An unused toilet could help solve the mysterious disappearance of Russell Hill and Carol Clay – who vanished during a camping trip amid their decades-long affair.
Mr Hill, 74, who was married, and Ms Clay, 73, haven’t been seen since their campsite in Victoria’s Wonnangatta Valley was found burned to the ground in March last year.
Despite having little clues to work with and no witnesses, investigators say they are ‘very close’ to cracking what has become one of Australia’s most baffling missing persons cases.
Russell Hill (pictured, left) had been friendly with Carol Clay (right) for decades before they ad an affair
Mr Hill’s white Toyota Landcruiser was found with minor fire damage at their burnt campsite near Dry River Creek Track in the valley on March 21. The toilet (in blue) was unused
Forensic testing has revealed the toilet set up at the couple’s campsite was never used.
Detectives believe that may mean the pair were murdered soon after Mr Hill made a final high frequency radio call to friends.
Just one car seen in the area at the time – a white ute – remains unaccounted for, along with the couple’s sleeping bags, prompting speculation they may have been used as body bags.
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 high country.
This Saturday, March 20, will mark one year since the pair were last seen.
Detective Inspector Andrew Stamper told A Current Affair there were a number of persons of interest, including the driver of the mystery dual cab ute.
The four-wheel-drive was seen in the area on March 20, and Detective Inspector Stamper said it has not been ruled out of the investigation.
‘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,’ he told A Current Affair.
The vehicle was spotted at a public ‘long drop’ toilet in the Valley the day before the camping companions last made contact with friends and has remained a mystery despite almost 12 months of meticulous checks.
Russell Hill and Carol Clay were last heard from on March 20, with Mr Hill’s wife unaware he was travelling with another woman
Victorian detectives released this map of an area where a mystery white ute was spotted on the day the campers went missing
Detective Stamper also confirmed police were open to the possibility Mr Hill and Ms Clay were shot by deer hunters, and revealed he was increasing the size of the investigation team by 50 per cent.
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.
Detective Stamper said officers are still following multiple lines of inquiry.
‘There’s a number of scenarios we are looking at,’ he said.
‘Certainly that’s one we can’t eliminate. I’m not wedded to any specific scenario.’
It has also been revealed a the toilet Mr Hill and Mrs Clay brought to the campsite was never used, suggesting they may have been ambushed soon after arriving.
The new development followed recent confirmation a drone found in the area didn’t belong to the pair.
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 wasn’t the DJI Mavic belonging to Mr Hill.
Mr Hill’s $2,000 drone was missing the scorched scene, along with phones, car keys and bank cards
The pair went missing in the Wonnangatta Valley, more than 200km north east of Melbourne
Mr Hill left his Drouin home on March 19, 2020 and collected his Ms Clay from her home in Pakenham in his white Toyota LandCruiser.
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 his drone were also missing.
Theories about what happened to the pair include that the drone witnessed illegal activity, which led to them being murdered.
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.
Mr Ashlin had been camping with Mr Hill (pictured) on a number of occasions, and described his friend as ‘cautious’
‘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 Ashlin, who was friends with Mr Hill for 30 years, also suggested there might be someone sinister lurking in the mountains.
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
He had a friend who was hunting deer in the region and set up camp for the night with someone else.
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 was ‘driving’ him 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.
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.
The pair were in a secret relationship and didn’t tell anyone where they were going. Ms Clay (pictured) just told friends she would be gone for a few days
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 properly ignited.
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.
Police are confident the pair did not fake their own deaths and do not believe it is case of murder suicide.
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