Police investigating the mysterious disappearance of Russell Hill and Carol Clay say they know who was near their campsite before it was found burned to the ground.
Mr Hill, who was married, had been in a decades-long affair with Ms Clay when they vanished during a camping trip in Victoria’s Wonnangatta Valley.
Next Saturday, March 20, will mark one year since the pair were last seen.
Despite having little clues to work with and no witnesses, police say they are slowly unravelling the mystery and know the identities of a handful of people who were in the remote area at the time.
The remains of the campsite, with friends suggesting the pair were victims of foul play
Carol Gray told those close to her she was going away for a few days and planned to return on March 29 last year
‘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.
‘A little win could be just eliminating someone… Twelve months down the track, we are more focused than ever.’
Campers, deer hunters and four-wheel-drive owners are known to frequent the Valley area.
Early speculation suggested that Mr Hill and Mrs Clay ‘may have witnessed something they shouldn’t have’.
Russell Hill (pictured, left) had been friendly with Carol Clay (right) for decades before they had an affair
Mr Hill’s $2,000 drone was missing the scorched scene, along with phones, car keys and bank cards. A drone was found in the area over the weekend, but has been confirmed as not Mr Hill’s
The new development followed recent confirmation a drone found in the area does not belong to the pair.
The secret lovers vanished on March 20, 2020 while on a camping trip in the rugged high country – with their burnt, empty campsite found days later.
The drone, though to be a breakthrough in the year-old case, was handed in to Victoria Police at East Gippsland last weekend but officers confirmed it is not the DJI Mavic belonging to Mr Hill.
Police say they will, however, keep trying to find out more about the device as part of the investigation.
They have also repeated their plea for information about a white dual cab ute seen in the area where Mr Hill and Ms Clay were camping before they disappeared.
The four-wheel-drive is the only car seen in the area on March 20 which has not been ruled out of the investigation.
The vehicle has remained a mystery despite almost 12 months of meticulous checks by the squad.
‘It might seem like only a very small possibility that those in the white ute will have information about Russell and Carol’s disappearance but we can’t afford to leave any stone unturned,’ Detective Inspector Andrew Stamper said.
‘We cannot leave any ‘what ifs’ when it comes to an investigation like this.’
Mr Hill, 74, left his Drouin home on March 19, 2020 and collected his friend Ms Clay, 73, from her home in Pakenham in his white Toyota LandCruiser.
Victorian detectives have released a new map of an area where a mystery white ute was spotted on the day the campers went missing
They travelled through Licola, spending one night at Howitt High Plains before heading into Wonnangatta Valley.
Mr Hill was last heard from on March 20 over HF radio, while Ms Clay had told friends she was heading away and was expecting to return by March 29.
Authorities found the couple’s campsite burned to the ground near Mr Hill’s car days later, before it was discovered their their sleeping bags, phones, and a $2,000 drone were also missing.
Almost a year on from their disappearance, the drone was handed to police over the weekend.
Theories about what happened to the pair include that the drone witnessed illegal activity, which led to them being murdered.
Pictured: The destroyed campsite where Mr Hill and Ms Clay were staying before they disappeared
Recently, the bushman’s best friend Rob Ashlin claimed the pair could have been slain by illegal hunters after the drone – which Mr Hill was flying that day – captured footage it shouldn’t have.
‘The fact that it’s been reported that those sleeping bags were missing, makes me feel that those sleeping bags were carted out of there and… used as body bags,’ Mr Ashlin told Liz Hayes on Channel Nine’s Under Investigation.
‘There are a lot of places – the country is very rugged – where they can be got rid of, never to be found again.’
High country musterer Lachlan Culican, who helped police during the search, also believes the pair may have accidentally captured footage of illegal hunters in the area.
He was shocked by the the sheer quantity of dead deer in the area where their scorched campsite was found, explaining he saw a new carcass every ‘200m or 300m’.
Mr Hill’s friend Rob Ashlin (pictured) believes the couple were murdered in their sleeping bags
The fact the expensive drone was missing along with the phones could indicate the couple may have stumbled across something they shouldn’t have- such as armed hunters.
Mr Ashlin, who was friends with Mr Hill for 30 years, also suggested there might be someone sinister lurking in the mountains.
He had a friend who was hunting deer in the region and set up camp for the night with someone else.
Russell Hill and Carol Clay were last heard from on March 20, with Mr Hill’s wife unaware he was travelling with another woman
The pair went missing in the Wonnangatta Valley, more than 200km north east of Melbourne
As they sat around the fire, they saw a person standing at the edge of the light, staring at them.
‘One of them shot over to his vehicle and this person who was standing there just wandered behind the shadow of a tree and was gone,’ he said.
‘They were being stalked without knowing about it for some time.’
Mr Ashlin said the idea that there could be a suspect hiding in the mountains is ‘what’s driving me’ to search for answers.
He also found the image of their burnt campsite, taken by two passers-by a week later, startling because the site was not set up the way Mr Hill arranged his campsites.
A new image of Mr Hill’s white Toyota Landcruiser. It was found with minor fire damage at their burnt campsite near Dry River Creek Track in the valley on March 21
Mr Ashlin had been camping with Mr Hill (pictured) on a number of occasions, and described his friend as ‘cautious’
He said the experienced camper would have known better than to make a campfire close to flammable material such as gas bottles or their tent.
Mr Ashlin went camping with Mr Hill on many occasions, and described his friend as ‘cautious’.
When he saw the jumble of burnt equipment, he knew something was amiss.
‘I knew straight away in my own mind that something really unforgiving had happened,’ he said.
Fire forensics expert Greg Kelly experimented with tent fibers and ropes to see if an accidental fire could have started, but said the materials burned too slowly and extinguished themselves before a blaze could have started.
Carol Clay, 73, who was once the President of the Country Women’s Association of Victoria, had been in a relationship with Russell Hill for many years in the lead up to their disappearance
There were also no burn marks across the car doors, which were nearby, the tyres weren’t melted, and the esky – which was underneath the car – was intact.
Mr Kelly said the scene suggested the fire was short and hot, which was likely caused by an accelerant – such as the gas canisters inside the tent.
Detectives have believed since December that the potential attackers may have torched their campsite to destroy forensic evidence of a crime.
The pair were in a secret relationship and didn’t tell anyone where they were going.
Ms Clay just told friends she would be gone for a few days.
Police are confident the pair did not fake their own deaths and do not believe it is case of murder suicide.
That the car was locked likely indicated the pair left the campsite voluntarily, probably to go for a walk or fly the drone.
Mr Hill (pictured) had left his Drouin home on March 19 for a camping trip along the Dargo River in Victoria’s northeast and planned to leave the region on March 26
Mr Hill had been a keen amateur radio enthusiast and made his last broadcast from the bush on March 20.
‘This place is in the middle of nowhere,’ the source said. ‘It’s just problematic in the extreme.’
Police are now certain the couple died within 18 hours after Mr Hill’s last message, as a passing hiker saw the burned-out campsite about 2pm the next day.
Because the pair weren’t due back until up to a week later, the alarm wasn’t raised for days and precious time was lost.
The police source said despite the delay in the missing person squad being brought into investigate the case, the fire ravaged camp site was thoroughly investigated at the time.
In May, bizarre 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 was raised by locals.
Personal belongings (circled) were left in Russell Hill’s vehicle, which sustained fire damage when his tent went up in flames
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.
‘Being creepy is not illegal,’ a police source has told Daily Mail Australia.
A police source confirmed there was nothing to indicate the mysterious loner had killed the couple, but what happened to them remains unknown.
‘We don’t think they’re in Queensland living (a secret) life. They’re too old really to drop off the grid and why would they?’ the source said.
Police believe it is more likely than not that the pair met with foul play while out in the remote wilderness.
The area itself is considered an ideal spot to commit murder.
Phone reception is practically nil and unlike some other areas popular with hikers, the remote Wonnangatta Valley does not see a lot of foot or road traffic.
While cold-blooded murder was an avenue of investigation, detectives remain open to all kinds of scenarios.
‘There are a lot of people who go up there and do illegal stuff. Like people who go hunting in the national park and ride motorcycles. Has he had a dispute with one of them that turned bad?’ the source said.
Months of searches have found no trace of the pair. Detective Stamper believes if the pair were still in the valley, searchers would have found some evidence
The pair had been carrying out a secret affair for years behind the back of Mr Hill’s wife Robyn, who has described Ms Clay as a ‘long time family friend’.
While the relationship was largely hidden from Mr Hill’s devastated wife, it has been well known to police since the pair were reported missing by Mrs Hill days after her husband last made contact via radio.
When questioned about the couple’s relationship in April, Victoria Police Missing Persons Squad Detective Inspector Andrew Stamper skirted around the question.
‘It is delicate and we are being very respectful of both families wishes and concerns here,’ he said at the time.
‘Both of these people have large and loving families who are grieving at the moment, and they want answers about where their loved ones are.’
While detectives probed the couple’s relationship, it was quickly ruled out as a likely reason for their mysterious disappearance.
Police are desperate for people who may have been in the area at the time to let them know so that they can be ruled out of the investigation.
Detectives are also keen to learn if anyone may be hanging onto dash cam footage that could help identify other leads.
It is understood the case remained ‘very wide open’.
‘It’s a genuine mystery,’ the source said.