On March 19 of 2020, 74-year old Russell Hill headed out from his home in Drouin, in the West Gippsland region of Victoria, Australia, in his 4WD truck to pick up 73-year-old Carol Clay, who lived in Pakenham, near Melbourne. The two were planning to head out on a camping trip into the rugged and remote Wonnangatta Valley, in eastern Victoria’s High Country. The trip was a bit on the secretive side, as Hill was married and had told his wife he was camping alone, while Clay had told her own family simply that she was going away for a few days. However, the two had known each other for 20 years and had already made several trips of this nature, and in fact this was their third trip to the Wonnangatta Valley, so for them everything was going normally. Then on March 20, Hill contacted his wife Robyn using a high frequency radio and also contacted his friend, Rob Ashlin later that day, but was forced to end the transmission due to static interference. That is the last time anyone would hear from either one of the two campers, and they would turn into a strange mystery that has yet to be solved.
For a full week friends and family became worried when there was no further contact from the couple, then on March 27 a grim discovery was made by a group of campers in the same area. They found Hill’s campsite and tent, and it seemed that the tent had sustained major burns as if there had been a fire. Hill’s Toyota four-wheel-drive vehicle was still there with its keys, as was all of their equipment and supplies, but there was no sign of either of the missing campers. When police arrived on the scene they found that the two had been very well-prepared and equipped, with plenty of food and water, but had left it all at the campsite, indicating that wherever they had gone, they had probably planned to return shortly. One odd detail was that hill’s drone, which he was known to have taken with him and always used for scouting out the terrain, was missing, and there was no sign of it either. When police investigated this, they found that the drone had not uploaded any data on to the app on his cell phone or to his account, and there was no digital evidence that it had been used at all. So where did it go? Did they take it with them? Who knows?
Another clue was the burned out tent. When it was examined, it was at first speculated that the fire had been caused by a faulty phone charger, and it was at first presumed that they had perhaps gone out for help after the tent had caught fire, but why would they go out into that rough wilderness without any supplies and why didn’t they take the vehicle? It was especially odd considering Hill was known as a seasoned, experienced bushman, so what was going on here? It was also thought that the fire perhaps had been caused from the phone charger overheating, which suggested that it had started after they had left. Did they go out and look for the missing drone after it had perhaps crash and then got lost? Even if that were so, why would they leave the campsite totally unprepared and on foot? No one knew. A massive search was carried out covering a vast area around the campsite, using tracker dogs, aircraft, and hundreds of police, rescue operators, and volunteers, but not a single trace of the missing couple was found. It was very unusual, because although people often go missing or get lost in the area, they very rarely just vanish without a trace as if they have evaporated into thin air. There is usually something found, remains, tracks, something, but not with Hill and Clay. One Missing Persons Squad Detective Inspector Andrew Stamper would say of this:
I’ve seen the GPS tracks of where they’ve been and they’ve pretty much covered all of the valley and their belief is, if Russell and Carol were still there, they would have found them or some trace of them. We have found no trace whatsoever.
The search was finally called off on April 6 without any success, after which detectives from the Missing Persons Unit began pursuing an investigation that led to them looking into some of the possibilities. One idea was that the two secret lovers had run off together, but a look at both of their backgrounds showed that they deeply loved their families and were, as one detective put it, “not people who are just going to decide to run away and live off the grid somewhere.” A darker prospect was that they had committed a murder suicide, but again there was nothing to indicate that either one of them had been capable of such a thing and there was no evidence at all for it. This led the detectives to lean towards the possibility that the couple had met with foul play at the hands of a nefarious party, who had murdered them, burned down the camp to destroy any evidence, and dragged them out into the wilderness to dispose of the bodies, but who and why?
One idea was that Hill had been using his drone and found something out there that he wasn’t supposed to see, such as a drug deal or a drug crop. It could also have been some dispute with other hikers or other campers that had escalated into violence, or just a random thrill kill for a deranged opportunist. One idea that the police seriously considered was that the couple may have been killed by a loner bushman lurking about the area called “Buttons” or “the Button Man,” due to the fact that he wears around buttons and jewelry fashioned of deer antlers. He is described by locals as an “oddball loner,” and according to Hill’s friends the missing man had encountered him out in the bush before, and been told by Buttons not to camp out there. However, there is no evidence that Buttons had anything to do with the disappearance, and as police have said, “Being creepy is not illegal.” Police approached others that had been in the area at the time as well, but there was never anyone formally charged and no evidence to link them to the disappearance.
Rather spookily, there have been other unexplained mysterious vanishings in the same general area, in fact two others who disappeared over a 12-month period within just 60 kilometers of each other. One was a man named Neil Becker, who went for a hike near Mt. Stirling and just seemingly kept on walking off the face of the earth. Another was a man named Conrad Whitlock, who similarly went out on a hike near Mt. Buller and never came back. Is there any connection between these, or is this just the rugged, wild land claiming the unprepared? What happened to this couple and what do we make of all of the strange clues surrounding them? As of yet, nobody knows, and the case remains a stubborn unsolved mystery.