New details have emerged in the suspected murder of missing campers Russell Hill and Carol Clay as it is revealed their killer may have spent many hours trying to drive out of the rugged terrain with their bodies.
Mr Hill, 74, and Ms Clay, 73, have not been seen since sneaking away for a trip to Victoria’s remote Wonnangatta Valley on March 20, 2020.
Detectives believe the pair were attacked between 6pm and 11pm during a random confrontation with another camper who then torched their campsite to cover their tracks.
Investigators have been examining a number of vehicles spotted in the region around that time and have zeroed in on a mid-1990s model Nissan Patrol towing a trailer – which was captured on CCTV – as holding the ‘key’ to the puzzle.
Now, witnesses have come forward with new information that sheds light on just how difficult – and dangerous – it would have been for the killer to flee the high country on the night the lovers vanished.
Russell Hill (pictured, left) and Carol Clay (right) are believed to have been murdered during a camping trip
Witnesses have reported seeing a vehicle doing a 20 tp 30 point turn near the Wonnangatta track before turning around. A blue Nissan of interest to the investigation was captured hours later driving near Mount Hotham
A motorist, believed to be towing a trailer, was seen driving erratically around midnight after reaching a closed gate on a narrow stretch of road north of the campsite, the Herald Sun reports.
Finding the road unalterably blocked, the driver – who was heading towards Myrtleford – performed a 20 to 30 point turn with a trailer on the narrow road and then turning to go back the way the car had come.
Hours later, the Nissan Patrol was snapped by a roadside security camera 60 km away on the Great Alpine Road at Mount Hotham just after sunrise.
Police are yet to formally reveal whether the two incidents are linked – and if the vehicles seen are in fact the same.
If so, the driver would have required considerable expertise of the area to navigate the perilous journey between the two locations.
The drive between the sightings would have involved tricky driving routes on challenging remote tracks that zig-zag through the region.
Police revealed earlier this month the Nissan was central to the investigation because painstaking video analysis has managed to account for every car exiting the remote valley that weekend – except the blue 4WD.
The mid-1990s model Nissan Patrol (pictured) is now central to the investigation because painstaking video analysis has managed to account for every car exiting the remote valley that weekend – except the blue 4WD
The 4WD (pictured in a police sketch) has roof racks, side steps, off-road tyres and a bulbar. The box trailer is ‘fairly standard’ but has been fitted with ‘off-road wheels’
‘Throughout our extensive and significant investigation over the last 20 months, we have not been able to eliminate this blue four-wheel drive from our enquiries,’ Inspector Andrew Stamper said in a public alert.
‘We have witness statements that put this blue vehicle and its trailer in the valley at the time Russell and Carol were there, and indeed near the spot that they had set up their camp.’
The 4WD has roof racks, side steps, off-road tyres and a bulbar. The box trailer is ‘fairly standard’ but has been fitted with ‘off-road wheels’.
From the earliest stages of the investigation detectives had wondered why the couple set up their campsite away from the river.
Inspector Stamper now believes it’s because somebody else was already camping there when they arrived.
A witness reported seeing a vehicle which matches the Nissan Patrol’s description parked near their campsite on the night they went missing.
Another recalls hearing it leave the area around midnight and getting stuck on a closed road before turning around.
The pair went missing in the Wonnangatta Valley, more than 200km north east of Melbourne
Mr Hill’s white Toyota Landcruiser (pictured) was found with minor fire damage at their burnt campsite near Dry River Creek Track in the valley on March 21
The leading theory now is that there may have been some sort of altercation between the campers which turned deadly.
Inspector Stamper says the killer has then tried to cover their tracks by burning the campsite and using the trailer to move the bodies.
‘My believe is that this was not planned or premeditated attack it was just something that happened quickly which probably means whoever did it would have acted quickly in trying to conceal them,’ he told 60 Minutes.
‘The person who carried out this is probably just an ordinary member of the community who is operating in a normal job and carrying a significant load on their mind.’
In the initial stages of the case, authorities suspected the couple had simply run off together, but neither has accessed their bank accounts since their disappearance.
From the earliest stages of the investigation detectives had wondered why the couple set up their campsite away from the river in a less secluded spot (shown above) but Inspector Stamper now believes it’s because somebody else was already camping there when they arrived
Russell Hill and Carol Clay (pictured) were last heard from on March 20 last year, with Mr Hill’s wife unaware he was travelling with another woman
Mr Hill (above) had recently retired and was an experienced outdoorsman who reportedly knew the remote Alpine region of the Gippsland well
Possessions belonging to the couple were found inside Mr Hill’s Toyota 4WD at the scene.
The only things missing were their mobile phones and a remote control drone.
Mr Hill’s wife Robyn, 71, said she had no idea her husband was with another woman when he went missing.
She said her husband had been friendly with Ms Clay for decades but was unaware they were travelling together.
Another working theory was that the pair had become lost, but given Mr Hill is an experienced outdoorsman with knowledge of the area, that would appear extremely unlikely.
Multiple major search operations involving drones, helicopters, mounted police, search dogs and ground crews have also come up with nothing.
An ‘overheated’ mobile phone charger was initially believed to have set their campsite on fire and burned their tent, table and camping chairs but now detectives have completely changed their tune, saying the blaze was deliberately lit.
Inspector Stamper acknowledged the early stages of the investigation may have been hampered by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.
‘We understand that initially, given the confusion around Covid-19 and state-wide lockdowns that people may have been reluctant to come forward, or that someone may simply have missed our repeated appeals for information,’ he said.
In an emotional television interview, Mr Hill’s two daughters Colleen and Debbie (pictured) visited the campsite for the first time and said they believe their father was murdered because he would never leave his family
‘But if you are the driver of this blue Nissan Patrol, or you know who is, we would urge you to come forward – if nothing else, so we can eliminate you from our enquiries and move forward.’
In an emotional television interview, Mr Hill’s two daughters Colleen and Debbie visited the campsite for the first time and said they believe their father was murdered because he would never leave his family.
‘I really don’t believe he could be alive, he wouldn’t hide,’ Debbie Hill said.
‘You just hope someone will speak up if they know something to help the situation… We just want to know what happened and where he is.’
Carol’s younger sister Jill told the Chanel Nine program she also shares their anguish of not knowing what happened.
‘It’s difficult each day because it’s with you all the time,’ she said.
‘You’re not able to put it down that is the problem of someone who has gone missing. You never have a resolution. You just have to keep on holding it and holding it.’
MISSING CAMPERS THEORIES
THE BLUE NISSAN PATROL
Homicide detectives now suspect a person travelling dark blue Nissan Patrol got into an altercation with the couple which turned deadly. Investigators theorise the person may have driven their bodies away in a trailer.
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 acknowledge that some other unknown attackers could have set upon the campers.