The daughter of a missing camper who vanished without a trace with his secret lover 18 months ago has broken down while recalling the last time she saw him at her daughter’s birthday.
Russell Hill, then 74, left his property in Drouin, Victoria, on March 19 last year and picked up Carol Clay, 73, from her home in Pakenham in his white Toyota Landcruiser.
They had planned a trip in the rugged bushland of Wonnangatta Valley in East Gippsland but never returned, with their campsite mysteriously destroyed by fire.
Mr Hill’s grieving daughters Colleen and Debbie bravely opened up about their anguish for the first time this week raise public awareness of their beloved father’s baffling disappearance.
He would have celebrated his 76th birthday last week.
A distraught Colleen choked up with tears as she recalled her last memory of her father.
It’s been 18 months since Carol Clay, 73 and Russell Hill, then 74 vanished without a trace on a camping trip in March 2020. Mr Hill would have celebrated his 76th birthday last week
Russell Hill, 74, left his property in Drouin, Victoria , on March 20 last year and picked up Carol Clay, 73, from her home in Pakenham in his white Toyota Landcruiser (pictured)
‘I think a memory that keep popping in my mind is the last time we saw him at my daughter’s birthday, thinking of the things he said and what I said and just what I wish I had of said,’ Colleen told Seven News.
Her sister Debbie added: ‘It’s really hard. It’s not getting any better. It’s not knowing … you’re just stuck.’
The sisters say they miss their father’s phone calls and grieve for their children who didn’t get to know the practical, problem-solving man they grew up with.
The pair also admitted it was hard to grieve him when there was still uncertainty whether he was dead or alive.
‘I don’t really believe he could be alive. He wouldn’t hide,’ Debbie said.
She will never forget the call from her mum to say her father was missing.
‘When mum rang us … we could tell in her voice she was really worried and that something bad happened,’ Debbie said.
‘Things just weren’t adding up. Now we look back at it, It doesn’t make sense … we don’t know why the campsite burnt … we don’t know where they are and what happened to them.’
Mr Hill’s daughter Colleen (left) broke down in tears as she and sister Debbie (right) spoke about his disappearance for the first time.
Ms Clay’s sister Jill believes Carol is dead.
‘Every day, it’s like we’re in a big heavy overcoat that you can’t take off,’ she said.
‘It’s with you all the time and it weighs you down. It makes you feel heavy and sad.’
Living on the other side of the country in Perth, Jill had some choice words for whoever is responsible for the disappearance of her ‘vibrant and vivacious’ sister Carol.
‘My message is that you’ve undertaken a heinous act. You’ve got to live with that for the rest of your life,’ she said.
Jill said she had a bad feeling about the camping trip from the start and believes the ‘vile act’ was premeditated.
‘I immediately knew there was something horribly wrong. Why would someone premeditate such a vile act on two people who were intelligent, responsible and prepared?’ she said.
‘So, what’s the reason? That’s the main question that isn’t solved’.
She echoed the sentiments of Mr Hill’s daughters when she said it was frustrating knowing so little and not being able to throw a funeral for her beloved sister.
Russell Hill, 74, (pictured, left) had been friendly with Carol Clay, 73, (right) for decades before they started having an affair
Police say they’re closing in on solving the mystery.
Squad head Detective Inspector Andrew Stamper and his team now have a ‘very good picture of who was in the valley’ at the same time.
‘We’ll keep going until we get the answers and I’m confident that will happen. I’d like to think every day we’re getting closer,’ Inspector Stamper told the Herald Sun.
The detective is convinced Ms Clay and Mr Hill never left the valley and said he has not narrowed the potential offender down to just one individual.
‘We firmly believe they’re still in that area somewhere,’ he said.
Detective Acting Sergeant Brett Florence told the publication that whoever killed the elderly campers should be ‘very uncomfortable’.
Acting Sgt Florence said his team would ‘leave no stone unturned’ in their mammoth search efforts that have continued for nearly 20 months.
The pair went missing in the Wonnangatta Valley, more than 200km north east of Melbourne
Cadaver dogs, which specialise in locating human remains, have been sent to the region twice but both times failed to find any trace of Ms Clay (left) or Mr Hill (right)
While Mr Hill had worked in the Gippsland logging industry for many years, Ms Clay had been heavily involved in the Country Women’s Association.
The 74-year-old man was last heard from on March 20 via HF radio, stating he was at Wonnangatta Valley in Victoria’s high country.
Ms Hill had told friends she was heading away and was expected to return home on March 28 or 29.
Campers found Russell’s vehicle with signs of minor fire damage at their campsite, which was completely destroyed by fire, near Dry River Creek Track in the Wonnangatta Valley on March 21.
Cadaver dogs, which specialise in locating human remains, have been sent to the region twice but both times failed to find any trace of the pair.
An earlier school of thought from police was that Mr Hill and Mrs Clay (pictured) were ambushed or shot by deer hunters
Wild conspiracy theories about the disappearance have emerged, but investigators from the missing persons squad have long maintained the pair, who were engaged in a secret affair, were set upon by unknown attackers.
An earlier school of thought from police was that Mr Hill and Mrs Gray were ambushed or shot by deer hunters.
Inspector Stamper previously told A Current Affair officers have 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.
Investigators have been told Mr Hill took his DJI Mavic drone with him on the trip and the drone is still yet to be recovered.
Victoria Police detectives moved their search 80km northwest to the Mount Hotham area in April where they found two shovels in thick bush off the Great Alpine Road.
The status of those shovels remains unknown after they were sent off to be forensically examined.
Ms Clay (pictured) had been heavily involved in the Country Women’s Association in Victoria
Investigators have focused on areas along the Dargo High Plains Road, Cynthia Range Track, Herne Spur Track and the Wonnangatta Track as a result of information obtained from previous searches.
Previous searches had seen detectives from the Missing Persons Squad joined by the police helicopter, drone unit, search and rescue and staff from Parks Victoria.
Information has been received about a sighting of an older person or pair in the Black Snake Creek, Eaglevale River crossing and the Ollies Jump area on March 22-23, but detectives have never been able to establish if it was the missing campers.
Detectives and the pair’s devastated family members are now calling on the public to be their ‘eyes and ears’ as the weather begins to warm up.
Authorities have asked anyone in the area to report findings of clothing, a drone, or any other clue that could help bring closure to the elderly camper’s families.