The best friend of elderly lovers who went missing during a doomed camping trip believes the couple were killed in their sleeping bags and their bodies left to be eaten by wild dogs because their drone saw something illegal.
Russell Hill, 74, and Carol Clay, 73, went camping in secret during a lurid decades-long affair on March 19 in the rugged bushland of the Wonnangatta Valley in Victoria’s East Gippsland region.
Their disappearance has baffled authorities, who found the elderly couple’s campsite burned to the ground near Mr Hill’s car two days later.
Despite extensive investigations, detectives have not been able to determine how the fire was lit, why an experienced camper put flammable gas bottles inside a tent, why their phones and drone were missing, and why there were no sleeping bags.
But on Monday the bushman’s best friend Rob Ashlin claimed the pair could have been slain by illegal hunters after their $2,000 drone – which Mr Hill was flying that day – captured footage it shouldn’t have.
Russell Hill (pictured, left) had been friendly with Carol Clay (right) for decades before they ad an affair
‘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
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
Mr Hill’s $2,000 drone was missing the scorched scene, along with phones, car keys and bank cards
The drone was missing by the time police arrived on the scene, along with their phones that likely had cameras attached – suggesting the couple may have accidentally filmed the armed hunters.
If the couple were murdered in their sleeping bags, Mick Ott – who is paid to eradicate dangerous wild dogs in the region – said it was likely bodies would have been discovered by the hounds before police arrived.
‘If I was lost and potentially injured, I’d be very concerned about what the dogs could do,’ he said, adding that they will ‘completely devour’ their prey.
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’
The charred scene was a pile of blackened chairs, tent material and gas bottles, but Mr Hill was an experienced camper and would never have made a campfire close to the tend or anything flammable.
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
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
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.
Mr Hill’s wife Robyn knew of the affair for decades, the program revealed for the first time.
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
The drone remains missing despite an extensive search that ended on April 6 without anyone finding a trace of them.
Mr Hill 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.
Ms Clay, meanwhile, had told friends she was going away for a few days and expected to be home by March 28 or 29.
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.