The Victorian bush kept secrets for Carol Clay and Russell Hill. Now it hides the truth about their deaths.
Jetstar pilot and Melbourne father Gregory Lynn, 55, is accused of killing the campers on March 20 last year.
But the case is far from closed, nor a murder conviction guaranteed – not while detectives can’t fill their brief with key pieces of evidence.
They must be able to answer: Were the campers hurt in the heat of the moment or did the alleged killer have a plan? Was it self defence? And did someone else help to cover the tracks?
Search teams are facing forecast cold and rainy conditions on Monday when they trudge through muddy, steep terrain in line searches for two missing pieces of the puzzle – the bodies.
They are expected to focus on an historic mountain township which is home to abandoned mine shafts and tunnels.
It has been a long road to this point.
After 20 months of investigations – of questioning, watching, waiting for a suspect to slip up or give up, and then grilling a man for three days – police are hoping they have not been led to a dead end.
Mr Lynn was not driven with officers when they first travelled to the Great Alpine region to cordon off native bushland they believe is growing over a graveyard.
That’s not to say he hasn’t been given the chance to hand the Hill and Clay families closure after 618 days.
Loved ones of the missing often say that not knowing is the hardest part. So, while a suspect is accused of causing pain, they may also have the power to relieve the suffering.
Whatever the accused did – or didn’t – say during questioning over three days at a Gippsland police station, detectives were confident Mr Lynn is the driver they were searching for when they released photographs of a Nissan Patrol filmed between Mount Hotham and Dargo on the night Mr Hill, 74, and Ms Clay, 73, disappeared.
Circulating the CCTV image in October was a strategic move designed to rattle those close to the person behind the wheel of that car.
Detectives had already questioned Mr Lynn, an experienced pilot who enjoys hunting and four-wheel driving, before he was arrested on Monday night.
They already knew the car they would be seizing from him was not the same colour as the one they had publicly described.
Car colour on camera
If police had the number plate of the car captured on CCTV the night of March 20, a quick database search would have told them it was a blue Nissan Patrol.
So officers must have twigged something was amiss when they first tracked the car to its owner’s address.
Looking at recent photographs taken by a Google street view photographer who recorded the Lynn family home in Caroline Springs this year, it’s possible to see a beige Nissan Patrol in the driveway.
But the scene wasn’t always that way.
Scroll through the map, back in time to 2016, and there sits a white four-wheel drive. In later photos the driveway is the storage space for a green and white trailer.
In 2019, the Google car snapped pictures of that same trailer – which appears to be a pop-up caravan – with one side now spray-painted in camouflage.
Drag the Google map to different areas of the street and there sits a dark blue Nissan patrol, its roof fitted with a red shovel.
It’s easy to overlook. And it would have been completely missed had the Google driver not accelerated up a nearby street at that exact moment, the camera momentarily angled towards the Lynn house before the car pulled away.
Missing Persons Squad detectives will allege that Mr Lynn organised for the blue four-wheel-drive to be painted so he could not be traced.
They’re yet to reveal who they think changed the colour, where it was allegedly altered and whether anyone tipped them off about a paint job.
Meanwhile, police are still searching for a trailer that was towed by the car, which left the remote campground the night the missing pair vanished.
It’s not the same camouflaged trailer which has previously been parked outside the Lynn family home.
Detectives believe the silver-blue metal trailer was sold on Gumtree between March and July 2020.
If police can find it, they will be able to test whether it has traces of DNA belonging to Mr Hill and Ms Clay.
Victoria Police said on Saturday that officers were keeping “a presence” in the mountains throughout the weekend.
They will send more resources to the site on Monday. That would likely include cadaver dogs and forensic tools similar to those used in another ongoing high-profile case being hampered by wet weather, the search for New South Wales boy William Tyrrell.
Officers have taped off sections of the Grant Historic Area, and installed road blocks to prevent further chances of anyone tampering with a potential crime scene. But they do not yet have a precise location in the bush where the pair could have been left.
They may need search and rescue crews to abseil down the shafts of old gold mines.
Finding the remains will help detectives piece together Mr Hill and Ms Clay’s final moments – if forensics can determine a cause of death and the time they died.
They will then compare that evidence to Mr Lynn’s version of events.
For now, detectives are working on the theory the pair died after a confrontation shortly after arriving at the campground.
Mr Hill, a married grandfather, had driven his Toyota Land Cruiser from his home in Drouin on March 19 to pick up Ms Clay from her place in Packenham.
The pair drove northeast through Licola and stayed a night at Howitt High Plains before travelling to Wonnangatta Valley, where they set up a tent and toilet.
Other campers called triple-zero the next day after finding the couple’s gear had been torched.
Their drone was also missing.
Long wait for answers continues
It was not until the long-time friends were each reported missing that relatives found out the pair had been in a relationship.
Police quickly ruled out the possibility Mr Hill and Ms Clay, a Country Women’s Association volunteer, had faked their own deaths to move away together.
Now three families are desperate to know the truth.
Mr Hill’s wife, Robyn, said after the arrest that she hoped finding the bodies would help everyone move on.
Mr Lynn’s relatives have also spoken of their pain.
They were previously rocked by the 1999 death of Mr Lynn’s former wife, Lisa, who worked for Ansett airlines.
Mr Lynn’s second wife, Melanie, a Jetstar hostess, watched her husband face court – via video link – on Friday as he was told he would remain in custody until a hearing in May.
She kept her camera off and remained on mute, but later commented through lawyers. Meanwhile, her husband was driven from Sale to a cell in Melbourne.
The Lynn family has been “traumatised” by the “tragic events” and needed privacy, the statement read.
“We need to deal with the legal proceedings as they arise and try to restore some balance in our lives,” the family said.
“We also acknowledge the suffering of the Clay and Hill families at this difficult time.”
Ms Clay’s sister, Jill, told TV crews that she hoped families would be given the bodies.
“But I feel if we have to make a choice … having the person whose committed this so that they can’t do it again is more important,” she said.