Mobile phone pings, a burnt-out campsite and the 'Button Man': Inside the missing campers investigation (2024)

A camping trip brought Carol Clay and Russell Hill to a remote pocket of Victoria — but the pair would never emerge from the Wonnangatta Valley.

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

It can be easy to disappear in the Wonnangatta Valley.

Located in Victoria's High Country, it's hours away from the nearest capital city, Melbourne.

The phone signal is patchy. Specific locations are difficult to pinpoint and some landmarks don't appear on maps.

The alpine tree line is high and the bushland is dense.

Only four-wheel drives can navigate the valley's dirt roads and river crossings.

It's the perfect place for anyone hiding a secret, or anyone who doesn't want to be found.

Over the years, several people have gone missing without a trace, generating a sense of mystery and fears of a hidden, lurking danger.

But for Russell Hill, the Wonnangatta Valley was not a place to be feared.

Mr Hill's family had a long association with the area and he had built some of its tracks.

Out in the wilderness, the 74-year-old retired logger and high-frequency radio enthusiast also enjoyed practising a new hobby of drone flying.

Mr Hill sometimes went camping with his wife, Robyn, but also went on secret trips with his long-term mistress, Carol Clay, 73.

Mobile phone pings, a burnt-out campsite and the 'Button Man': Inside the missing campers investigation (1)

On the morning of March 19, 2020, Mr Hill said goodbye to his wife, packed his four-wheel-drive ute, and drove to Ms Clay's home on the outskirts of Melbourne.

The pair then headed off for the valley.

A disturbing discovery

Two days later, Andrew Marquardt was in the Wonnangatta Valley with his family when he stumbled across something odd at a place called Bucks Camp.

"We saw that there was a white LandCruiser single-cab ute and what looked to be a burnt-out camp," Mr Marquardt said.

Mr Marquardt left the area but came back the following day for another look.

He saw burnt tent poles, charring on the side of the LandCruiser's metal canopy and a destroyed car battery.

He went closer, using a finger to lift up the lid of an esky and found food inside.

Mobile phone pings, a burnt-out campsite and the 'Button Man': Inside the missing campers investigation (2)

Mobile phone pings, a burnt-out campsite and the 'Button Man': Inside the missing campers investigation (3)

Mobile phone pings, a burnt-out campsite and the 'Button Man': Inside the missing campers investigation (4)

Mr Marquardt also noticed damage to one of the LandCruiser's mirrors and, as he peeked through the windows, spotted a handbag on the passenger seat.

He took some photos of the area and headed home to Melbourne.

A week later, the police turned up at the campsite.

They had spent days looking for two people, presumed missing in the area, whose family members hadn't been able to reach them.

Photos and footage from the scene highlighted more unusual things about the seemingly abandoned vehicle and its surrounds.

There were ashen remains of gas cylinders, a cooking stove, a solar panel and an iPad.

Officers opened the car doors and found an open wallet in each footwell.

Mobile phone pings, a burnt-out campsite and the 'Button Man': Inside the missing campers investigation (5)

Mobile phone pings, a burnt-out campsite and the 'Button Man': Inside the missing campers investigation (6)

Mobile phone pings, a burnt-out campsite and the 'Button Man': Inside the missing campers investigation (7)

They belonged to Russell Hill and Carol Clay.

The campers themselves were nowhere to be found.

Other items were missing too, including their phones and Mr Hill's DJI Mavic drone.

Phone tower data cracks the case open

Theories quickly started to emerge.

Were the pair lost in the bush? Had they met their demise during an accident in the wilderness?

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Had the septuagenarians concocted a grand plan to "disappear" together, leaving their old lives behind?

Or could there be something more sinister at play?

Were Russell Hill and Carol Clay the latest victims of the High Country's so-called dark side?

According to court documents, police received reports of unidentified people acting strangely and aggressively in the valley.

Two suspects emerged but were quickly ruled out. One of them, referred to as AG in court documents, was better known by locals as the "Button Man", a recluse who frequented the bush and had a reputation for spooking passers-by.

"Proof-of-life checks" conducted by Victoria Police's Missing Persons Squad failed to turn up clues about Mr Hill and Ms Clay's whereabouts.

"You'll check bank records to see if there's any bank information, phone records to see if there's movement on their phones," Detective Sergeant Brett Florence told the Supreme Court this month.

"You would check with relatives … whether they've heard from them or not. It's really about trying to work out the movements of the person who's missing."

However, the "phone records" police had access to were far more detailed than the average monthly phone bill. Not only could they see calls, texts and data usage, they could see the location of phone towers the device had connected to.

Both Mr Hill and Ms Clay's phones connected to phone towers in the alpine region around lunchtime on March 19, but had gone offline as they drove deeper into the Wonnangatta Valley.

Two days later, on the morning of March 21, Mr Hill's phone reconnected to the phone network from a different section of the mountain range at Hotham Heights.

It was the last record of the phone being active.

Police also went looking for any CCTV footage. There were few cameras in the isolated area, but some had been set up to catch motorists who drove through the Mount Hotham resort without paying their entry fees.

As Sergeant Florence explained, police cross-referenced cars photographed on the cameras to the time Mr Hill's phone pinged with the cell tower on the morning of March 21.

They hit a match.

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A dark-coloured Nissan Patrol with a trailer attached was passing through the area, being driven by a man.

It led officers to Gregory Stuart Lynn.

A pilot comes into the frame

Greg Lynn, then 53, lived with his wife in a family home in Caroline Springs, in Melbourne's west.

Lynn was an outdoorsman who enjoyed pig hunting and camping. At home he kept an arsenal of hunting knives, daggers and guns.

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Since his 20s, Lynn had worked as a pilot, and as he later explained, did other odd jobs from time to time. He'd been an asparagus picker and Tasmanian river guide during periods of unemployment.

In 2001, Lynn was interviewed by the ABC about his disappointment after he and other employees from the Ansett airline were left jobless following the carrier's collapse.

"We wanted to work, we wanted to see the company survive, but it wasn't to be," Lynn said, adding that staff were never asked to make personal sacrifices to ensure the company's survival.

"Certainly in terms of salary and conditions and I'm sure that almost all the staff would have agreed to that," Lynn said.

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At the time, he said he was considering moving overseas to secure more work as a pilot.

Nearly two decades later, Melbourne was in the middle of a COVID-19 lockdown. With most flights grounded, Lynn was out of work again.

On July 14, 2020, Sergeant Florence and his colleague Detective Leading Senior Constable Abbey Justin arrived at Lynn's house. Senior Constable Justin was secretly recording the interaction.

"We're from the police. How are ya?" Sergeant Florence said, as Lynn opened the door.

"Oh, very good," Lynn replied.

The officers introduced themselves and told Lynn he "wasn't in any strife", explaining they were investigating the disappearance of the missing campers and looking for possible witnesses.

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Lynn seemed willing to help and told officers about his movements around the time of March 20, when he had been in the Wonnangatta Valley.

As the two officers left the property, Leading Senior Constable Justin noticed a Nissan Patrol parked down a side street. The numberplate matched the vehicle from the Mount Hotham security camera, but the four-wheel drive had been given a paint job. It was now beige.

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It would be about 16 months until police spoke to Lynn again.

A game of cat and mouse was about to begin.

Lynn was considered the key person of interest, and investigators decided to monitor him through covert listening devices and cameras planted in his home, car and driveway.

But the secretive police operation was nothing in comparison to what Lynn was hiding from police and the world.

A dispute between campers before two sudden deaths

Lynn's cover-up began on the night of March 20, 2020.

He'd already made himself comfortable at Bucks Camp when Mr Hill and Ms Clay arrived and set up their campsite nearby.

On March 19, they introduced themselves and had a friendly chat, Lynn said, but the pilot said Mr Hill's tone changed the following evening.

Lynn said he was out hunting deer in the bush when Mr Hill's drone buzzed over his head.

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Later that evening, he said Mr Hill was agitated and threatened to make a false report to police that Lynn had been shooting too close to the campsite — and would take the drone footage to the police.

On Lynn's account, he trudged back to his Patrol.

As night fell, he ate his dinner near the vehicle, but continued to brood over the argument with Mr Hill.

To retaliate, Lynn said he blasted music from his car to annoy the elderly couple, who were inside their tent.

"I think I picked the most annoying thing I could find," he later told police.

Exactly what happened next is in dispute.

It was the subject of a Supreme Court trial. No doubt, books will be written, films may be made. But only one person lived to tell the tale.

Lynn described it as two tragic, accidental deaths.

Police described it as two acts of murder. There were no other witnesses.

Greg Lynn tells police he was threatened with his own gun

In a "freezing" police interview room in November 2021, Lynn sat down with Sergeant Florence and another detective, Daniel Passingham, to explain what happened that fateful night.

According to Lynn, Mr Hill was angered by the loud music and marched up to the Nissan Patrol. He allegedly grabbed Mr Lynn's Barathrum Arms shotgun and ammunition from inside the cabin.

Lynn said he spotted Mr Hill walking away and confronted him, demanding he give the gun back. Lynn said he was left feeling "scared sh*tless" when Mr Hill fired at least two warning shots into the air and yelled: "F*** off."

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Mr Hill walked back to his tent and was near the front of the white LandCruiser, still holding the gun, Lynn claimed.

The pilot said he crept through the shadows and tried to ambush Mr Hill and disarm him.

Lynn said he grabbed the barrel of the gun and spun Mr Hill around, so that the 74-year-old's back was pressed against the vehicle's bull bar.

"I told him to let it go. He wouldn't and kept on wrestling, and bang," Lynn said.

That bang was the shotgun discharging, Lynn said, firing a projectile through the side mirror of the LandCruiser and into Ms Clay's head. She was killed instantly, he said.

"My hand was not on the trigger," Lynn told police.

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Lynn said he then snatched the gun and walked off, firing the remaining round in the air to empty the ammunition chamber. He said he put the weapon in his car and moments later saw Mr Hill walking towards him with a kitchen knife in his right hand.

Lynn said Mr Hill yelled "She's dead", before taking a swing at him with his left hand. Lynn said he blocked the punch and then chopped down on Mr Hill's right hand.

The men grappled and tumbled to the dirt, Lynn said. Lynn got up but Mr Hill remained on the ground.

The knife was lodged in his chest.

"I got up and stood back towards my car. He crawled a little and then just stopped and rolled over and he died right there," Lynn said.

"I thought very quickly, 'what am I gonna do?'

"I panicked and I thought, you know, 'That's my shotgun. There's one person dead, and he's dead as well now. I'm going to be found guilty of this'."

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Lynn said it took him a matter of seconds to weigh up the potential consequences of coming forward to police. That was a "pathway" that would end his career and put his family at financial risk.

"So, yep, I tried to save myself," he said.

Lynn said he put the bodies in the back of his trailer, cleaned blood at the scene, and then set the campsite on fire to destroy any remaining evidence.

Then he drove through the night, looking for somewhere to dump the bodies.

A return to the valley to burn the bodies

What Lynn didn't realise was that Mr Hill's phone was still in his pocket.

By the time Lynn found and destroyed it, along with the drone, the device had made two brief connections to phone towers and provided police with the first clues to crack the case.

Lynn burned the clothes he was wearing at the campsite, thoroughly cleaned his guns when he got home, and sold the trailer he used to transport the bodies.

"I started to get nervous that this plan was unravelling, and then you knocked on my door," he later told Sergeant Florence and Leading Senior Constable Passingham.

Lynn may have disposed of the campsite evidence, but there was still something in the bush that had the potential to bring him unstuck — the bodies.

With the city facing more lockdowns and travel restrictions, Lynn had to be patient.

Seven months after the campers' deaths, Lynn made another journey into Victoria's remote High Country.

This time, he was headed to Union Spur Track — where he had left the bodies of Mr Hill and Ms Clay under a pile of sticks and leaves.

"They were decomposing," he later told the police.

Lynn placed some extra logs and kerosene on the bodies and lit a match.

He said he sat by the fire for hours until all that was left were tiny fragments of bone.

"I just used a dustpan to scoop it up and throw it around. There is literally nothing there," he said.

"I'd never wanna go back there."

In the months after the Union Spur trip, Lynn said he continued to look over his shoulder, fearing the police would come knocking again. Life felt like the movie The Truman Show, he said, where everybody seemed to know something that he didn't.

To an extent, he was right.

Police continued to secretly listen into his conversations and watch him from a surveillance camera.

Officers planted a story in the media to set a trap for Lynn at the start of November 2021.

The big reveal of the Sunday night 60 Minutes feature story was something police had been keeping up their sleeves for more than a year — the traffic camera photo of Lynn's Nissan Patrol.

Now they were releasing it and the photo clearly showed a distinctive, retractable awning on the vehicle's roof.

"The key to it all is this car," Sergeant Florence said in the story.

Days later, a covert camera outside Lynn's house captured him removing the awning from his Patrol's roof.

Prosecutors would later tell a jury the footage revealed another attempt to distance himself from the campers' deaths.

On November 22, 2021, heavily armed police swooped and arrested Lynn, after concerns were raised that he was at risk of self-harm while out on another solo camping trip.

Lynn was captured talking to himself, referring to how his wife would be left to care for three children and that a snake bite "would be a good way to go".

He was taken to the Sale Police Station and gave a no-comment interview.

Police did not release him for three days, and Sergeant Florence and Leading Senior Constable Passingham refused to take no for an answer.

They badgered Lynn with questions and offered him inducements. They likened Lynn's lawyer, who was not present, to a flight attendant.

"What you dictate goes because you're obviously the captain," Sergeant Florence told him.

Eventually, Lynn cracked.

"I'm going to ignore my solicitor's advice and tell you what happened right from the start," he said.

He would go on to reveal, in methodical detail, his version of how the alleged campsite dispute played out and the steps he took afterwards.

"I haven't behaved well, I've made some poor decisions. But murder, as I understand it, I'm innocent of," he said.

Later, the officers' conduct in that interview room would be described by a judge as "oppressive" and "appalling".

Mobile phone pings, a burnt-out campsite and the 'Button Man': Inside the missing campers investigation (18)

Mobile phone pings, a burnt-out campsite and the 'Button Man': Inside the missing campers investigation (19)

But the answers they elicited from Lynn enabled police to find the remains of Russell Hill and Carol Clay.

All that was left were tiny bone fragments, teeth, a ring, and a burnt watch.

Greg Lynn says 'despicable' cover-up followed accidental deaths

On the opening day of Greg Lynn's Supreme Court trial, he was given a choice to plead guilty or not guilty to the murders of Mr Hill and Ms Clay.

He chose the latter.

During the trial, most seats in the public gallery of courtroom 3 were filled by members of the public eager to catch a glimpse of the accused man and hear the arguments of the case.

Lynn, who had been in custody for two-and-a-half years by the time the trial started in May, wore the same black suit, blue shirt and silver tie each day.

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For five weeks he remained calm and expressionless as evidence was presented, taking handwritten notes which were placed in a yellow manila folder.

The pilot would occasionally wave and smile at his wife Melanie and son Geordie.

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With no eyewitnesses and inconclusive forensic evidence, the trial boiled down to a simple question: Was the jury convinced beyond reasonable doubt that Greg Lynn murdered the campers?

In total, 49 witnesses were called to the stand.

They included Ms Clay's daughter Emma Davies, Mr Hill's daughter Debrorah, and his widow, Robyn.

Ms Hill's voice quivered as she told the court how she waited by a high-frequency radio, waiting to hear her husband's voice, unaware he had been dead for days.

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Other forensic experts outlined the results of DNA testing and examination of bone fragments found at Union Spur Track. One police ballistics specialist brought Mr Lynn's Barathrum Arms shotgun into the courtroom and provided a physical demonstration of the steps needed to load the firearm, turn off the safety and fire.

The trial's most dramatic moment came on its 18th day, when Lynn himself stepped out of the dock, walked across the courtroom and climbed the stairs into the witness box.

Lynn maintained his innocence but conceded his actions after the campers' deaths were "despicable".

"All I can say to the families is that I am very sorry for your suffering," he said.

During a combative cross-examination, Lynn didn't budge.

"You murdered Mr Hill. What do you say?" prosecutor Daniel Porceddu said.

"That's not true," Lynn replied.

"You took aim at Mrs Clay … you shot at her multiple times."

"That's not true."

Lynn said he was guilty of the offence of destroying evidence, but not of murder.

"I haven't killed anyone," he said.

In his closing arguments, Mr Porceddu described Lynn's story as a carefully crafted lie, and told the jury the "disproportionate" cover-up pointed to a man who had committed murder.

But Lynn's barrister Dermot Dann KC called the prosecution case "hopeless", saying they had relied on "half-baked theories" about what happened at the campsite and had no evidence to disprove anything his client told the police after his arrest.

Mr Dann said Lynn had volunteered more than 1,000 pieces of information to officers and told "zero lies".

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The prosecution case also suffered a setback after the judge told Mr Porceddu he'd breached "basic rules of fairness" by failing to put directly to Lynn allegations he later aired before the jury.

As Justice Michael Croucher summed up the case, he told the jury to use their heads, not their hearts.

To find Lynn guilty, they had to believe Lynn was guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

After more than a week of deliberations, the jury returned with its verdict just before lunchtime on Tuesday.

The courtroom was hushed as the jury foreperson leaned into the microphone to say the panel had found Lynn not guilty of murdering Mr Hill, but guilty of murdering Ms Clay.

Lynn barely flinched, and remained largely expressionless in the moments after learning his fate.

"Don't stress," he later told his son, before he was led away to the cells and driven off in a prison van.

Lynn started the trial as a man who was innocent until proven guilty. Six weeks later, he was a convicted killer facing a lengthy stint behind bars. On Tuesday, Lynn's lawyers did not flag whether they would launch an appeal.

Mobile phone pings, a burnt-out campsite and the 'Button Man': Inside the missing campers investigation (24)

For the families, it was a verdict that brought both relief and devastation.

In a statement thanking police and prosecutors for their efforts, relatives of Mr Hill and Ms Clay said they were "heartbroken at the loss of our loved ones".

"It will take time to absorb the verdicts, put this behind us and set about healing and getting on with our lives," they said.

Exactly how the jury reached their decision to find Lynn guilty beyond reasonable doubt will never be revealed publicly.

And despite all the investigations and interrogations, exactly what took place at Bucks Camp on March 20, 2020 may never be known, either.

It remains a dark secret of the Wonnangatta Valley.

Credits:

Reporting: Kristian Silva

Production and graphics: Joseph Dunstan and Paul Sellenger

Posted, updated

Mobile phone pings, a burnt-out campsite and the 'Button Man': Inside the missing campers investigation (2024)

FAQs

Who is the button man? ›

Heaps of people go bushwalking in the High Country, and many report peculiar run-ins with a lone bushman, in seemingly remote areas, far from civilisation. They call him… The Button Man. He is a local legend, known for his mysterious and sometimes intimidating presence in the area.

Did Russell Hill and Carol Clay have a relationship? ›

During opening addresses on Tuesday, the court heard that while Hill had a wife, he had gone camping with Pakenham woman Clay. The prosecution told the jury Hill was Clay's first boyfriend and they had recommenced a relationship in 2006. The pair left their homes on March 19, 2020, bound for Wonnangatta.

Is Button Man a true story? ›

The courage of the few standing up to unparalleled power and manipulation presented in Button Man (Minotaur) reads as sensational, but the story is actually based on truth from one remarkable man. As Gross describes in a recent BookTrib interview, “Button Man is about a young hero who grows up on the Lower East Side.

Where did the phrase button man come from? ›

The term “button man” takes on a double meaning — relating to the garment industry and the mob where it meant a hired killer. Gross skillfully weaves in real mobsters such as Albert Anastasia and Dutch Schultz as well as New York Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey, who made a career of going after mobsters.

Did they find Carol Clay's body? ›

Hill and Clay's burned remains were found in the form of over 2100 bone fragments, at a location provided by Lynn after his arrest. Here's everything we know about the trial of Gregory Lynn and the deaths of campers Russell Hill and Carol Clay.

Who is Mr Hill's wife? ›

Mr Hill's wife, Robyn Hill, said she was relieved but believed Lynn should have been found guilty of both deaths.

Who are the disappearances in the high country? ›

Four mysterious disappearances — Warren Meyer, Niels Becker, David Prideaux and Conrad Whitlock — are cases that remain unsolved and cases that deserve closer attention.

Who is the missing man in Melbourne High Country? ›

The body of missing camper Steven Clough has been found after a two-day search in Victoria's high country. Police said Mr Clough's body had been located on Big River Road, Enochs Point about 1.40pm on Sunday. It is believed he was involved in a motorbike crash and the 58-year-old died at the scene.

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