Police have seized a blue 4WD after the suspected killer of two elderly campers was slapped with handcuffs in a dramatic arrest on Wednesday.
Russell Hill, 74, and Ms Carol Clay, 73, have not been seen since sneaking away for a trip to Victoria’s remote Wonnangatta Valley on March 20, 2020.
Investigators for the almost two years have struggled to come up with anything that might have indicated a motive or any link anybody to the disappearance.
But earlier this month, police released images of a blue four-wheel-drive – believed to be a mid-to-late-1990s model Nissan Patrol – taken by a CCTV camera in the area at the time the pair went missing.
Detectives leading the case said it was the only vehicle unaccounted for after on the night.
The off-roader was taken by police on Monday at a remote campsite in East Gippsland where heavily armed special operations officers flew into bushland on helicopters and detained the suspect.
It is understood officers had been tracking his movements before flying into bushland north of Sale.
The Nissan which detectives said may hold the answers to what happened to the couple will be taken back to the Forensic Services Centre at Macleod in Melbourne’s north east and examined for evidence.
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’
Russell Hill (pictured, left) and Carol Clay (right) are believed to have been murdered during a camping trip
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 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 suspect was arrested around 5:30pm on Monday, and will be interviewed on Tuesday morning.
No charges have yet been laid.
It is understood police likely knew the suspect’s exact location after releasing specific information to the public on his alleged vehicle last week.
Detectives at the time refused to say whether a CCTV camera atop Mount Hotham had captured the vehicle’s registration plate, but it now appears almost certain it had.
Homicide squad detectives no doubt had the 55-year old under heavy surveillance for weeks, if not months.
One likely scenario is police had listening devices in both his vehicle and home and knew his every little move.
Much like the analysis of the suspect’s phone movements would have helped narrow him down as a suspect, so to would it have helped police track his movements.
The man’s vehicle and all his equipment recovered during the dramatic arrest will be in the process of undergoing intensive forensic investigation in the hope something reveals even more evidence.
On Monday, while isolated and with little avenue of escape or harm to the public, Victoria Police detectives finally made their move on the suspected killer.
Detectives had made repeated public appeals for information since the elderly campers went missing 20 months ago.
Mr Hill left his Drouin home on March 19 and picked up Ms Clay from her home in Pakenham in his white Toyota LandCruiser.
He was last heard from on March 20 when he made a call via HF radio saying he was at Wonnangatta Valley in the Victorian Alps.
The pair have not been seen or heard from since.
The following day, campers found Mr Hill’s car with minor fire damage at their completely scorched campsite near Dry River Creek Track in the valley.
A man has been arrested as part of the investigation into missing campers Carol Clay (left) and Russell Hill (right). The pair have not been heard from since March 20, 2020
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
Earlier this month, police released images of a blue four-wheel-drive – believed to be a mid-to-late-1990s model Nissan Patrol – taken by a CCTV camera in the area at the time the pair went missing.
Witnesses had reported a number of sightings of the vehicle.
Although police released a detailed photo of the vehicle, it appeared to have its registration plate digitally altered, suggesting they knew exactly who owned the vehicle.
Detectives believe the pair were attacked between 6pm and 11pm during a random confrontation with another camper, possibly the driver of the 4WD, who then torched their campsite to cover their tracks.
Witnesses have since come forward with new information that revealed just how difficult – and dangerous – it would have been for the killer to flee the high country on the night the lovers vanished.
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.
Finding the road unalterably blocked, the driver – who was heading towards Myrtleford – would have needed to have performed a difficult u-turn with a trailer on the narrow road 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.
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.
‘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
The leading theory now is that there may have been some sort of altercation between the campers which turned deadly.
Inspector Stamper said 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
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 that is yet to be recovered.
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 was an experienced outdoorsman with knowledge of the area, it appears very unlikely.
Multiple major search operations involving drones, helicopters, mounted police, search dogs and ground crews have also come up with nothing.
Mr Hill (above) had recently retired and was an experienced outdoorsman who reportedly knew the remote Alpine region of the Gippsland well
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.
‘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 (pictured) visited the campsite for the first time and said they believe their father was murdered because he would never leave his family
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.’