Inside the police investigation over the missing High Country campers

When police first arrived at the doorstep of Gregory Lynn’s family home in Caroline Springs, he was already a person of interest in one of the state’s most high-profile police investigations.

The Jetstar pilot and father was known to go bush, camping in remote parts of the state and sharing his adventures on social media.

Russell Hill and Carol Clay.

But his alleged interaction with high school sweethearts Russell Hill, 74, and Carol Clay, 73, during a solo trip to the heart of the High Country in March 2020 was now front and centre of a mystifying missing persons case.

Following a five-day committal hearing, which culminated this week in Lynn being committed to stand trial in the Supreme Court and pleading not guilty to two charges of murder, details of the police investigation can now be revealed.

This includes a search of Jetstar’s headquarters in February 2022 and the unmasking of the mysterious “Button Man”.

It’s also now understood what the public were aware of during the 20-month investigation and what was really going on behind the scenes of a painstaking police inquiry.

A court sketch of accused killer Gregory Lynn.Credit:Nine News

Onlookers gripped by the case would have been forgiven for thinking it was a lost cause as months dragged on into more than a year.

But in reality, police had surreptitiously determined three months in that Hill and Clay were dead and narrowed their focus to two persons of interest. Just a month later, two became one.

“We were seeking the truth,” Detective Brett Florence told Melbourne Magistrates’ Court.

Hill and Clay set off for a camping trip at Wonnangatta Valley on March 19, 2020, stopping in the tiny township of Licola on the way.

Hill had rekindled a childhood romance with Clay but was keeping the relationship a secret to spare his family, including his wife of 51 years, distress.

Hill knew the remote Wonnangatta region well. In his days as a logging contractor he had helped cut the perilous Zeka Spur Track into the remote Alpine region.

Clay, a mother of three, was leading a seemingly selfless life, supporting charities and being involved in the Country Women’s Association, including a stint as national president.

Once Hill collected Clay from her home, the pair set off to camp alongside the Wonnangatta River, and both told family and friends they were either camping alone or with others.

The vast Wonnangatta Valley, where Russell Hill and Carol Clay went camping. Credit:Sarah Abo

After arriving at the valley, so remote that mobile phone service is scarce, Hill made a radio call to a friend.

It was the evening of March 20, 2020 and the last time the pair would be heard of alive.

Seven days later, another camper stumbled across the pair’s burnt-out campsite and took a photo before contacting police.

Hill and Clay’s families, increasingly concerned they had failed to return home, both made missing person’s reports.

On March 28, 2020 police arrived in the area and found Hill’s locked Toyota ute and soon issued the first public appeal for information. Two campers, aged in their 70s, were suspected missing in rough terrain.

Days flew by and there was no sign of the missing pair. Senior detectives continued appeals for information, including releasing fresh photographs of Hill and Clay and statements from their worried families, who labelled the disappearances extremely out of character.

“Russell is our brother, husband, dad and pa and Carol has been a friend of the family for a long time,” the statement read. “It is devastating for our family that we don’t know what has happened to them.”

But in the background, a better picture of what may have unfolded was beginning to take shape.

The investigation into the disappearance Russell Hill and Carol Clay focused on a four-wheel drive. Credit:The Age

Phone tower records revealed to police that Hill’s mobile had “pinged” in an area near Mount Hotham on March 21, 2020.

Traffic cameras in the nearby area were also active at the same time, giving police footage of 12 vehicles travelling nearby during a possible time of interest.

Police began systematically eliminating each vehicle. By June 3, 2020 they were left with just one – a dark-coloured Nissan Patrol towing a trailer.

“No other vehicle travelled through the camera during that time frame,” Florence said in his statement to the court.

Remnants of the campsite a year on.Credit:Jason South

“They were all excluded.”

Four months after Hill and Clay’s disappearances, it was clear to everyone the operation was no longer a rescue mission and instead a search for human remains.

Police told the public they believed foul play was involved and revealed Hill’s drone was missing.

By that stage rumours were swirling around the possibility a mysterious local nicknamed “Button Man” might have been involved in Hill and Clay’s disappearance.

Detective Leading Senior Constable Daniel Passingham (left) and Detective Sergeant Brett Florence, from the missing persons sqaud, outside Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on Monday.Credit:Wayne Taylor

The campfire tale went that the mystery loner was responsible for spooky encounters with campers in the past – and there was a string of people who had vanished in the High Country.

The story persisted almost until the moment of Lynn’s arrest, but in reality police hadn’t taken long to put a line through the myth.

They had unmasked “Button Man” – a bushman known for carving buttons out of deer antlers – as a 74-year-old former Reservoir man and cleared him of any involvement by the end of April 2020.

Victoria was by then in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns were intensifying, with much of the High Country closed to the public and in the grip of winter.

As the trail appeared to run cold and the couple’s names dropped from news headlines, police were circling.

Detectives visited Lynn’s home for the first time in July 2020, noting his 1997 Nissan Patrol four-wheel drive appeared to have allegedly recently been painted beige.

By December 2020, Lynn was officially the one primary suspect.

The police work allowed covert listening devices to be installed in the pilot’s home and car. They were now listening to his every conversation.

A number of public appeals for information then continued to filter through the press in the early parts of 2021.

“Information reports were continually coming through to Crime Stoppers which nominated various persons throughout that time frame as well,” Florence said.

In October 2021 – more than 18 months after Hill and Clay vanished – their families made an emotional public appeal for help on the television news.

Weeks later police let the public in on one of their key lines of inquiry. That a dark-coloured Nissan four-wheel drive had been in the area at the time and there was a working theory that Hill and Clay may have had a “confrontational interaction” with someone.

All the while officers continued monitoring their covert listening devices, often hearing Lynn talking to himself during long drives in his car.

Police release an image of the vehicle of interest in November 2021.

On November 22, 2021, the public heard of a major breakthrough in the case. Specialist police had descended on the remote Arbuckle Junction via helicopter to take Lynn into custody.

This week we learned the timing of the arrest was unplanned; two detectives overhead Lynn muttering to himself that created concern he might have been about to take his own life.

“He appeared to be crying and started talking in the past tense,” Florence wrote.

“[This] seemed to indicate a propensity for self-harm. An unplanned resolution strategy was formulated.”

Greg Lynn and the four-wheel drive seized by police.

The arrest sparked a search of Lynn’s home and the Jetstar’s company offices.

Much of what occurred in the interview room with Lynn remains suppressed by the court. But on November 25, 2021, the airline pilot was charged with two counts of murder.

An extensive police search then kicked off again in an area north of Dargo.

At the base of an uprooted tree, in the idyllic High Country they loved, the remains of Hill and Clay were found together.

Lynn maintains his innocence and has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The matter returns to court in February.

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