Samantha Murphy: I was one of the last people to see missing mum when she ran past my campsite on her morning jog

Rebecca Agheli was camping when she saw her missing mother Samantha Murphy running past the day before she disappeared

Rebecca Agheli was camping when she saw her missing mother Samantha Murphy running past the day before she disappeared

A camper who saw missing mother Samantha Murphy running past her 24 hours before she disappeared has told of a terrifying encounter she had with a ‘disturbed man’ in the bush just days before.

Rebecca Agheli and her partner, Michael, hired a caravan for a weekend trip to Ballarat for a gold panning trip near the Woowookarung Regional Park.

Ms Murphy disappeared in the regional park after leaving her home just after 7am on Sunday and no trace of her has been found since.

Police said on Friday night they would scale back the search for the missing mother-of-three, in a devastating blow to her family.

Ms Agheli said she only found out that Ms Murphy had disappeared on Thursday, and added that she had seen her running past their campsite the previous Saturday morning.

CREEPY ENCOUNTER BEFORE MOM DISAPPEARED

When they arrived at the goldfields on February 1, about 15 minutes from the state forest, Ms Agheli was preparing for their gold hunt while her partner scouted the area.

He quickly returned to their car after seeing a strange man.

“He’s a big guy, he’s not usually afraid of anything, but he told me he saw a strange, confused man jump out of the woods and talk to himself with the cross on his pants torn,” she told USA Online Post Australia.

Ms Murphy disappeared in the Woowookarung Regional Park after leaving her home just after 7am on Sunday and no trace of her has been found since.

Ms Murphy disappeared in the Woowookarung Regional Park after leaving her home just after 7am on Sunday and no trace of her has been found since.

The 51-year-old has been missing for six days and police have called in homicide detectives to help with the investigation

The 51-year-old has been missing for six days and police have called in homicide detectives to help with the investigation

The couple decided to pack up and go to another area, which Ms Agheli guessed was about a seven-minute drive away.

She said her partner had warned her about mine shafts in the area and suggested they go elsewhere, but Ms Agheli wanted to have a quick look and wandered some distance away from the car.

“Then I saw the same guy again, even after we’d only been driving for about seven minutes,” she said.

His whole face lit up when he saw a woman on his own.

“I thought how did this guy get here so fast, he must know a shortcut. He had both his hands behind his back and started walking towards me very quickly.’

Ms Agheli says she then called out to the man to ask if there was gold in the area, loud enough for her partner to hear.

Michael immediately ran to Ms Agheli. She says the man quickly put his hands in his pockets and fled into the woods.

Ms Agheli described the man as white with medium length hair. She suspects he may have had a mental disability.

The couple then drove 15 minutes away to the lookout point in the Woowookarung Regional Park where they spent the night on Thursday and Friday last week.

Both Ms Agheli and her boyfriend said they heard strange noises overnight on Friday, prompting Michael to even sleep with a cheese knife under his pillow.

“On Saturday morning, Michael said, ‘I don’t feel comfortable here, we have to go, I heard things last night, let’s pack up and go,'” she said.

“It takes a lot for a man to be scared.”

Ms Murphy (pictured) was known as a keen athlete who visited the forest almost daily.

Ms Murphy (pictured) was known as a keen athlete who visited the forest almost daily.

THE MOMENT THE COUPLE SEE MS MURPHY RUN PAST THEIR CAMPSITE

Before the couple left the state forest, they saw Ms Murphy running past, with the mother of three wishing them a good morning.

Ms Agheli spoke to detectives looking into Ms Murphy’s case about what she saw.

Michael also lost his Apple watch and Ms Agheli said she was told by police that it last pinged in a similar area to where Ms Murphy’s phone also pinged in the nearby suburb of Buninyong.

Ms Agheli hopes what she saw can help in the investigation into Ms Murphy’s whereabouts.

“I’m worried that something similar could happen to someone else,” she said.

“It was my first camping trip and I will never go there again.”

MAJOR ATTACK AT NEARBY FOREST IN FEBRUARY

Last February, Sissy Austin, 29, was knocked unconscious by an unknown man while jogging through the nearby Lal Lal State Forest.

Ms Austin was running along the motorbike track through bushland, just 20km from where Ms Murphy was jogging, when she was suddenly confronted by the stranger.

She only caught a glimpse of him before he lashed out and hit her on the head with a rock on the end of a stick.

The blow knocked her out cold and left her face bruised and bloodied, before she awoke minutes later, dazed but alone.

She said her attacker was a white man. No one has been charged over the attack.

Sissy Austin posted pictures of herself before and after last year's attack by a man armed with a rock attached to a stick

Sissy Austin posted pictures of herself before and after last year’s attack by a man armed with a rock attached to a stick

THE LATEST

Late on Friday, Victoria Police confirmed the ‘current phase of the active search’ for Ms Murphy would be scaled down over the weekend.

An extensive six-day search was carried out involving local police, along with personnel from the search and rescue team, mounted branch and canine team, plus significant assistance from members of the SES and CFA,’ a statement said.

“The police are still in regular contact with Samantha’s family about the developments of the search and the status of the investigation.

“The investigative stage of the investigation continues and as any new information comes to hand to identify areas of interest, the search will be escalated.”

Specialist teams will continue to search despite volunteers being scaled back over the weekend.

After an extensive search in the surrounding area yielded no leads, missing persons detectives were handed over control of the investigation on Friday.

“Although no sinister factors have been identified in her disappearance at this time, there is great concern as it has now been six days with no sightings of her or any sign of her current whereabouts,” police said in a statement.

SES volunteers are seen scouring farmland as the search for Ms Murphy enters its sixth day

SES volunteers are seen scouring farmland as the search for Ms Murphy enters its sixth day

The team will have the ability to extend resources from specialist investigative units across the crime command.

“It is particularly concerning that we have now gone six days without any contact from her or any possible sightings,” Detective Acting Superintendent Mark Hatt said in a statement.

It comes less than 24 hours after Acting Inspector Lisa McDougall told the media the disappearance was not being treated as suspicious.

“There are no suspicious circumstances that we have identified at this stage,” she said.

But police insist her disappearance is still not being treated as ‘sinister’.

“We have not received any information relating to her movements from the time she left (her) home address on Sunday morning,” Acting Superintendent of Detectives Mark Hatt said Friday morning.

Detective Hatt added that missing persons investigators have more resources and experts to help with the search.

“There will certainly be additional crime command detectives attending the Ballarat area today and in the coming days,” he said.

The focus shifted to the town of Buninyong, 15 minutes south of Ballarat.

Anyone who may have seen dashcam footage driving through the area from 7am to 7pm on Sunday is being asked to come forward.