After nearly two years of false leads and few clues, detectives have made a breakthrough in the case of missing elderly campers Russell Hill and Carol Clay – fuelling hope the enduring mystery may finally be solved.
In a bombshell development, police arrested a 55-year-old man on Monday over the secret lovers disappearance from the remote Victorian Alps in March 20, 2020.
The new twist comes after 20-month long police investigation, riddled with theories but, until recently, few leads about what happened to the pair in the hours before their torched campsite was discovered in the rugged Wonnangatta Valley.
At the time of their disappearance, Mr Hill, 74, and Ms Clay, 73, had travelled to the high country, more than 200km northeast of Melbourne, for a trip away – having spent more than two decades engaged in a secret affair.
Since they vanished, rumours have swirled about who may have been involved, including suggestions the couple may have been attacked by nefarious hunters, an ‘oddball loner’ called ‘Button Man’, or even a murder stalking the area.
A man has been arrested as part of the investigation into missing campers Carol Clay (left) and Russell Hill (right). The pair have not been heard from since March 20, 2020
Victoria Police are currently interviewing the man in custody and are yet to release further details.
As we wait for more information to come to light, here’s a blow-by-blow account of how the 18-month mystery unfolded:
March 19, 2020
Mr Hill leaves his Drouin home, which he shares with his wife, Robyn, in Victoria’s West Gippsland region, for a camping trip along the Dargo River.
He collects Ms Clay from her home in the southeastern Melbourne suburb of Pakenham in his Toyota Land Cruiser.
Ms Clay tells friends she was going away few days but would return on March 29.
The pair travel through Licola, spending the night at Howitt High Plains, before heading into Wonnangatta Valley.
The pair went missing in the Wonnangatta Valley, more than 200km north east of Melbourne
March 20, 2020
Mr Hill calls a friend via radio from a remote station in the Alps and says he is having radio transmission issues.
He says he has to go because it is getting dark, but promises to call back the next day. It is the last time the pair are heard from.
March 21, 2020
Mr Hill’s Toyota 4WD is found abandoned with ‘minor fire damage’ next to a burnt-out campsite at the Dry River Creek Track. Ms Clay’s car is found at her Pakenham home after she was reported missing.
Detectives discover the couple’s sleeping bags, phone, and Mr Hill’s drone are also missing from the campsite.
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
Police discovered a number of items were missing from the torched campsite (pictured) including a drone, sleeping bags, and mobile phones
March 30, 2020
Police launch a public appeal for help finding the pair and launch a search mission over the Victorian Alps, involving helicopters, the dog squad, SES volunteers, Parks Victoria and the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association of Victoria.
The search is called of days later, on April 2, due to poor weather.
April 14, 2020
The search resumes again but is called off after two days when it does not yield results.
April 22, 2020
Police announce they no longer expect to find the pair alive and appeal to the public for information.
Mr Hill’s family released a statement saying: ‘It is devastating for our family that we don’t know what has happened to them both.’
Ms Clay’s family said they had been dealing with continual stress and loss during the ‘absolute mystery’.
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
Mr Hill (above) had recently retired and was an experienced outdoorsman who reportedly knew the remote Alpine region of the Gippsland well
May 22, 2020
Locals ignite rumours a regular visitor to the Victorian mountains, dubbed ‘Button Man’, may be useful to the investigation as he often speaks to campers and is familiar with the area.
The man, described as being around 70 and very fit, is a ‘loner’ and expert bushman who is known to disappear for weeks on end.
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.
Despite being described as ‘spooky’ and ‘bloody scary’, police say they have no evidence to suggest he was involved in any disappearances and there have been no reports of violence.
May 26, 2020
Detectives investigate three potential sightings of Ms Clay and Mr Hill on March 22.
Detectives ask to speak to anyone near Howitt Plains and Zeka Spur Track on March 19 or 20 and the Wonnangatta Valley and Wonnangatta Station between March 20-24.
March 5, 2021
Police announce they are slowly unravelling the mystery after spending months without little clues to work on and no witnesses.
‘We’re pretty confident that we’ve got a good picture of movements in the valley and around the campsite on that day, which is pretty good considering we started with not much,’ missing persons squad head Detective Inspector Andrew Stamper told the Herald Sun.
They appeal for information about a ‘mystery vehicle’ – a white – ute which was spotted at the site around the time the pair disappeared.
Police say they have been able to identify all the vehicles in the camping area during the course of the investigation except that car.
They say there is nothing to link the car or its occupants to the case but would like to speak to them in case they can shed more light on the events of March 20, 2020.
Witnesses have reported seeing a vehicle doing a 20 tp 30 point turn near the Wonnangatta track before turning around. A blue Nissan of interest to the investigation was captured hours later driving near Mount Hotham
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
April 14, 2021
Police search a small area of bushland next to the Great Alpine road, Mount Hotham, after receiving new information and find two shovels.
April 26, 2021
Detectives renew a search of the Wonnangatta valley as a result of new information, scouring remote tracks, rivers, and cliffs in the area.
They focused on the Dargo High Plains Road, Cynthia Range Track, Herne Spur Track and the Wonnangatta Track.
November 8, 2021
Police release a photo of a blue Nissan Patrol four-wheel drive, deemed the ‘key’ piece of the puzzle.
The late 1990s model, which was towing a trailer, was spotted on CCTV trying to leave Wonnangatta Valley late on the night the pair were last seen
Police say witnesses also reported seeing a car about midnight at a road north of the campsite performing a complicated turn after reaching a closed gate on a narrow road.
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 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’
November 23, 2021
Victoria Police announced they have arrested a 55-year-old man in relation to Mr Hill and Ms Clay’s disappearance.
He is taken into custody and interviewed.
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.