It’s not unusual for people to get lost in Victoria’s remote and rugged High Country — but it is strange for them to remain missing. In the past 12 months, four people have disappeared within a 60-kilometre radius, leaving police and locals baffled.
It’s what wasn’t found in the search for Russell Hill and Carol Clay that stands out to Detective Inspector Andrew Stamper.
The veteran officer knows the pair’s camping trip had initially gone to plan.
Russell picked Carol up from her house in Pakenham on the outskirts of Melbourne on March 19 and the pair headed east, bound for the remote Wonnangatta Valley.
Russell Hill was a keen camper who had spent much of his career as a logger in Victoria’s remote High Country. (Supplied)
Carol Clay had a long involvement with the Country Women’s Association before she disappeared. (Supplied)
Russell, 74, and Carol, 73, had given slightly different return dates to their families, a point Detective Stamper puts down to Russell having a fairly flexible schedule.
It’s also true that Russell’s family, including his wife, thought he was camping alone.
Friends say since Russell’s retirement two years ago, he’s been known to head off on solo road trips.
It was only with his disappearance that those close to him learnt that Carol, a former Country Women’s Association president, was on some of those getaways.
After their disappearance, police were asked if the pair, who have reportedly known each other for more than 20 years, could have run away together.
Detective Inspector Andrew Stamper is leading the investigation into the disappearance of Russell Hill and Carol Clay. (ABC: Gemma Hall)
It’s a prospect Detective Stamper sees as “highly unlikely”.
“I mean these were two people who were very close with their families, had good, independent, comfortable lives,” he says.
“They are not in my view people who are just going to decide to run away and live off the grid somewhere.”
Russell and Carol are among four people who have gone missing over the past 12 months within a 60-kilometre radius of each other as the crow flies.
The others are Niels Becker, who did not return from a hike near Mount Stirling in October, and Conrad Whitlock, who was last seen on Mount Buller last July.
The Wonnangatta Valley lies between Mt Buller and Mt Hotham in the Victorian High Country. (ABC News: Paul Sellenger)
The Wonnangatta Valley lies in the dense bushland between the popular ski resorts of Mount Buller and Mount Hotham.
You can only access the valley with a 4WD and in winter the roads are completely closed.
On this trip, Russell drove into the valley on a rough 4WD path known as the Zeka Spur Track, a road he’d built decades earlier while working as a contract logger.
The valley is a place with a dark history.
Sometime in December 1917 or January 1918, the manager of the Wonnangatta cattle station, James Barclay, was shot dead.
James Barclay was the manager at the Wonnangatta Station, considered one of the most isolated homesteads in Victoria, when he was murdered. (Supplied: East Gippsland Historical Society)
The station cook John Banford was suspected of the murder, but in November of 1918 he was also found dead with a bullet lodged in his skull.
The murders have remained unsolved for the past century.
Wonnangatta Valley has become a sort of dark tourism attraction — a spot where campers can sit around a fire in the black of night and scare each other with ghost stories.
The trip to Wonnangatta Valley was Russell’s third visit to the region in a month.
At the end of February, he and Carol had travelled through the High Country, stopping at a camping spot called Pikes Flat, about 60km from the Wonnangatta Valley.
Then on March 11, Russell told friends and family he was heading to camp alone on the King Billy Track between Wonnangatta and Mount Buller.
Russell’s friend of almost 30 years, Robbie Ashlin, says it was on the King Billy Track about a year earlier that Russell and another mate had an encounter with a bushman who has been dubbed the Button Man.
He’s a man who reportedly spends weeks camping alone in that remote country and gets his nickname from his habit of shaving down deer antlers to make buttons.
Robbie says Russell encountered a man who was “agitated” and “let them know he didn’t want them to be camping there”.
“They just called him the angry deer hunter because they didn’t know him as anything else.”
But others see this elusive bushman differently.
Roxanne had a holiday house in Mansfield, one of the nearest towns to the Wonnangatta Valley, and would run into the Button Man while shopping at the supermarket.
She describes a man in a torn duffle coat who was always friendly to her and her son and would chat to supermarket staff and locals on the main street.
“I just saw a guy who was down on his luck,” she says.
She thought he simply looked like a man without a home.
The search team for Carrol Clay and Russell Hill had to content with terrain like this in the Wonnangatta Valley. (ABC News: Tim Bates)
Detective Stamper says police have spoken to a number of people who live in or spend time in the bushland around the Wonnangatta Valley, including some with “concerning and anti-social habits”.
But the detective says police have no suspects, and have not been able to connect anyone with the disappearance of Russell and Carol, or any of the other disappearances in the area.
Robbie Ashlin (centre) and Russell Hill (right) were in a radio club that would camp together. (Supplied)
Robbie Ashlin is the last person known to have spoken to Russell.
They were part of an amateur radio club that would chat on their radios each day at 6:00pm.
The group is made up of men who like camping, hunting and fishing: outdoors types who use the radio to communicate when they are out of phone reception.
On the night of March 20, while Russell and Carol were camping in the Wonnangatta Valley, Russell spoke to three or four club members including Robbie.
When Robbie didn’t hear from Russell the next night, he wasn’t worried.
“But when he was missing the second and the third night that is when I said to his wife, ‘It’s time to go to the police.'”
Russell Hill and Carol Clay’s campsite was discovered burnt on March 21 and arson detectives have been unable to determine the cause. (Supplied exclusively to ABC Gippsland )
When police got to Russell’s camp they found the remains of a fire that had burnt so hot it had swallowed up his tent and left black stains down the side of his 4WD.
There was no trace of Russell or Carol.
Police have since narrowed their disappearance down to an 18-hour window between that radio call that ended at 6:30pm on March 20, and 2:00pm the next day, when other campers came upon the burnt campsite.
Police chemists have not been able to determine the cause of the fire, but Detective Stamper says it is being treated as suspicious.
“The fire is a big part of what makes us concerned about this incident.”
Russell’s drone has become an object of intense interest to the police investigating his disappearance. (Supplied)
Most of Russell and Carol’s belongings were found in Russell’s distinctive 4WD.
The only things police couldn’t account for were Russell’s drone and his mobile phone.
Detective Stamper says both items could have been destroyed beyond recognition in the fire, but it would have been out of character for Russell to leave expensive items in a tent.
Friends say Russell Hill never ventured too far from his campsite while out in the bush. (Supplied)
Russell’s drone has become on object of intense interest to the police and an object of intense speculation for the public.
There are plenty of people in the High Country who will tell you Russell and Carol would be alive if not for that drone.
As Roxanne, the holiday-house owner in Mansfield puts it, there are lots of people worried that Russell accidentally saw something he wasn’t meant to while flying the drone overhead.
What she’s referring to is a drug crop.
The theory might sound wild, but others in Victoria will remember the case of hiker Warren Meyer, who disappeared in the Yarra Ranges National Park in 2008.
Warren Meyer was 57 years old when he went missing during a hike near Healesville in 2008. (Supplied: Zee Meyer)
Police found a cannabis crop while searching for him, and later received a tip-off alleging he was murdered when he stumbled across a marijuana operation.
Could something similar have happened to Russell and Carol?
“We know the community has those concerns,” Detective Stamper says.
But he says police are not aware of any drug activity in the area, and the search effort — which involved rescuers on foot and horseback as well as helicopters and drones — had found no evidence of a drug crop.
The other issue that casts doubt on this theory is the drone itself.
Russell had an app on his phone for the drone, but had not uploaded any footage to his account from that Wonnangatta trip.
Another theory is that if Russell’s drone went down in bushland, the pair might have got lost looking for it.
But police have not been able to find any flight path data from the trip.
While Detective Stamper says that doesn’t mean a flight didn’t occur, it does mean if it did happen, it’s a flight that has also left no digital trace.
After months of searching and investigating the disappearances, what Detective Stamper has been left with is a long list of things that haven’t been found, including Russell’s phone and drone, any drug crops, any hint that this was a staged disappearance, any suspect or any item at all connected to Russell or Carol.
And it is all that missing information along with the burnt-out tent, that leads Detective Stamper to suspect foul play.
“I find it more likely that there has been some involvement of a third party or third parties and something has happened to Russell and Carol and they have either been concealed in that area … or taken from that area,” he says.
“We are looking at four-wheel drivers, hunters, fishers and campers, but people who are competent travelling in that area and have the equipment to do so,” Detective Stamper says.
Police are still calling for anyone in the Wonnangatta Valley on the days around March 20 to contact them, even if they didn’t come across Russell and Carol.
They believe somewhere there is a someone who knows what happened to Russell’s drone, how that fire started and what happened to Russell and Carol.
A young man who loved the mountains, but never made it home
About 20km from the Wonnangatta Valley is a section of the Australian Alpine Walking Track (AAWT), where 39-year-old Niels Becker was last heard from before he disappeared in October last year.
Niels set off on what was to be a five-day hike through the High Country as a birthday present to himself.
He’d spent six months training for the gruelling hike by taking long walks with a heavy pack near his home in Melbourne.
Melbourne man Niels Becker, who went missing while hiking in Victoria’s High Country in October 2019. (Supplied: Victoria Police)
Niels knew the area well.
He’d gone to Timbertop, the mountain campus that year 9 students at Geelong Grammar attend, and he’d continued to hike in the High Country as an adult.
His father Peer Becker described Niels as an independent person with a passion for Christian country music.
Speaking to media after his son disappeared, Peer said Niels’s love of the mountains could be seen in his poetry.
“A lot of the writing is about the High Country around Mount Buller,” he said.
This camping spot off the Australian Alpine Walking Track shows how difficult it can be to spot the path. (Supplied: Marty Felber)
Senior Sergeant Damian Keegan, who helped coordinate the search, says Niels was well-prepared and well-equipped for his hike.
He took a mobile phone with him and told family of his plans, which he also lodged with Mansfield police.
Snr Sgt Damian Hall still hopes to find the body of Niels Becker in the Victorian High Country. (ABC: Gemma Hall)
For the first three days of his hike Niels followed the AAWT, one of the premier long distance hikes in Australia.
The track follows the Australian Alps from Victoria all the way to the ACT.
Niels started at Upper Jamieson Hut, south of Mount Buller, and then hiked to Vallejo Gantner Hut, his last known location.
Here Niels sent a text message to his family saying he would head to Mount Stirling before looping back to his car.
Niels Becker had hiked to Vallejo Gantner Hut on his five-day trek, but police don’t believe he ever made it to Mount Stirling. (ABC: Paul Sellenger)
Like the Wonnangatta Valley, the Vallejo Gantner Hut has a story of its own.
It was built in the early 1970s in honour of Vallejo Gantner, the grandson of businessman Sidney Myer.
Vallejo was an arts student at Monash University and just 19 years old when he was killed in a shooting accident in the Victorian High Country in 1962.
The hut was built as a place of shelter and a memorial to a young man who loved the mountains and lost his life too soon.
Niels Becker sent his last text message to his family from Vallejo Gantner Hut before disappearing. (Supplied: Heritage Victorian)
The Vallejo Ganter hut was built in honour of a teenager who died in a hunting accident. (Supplied: Heritage Victorian)
The view from Vallejo Gantner Hut on the Australian Alps Walking Track. (Supplied: Heritage Victoria)
Senior Sergeant Keegan believes something happened to Niels on the fourth day of his hike after he sent his text to his family.
He says Niels had planned to leave the AAWT that day and follow a smaller track to Mount Stirling.
Senior Sergeant Keegan believes Niels may have delayed the start of his fourth-day hike because of poor weather, and then had to cram a long and difficult walk into fewer hours of daylight.
He says this could have affected Niels’s ability to distinguish a walking path from a track formed by deer, wombats or wild dogs.
A police helicopter can just be seen as it flies over the Australian Alps Walking Track, searching for Niels Becker. (Supplied: Marty Felber)
The experienced police officer doesn’t think Niels made it to the end of his hike that day.
He says the spot Niels intended to camp on his fourth night was close to Mount Buller and has phone reception.
He believes Niels would have made phone communication with his family again if he made it to the end of that fourth day.
Much of the police search was focused on an area of about 7,000 square kilometres around Mount Stirling.
The searchers also went back to the beginning of Niels’s journey, retracing his trip along the AAWT on foot.
Police were looking for a clue, no matter how small, that Niels had been through a particular area.
They were hoping to find a food wrapper, a hat or piece of clothing belonging to Niels, or another hiker who saw him after he left the Vallejo Gantner Hut.
Victoria Police circulated this media release while searching for hiker Niels Becker. (Supplied)
Passionate hiker Marty Felber happened to be on the track the weekend after Niels went missing, while police were still searching.
His experience shows how quickly conditions can change up in the mountains.
Marty took off from the Vallejo Gantner Hut in relatively warm weather with the temperature in the low 20s.
“I was starting to get a bit worried that I was going to get a bit sunburnt,” he says.
But the sunshine didn’t last.
Marty set up his tent about 1:00pm on the Sunday. Within about 20 minutes, he estimates the temperature dropped 10 degrees.
“It just suddenly chilled up and you could see the weather coming, you could see the front coming,” he says.
Marty had just made it back to his tent from collecting water when the hail started.
“Then that stopped and it started to snow,” he remembers.
He estimates the temperature dropped by about 20–25 degrees that day.
Heavy snow fell along the Australian Alpine Walking Track while rescuers were searching for Niels Becker. (Supplied: Marty Felber)
Police never found a sign of Niels around Mount Stirling.
It’s why the case has stayed with Senior Sergeant Keegan.
“That is the big thing you struggle with each day, you know, have we missed something?
“How does someone like this go to an area he knows, but there is no sign, no trace of him?”
Senior Sergeant Keegan says he doesn’t believe there was foul play involved.
“I personally believe it is an unfortunate hiking accident and that, coupled with the weather, has impacted on his ability to survive,” he says.
He remains hopeful there’s a hiker who saw something that could help police find Niels’s final resting place.
“I try and put myself in the family’s shoes and that drives me to keep going,” he says.
Heavy snow fell along the Australian Alpine Walking Track while rescuers were searching for Niels Becker. (Supplied: Marty Felber)
A mysterious Monday morning drive
Perhaps the most inexplicable of all of the High Country disappearances is that of Conrad Whitlock, who was about 30km from Vallejo Gantner Hut when he went missing.
The Melbourne businessman was driving up the road to Mount Buller early on the morning of July 29 last year when he stopped his car on the side of the road at a spot called Unnamed Corner.
He has not been seen since.
The story of how he wound up at Unnamed Corner is just as odd as his disappearance.
Conrad’s wife Mandy Whitlock says the day before her husband went missing, the pair went for their usual Sunday lunch at a restaurant.
They met as children in Melbourne, both kids who had migrated to Australia from the UK with their families.
They had been married for more than 50 years when Con went missing.
Mandy and Conrad Whitlock smile for a photo before heading off to a wedding. Mandy and Conrad met as children and married in the UK. (Supplied: Mandy Whitlock)
Mandy says they were a close couple.
For much of their working lives they ran businesses together. Before Con disappeared, they were operating a bullbar business.
He’d oversee the work in the factory and Mandy took care of the books from their home.
The pair also had a love of adventure. For 20 years they headed up to Mount Buller every weekend of the ski season before they turned to car racing.
Conrad Whitlock had been a keen skier. There was a 20-year period where he was at Mt Buller every weekend of the ski season. (Supplied: Mandy Whitlock)
The road Conrad disappeared from is one that Mandy estimates he had driven hundreds of times in his life.
During that last Sunday lunch, Mandy says they chatted about car racing and a possible trip back to Mount Buller for a visit.
When they went to bed that night Con warned his wife he might be out of the house before she woke.
For years he had been in the habit of rising early, heading out for breakfast and starting work at the factory early.
Mandy Whitlock was married to her husband for more than 50 years before he disappeared from the side of the road at Mount Buller. (ABC News: Sean Warren)
But that Monday was a little different.
Con had been battling a persistent headache for a couple of weeks and his doctor had said he needed a scan.
He couldn’t get an appointment until the Tuesday, but Con told Mandy he’d go in early on the Monday and see if any spots had opened up.
When Mandy woke the next morning she was alone, but didn’t worry. She thought she knew where her husband was.
That day she was with an accountant all day working on the end-of-financial year accounts for the business.
Mandy left messages on Con’s phone a couple of times and checked if he was at the factory.
In the afternoon, when she hadn’t heard from her husband, she rang the medical centre, but was told Con hadn’t been there that day.
Mandy spoke to their business manager who said he would try to track Con’s phone using an app.
“He called back and said, ‘It is nearly at Mount Buller,'” Mandy says.
“That is when I went ‘Oh my God — something is really wrong.'”
Conrad Whitlock’s car was found on the side of the road, near the Mount Buller ski village. (Supplied: Victoria Police)
Police found Con’s BMW at Unnamed Corner, right where the phone tracing app had indicated.
Con’s jacket, phone and wallet were all in the car, but he was not.
Mandy says police were able to use road cameras to trace Con’s movements, from him leaving the estate where the couple lived at 3:00am until he drove through the Mount Buller ticket point at 6:00am.
After that police relied on dashcam footage from passing cars.
Mandy says he was sighted until his car pulled over about 6:30am.
“Then there was like a 10 or 15 minute gap where no cars went past him,” Mandy says.
Those 10 to 15 minutes are crucial, because when the next car went past, Con’s car was empty.
Police still don’t know what happened in those minutes.
They set up a search from the car, but this was not the kind of place you’d take a stroll.
“When I went up with my friend we had a look over the edge and it is just this sheer drop that is a complete and utter jungle of fallen trees and shrubbery and so dense that no-one in their right mind would want to step off there and walk any distance,” Mandy says.
Con knew Mount Buller well but he had never been a hiker.
Conrad Whitlock stands on the edge of the mountain holding a ball of snow. (Supplied: Mandy Whitlock)
The searchers went over and over the area around the car but didn’t find a trace of Con.
They also searched the nearby Howqua River, but found nothing.
Con’s disappearance has left Mandy, his wife of five decades, his skiing partner and race-car navigator, with many more questions than answers.
Mandy says she’s had to think of all possibilities, including whether Con had intended to end his own life.
But Mandy says that simply didn’t make sense.
“We had just bought this new race car, he was so enthusiastic about it, he had arranged for some coaching in it and had already raced it,” she says.
Conrad and Mandy Whitlock enjoyed racing cars together. The pair raced in events in Tasmania and in the Victorian High Country. (Supplied: Mandy Whitlock)
“The business was going fine, we didn’t have any hassles, there was just nothing to indicate that he was concerned about anything.”
She dismisses the idea of foul play.
“They [police] went through his computer and his phone and they couldn’t find anything that indicated that there was something not right,” she says.
“It is not like he had enemies.”
But still there are the questions.
She doesn’t know why Con got up at 3:00am and drove without stopping to Mount Buller.
She doesn’t know why Con stopped at Unnamed Corner, when he should have known he was just a couple of minutes away from the ski village resort and car park.
“If he had stopped to go to the toilet, he would have known he was so close to proper facilities,” she says.
She doesn’t know why Con didn’t go to the medical centre for scans as he had planned.
But she thinks that headache had something to do with his disappearance.
Mandy believes Con must have had some kind of medical episode, because there is no other way to explain his behaviour that morning.
She still hasn’t had a funeral for her husband, but says she now thinks of him as having passed away up there on Mount Buller.
Senior Sergeant Greg Paul is a specialist search and rescue officer with Victoria Police. (Supplied: Victoria Police)
Police are still hopeful that they will one day be able to tell the families of Carol Clay, Russell Hill, Niels Becker and Conrad Whitlock what happened to their loved one.
Senior Sergeant Greg Paul, who leads Victoria’s Search and Rescue Squad, says having no answers at all is the worst possible outcome for the families.
“It is the not knowing — it is the cruellest result of all,” he says.
Anyone with information can contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or submit a confidential report online.
Reporting: Elise Kinsella
Production: Elise Kinsella and Dan Harrison
Graphics: Jarrod Fankhauser and Paul Sellenger
Editing: Dan Harrison
Photography: Tim Bates, Sean Warren and Gemma Hall
Videography: Tim Bates
Video editing: Kala Lampard
Additional footage and images: Marty Felber and OurOutdoorAdventures