How campers search exposed 50-year lie

The elderly couple were childhood sweethearts who rekindled later in life. Picture: Supplied.
The elderly couple were childhood sweethearts who rekindled later in life. Picture: Supplied.

The disappearance of Russell Hill and Carol Clay at a remote campsite shocked the country and prompted a massive missing persons search.

At first glance, the pair were an odd couple. They’d grown up together but drifted apart, raising families and leading different lives.

Mr Hill had spent much of his working life logging in Victoria’s remote High Country and brought up his daughters on a farm, while Mrs Clay lived in Melbourne’s eastern fringe and had been heavily involved in community and charity organisations.

Their teenage relationship decades earlier flared back up into an affair in the mid-2000s and culminated when they left for a camping trip in March 2020.

For the past month, details of their secret relationship and the lies told to keep it quiet were aired at the trial of their alleged killer, former pilot Gregory Stuart Lynn, 57.

Mr Hill and Mrs Clay vanished while camping in the Wonnangatta Valley. Picture: Supplied.
Mr Hill and Mrs Clay vanished while camping in the Wonnangatta Valley. Picture: Supplied.

How the affair started

Over the course of the trial, the jury heard Mr Hill and Mrs Clay had known each other since childhood.

They dated as teenagers but the relationship ended and the couple drifted apart, only to reunite later in life.

Louise Heib, a close friend of Mrs Clay through the Country Women’s Association, said she was told Mr Hill was “her first love”.

When Carol started to get serious about the relationship … they broke up and it devastated her,” she said.

“Then they just met again years later and it flared back up.”

Mrs Clay’s daughter, Emma Davies, confirmed to the jury that Mr Hill had been her mother’s first boyfriend.

Emma Davies told the jury she knew of the couple’s relationship. Picture: NCA NewsWire / David Geraghty
Emma Davies told the jury she knew of the couple’s relationship. Picture: NCA NewsWire / David Geraghty

She said at the time of Mrs Clay’s death, she’d known of the affair for about 14 years, describing their relationship as “very caring, very loving”.

Mr Hill’s wife, Robyn, told the jury she’d first met her husband in 1968 when he was in his early 20s and they tied the knot a year later.

She said she was introduced to Mrs Clay around the same time, with Mr Hill telling her they were “first cousins”.

It was a lie she believed for most of their 51-year marriage.

The jury heard Mr Hill and Mrs Clay were reacquainted sometime around the new millennium.

The jury heard Mr Hill had backed out of a plan to divorce his wife. Picture: Supplied.
The jury heard Mr Hill had backed out of a plan to divorce his wife. Picture: Supplied.
Mrs Clay, the jury was told, was previously divorced. Picture: Supplied.
Mrs Clay, the jury was told, was previously divorced. Picture: Supplied.

In the early 2000s Mrs Hill said she and her husband had gone on a couple of trips in Victoria with Mrs Clay and her then second husband, Lynton.

On one of these trips, to Mr and Mrs Clay’s property on Phillip Island, Mrs Hill said she began to feel something was “strange” when her husband and Mrs Clay went off on a walk alone.

A neighbour’s ultimatum outed the secret lovers

Mr Hill and Mrs Clay’s secret relationship was outed to his family in mid-2000s after a neighbour, Jill Robinson, gave him an ultimatum.

She approached Mr Hill and said he would have to come clean to his wife “or else she was going to”, the jury heard.

Mr Hill acquiesced, sitting down with Mrs Hill and promising he would end it.

Robyn Hill said this is when she first learnt they weren’t related, and as far as she was aware her husband had stopped seeing Mrs Clay.

GREG LYNN- and WIFE of RUSSELL HILL
Robyn Hill said she spent decades believing they were related. Picture: NCA NewsWire / David Crosling

However he continued going on camping trips, with Mrs Hill believing he was going alone or with the men from his amateur radio club.

Their eldest daughter, Deborah Hill, said she found out about the affair about the same time as her mother, also believing it had ended in the mid-2000s.

Mr Hill and Mrs Clay’s broken marriage pact

A close friend of Mr Hill, Rob Ashlin, told the jury he “almost fell on the floor” when he learnt about the affair after the couple were reported missing.

He explained Mr Hill was a private person who “kept a lot of stuff to himself”.

“It was something about Russell that I’d never ever thought of,” he said.

“You’re thinking about a bloke around his 60s, 70s … what’s the go with … one on the side. One’s enough trouble.”

MISSING CAMPERS
Rob Ashlin told the trial he was shocked to learn of the affair. Picture: NCA NewsWire / David Crosling

Mr Ashlin told the jury he’d met Mrs Clay once, when he visited another friend, James Francis, at a camping spot.

He said Mr Hill had introduced her as a friend, but that “blind Freddy” could see there was more to it.

Mr Francis said he became aware of the affair when he went camping with Mr Hill in 2019 and he asked if Mrs Clay could join.

“I’ll be bringing a woman with me and she’s not my wife, is that OK?,” he told the jury Mr Hill had asked.

Mr Ashlin said after the couple went missing he’d received a call from Robyn Hill who questioned if Mrs Clay had ever joined their camping trips.

He told the jury she confided in him that Mrs Clay had been “on the scene” for two decades.

Mr Ashlin said he later learnt Mrs Clay had left her second husband to be with Mr Hill, but his friend had backed out of a plan to do the same.

The couple went camping in Mr Hill’s LandCruiser. Picture: Supplied.
The couple went camping in Mr Hill’s LandCruiser. Picture: Supplied.

Ms Heib told the jury Mrs Clay would regularly share stories and pictures of the “beautiful hikes” they’d done together while camping.

She said “a couple of years back” Mrs Clay told her Mr Hill did not want to leave his wife “because she was not a well lady”.

“I think Carol liked the situation. I don’t think that worried her. She was quite independent,” she said.

“She loved the country girl side of things, she was just free, and didn’t need to put her lippy or anything else on.”

The camping trip

On the morning of March 19, Mr Hill packed up his 70 series Toyota LandCruiser and left the Drouin home he shared with his wife.

Giving evidence, Mrs Hill said he was excited for the trip and told her he was going “on his own up to Wonnangatta” and wasn’t sure for how long.

“He was happy, yes, ‘cause he liked going up there,” she told the jury.

Instead Mr Hill drove half an hour west to Mrs Clay’s Pakenham home where he collected her about 7.30am.

Ms Davies said her mother, Mrs Clay, “wouldn’t describe herself as a camper” but appreciated being outdoors and would often go with Mr Hill.

The couple drove north, and were spotted by a number of witnesses arriving at the Wonnangatta Valley in the mid afternoon and setting up a camp at Bucks Camp.

Mr Lynn told the jury the couple were camped at the top of this photo, while he was camped at the base. Picture: Supplied/ Supreme Court of Victoria.
Mr Lynn told the jury the couple were camped at the top of this photo, while he was camped at the base. Picture: Supplied/ Supreme Court of Victoria.

Mr Hill, an amateur radio enthusiast, spoke over high-frequency radio with other members of his radio club between 6pm and 6.30pm that evening.

He did the same the following evening, saying he planned to leave in the next day or two to investigate other campsites along the Dargo River – this was his last known contact.

A pink handbag and wallets with missing cards were found at their charred campsite by another camper the following day.

Mrs Hill reported him missing a few days later and the perplexing scene was located by police on March 28.

Despite extensive searches over the following year, no sign of the couple was discovered until their burnt and fragmented bones were found in late November 2021.