Span of killings
|August 1992–May 1999|
|21 May 1999|
The Snowtown murders (also known as the Bodies-in-Barrels murders) were a series of homicides committed by John Bunting, Robert Wagner, and James Vlassakis between August 1992 and May 1999 in South Australia. A fourth person, Mark Haydon, was convicted for helping to dispose off the bodies. Only one of the victims was killed in Snowtown, and neither the eleven victims nor the perpetrators were from the town.
Though the real reason for the murders is unknown, it is believed that the killers' motives for some of the murders were that they believed the victims to be paedophiles, homosexuals or "weak". The murders were also frequently preceded by torture. The notoriety of the murders led to a short-term economic boost from tourists visiting Snowtown, but created a lasting stigma.
Investigation and charges
John Bunting moved to a house in Salisbury North in 1991. There he befriended his neighbors Mark Haydon, Robert Wagner and his girlfriend Vanessa Laney. At the time of the arrest, James Vlassakis lived in Bunting's home.
The body of Clinton Trezise, one of the victims, was found near Adelaide in 1995. On May 20 1999, the remains of eight victims were found by the South Australian Police in six plastic barrels in an unused bank vault in Snowtown. It is believed that the bodies had been held in several locations in South Australia before being moved to Snowtown in early 1999. Prosecutors believe that the killers moved the bodies after they became aware of the ongoing police investigation. Two more bodies were found buried in the backyard of Bunting's house in Adelaide.
Bunting, Wagner, Vlassakis and Haydon were arrested and charged in May 1999.
Trials and Verdicts
The trial of Bunting and Wagner, lasting almost twelve months, was the longest in the history of the state. In December 2003, Bunting was convicted of committing 11 murders, and Wagner of 10 murders, out of which he had confessed to only three. Vlassakis pleaded guilty to four of the murders. In 2004, Haydon was convicted on five counts of assisting with the murders (of which he admitted to two). The jury did not come to a decision on charges of committing murder or a sixth charge of assisting, with the prosecution stating they would seek a retrial on those charges.
The final outstanding murder charge of Suzanne Allen against Bunting and Wagner was dropped on 7 May 2007, when a jury was unable to reach a verdict.
At his sentencing, Wagner stated from the dock:
"Pedophiles were doing terrible things to children. The authorities didn't do anything about it. I decided to take action. I took that action. Thank you."
The court decided that Bunting was the ringleader, and sentenced him to 11 consecutive terms of life imprisonment without the possibility of release on parole. Wagner was sentenced to 10 consecutive terms under the same conditions, Vlassakis was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences with a non-parole period of 26 years and Haydon was sentenced to 25 years with no possibility of parole for 8 years.
More than 250 suppression orders prevented publication of the details of this case. In early 2011, a judge lifted the remaining orders in response to a request by the producers of the film Snowtown, a dramatisation depicting the murders and the events leading up to them.
- John Justin Bunting (born 1966 in Inala, Queensland) was convicted of murdering 11 people and was found to be the leader of the perpetrators. Forensic psychiatrist Professor Kevin Howells, who worked at Broadmoor Hospital in Berkshire, England, suggested that Bunting's behavior lacked emotion and the capacity to empathise with his victims. Howells observed that Bunting fit the profile of a psychopathic killer who derived satisfaction from controlling his victims. When Bunting was young, his favorite pastime was burning insects in acid. During his teenage years he began to associate with Neo-Nazi groups. In adulthood, Bunting developed a deep hatred of pedophiles and homosexuals, and drew no distinction between the two. According to records, Bunting was sexually assaulted by a friend's elder brother at the age of 8, and he therefore targeted those who reminded him of this abuse. Bunting began killing at the age of 25, and the men he chose to assist him were either mentally-challenged individuals he could easily manipulate, or relatives of those working with him.
- Robert Joe Wagner was befriended by Bunting in 1991. Bunting encouraged him to assist him in the various murders.
The Age reported in 2011 that the town of Snowtown would be "forever stigmatised" due to its relationship to the murders. Shortly after the discovery of the bodies in Snowtown, the community discussed changing the town's name to "Rosetown," but no further actions were taken. As of 2012, one shop in Snowtown was selling souvenirs of the murders "cashing in on Snowtown's unfortunate notoriety".
The bank, with a four-bedroom attached house, was placed on auction in February 2012 but only reached half its reserve price of $200,000. After holding an open house which raised $700 for charity through charging an entrance fee, the property sold on 27 September for just over $185,000 with the new owners intending to live in the house while running a business from the bank. A plaque will be installed to commemorate the victims.
In media and popular culture
A number of books have been written about the murders.
- AAP (December 19, 2004). "Bodies-in-barrels trial not over". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 11 January 2014.
- Newton, Michael (2006-01-01). The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. Infobase Publishing. pp. 243–. ISBN 9780816069873. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
- Snowtown: Living with a death penalty The Age 7 May 2011
- "Gruesome trail of killing". The Age (Melbourne). 9 September 2003.
- "Sadists get life - National - www.theage.com.au". The Age. Retrieved 11 January 2014.
- Tony Hull (08/09/2003). "Lateline - 08/09/2003: Snowtown killers likely to die in jail . Australian Broadcasting Corp". ABC Online. Retrieved 11 January 2014.
- "Snowtown killers 'cooked victim's flesh' - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)". ABC Online. 19 Sep 2005. Retrieved 11 January 2014.
- "Final Snowtown murder charge dropped". ABC News. 8 May 2007.
- "Snowtown suppression orders lifted for film". Australian Associated Press. 20 January 2011.
- Heckle, Drum & Gravitt, n.d. John Justin Bunting. Retrieved 22 January 2014.
- Tourists snap up souvenirs of Snowtown's past The Advertiser 15 July 2012
- If walls could talk The Australian 30 June 2012
- THE infamous Snowtown Bank has sold The Advertiser 29 August 2012
- Snowtown bank sold The Age 29 September 2012
- Snowtown Murders: The Real Story Behind the Bodies in the Barrels Killings, Andrew McGarry, ISBN 0-7333-1482-1
- Snowtown: The Bodies In Barrels Murders: The Grisly Story of Australia's Worst Serial Killings, Jeremy Pudney, ISBN 0-7322-6716-1
- All Things Bright And Beautiful: Murder In The City Of Light, Susan Mitchell, ISBN 1-4050-3610-9
- "The victims". The Age (Melbourne). 9 September 2003.