A couple who were camping in Ballarat at around the same time that mum Samantha Murphy vanished have said they came across a man in bushland who “scared the hell out of us”.
On Friday, Victoria’s missing persons squad officially took control of the effort to locate Ms Murphy, getting on for a week after she vanished.
Victoria Police has said “there was no evidence of “anything sinister” and the search had been hampered by rough terrain.
Nonetheless it “hadn’t ruled out anything”.
“The focus is finding her,” Victoria Police Inspector Bob Heaney said.
The 51-year-old was last seen by her family as she left her home on Eureka St, Ballarat East, for a run at 7am on Sunday 4 February.
Crews have searched the Canadian State Forest and Mount Helen areas, using mounted officers and police dogs to hunt for signs of Ms Murphy.
A couple have now come forward who said they were camping between last Thursday and Saturday near Woowookarung Regional Park where police have been searching for Ms Murphy who disappeared on Sunday.
Rebecca Agheli and her boyfriend Michael Churchill from Melbourne were visiting the area in a motorhome to go gold prospecting when a man twice “came out of nowhere,” they said.
The couple initially pulled over near Ballarat Gold Mine around 5km from Ms Murphy’s home.
They were preparing their metal detectors around the motorhome when Mr Churchill told Ms Agheli that “some weird guy” had appeared in the bush.
On social media, Ms Agheli said the man’s pants were torn around the crotch which had exposed his underwear and he was muttering.
Rattled, the pair drove off and then parked in another spot to go prospecting.
Ms Agheli said the man then came out of the bush again.
“He took out his hands from his pockets and put both his wrists behind his back and started walking towards me,” she said.
“As soon as he saw my partner, he quickly shifted his direction and started walking to the bush.”
The couple picked up their belongings and moved on once more.
‘Scared the hell out of us’
Mr Churchill said the guy was “really creepy looking” and you could see through the tear in his trousers he was wearing “white, dirty underwear”.
“I remember the whole weekend vividly. Whether it’s anything at all, I’m not sure,” reported The Australian
Mr Churchill said the man was in his late forties or early fifties with mid length hair.
“I’m a pretty decent sized guy and I can more than handle myself, and it was enough for me to grab my partner”.
“What really is alarming,” said Ms Agheli, is that Michael was more worried than I was and he never gets worried”
“(The man) came out of nowhere, which scared the hell out of us.”
Despite the scare, the couple spent two nights at Woowookarung Regional Park.
On the Saturday, Ms Agheli said she saw a woman running through the park which she said could well have been Ms Murphy going for her regular jog the day before she vanished.
Ms Agheli told The Australian she detailed what the couple saw on Facebook when they were concerned police hadn’t investigated their experience fully.
“Maybe he’s harmless. I don’t want to point fingers. I’m just saying this is what I experienced and what I saw.”
In a press conference on Friday, Inspector Bob Heaney said the area being searched was covered in dense bush and mine shafts.
“It’s a challenging area and terrain that’s in the area of the search operation and there is a lot of unused mines and some waterways in the area as well”.
He said police were particularly keen for people to check their dashcams if they were in the areas of interest from 7am onwards on February 4 – the day Ms Murphy went missing – as the area’s remoteness meant there was little CCTV available.
Insp Heany added that Ms Murphy was “mentally and physically” fit and a habitual jogger in rough terrain who could run over 15km at a time.
Detective Acting Superintendent Mark Hatt from Victoria Police’s Crime Command added that there are major concerns for the missing mum, despite there being “nothing immediate to indicate there is anything sinister behind Samantha’s disappearance”.
“We still have a number of avenues of inquiry to pursue, and the search to try and locate her is ongoing today,” he said.
“I also think it’s important that people avoid unnecessary and unhelpful speculation. However, it is especially concerning that we have now gone six days without any contact from her or any potential sightings.”
Superintendent Hatt said police were working with telecoms specialists to find the locations Ms Murphy may have travelled to.
“That will be a huge part of our investigation. Digging into the background, working out Samantha’s movements in the days leading up to her disappearance,” he said.
“And also the people that knew her.”
It’s thought Ms Murphy was travelling with her phone and a smartwatch, however, police remain tight-lipped on what, if anything, those items have yielded.