The best friend of an elderly man who vanished along with his secret lover during a camping trip in remote bushland has revealed the devastating conversation he had with the 74-year-old’s wife a year after the disappearance.
Police this week renewed the search for Russell Hill, 74, and Carol Clay, 73, more than a year after they missing from the Wonnangatta Valley in the Victorian Alps in March 2020.
Detectives have maintained the pair were set upon by unknown attackers and on Monday said they had found two shovels while searching the isolated Mt Hotham area.
Mr Hill’s close mate Rob Ashlin said the bushland region was ‘certainly not safe’ and called for the person involved in the disappearance to come forward.
Investigators are still trying to determine how Russell Hill, 74, and Carol Clay, 73, disappeared while camping in the rugged bushland of the Wonnangatta Valley in Victoria’s East Gippsland region on March 19, 2020
‘We’re waiting for people to drop their guard and open their mouths. Police have got to keep going, they can’t leave a stone unturned,’ Mr Ashlin told The Herald Sun.
‘We want answers and that area of the bush is certainly not safe to go to at the moment.’
Mr Ashlin said Mr Hill’s wife Robyn also wanted to know what happened, adding he had spoken to her on March 20 – exactly a year after the secret lovers, who had been having an affair for years, were last heard from on high-frequency radio.
‘She is still on the sad side of things – she would like to know answers,’ the friend said.
The search for Mr Hill and Ms Clay will now focus on the area along the Dargo High Plains Road, Cynthia Range Track, Herne Spur Track and the Wonnangatta Track.
Detective Acting Inspector Tony Combridge of the Missing Persons Squad said at the time police believed ‘somebody was involved’ in the pair’s baffling disappearance.
They continue to investigate whether the pair met foul play.
Mr Hill left his home in Drouin, in Victoria’s Gippsland region, on March 19 last year and collected Ms Clay from her home in the southeastern Melbourne suburb of Pakenham in his Toyota Land Cruiser.
The pair had been involved in a secret affair for years and had gone on the camping trip before their site was found burned to the ground two days later
Russell Hill and Carol Clay (pictured) were last heard from on March 20 last year and had told friends she was heading away and was expecting to return by March 29
They travelled through Licola, spending one night at Howitt High Plains before heading into Wonnangatta Valley and vanishing without a trace.
Mr Hill was last heard from on March 20 over the radio telling friends he was in Wonnangatta Valley, while Ms Clay had told friends she was heading away and was expecting to return by March 29.
Authorities found the couple’s campsite burnt out near Mr Hill’s car days later, before it was discovered their sleeping bags, phones, and his drone were also missing.
Detectives have believed since December that their attackers torched their campsite to destroy forensic evidence of a crime.
The pair went missing in the Wonnangatta Valley, more than 200km north east of Melbourne
Fire forensics expert Greg Kelly experimented with tent fibres and ropes to see if the fire could have taken hold accidentally, but said those materials burned slowly and extinguished themselves.
There were also no burn marks across the doors of the nearby car doors, the rubber tyres weren’t melted, and the esky – which was underneath the car – was intact.
An earlier school of thought from police was that Mr Hill and Mrs Gray were ambushed or shot by deer hunters
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.
Cadaver dogs, which specialise in locating human remains, were sent to the region but failed to find any trace of the pair.
An earlier school of thought from police was that Mr Hill and Mrs Gray were ambushed or shot by deer hunters.
A number of friends agreed, with their bodies then dragged away in their sleeping bags.
Detective Inspector Andrew Stamper last month said officers were chasing all leads and had zeroed in on a driver of a white ute that was seen in the valley a day before the pair disappeared.
‘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 said.
The ute remains unaccounted for, along with the couple’s sleeping bags, prompting speculation they may have been used as body bags.
The vehicle was spotted at a public ‘long drop’ toilet in the valley the day before the camping companions last made contact with friends.
Police have also noted the toilet at the campsite had been unused, suggesting the couple had not had time to settle in before they disappeared.
Mr Ashlin has speculated the pair could have been slain by illegal hunters after his drone – which Mr Hill was flying that day – unwittingly captured illegal activity.
The drone, thought 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.
MISSING CAMPERS THEORIES
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 maintain the campers were killed by unknown attackers
High country musterer, Lachlan Culican, who helped police during the search, also believes the pair may have accidentally witnessed 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.
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.
In May last year, a bizarre theory surfaced when locals made a connection between the couple’s disappearance and an ‘oddball loner’ living in the Victorian Alps, who had 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.
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.
Police carrying out a renewed search for the pair earlier this month found two shovels which were placed in plastic bags and taken away for forensic testing
‘Being creepy is not illegal,’ a police source told Daily Mail Australia at the time.
The source confirmed there was nothing to indicate the mysterious loner had killed the couple.
‘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.
A number of searches have been conducted in and around the Wonnangatta Valley during the past 12 months.
Police are confident the pair did not fake their own deaths and do not believe it is case of murder suicide.
Detectives continue to appeal to anyone who was in the Wonnangatta area around the time of the campers’ disappearance to make contact.
They also want to speak to anyone who was in the Howitt Plains and Zeka Spur Track area on March 19-20, and the Wonnangatta Valley and Wonnangatta Station area from March 20-24.