay, 73, went camping in the remote Wonnangatta Valley in Victoria’s Gippsland region on March 19 and have not been heard from since.
Mr Hill’s Toyota four-wheel-drive had been found by local police next to his burnt-out tent, but the pair were gone without a trace.
The vehicle itself had also sustained damage in the fire, but was still able to be driven away from the scene.
In hindsight, perhaps it shouldn’t have been.
Police had found it at the burnt out camp site with possessions belonging to the pair still inside the vehicle.
At the time, Inspector Craig Gaffee from Sale was leading the search for the pair through treacherous bush conditions.
He had been supported by police air surveillance, the dog squad and members of the State Emergency Service, Parks Victoria and the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association of Victoria.
Some question whether it might have been prudent to call in the Homicide Squad.
But people go missing in the bush with some regularity and the pair were initially thought to be another case of just that.
On Friday, March 27, campers had found Mr Hill’s vehicle with signs of minor fire damage near Dry River Creek Trak at Billabong.
Neither had been heard from since March 20, when Mr Hill made radio contact from a remote station in the alps.
During the call, he said he was having radio transmission issues.
Inspector Gaffee told reporters at the time that the campsite itself and vehicle were ‘really well equipped’.
He urged anyone who had been in that Billabong and Wonnangatta Track to come forward.
It was clear police could not work out why Mr Hill, an experienced bushman, abandoned his four-wheel drive utility when it was still able to be driven.
The focus was clearly on finding the campers.
‘At this stage, due to the length of time they’ve been missing and the weather conditions, we have grave fears for their safety,’ Inspector Gaffee said.
‘We know they’re near water … we know they had food in the car but we don’t know how much they had with them.’
He said there was no reason to believe they would have left the area on foot if they were trying to leave.
The question about the fire was quickly explained – it was probably started by a mobile phone charger that overheated inside a tent.
By April 6, the search had been called off.
But almost a month after the pair vanished, specialised detectives from the Missing Persons Unit were called into action.
One of the first things they did was take another look at Mr Hill’s fire-damaged car.
The pair went missing in the Wonnangatta Valley, more than 200km north east of Melbourne. The remains of a man have been found in Moondarra, but are not believed to be those of Mr Hill
Mr Hill’s car has been returned to his home where specialist detectives hope to examine it again for further clues
By then, the wreckage from the scene was long gone or contaminated.
Mrs Hill told Daily Mail Australia she had her doubts about the mobile phone supposedly causing the fire.
‘I don’t know about that. I hear so many different stories. There are too many different stories and I’m not saying anything about it,’ she said.
Officers had determined that no accelerant had been used to start the fire.
But anyone with half a knowledge of fire knows that setting fire to a tent would require little effort.
Arson investigations are particularly challenging because the evidence is often destroyed during the fire and the efforts of the fire brigade to extinguish the blaze.
Investigations preceding the event can last for significant time periods as investigators have to sift through debris to find chemicals that may have been used as the accelerant.
Trained sniffer dogs can be used as a traditional resource for tracing accelerants, but these dogs may not be available when needed or have insufficient or unsafe access.
‘I’m letting the police do their investigation because they’re trying really hard,’ Mrs Hill said. ‘They just haven’t stopped.’
With bones being discovered within 200kms of where the campers went missing, worried locals from bush communities in the region remain concerned there could be a killer on the loose.
Hopes were raised on Saturday when forensic investigators were spotted combing an area of bushland off a dirt road in Moondarra.
Although the remains of the man were yet to be identified on Monday, police have told Daily Mail Australia they are certain the body is not that of Mr Hill.
‘The man’s cause of death is under investigation. The remains were found during a search by Missing Persons Squad detectives as part of a current active investigation,’ a police spokeswoman said.
Mr Hill’s drone (pictured) remains missing too. Speculation is he may have gone missing after losing the drone in wild bushland. Others fear it may have been stolen by whoever killed him
‘As the investigation is ongoing, it would be inappropriate to provide further comment at this stage.’
While the news might provide some relief to those clinging to hope the pair might still be alive, the revelations will come as a cruel blow to Mr Hill’s wife Robyn.
In April, a devastated Mrs Hill told Daily Mail Australia she would only achieve closure if her husband’s body was found.
‘I don’t think that he will still be alive,’ she said from the family home in Drouin.
‘Well, it’s been a month since he’s been away and he was only going away for a week – or a bit more.
‘They’re both lost. So let’s hope they find them. They’ve got to find them. One way or the other.’
Ms Clay (above) was Victorian President of the Country Women’s Association and known for beautiful, elegant clothing
Expert hikers (pictured) as well as helicopters and drones had been deployed to look for the pair in Victoria’s Wonnangatta Valley, but the search has proved fruitless
Last week, bizarre new details emerged of an ‘oddball loner’ living in the Victorian Alps, who has been questioned over a number of mysterious disappearances.
Known as ‘Buttons’ or ominously, ‘the Button Man’, the expert bushman became a person of interest after concerns about his odd behaviour were raised by locals.
Sources believe the Button Man could be useful to the investigation, as he often speaks to local campers and knows the area well.
He is understood to have earned his nickname due to his hobby of using deer antlers to make buttons – which he then uses as large ear piercings.
Using well crafted traditional spears, the man is known to camp for weeks on end in remote bushlands and hunt for deer, The Age reported.
He also just happens to be the last person who saw another missing bushwalker who vanished in October.
Despite being described as ‘spooky’ and ‘bloody scary’, police have no evidence to suggest he was involved in any disappearances and there have been no reports of violence.
Mr Hill’s drone remains missing, adding to theories it was either stolen or he lost it, which may have caused the pair to go looking for it among the wild terrain.
Neither of the pair had given any indication to anyone that they may have wanted to disappear and checks have shown they have not accessed their phones, credit cards or bank accounts.
Mrs Hill told Daily Mail Australia she knew her husband wasn’t coming home when he didn’t make a planned radio broadcast from the wilderness and never did again.
The 71-year old said her husband had never gone missing before this trip.
A search for the pair in Victoria’s Wonnangatta Valley (pictured) has been called off, with the pair presumed dead
‘He’s always been on the radio. He didn’t call for quite a few days and then I started to get worried and thought “I’ve got to do something now”.’
Mrs Hill said her husband would routinely broadcast at the same time every night when his other radio chums were on the air.
‘They all get on at the same time and once I heard Russell I knew, on the Friday, that he was fine. But then I didn’t hear him again,’ she said.
Mrs Hill told Daily Mail Australia her husband was familiar with the terrain where he was believed to have gone missing.
‘He knows the area,’ she said. ‘He used to work out there. But it was a long time ago and he was a lot younger.’
Mr Hill had been a professional logger back in the day where he worked in some of the country’s toughest bush.
‘It’s unbelievable actually,’ Mrs Hill said of his disappearance.