A forensic fire expert has revealed a single photograph snapped by a passerby of a burnt out campsite contained breakthrough clues into the previously baffling disappearance of two campers.
Detectives are expected to imminently charge a 55-year-old man over the March 2020 disappearance of Victorian campers and secret lovers Russell Hill and Carol Clay.
Greg Kelly who has decades of experience in the examination of fire and explosion scenes, said the picture contained a number of crucial clues – particularly a car battery found amongst the charred debris.
‘The top of the battery had melted down,’ Mr Kelly told Today on Wednesday.
‘We can see the battery clamps on it and the cables. It’s not unusual for people who are camping to maybe run some battery-operated devices – but the melting.’
A burnt battery (pictured) found among the debris at the campsite was a crucial piece of evidence
He said this melting along with the way a number of other items were positioned around the fire area raised alarm bells that suggested the blaze might not have been accidental.
‘The way the aluminium poles had fallen. There was a drum that had been opened up to put as a wind break around a gas fireplace.
‘When (Hill’s) friend Rob started talking we were able to realise that this was a man that was very particular about the way he set up the campsite.
‘That showed that this was unusual and it was indicative of the campsite being set fire to, probably to cover up evidence.’
Mr Kelly said the picture was snapped by a passerby who thought it was unusual that a 4WD would be parked next to a completely burnt out campsite.
A passerby snapped a photograph of the burnt out campsite (pictured) as they said it was strange the 4WD would be parked next the the area
Eight days passed between the campers – who had been in a secret romantic relationship – being listed as missing and police being handed the picture which changed the nature of the case from a simple missing persons investigation into something potentially malevolent.
‘Originally we are talking 70-year-old adults that have gone off camping together where most people would think that is a safe area for them to go. Have they have gone missing, have they gone off by themselves, have they run off together?’
‘We don’t really know, but that photograph showed that the truck was locked up. There was personal belongings found inside it when it was finally examined.’
Russell Hill (pictured left) and Carol Clay (pictured right) went missing from a campsite in Victoria’s high country in March 2020
A 20-month investigation culminated in a 55-year-old Caroline Springs man being questioned following a dramatic arrest by specialist police at a remote campsite in Arbuckle Junction on Monday night.
He remains in custody and detectives have also sized the man’s Nissan Patrol four-wheel-drive.
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 high frequency radio saying he was at Wonnangatta Valley.
During the call, the experienced outdoorsman said he was having radio transmission issues.
Greg Kelly (pictured) has decades of experience investigating fire and explosion scenes
Ms Clay, a former Victorian Country Women’s Association president, told friends she was heading away and expected to return home on March 28 or 29.
Investigators were told the couple were camping together at Wonnangatta River near the Wonnangatta camping ground.
Campers found Mr Hill’s fire-damaged car at their campsite, which was destroyed by fire, near Dry River Creek Track on March 21.
The pair have not been seen or heard from since.
Multiple searches have been conducted in and around the Wonnangatta Valley, including with cadaver dogs.
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 safety camera in the area at the time Mr Hill and Ms Clay went missing.
The campers went missing from the northern Victoria campsite but there 4WD and belongings were still at the site
Witnesses reported a number of sightings of the vehicle, including near the campsite, with police yet to track down the driver or exclude them as a person of interest.
Police believe the pair may have had an altercation with another camper, possibly the driver of the blue 4WD.
It was towing a trailer and heard performing a 20 to 30-point turn on a narrow track the night the pair vanished.
Mr Hill’s sister Jill knew the pair were in a secret relationship despite Mr Hill being married.
She believes that was part of the reason they travelled remotely together for their trips.
The families have been desperate for answers and recently gave television interviews on the uncertainty surrounding what happened to their loved ones.