Strike force targeting hidden fugitives


A new Australian Federal Police strike force will target dozens of fugitives wanted in Australia for murder, manslaughter, drug trafficking, money laundering and fraud.

The new Fugitive Apprehension Strike Team, known as FAST, has been operating since February and investigates the whereabouts of alleged offenders wanted on warrants who have fled from other countries to Australia or who are Australian and are hiding overseas.

FAST will work with local and international law enforcement partners to help arrest and extradite those wanted people.

The Australian Federal Police confirmed there were 43 offshore fugitives wanted by Australian authorities.

The strike force made its first arrest last week while the New Zealand fugitive was in the middle of a Tinder date, according to The Australian.

The man was wanted in New Zealand for multiple drug trafficking charges and had been hiding in regional Victoria since 2009.

He was arrested on April 29 and appeared in Melbourne Magistrates Court on April 30.

The man has been remanded in custody and will be extradited.

Speaking on Radio 2GB on Tuesday morning, Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw said the taskforce had so far “done really well”.

He said FAST worked with partner agencies like Interpol – which is based in Lyon in France – that had specialist investigators and intelligence analysts and 170 police officers based across 33 countries around the world.

“We’ve got techniques and strategies to target these particular individuals … this team is dedicated to hunting them down,” Mr Kershaw said.

“A number of serious criminals have fled Australia and believe they are no longer within the reach of the AFP.

“But, they are mistaken. Few agencies have offshore capabilities like that of the AFP. Our international reach is extraordinary.”



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‘Soggy’ rain, cold days hit Victoria, NSW and WA


Coastal Victoria has been smashed by more rain in the past 24 hours than some parts of the state in the past six months as a cold snap crosses southeast Australia.

Persistent rain set in across southern Victoria on Monday evening and continued throughout the night, with Aireys Inlet on the Surf Coast recording a torrential 116mm.

That’s more rain than Swan Hill – in Victoria’s northwest – has seen in the past six months with only 67.2mm recorded there since the start of November.

Melbourne has recorded 31mm in the past 24 hours, while Laverton and Avalon in the city’s west saw 42mm and 38mm.

It comes as temperatures plummet across the nation’s southeast this week, with significant rainfall returning to snap the warm run of weather from the weekend.

Weather bureau senior forecaster Matthew Thomas said southern and eastern Victoria would receive between 20-40mm of rain on Tuesday, with isolated falls of 60mm in some areas across an 18-hour period.

“It’s possible that we could see flash flooding, we will be monitoring the situation and if necessary we will put out a severe weather warning for heavy rainfall,” Mr Thomas said.

The rain is expected to ease in Melbourne by Wednesday as the cold front pushes further north towards NSW.

Gippsland is expected to receive about 20mm on Wednesday, while the eastern ranges could see between 60-90mm.

Sydney is forecast to receive up to 10mm on Tuesday and 20mm on Wednesday, with the chance of a thunderstorm in the morning and afternoon.

Sky News Weather meteorologist Rob Sharpe said it would be “soggy” conditions due to a low pressure trough.

“Showers and even the odd thunderstorm will march through NSW during the day on Tuesday,” he said.

“So for Sydney and surrounds, instead of the smoke and fog, we’ll see the wet weather coming down from above.

“That wet weather continues on Wednesday, with showers for the coastal regions (of NSW), and showers and the odd storm up further north, maybe for Brisbane on Wednesday as well.”

On Thursday, the wet weather will return to Victoria, especially around the border region of Gippsland and the southeast coast of NSW.

Mr Sharpe said much of the NSW coast would see 25-50mm this week.

He said tropical moisture is also “streaming down” the west coast of the nation bringing a big rain event for Western Australia on Tuesday and Wednesday, with “substantial” totals of 25-50mm for much of the southwest of the state.

jack.paynter@news.com.au



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Wife Robyn fears worst for Wonnangatta campers


The wife of missing camper Russell Hill – who vanished in the Victorian wilderness with Carol Clay nearly 15 months ago – believes she will never see her husband alive again.

“I can’t see how they will come home. He hasn’t spent any money, he hasn’t done anything,” Robyn Hill told NCA NewsWire.

“I just want them found, one way or the other, and then he can face the music if he’s still alive.

“See, I’m a bit of a sadist. You’ve got to be, otherwise you’d be in a heap.”

After almost 15 months of searching, the mystery of what happened on the campgrounds of the Wonnangatta Valley continues to baffle detectives.

Mr Hill, 74, and Ms Clay, 73, vanished on March 20 last year during a camping trip in the remote East Gippsland beauty spot, 350km east of Melbourne.

Campers found Mr Hill’s vehicle with signs of minor fire damage at their campsite, which was completely burnt out, near the Dry River Creek Track in the Wonnangatta Valley on March 21.

Previous reports suggested the pair were high school sweethearts, and Mr Hill’s wife was not aware Ms Clay was joining him on the camping trip.

Mrs Hill said she and her husband had known Ms Clay for more than 50 years and attended her first wedding.

Mrs Hill could not understand what fate the pair met.

“Unless someone’s got them,” she said. “But why would they do that?”

“I just want them found and then maybe work out what happened.”

She said she was coping well and had support from friends and family.

Mr Hill left his Drouin home on March 19 before collecting Ms Clay from her home in Pakenham in his white Toyota LandCruiser.

The friends then travelled via Licola, spending one night at Howitt High Plains before heading into Wonnangatta Valley on March 20.

Mr Hill was last heard from the next day via HF radio, stating he was at Wonnangatta Valley in the Victorian Alps.

Ms Clay told friends she was heading away and was expecting to return home on March 28 or 29.

Investigators were told the pair were camping together at Wonnangatta River near the Wonnangatta camping ground.

In a shock twist, police moved the search 80km northwest to the Mount Hotham area a fortnight ago, marking the first time the search had strayed from Wonnangatta.

The search then came to an abrupt halt the day after detectives found two shovels in thick bush off the Great Alpine Road on April 14.

The shovels are still being forensically examined, and a week later the search was redirected back to the campgrounds of Wonnangatta where the pair first vanished from.

Investigators are now focusing on areas along the Dargo High Plains Road, Cynthia Range Track, Herne Spur Track and the Wonnangatta Track “as a result of information obtained from previous searches”.

Missing Persons Squad Detective Acting Inspector Tony Combridge has dropped the biggest hint so far that the pair met with foul play, saying police believed “somebody else is involved” in the disappearance.

“I don’t think anything’s off the table but we look at what’s in front of us and the likely scenario is that somebody else is involved,” Detective Acting Inspector Combridge said moments after the discovery of the two shovels in Mount Hotham.

“We could be one phone call away. That’s the position we hold … from this matter being resolved.”

Anyone who was in the Wonnangatta area about the time Mr Hill and Ms Clay went missing on March 20 – including campers, day trippers, hunters, fishermen or trail bike riders – regardless of whether they saw or heard anything, are being urged to come forward.

Detectives were also keen to speak to anyone who was in the area of Howitt Plains and Zeka Spur Track on March 19 or 20, and the Wonnangatta Valley and Wonnangatta Station between March 20 and 24.

Detectives also established Mr Hill was camping alone with his LandCruiser in the area of the King Billy and Bluff Track between March 11 and 13, 2020.

Police were also keen to speak to anyone who was in that area on those dates.

Anyone who sees Mr Hill or Ms Clay should phone triple-0 immediately. Anyone with any other information should phone Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

anthony.piovesan@news.com.au



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Why alleged Home And Away catfish banned from all social media


A Melbourne woman previously convicted of pretending to be Home And Away star Lincoln Lewis to seduce and viciously troll victims will be put in jail if she uses social media.

Lydia Abdelmalek, who has been hit with fresh stalking charges, was granted bail in Heidelberg Magistrates Court on Monday on conditions including that she doesn’t touch social apps.

Magistrate Meagan Keogh ordered Ms Abdelmalek not to use platforms including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp “under her own name or any assumed identities” while granting bail.

Ms Abdelmalek is facing six charges including stalking, sending menacing messages, and disobeying bail conditions between May 2020 and April 2021.

She is accused of forming an “obsession” with a woman who worked in a store and repeatedly harassing her online using fake accounts.

The woman was in a relationship with a married man and Ms Abdelmalek is accused of also harassing him — with a profile that had a display picture of the man’s own family.

She used fake accounts to post his image onto Facebook community groups saying he had been seen abusing young women, was “creepy”, and “looked like a druggo”.

Her victim was left “anxious and overwhelmed”, police alleged in a summary filed in court.

“She has expressed her concerns for Abdelmalek’s obsession with her,” it reads.

“She felt anxious and scared of Abdelmalek’s capacity to continually stalk her and the man.”

The court was told Ms Abdelmalek was on bail during this period of alleged creepy criminal behaviour, after appealing her previous stalking convictions.

A convicted person can be allowed into the community during the appeal process if bail is granted by the appeal court.

The 31-year-old was previously convicted in June 2019 on six counts of stalking after police accused her of making false social media profiles including of TV heart-throb Lewis.

She used the profiles over months to trick women into thinking they were dating the men she pretended to be, police said.

She sent cruel messages, using fake accounts to troll the women with barrages of messages calling them “slut” and saying things like, “when are you going to kill yourself”, police said.

She was convicted of distributing explicit photos of one of her targets to the woman’s family.

One of the women later committed suicide.

Ms Abdelmalek is appealing these convictions with the matter underway in the County Court.

In court on Monday, prosecutor Luke Devlin said the charges currently against her were of “exactly the same nature” as her alleged impersonation of Lewis and other men.

“What this applicant does is she befriends people, she gets into a relationship with them,” he said.

“(The victims) are exceptionally embarrassed that they were duped into getting into a relationship.

“The fact that she’s on appeal bail has done nothing to prevent her from engaging in this course of conduct.

“She has created two false accounts on Facebook, in exactly the same format as the previous case.

“No bail conditions can assist with the unacceptable risk of this applicant.”

Ms Abdelmalek lawyer Sam Norton argued the charges against her were “demonstrably false” and that conversations between Ms Abdelmalek and the new alleged victim had been edited to obscure the “true nature of the relationship between the two”.

“There are very, very substantial problems with the prosecution case,” he said.

He said Ms Abdelmalek was undergoing psychological treatment, was the sole carer for her parents, and would be unlikely to be jailed for a lengthy period even if found guilty of the new charges.

Magistrate Keogh said bail conditions would manage the risk of her committing more crimes while on bail.

“There are prospects of you potentially going down this path and engaging in this type of behaviour with other people,” she said to Ms Abdelmalek.

“But I do think those risks can be managed.

“I am going to grant you bail today.”

Ms Abdelmalek will next appear in court on August 9.



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Jason Francis Sims pleads guilty to sick acts with 15yo in residential care


A 48-year-old Melbourne crane operator began a sick sexual relationship with a vulnerable 15-year-old and filmed the explicit acts for police to find, a court has heard.

Jason Francis Sims pleaded guilty in the County Court of Victoria on Monday to five charges including supplying drugs to a child and sexually penetrating a child under 16.

He met the girl on dating app Skout, according to a police summary tendered to the court.

She told him she was living in a Department of Health and Human Services residential care unit for young people who have experienced trauma.

They first matched online in May last year and four days later Sims invited her to a motel room.

“She informed Jason Sims that she was 15 years old so they would have to keep their activities a secret and that her age was just a number to her,” the summary read.

She snuck out of her unit to meet Sims in the motel room where he supplied her with meth and took explicit photos of her.

They continued exchanging explicit messages and Sims taught her how to “get a better hit from the meth”, the court heard.

About a week after the motel room horror he ordered an Uber to pick her up and bring her to his house, where he gave her more meth and filmed their explicit acts.

He was caught out when the girl left her phone charging at the care unit and another person saw the distressing videos.

The quick-thinking good Samaritan found Sims’ address by going through the victim’s rideshare app history, and took everything they had found to police.

After he was arrested Sims claimed to police he couldn’t remember doing what was portrayed in the videos, or receiving the message informing him the girl was 15.

Police found meth in the kitchen and GHB in the bedroom, which Sims tried to pin on his 15-year-old victim, claiming she had brought the drugs to his house.

He will be sentenced at a later date.



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AstraZeneca vaccine risks for over-50s eligible to get the jab


From today, Australians aged 50 or older are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine but many are worried about getting the jab.

More than two million vaccine doses have already been given in Australia so far but concerns have been raised about the AstraZeneca vaccine in recent weeks due to rare cases of life-threatening blood clots.

A recent Guardian Essential poll found willingness to get vaccinated had dropped from 60 to 55 per cent among those aged over 50, and about 39 per cent said they didn’t want to take the AstraZeneca jab.

Health authorities and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose mother has been vaccinated with AstraZeneca, have said the vaccine is safe and the benefits outweigh the risks for those aged over 50.

“The risk benefit for over-50s is vastly in favour of being vaccinated,” Health Department secretary Professor Brendan Murphy told reporters on April 22.

Over-50s will be able to get vaccinated through GP respiratory clinics and state and territory vaccination sites from today, with normal GP clinics able to offer the jab from May 17.

In a piece for The Conversation, three experts including Australian National University epidemiologist Meru Sheel outlined how safe and effective the vaccine is, using clinical trial data and information from around 136 countries using the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Is the AstraZeneca vaccine safe?

The experts note that clinical trial as well as real-world data show that the AstraZeneca has a “good safety profile” that is similar to other vaccines used in Australia.

There are some common side effects but these are mostly mild to moderate including reactions at the injection site, fatigue, headache and muscle pain.

About 22 per cent of people missed a day or more of work or studies due to feeling unwell but less than 2 per cent needed to see a doctor.

RELATED: AstraZeneca vaccine to be avoided for under-50s

How likely are you to get blood clots?

The experts note that reactions to the AstraZeneca vaccine have been very rare and this includes thrombocytopenia syndrome, which is when blood clots and low levels of platelets occur between four and 28 days after the jab. About 20 to 25 per cent of people who develop these clots die.

However, only six people in every million who get the jab develop the condition. It tends to be more common in people under 50.

“In Australia, there have been six cases of this type of blood clotting: one person in their 30s, four in their 40s, and one in their 80s. Of these, a person in their 40s has died from it,” the article notes.

Looking at the small amount of data available so far gained from Victoria’s second wave in July 2020, Australians are 10 times more likely to get severely ill or hospitalised from getting COVID-19, than to get a blood clot from the vaccine.

The risk of blood clots for people aged 50-59 years old is about 0.4 per 100,000. For those aged between 60-69, it is 0.2 per 100,000.

However, the risk of getting severely ill from the coronavirus, or of being hospitalised in intensive care, is much higher.

For those aged between 50-59, the risk is about 6.5 per 100,000 (compared to 0.4 per 100,000 for blood clots). For those aged 60-69, it is 7 per 100,000 (compared to 0.2 per 100,000 for blood clots).

Clinical trials found there were 81 per cent fewer COVID-19 cases in vaccinated people than in unvaccinated ones.

“No one who got the vaccine was hospitalised due to COVID-19,” the article notes.

The authors say it is safe to assume the vaccine is at least 80 per cent effective in preventing severe COVID-19 in people aged over 50.

It is also about 70 per cent effective against the B.1.1.7 strain (the more easily spread UK variant).

But we don’t have any outbreaks

While Australia has almost no cases of COVID-19 at the moment, the experts note this could change very quickly if there are new outbreaks.

There is no alternative to the AstraZeneca vaccine for most people over 50 as more shipments of the Pfizer vaccine will not be available until the last quarter of this year.

“So balancing the risks and benefits of the vaccine, is extremely challenging,” the authors note.

“People may not perceive their risk of COVID-19 as high enough to warrant vaccination and are preferring to wait, perhaps six months or more until other vaccines are available.

“However, the potential benefits of the vaccine go far beyond what we’ve already mentioned.

“Vaccination will contribute to the prevention of long COVID-19 (symptoms that linger for months) as well as increased ability to move around freely in society, including being able to attend large events.

“Vaccination will help us avoid lockdowns or school closures, allow us to travel overseas and return to normal life.”

Deakin University epidemiologist Professor Catherine Bennett told ABC she thought people would relax about getting the vaccine once others they knew had got it.

“I think as more people take up the vaccine, I think other people will then think, ‘Yeah, look, there are a lot of benefits from this. My friends are fine. I’m OK with this.’

“So, I think progressively with time people will start to relax more and will probably stop chasing every single case that might or might not be related to some sort of reaction.”





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air quality poor as flights, ferries, motorway stall


Several ferry services were temporarily cancelled, a flight turned around mid-air and outdoor workers were encouraged to drop the tools, as a blanket of smoke haze wreaked havoc in Sydney.

Passengers on-board a Virgin Australia flight from Melbourne to Sydney were told the weather was not suitable to land in the Harbour City on all runways.

The conditions and a lack of fuel forced the plane to turn back around to Melbourne after it travelled as far as Canberra.

The smoke haze came after NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) used a break in the weather to carry out hazard reduction burns.

Controlled burns have taken place on the Central Coast, Blue Mountains, Hawkesbury and Sutherland Shire.

Department of Primary Industries has issued a statement on Monday morning classifying the air quality as “poor”.

It caused the F3 Parramatta River, F4 Pyrmont Bay and F8 Cockatoo Island ferries to stop running temporarily.

“Make alternative travel arrangements and consider catching a train or regular bus instead,” Sydney Ferries posted on Twitter.

However, the services were restored just before 10am.

The smoke is expected to clear later on Monday morning, but it could hang around in Sydney’s western suburbs longer.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has warned that road conditions will be dangerous, and motorists are advised to take extreme care.

“Fog developed in the western suburbs, and it’s currently making its way east and moving over the eastern suburbs, so expecting driving conditions to be a little bit hazardous,” meteorologist James Taylor said.

“When we get cool air and clear sky, it‘s good for trapping smoke down close to the surface, it’s also very good conditions for fog formation.”

The RFS said in a statement it had postponed some controlled burning operations while the smoke cleared.

“Light winds and an overnight inversion has resulted in smoke settling in low-lying residential areas. Smoke is forecast to then begin to lift and clear across the morning as the day begins to warm up,” it said.

“Strategies have been put in place to reduce the impact of smoke on the community, including the postponement of a number of planned burns and a reduction in area burnt for others.

“Hazard reduction burning is strategically planned to minimise the potential impact of smoke on public health; however, some members of the community may need to take action to mitigate the risks of smoke from hazard reduction burning by planning ahead.”

The Electrical Trades Union urged caution for its members working on the tools.

In a statement, ETU NSW secretary Allen Hicks said workers had rights to stop work if the air quality was unsafe.

“In large swathes of Sydney today, air quality is a threat to the health of people working outdoors. Those workers need to know if their employer can’t protect them from smoke exposure they have the right to stop work,” he said.

“Smoke from hazard reduction burns can badly irritate the eyes and throat. Bushfire smoke also contains particles which can affect lung health, particularly for people who already suffer from conditions such as asthma or emphysema.

“These particles can place extra stress on the heart – leading to increased risk of heart attack. “We have informed our members that they should protect their health and stop work if they are concerned about exposure to hazard reduction smoke in their workplace. We are actively monitoring this situation.”



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Victorians over 50 eligible for AstraZeneca mass hubs


Every Victorian over the age of 50 will be able to get a COVID-19 jab from Monday as the state government opens a raft of vaccination hubs to support its six high-volume centres.

The AstraZeneca vaccine rollout for over-50s will be ramped up this week with a seventh high-volume vaccination centre opening on Tuesday at the Cranbourne Turf Club.

That will bolster the existing group of walk-in centres – the Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, the former Ford Factory, the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital, Sunshine Hospital and Mercure Ballarat.

The government will also open 15 vaccination centres at sites across the state from Monday, including at both city and country hospitals , bringing the total number of vaccine hubs in Victoria to 22.

Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley said more vaccination centres would be unveiled in coming weeks.

“The best thing we can all do to support Victoria’s recovery from COVID-19 is to take the opportunity to be vaccinated as soon as we can – and the Victorian government is making it easier to do just that,” he said.

“We’ve worked hard to have 22 sites open to the eligible public by Monday, and there’ll be more to come.

“Initially, we are asking Victorians to phone up and book if you aren’t headed to a high-volume vaccination centre.

“We’re proud to work with GPs to support the commonwealth’s vaccination program any way we can.”

Several of the open access centres will also offer a pathway to the Pfizer vaccine for those eligible.

The Pfizer vaccine supply is limited and prioritised for eligible people under the age of 50 in the phase 1a and 1b of the commonwealth’s vaccination program.

Epidemiologist Hassan Vally, from Latrobe University, said if those eligible for the AstraZeneca had concerns about the risk of “extremely rare” blood clotting, they should discuss it with their doctor.

“All questions regarding how the vaccine may impact on your health should involve a discussion with your GP,” she said.

“It needs to be understood that since there are so few cases of this clotting disorder, we do not have a complete understanding of it and what the risk factors are.”

VACCINATION CENTRES OPEN TO THE ELIGIBLE PUBLIC FROM MONDAY:

• Bendigo Hospital

• Latrobe Regional Hospital – Traralgon Racecourse

• Albury Wodonga Health – Wodonga Community vaccination clinic

• GV Health – Shepparton Showgrounds, McIntosh Centre

• Eastern Health – Box Hill

• Eastern Health – Ringwood East Community Clinic*

• Northern Health – Epping

• Monash Health – Monash Medical Centre*

• Monash Health – Dandenong*

• Monash Health – Kingston*

• Monash Health – Moorabbin*

• St John of God Hospital – Berwick*

• Peninsula Health – Rosebud Hospital*

• Peninsula Health – Frankston*

• Austin Health – Olivia Newton John Centre*

*phone bookings only initially, no walk ins



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Search for missing campers Russell Hill and Carol Clay in Wonnangatta


The story of missing campers Russell Hill and Carol Clay has sparked so many questions, but delivered so few answers.

After almost 14 months of searching, the mystery of what happened deep in the wilderness between the popular tourist peaks of Mount Hotham and Mount Buller continues to baffle detectives.

Mr Hill, 74, and Ms Clay, 73, vanished on March 20 last year during a camping trip in the remote East Gippsland beauty spot of Wonnangatta, 350km east of Melbourne.

Mr Hill left his Drouin home on March 19 before collecting Ms Clay from her home in Pakenham in his white Toyota LandCruiser.

The friends then travelled via Licola, spending one night at Howitt High Plains before heading into Wonnangatta Valley on March 20.

It’s so remote you can only access the valley with a four-wheel drive. In the winter months, some of the roads are even closed, completely.

Mr Hill was last heard from the next day via HF radio, stating he was at Wonnangatta Valley in the Victorian Alps.

Ms Clay told friends she was heading away and was expecting to return home on March 28 or 29.

Mr Hill was an experienced bushman who had been camping alone with his car in the area of the King Billy and Bluff Track between March 11 and 13.

Ms Clay was a former state president and member of the Country Women’s Association.

Previous reports suggested the pair were high school sweethearts, and Mr Hill’s wife was not aware Ms Clay was joining him on the camping trip.

Investigators were told the pair were camping together at Wonnangatta River near the Wonnangatta camping ground.

A week into searching the area and detectives found their campsite burnt out off the Dry River Creek Track, north of Billabong in the Wonnangatta Valley.

A mobile phone attached to a charger was found among the charred mess, leading police to believe it may have caused the blaze.

Detectives found no evidence of an accelerant involved in the fire, which destroyed their tent, table and camping chairs and singed Mr Hill’s Toyota LandCruiser.

But the car was still drivable and the keys left inside.

Police then received reports in late May of three sightings of an “older person or older couple” in the region.

An older woman was spotted at Black Snake Creek who was waiting for other campers to finish using a long-drop toilet.

An older couple was also seen driving out from Blake Snake Creek Hut on March 22, with a woman wearing lipstick and “looking out of place”.

An older couple was also seen near the Eaglevale River crossing and campsite on March 22.

Police have been unable to establish whether they were Mr Hill or Ms Clay.

The search went cold for almost a year until police reignited its appeal to the public for vital clues, unveiling information about a single car that remained untraced in the investigation on March 5, 2021.

Investigators from the missing persons squad revealed they were looking for a white dual-cab ute of unknown make and model in the vicinity at the time Mr Hill and Ms Clay went missing.

“After almost 12 months of meticulous checks, as of this afternoon, police have been able to identify all vehicles seen in the area near Russell and Carol’s campsite on Thursday, 20 March, 2020, with the exception of a single car,” a Victoria Police statement said.

Just days later a drone believed to have been Mr Hill’s was found, sparking hope it could hold the key to finally unravelling the mysterious disappearance.

During initial investigations police released a photo of Mr Hill holding a DJI Mavic drone he bought before going camping.

But the drone – which was handed in to the East Gippsland Police station early March after it was found in the search area – was not the one belonging to Mr Hill.

The investigation deepened on April 14 as police moved their search 80km northwest to the Mount Hotham area, marking the first time the search had strayed from Wonnangatta.

Police were combing through “some parts of the bush never walked on by humans before” just off the Great Alpine Road in Mount Hotham.

And then a breakthrough, when detectives emerged from thick shrub with a shovel wrapped inside a clear plastic bag.

A second shovel was found shortly after.

The investigation in this new search zone was then called off the next day as the evidence was sent off to Melbourne, where they are still being forensically examined by specialist police.

And in the latest turn in the case, detectives this week redirected the search back to the campgrounds from which Mr Hill and Ms Clay first vanished.

Police said special focus would turn to the areas along the Dargo High Plains Road, Cynthia Range Track, Herne Spur Track and the Wonnangatta Track “as a result of information obtained from previous searches”.

Missing Persons Squad detective Acting Inspector Tony Combridge has dropped the biggest hint so far that the pair met with foul play, saying police believed “somebody else is involved” in the disappearance.

“I don’t think anything’s off the table but we look at what’s in front of us and the likely scenario is that somebody else is involved,” Detective Acting Inspector Combridge said moments after the discovery of the two shovels in Mount Hotham.

“We could be one phone call away. That’s the position we hold … from this matter being resolved.”

Anyone who was in the Wonnangatta area about the time Mr Hill and Ms Clay went missing on March 20 – including campers, day trippers, hunters, fishermen or trail bike riders – regardless of whether they saw or heard anything, are being urged to come forward.

Detectives were also keen to speak to anyone who was in the area of Howitt Plains and Zeka Spur Track on March 19 or 20, and the Wonnangatta Valley and Wonnangatta Station between March 20 and 24.

Detectives also established Mr Hill was camping alone with his LandCruiser in the area of the King Billy and Bluff Track between March 11 and 13, 2020.

Police were also keen to speak to anyone who was in that area on those dates.

Anyone who sees Mr Hill or Ms Clay should phone triple-0 immediately. Anyone with any other information should phone Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

anthony.piovesan@news.com.au



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Dozens of Australian butterfly species at risk of extinction


An alarming map shows how environmental degradation has left dozens of species of Australian butterflies at risk of extinction.

It might sound like an 18th century fashion statement, but the “pale imperial hairstreak” is, actually, an extravagant butterfly.

This pale blue (male) or white (female) butterfly was once widespread, found in old growth brigalow woodlands that covered 14 million hectares across Queensland and News South Wales.

But since the 1950s, over 90 per cent of brigalow woodlands have been cleared, and much of the remainder is in small degraded and weed infested patches. And with it, the butterfly numbers have dropped dramatically.

In fact, a new study has found it has a 42 per cent chance of extinction within 20 years.

It isn’t alone. Our team of 28 scientists identified the top 26 Australian butterfly species and subspecies at greatest risk of extinction. We also estimated the probability that they will be lost within 20 years.

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Without concerted new conservation effort, we’ll not only lose unique elements of Australia’s nature, but also the important ecosystem services these butterflies provide, such as pollination.

Only six are protected under law

We are now sounding the alarm as most species identified as at risk have little or no management underway to conserve them, and only six of the 26 butterflies identified are currently listed for protection under Australian law.

The good news is there’s still a very good chance of recovery for most of these species, but only with new targeted conservation effort, such as protecting habitat from clearing and weeds, better fire management and establishing more of the right caterpillar food plants.

Let’s meet a few at-risk butterflies

The butterflies identified are delightful and fascinating creatures, with intriguing life cycles, including fussy food preferences, subterranean accommodation and intimate relationships with “servant” ants.

The Australian fritillary

Our most imperilled butterfly is the Australian fritillary, with a 94 per cent chance of extinction within 20 years. Like many of our butterfly species, a major threat facing the fritillary is habitat loss and habitat change.

The swamps where the fritillary occur have been drained for farming and urbanisation. At remaining swamps, weeds smother the native violets the larvae depend on for food.

No one has managed to collect or take a photo of a fritillary in two decades, although a butterfly expert observed a single individual flying near Port Macquarie in 2015.

It might already be extinct, but as it was once quite widespread at swampy areas along 700 kilometres of coastal Queensland and NSW, we have hope there are still some out there.

The fritillary has impressive jet black caterpillars with a vibrant orange racing stripe and large spikes along their back, which transform into stunning orange and black butterflies.

Anyone who thinks they have seen a fritillary should record the location, try to photograph it and the site and immediately contact the NSW Department of Planning Industry and Environment.

The fritillary is among many butterflies with specific diets. And these preferences can make species vulnerable to environmental changes such as vegetation clearing, weed invasions and fires.

The small bronze azure

Caterpillars of the small bronze azure — found on Kangaroo Island (and a few other patches in South Australia and Victoria) — only eat common sourbush.

Following the extensive 2020 fires, the butterfly hasn’t been found in areas where the sourbush burnt.

Luckily, it’s been found in small patches of unburnt vegetation, so for now it’s hanging in there.

Like many butterflies, the life cycle of the small bronze azure is enmeshed with a specific species of ant.

By day the butterfly larvae shelter underground in sugar ant (Camponotus terebrans) nests, then at night they’re escorted up by the ants to feed on the sourbush. For their care the ants are rewarded by a sugary secretion the caterpillars produce.

The eastern bronze azure

Some relationships with ants are even more unusual. Kangaroo Island’s other imperilled species — the eastern bronze azure — stays underground in sugar ant nests for 11 straight months. We don’t yet know what they eat.

In a macabre twist, they may be eating their hosts — the ants or the ant larvae. So why the ants carry them down and look after them is also a mystery.

It might be for sugary secretions, like with the small bronze azure, but the caterpillars could also be using chemical trickery, mimicking the scent of ant larvae to fool the ants.

Adults of the eastern bronze azure emerge only to flutter about for a few weeks in November, so at the time of the Kangaroo Island fires in January the entire population was safely underground in ant nests. And as the larvae don’t come up to feed on plants, they weren’t impacted by the loss of vegetation.

It’s not too late to save them

By raising awareness of these butterflies and the risks they face, we aim to give governments, conservation groups and the community time to act to prevent their extinctions.

Local landowners and Landcare groups have already been playing a valuable role in recovery actions for several species, such as planting the right food plants for the Australian fritillary around Port Macquarie, and for the Bathurst copper.

Indeed, most of the identified at-risk species occur across a mix of land types, including conservation, public and private land. In most cases, conservation reserves alone aren’t enough to ensure the long-term survival of the species.

Many landowners don’t realise they’re important custodians of such rare and threatened butterflies, and how important it is not to clear remaining patches of remnant native vegetation on their properties and adjoining road reserves.

People wanting to learn more about the butterfly species near them can use the free Butterflies Australia app to look up photos and information. You can also be a citizen scientist by recording and uploading sightings on the app.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation and has been reproduced with permission



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