Vanished in the bush – Russell Hill and Carol Clay

It’s no secret that Australia has some crazy geographical features.  It is a huge country (the 6th largest in the world), and is almost ¾ of the size of the USA. The population is only around 25 million, which means there is plenty of free space to get lost or murdered in.

Some fun facts about Australia!

  • It’s the driest inhabited continent in the world.
  • The country’s interior consists of arid and semi-arid areas which are referred to as ‘outback’. About 70% of Australia are outback, while the coastal plains are more fertile and house the majority of Australia’s population. About 35% of Australia’s land area are covered by deserts.

This stat is from the Australian Institute of Family Studies:

‘Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world, with over two-thirds (69%) of the population living in major cities. It also has one of the lowest population densities outside of its major cities.’ 

I am giving you this bit of background as this blog is going to be about the case of missing campers Russell Hill and Carol Clay, as well as some other mysterious crimes that have happened in the same area.

Russell Hill (74) and Carol Clay (73) were ‘lovers’.  And they had been for decades.   There was just one small detail in their relationship that they often overlooked.  Russell was married to someone else.  

Russell’s wife is/was Robyn Hill.  She was friendly with Carol – Robyn has described Carol as a ‘long time family friend’.  Some articles online say that Russell and Carol were teenage sweethearts who broke up and married other people, only to reconnect later.

When I started researching this, I believed Carol was married too.  I cannot find confirmation of this though.  I did find part of an interview with Rob Ashlin (his name will pop up many times in this blog), who was friends with Russell and he said:

‘Apparently Carol’s been around the scene for 20 years, on and off.  He says Ms Clay lost her first husband but married for a second time before allegedly divorcing her husband to be with Mr Hill.

“But Russell backed out at the last minute,”

So, why does their marital status and affair matter? Well in March 2020,  Russell and Carol decided to sneak away from their families for a camping trip in remote Victorian bushland together.  Russell picked Carol up from her home in the suburb of Pakenham and they set off for their trip.

Russell’s wife Robyn thought he was camping alone, which he had apparently done many times since he retired (was he really alone?)

They travelled via Licola and spent a night at Howitt High Plains before heading into the Wonnangatta Valley.

This video gives you an idea of the terrain

Phone reception is practically nil and it’s not an area that is popular with hikers – the remote ­Wonnangatta Valley does not see a lot of foot or road traffic. 

The Wonnangatta Valley

Russell told Robyn he planned to be home on March 26, while Carol had told friends she was going away for a few days and was expected to be home by March 28 or 29.  Some of Carol’s family allegedly knew who her travel partner was.  

The next day, Friday March 20, Russell spoke with Rob Ashlin via radio.  They were both keen radio club members.  The group is made up of men who like camping, hunting and fishing: outdoors types who use the radio to communicate when they could not use mobile/cell phones. If any of the club were camping, there was an unwritten rule about checking in via radio at 6pm each night.

Some articles state that Russell said he was having radio transmission issues, but 

Rob said their communication that night  was good and “there was no indication of any problems”.

Rob gave Russell directions on how to get to Dargo through Wombat Spur and Talbotville from Wonnangatta.

“His plan was in the next day or so to come down and camp at Upper Dargo as more or less a final night, I believe, and return (home) to Drouin,” Rob told the Advertiser.

What happened that night or in the early hours of the next day is unknown.  Russell failed to check in via radio on the Saturday night, and when Sunday 6pm arrived with no radio contact, Rob became concerned.  


He called Robyn to tell her he thought this was out of the ordinary.  “I thought I’m sniffing a bad rat here,” he said.

As Rob was familiar with the area, he was able to direct police to the precise camp location when police started to search for the couple.  

For some reason, there are some big discrepancies in articles about when their campsite was discovered – some say it was on March 21 and others say it was March 26/27.  I tend to believe it was later as I do not believe the alarm was raised until at least 22/23 March.  I have also read that someone else came across their campsite on March 21 and took photos, but I am not sure if they alerted police.

When police arrived on the scene, they were greeted with an eerily grim site.  

Russell’s locked Toyota Landcruiser was found alongside their camping setup, which had been burned to the ground. 

The couple’s campsite

The couple had a pretty sophisticated camp site set up before it burned to the ground – they had a big tent, outdoor shower, chairs and a table.  Russell’’s friends say he also owned a $2,000 drone that he liked to use and this has never been recovered. Russell’s bank cards and the couple’s sleeping bags are also still missing.  Some reports say the car keys were missing but other articles say they were in the locked vehicle.

Interestingly, not long after the campsite was discovered, police deemed the fire as non suspicious.  This led to rumors online.  Did the couple run away together to start a new life and perhaps stage the scene?  It was suggested that a mobile phone charger may have started the fire.  No accelerant was detected at the scene.

Police were questioned at the time about the relationship between the two – 

‘It is delicate and we are being very respectful of both families’ wishes and concerns here,’ officers said at the time.

Police continued searching for the couple.  There were some reported possible sightings of them from March 22.  This info is from ABC news – 

-An older woman seen at Black Snake Creek who was waiting for other campers to finish using a long-drop toilet.

-An older couple seen driving away from Black Snake Creek Hut — the woman was wearing lipstick and “looked out of place”.

-An older couple near Eaglevale River crossing and campsite.

Police say they are trying to eliminate people and vehicles from the investigation.

“They are also keen to speak to anyone who may have smelled what has been described as a burning plastic smell in the area on March 20 or March 21,” a Victoria Police spokeswoman said.

Four-wheel drivers, hunters, fishing groups or trail-bike riders who were in the Wonnangatta area in March were asked to contact police, even if they do not believe they saw or heard anything suspicious.  Police also asked to speak to anyone who had been in the area of Howitt Plains and Zeka Spur Track on March 19 or 20 and Wonnangatta Station between March 20-24.

Even though Russell’s car had minor fire damage, it was still driveable.  Police could not figure out why the couple did not take the car after their camp site burned down and said that there was no reason for them to have left on foot. 

‘At this stage, due to the length of time they’ve been missing and the weather conditions, we have grave fears for their safety,’ Inspector Gaffee said.

‘We know they’re near water … we know they had food in the car but we don’t know how much they had with them.’

Police also considered the theory that Russell had crashed or lost his drone, and both he and Carol went to look for it.  Maybe they had an accident while doing that and perished in the elements? 

In April 2020,  Robyn Hill spoke to the media.  ‘I don’t think that he will still be alive,” she said.  She also spoke about when she realized something was wrong.  “’He’s always been on the radio. He didn’t call for quite a few days and then I started to get worried and thought ‘I’ve got to do something now’”

Carol’s friends also voiced their disbelief about the situation:

‘She was a tremendous friend,’ Ms Coombe said.

‘She was one of those people who would cook you dinner and drop it 

‘Something clearly has gone awry. We know that something has gone awry,’ Dorothy Coombe said.  

18 days after Russell and Carol disappeared, the official search for them was called off.  Police decided to completely call off the search after receiving expert advice “from an independent doctor that specialises in the field”.

“There are a number of reasons we have called off the search, including the timeframe the people have been missing and access to the search area in the Wonnangatta Valley being impacted by the weather over the weekend,” Insp Gaffee said.

“There was light snow at Mount Howard which also impacts access tracks to the Wonnangatta Valley and has an impact on the survivability of the pair.”

Police say they have been keeping in touch with the family during the search efforts and they have been notified it has been called off.

“I feel for the family, it is an incredibly distressful and sad time for them.”

“I’m really surprised we haven’t found them. Throughout the search we were confident we would locate them in the Wonnangatta Valley as all the evidence we have got points to them being there,” Insp Gaffee said.

Police have reassured the public that they won’t stop investigating the case.

“Whilst the active search in Wonnangatta Valley has finished, it doesn’t mean we will stop continuing to investigate. It is an active missing persons case,” Insp Gaffee said. 

In May 2020, police changed their theory about what happened to the couple.  They began investigating the case as a murder.

Detective inspector Andrew Stamper told the media ‘My belief is there’s been a third party.’ 

‘The belief is if Russell and Carol were still there they (searching officers) would have found them or they would have found some trace of them.

‘We have found no trace whatsoever.’

Detective Stamper has written off the theory the pair vanished on purpose to start a new life together. 

‘The strongest theory is that it would be something that has happened in the valley that has maybe escalated and resulted in something bad happening to them,’ he said.

‘Russell and Carol have disappeared to nowhere… they’ve either been removed from the valley or concealed somewhere in the valley. 

They also revealed that arson chemists had been unable to completely determine the cause of the campsite fire.

Rob Ashlin, Russell’s friend also spoke about his theory:

“Russell would never leave his equipment, never,” 

“I believe he’s been jumped and I reckon he’s been forced into a vehicle and carted out of there.”

“The police have really looked into everything, they’ve had forensics up there, they’ve had dogs, they’ve had helicopters, they’ve had blokes on horseback and it’s as clean as a whistle, they can’t find anything.”

“I think they’ve been murdered,” he said. “I really think they’ve been taken from the scene. There’s been no diggings found and if there was anything around there, if no one else found them, the wallopers (police) would have.

Info about the search for Russell and Carol was made public sporadically over the rest of 2020 and early 2021.  Searches were undertaken time to time by police air surveillance, the dog squad and members of the State Emergency Service, Parks Victoria and the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association of Victoria.

In March 2021, things started to heat up again in this case – one year after the couple disappeared.  The Victoria Police’s Missing Persons Squad made an appeal for information about a white dual cab ute that was seen in the area at the time of the disappearances to come forward. 

Detective Inspector Andrew Stamper said police had been able to identify all vehicles seen in the area near the burned campsite, except for the white ute. 

‘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 on Friday.

‘We cannot leave any “what ifs” when it comes to an investigation like this.’

‘We’ve had people from a number of states come forward to provide their details and tell us they were in the area around that time, which is greatly appreciated and incredibly helpful,’ he said.

‘I’ve been clear the whole time that it’s not about catching out people who shouldn’t have been there for any reason – we just need to account for you.’

Inspector Stamper stressed there was nothing linking the vehicle to the pair’s disappearance. 

‘So please do not be concerned about coming forward to assist,’ he said. 

Police started releasing more tidbits of information to the media and it seemed like there was a new article every day in March and April.

Police also announced in early March that a drone had been found in the area and had been handed in.  They did not say at the time if the drone was Russell’s.  It did not take long for them to make a statement and on March 9, they said that the drone was not the same model as Russell’s.  They did say they were trying to find out more about the device.

On March 13, police spoke to the media again about advancements they had made in the investigation.

‘We’re pretty confident that we’ve got a good picture of people’s movements in the valley and around the campsite on that day, which is pretty good considering we started with not much,’ missing persons squad head Detective Inspector Andrew Stamper told the Herald Sun.

‘A little win could be just eliminating someone… twelve months down the track, we are more focused than ever.’

Around that time Detective Inspector Stamper told 7 news that he believed the couple were dead

‘My honest but sad belief is that unfortunately, they are deceased.

We also learned a bit more about the timeline of the disappearances. Forensic testing has also revealed the toilet set up at the couple’s campsite was never used – this led to speculation that whatever happened to them occurred straight after Russell made his final radio call.  

Rob Ashlin spoke to the media about his thoughts on the status of the search – 

‘Some boys are thinking about doing a trip up there, but I don’t know that is the right thing to do,’ he said. 
‘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.’

In early April, cadaver dogs, which specialise in locating human remains, were sent to the region but failed to find any trace of the pair.  This was the second time that police have used dogs in the search, to no avail.

On April 14 2021, police focused their search on the Mount Hotham area.  It is not known exactly why they moved the search to an area over 2 hours drive from where Russell and Carol were last seen – Detective Acting Inspector Combridge said it wasn’t one piece of information but multiple sources that had led them to the new search zone.

Two shovels were found and taken for forensic testing by police who were focusing their efforts on a patch of bushland adjacent to the Great Alpine Road.

“As to the relevance [of the discovery of the shovels] to the investigation, or its importance to the investigation, that is still being tested at this time,” missing persons squad Detective Acting Inspector Tony Combridge said on Wednesday afternoon.

Police also collected others items from the search zone in evidence bags.

Detective Acting Inspector Combridge said one line of inquiry was that items may have been thrown from a car travelling along that stretch of the Great Alpine Road. He described it as an incredibly remote area where there is bushland that has probably never been walked on by humans.

“It is that remote. So I think that it’s really important to bear in mind,” he said.

“To be honest, we don’t exactly know what we are going to find until we’ve searched it and that is why we are there. The area itself is of interest to us because of the information that we’ve uncovered.

“As for what we expect to find there … we want to find some answers.”

Image showing search locations

Detective Acting Inspector Combridge said they had received so many calls in response to their appeal for information about the ute that we spoke about earlier,  that they had expanded the size of the investigation team, including adding arson specialists.

On April 26, police returned to the Wonnangatta area, where Russell and Carol disappeared from to search again.  They searched remote tracks, rivers and cliffs in the area.  

Police told the media they were focusing on areas around the Dargo High Plains Road, Cynthia Range Track, Herne Spur Track and the Wonnangatta Track.

Russell’s wife Robyn spoke to the media again in May 2021. 

 ‘I can’t see how they will come home. He hasn’t spent any money, he hasn’t done anything,’ Ms Hill said.  

‘I just want them found, one way or the other, and then he can face the music if he’s still alive.

‘See, I’m a bit of a sadist. You’ve got to be, otherwise you’d be in a heap.’

Ms Hill said she and her husband have known Ms Clay for more than 50 years.

On May 5, police confirmed “there are no current searches underway”.  There has been no news regarding the shovels that were found or if anything was found in other recent searches.

Police said there was “no further update at this time” in relation to the shovels, which were sent off to be forensically examined in Melbourne.

THEORIES ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED TO RUSSELL AND CAROL:

One theory that keeps popping up is that a mysterious person known as Buttons or Button Man could be involved.  

This info from from an article on StrangeOutdoors.com – 

He is a hard, expert bushman who earned his nickname from his habit of using deer antlers to make buttons and create large plugs for his ear piercings.

He is reported to camp on the side of a remote mountain that lets him see anyone approaching, uses snares to catch deer and hunts with expertly crafted Indigenous-style spears which have been using by the Aborigines for generations.

Many campers and hunters have stories of the Button-Man approaching them at campsites once it gets dark, creeping up on them like a ghost. He is around 70 years of age, with short grey hair, wearing dark jackets and those he encounters call him “bloody scary”. Others say he is “spooky”.  But only a  few report any threats or actual violence. He will questions visitors on why they are there in his vicinity but rarely responds to questions about himself. They say he moves through the toughest terrain with the competence and stamina of someone half his age.

At least eight experienced bushmen have had encounters, with one saying he had a “thousand-metre stare that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up”. They say no one knows he is near until he decides to make himself known.

Disturbingly, a wildlife photographer spent days taking shots in the area near the Button-Man’s camp. When he returned home and downloaded his photos to his computer there was one unexplained shot of the photographer asleep inside his tent. No one knows who took the shot.

For reasons known only to himself, the Button-Man builds rock pyramids in random spots and places piles of pebbles on roads to know if a car has passed.

Those spending time in the Australian bush, called “Bushies” have hidden firewood supplies in crevices, but returned and found their stash gone. They say someone must have been watching them carefully to know the location. An experienced hunter woke around 11 pm for a night hunt to find Button-Man camped next to him.

Some think he sees it as harmless sport to “hunt the hunters”, proving he can approach the best without them knowing.

Did Russell and Carol encounter Buttons?  Maybe he at least knows more about what happened to them.  

Could the disappearances be related to the cases of other missing hikers in the area?

Warren Meyer vanished without a trace after telling his family he was going on a bushwalk in the Dom Dom Saddle park in Fernshaw, Victoria, on Easter Sunday, 2008. 

The 57-year-old left for a 10km bushwalk and had packed a whistle, matches, paper maps, a mobile, food and water.

Detective Val Smith found a gun at the site where Mr Meyer went missing.

‘So we know that there was a number of risks in the bush at that time, from human intervention,’ he said.

Detective Smith maintains that Mr Meyer was killed. 

Anthony Stewart Williams, an escaped psychiatric patient, was in the bush nearby to Mr Meyer with a two-hour window where their paths may have crossed. 

Mr Williams then killed himself a year later, but Detective Smith believes other theories may have been at play.

‘One was in relation to a marijuana plantation that was in the bush,’ he said.

In 2015, around the time that Mr Meyer went missing, a crop was found. 

In December 2017 Coroner John Olle concluded that Mr Meyer had died of ‘unknown causes’ and that ‘no further investigation’ was required.

It’s unlikely that the pair were killed by the same person who met with Warren Meyer, but maybe they disappeared under the same premise?

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 sheer quantity of dead deer in the area where their scorched campsite was found, explaining he saw a new carcass every ‘200m or 300m’.

Russell’s friend Rob Ashlin also gave a theory related to the couple coming across someone sinister in the bush – 

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.’

On October 24, 2019, Niels Becker, 39, an experienced bushwalker, went missing on a solo five-day hike in Victoria’s Alpine National Park which he had prepared for months. Police said Mr Becker was well prepared for the hike an dhda supplies.  

He left the Upper Jamieson Hut on October 24 and two days later sent a message to his family from Vallejo Gantner Hut that he was heading to his car at Mount Stirling, roughly six or seven hours away depending on route.

The last confirmed sighting was by the Button-Man, who told police he saw him in his area. The track took him past the Button-Man’s camp.  As of May 2021, Niels is still missing.  

Conrad Whitlock, 72, drove into the High Country in July 2019, and he left his white BMW in darkness on the side of Mount Buller Road along with his jacket, mobile phone and keys.

Conrad, from Sandhurst, south of Melbourne, was last seen by his wife as they climbed into bed at about 11.30pm before she awoke at 5.30am to find him gone.  He failed to arrive for work the next day, raising concerns about his whereabouts.

Victorian Police Inspector David Brown said officers found the car in working condition and with Whitlock’s jacket, mobile phone and car keys inside. “At the moment there is nothing to indicate a reason for the vehicle to have stopped, the vehicle had the keys with it, it started, it had fuel, so as to why Mr Whitlock has gone away from the vehicle at this stage we simply don’t know,’ Inspector Brown said.

David Prideaux, 50, former Barwon Prison governor was a passionate bush hunter and on June 5, 2011, he went deer hunting with his brother-in-law in Victoria’s Alpine National Park. He has not been seen since.

Despite several searches of the area months after his disappearance, there was no trace of Prideaux or any of his belongings.

There were many theories, including that he was killed over the murder of drug dealer Carl Williams, who had been ambushed and murdered inside Barwon more than a year before David disappeared but it was thought unlikely that a hitman could creep up on an experienced hunter.

Media reports also raised the possibility Prideaux had been in possession of sensitive police files, including allegations of police corruption, when he went missing.

The coroner also ruled out suggestions David faked his own death after a number of reported sightings over the years, including in the Western Australia town of Broome. The inquest into his death heard investigators had meticulously combed over Prideaux’s bank accounts, but they had not been touched since he vanished. Similar searches of his mobile phone records, as well as Centrelink, Medicare, Australia Post and betting agencies had also failed to trace a link.

The coroner found it likely that Prideaux died from a serious accident in the national park or a medical cause, and there was nothing to suggest he met with foul play. The coroner is satisfied he is dead, but the cause is unknown.

As of October 2021, Russell and Carol are still missing. There have been a few media mentions lately:

Fresh appeal over disappearance of campers Russell Hill and Carol Clay, as police investigate new theory

Police investigating the disappearance of campers Russell Hill and Carol Clay say they are confident of a breakthrough in the case, and have a “theory” as to what happened to the pair.

The families of Mr Hill and Ms Clay have made a new appeal for information about their disappearance more than 18 months ago.

They were last heard from on March 20, 2020, when they were camping in the Wonnangatta Valley.

Their burnt out campsite and vehicle were found, but detectives have not been able to turn several other leads into a breakthrough in the case.

Detective Inspector Andrew Stamper said he believed police were still in “a very good position” to solve the case.

“I’m really confident that we’re on the right track, we’re looking at a particular theory now which involves a number of persons,” he said.

Detective Inspector Stamper would not elaborate on the theory, but said hundreds of people across the state had provided information or assistance to police.

In November 2021, police released some more information about a Blue Nissan Patrol that they would like more information on.

Inspector Stamper said four-wheel drive attempted to leave the valley late about midnight on March 20, but the Myrtleford gate was closed because of the bushfires, meaning the driver had to make a complicated turn back in the direction from which they had come.

“It’s unusual for someone to try and depart that area because it’s treacherous in the daytime let alone the night-time,” he said.

Detectives believe that same vehicle was then also spotted on two cameras at the top of Mount Hotham, consistent with where a vehicle would exit the valley given the closure of the Myrtleford gate.

“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 inquiries and move forward,” Inspector Stamper said.

Police have also released images of the couple’s burnt out belongings.

On November 23, 2021, a man was arrested in connection with the murders of Russell and Carol.

A man has been arrested over the disappearance of Victorian campers Carol Clay and Russell Hill. The 55-year-old man, from Caroline Springs, was arrested in the High Plains area, part of the Victorian Alps, about 5.30pm yesterday.He is being interviewed by police and is expected to be charged later today or tomorrow.

“Detectives from the Missing Persons Squad have arrested a man as part of the investigation into missing campers Russell Hill and Carol Clay,” police said in a statement.”The 55-year-old Caroline Springs man was arrested about 5.30pm yesterday and will be interviewed by police this morning.”The investigation into the matter remains ongoing.”

Join discussion on this case at TrueCrimeSociety.com

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