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 of the bodies. The trial was one of the longest and most publicised in Australian history.
Only one of the victims was killed in Snowtown, which is approximately 140 kilometres (87 miles) north of Adelaide, and none of the eleven victims nor the perpetrators were from the town. Though motivation for the murders is unclear, the killers were led by Bunting to believe that the victims were paedophiles, homosexuals or "weak". In at least some instances, the murders were preceded by torture, and efforts were made to appropriate victims' Centrelink social security payments and bank funds.
Several individuals were involved in the murders: John Bunting, Robert Wagner, and James Vlassakis were all charged with the killings; additionally, Mark Haydon pleaded guilty and provided testimony in exchange for a lesser sentence.
John Justin Bunting (born 4 September 1966 in Inala, Queensland) was found to be the leader of the perpetrators. When Bunting was 8 years old, he was beaten and sexually assaulted by a friend's older brother. As a teenager, he is reported to have "enjoyed weaponry, photography and anatomy". As a young adult, he developed a strong hatred of paedophiles and homosexuals. At age 22, he worked at an abattoir and reportedly "bragged about slaughtering the animals, saying that's what he enjoyed the most".:1 Bunting moved to a house in Salisbury North in 1991, and there he befriended his neighbours Mark Haydon, Robert Wagner and his girlfriend Vanessa Laney.
James Spyridon Vlassakis, along with his mother and half-brother, lived with Bunting and was gradually drawn into helping with the murders and torture. Vlassakis, 23, helped torture and kill his own half-brother, Troy Youde, and his stepbrother David Johnson. Vlassakis, 23, confessed in 2001 to four murders including that of his stepbrother, David Johnson. Johnson came to Bunting's attention because his former stepmother, who was also the mother of Vlassakis, had moved in with Bunting. Vlassakis became a key witness for the Crown and the detail he provided, supported by other evidence, helped convict Bunting and Wagner. Vlassakis was sentenced in 2002 to a minimum of 26 years and is held in isolation in an unidentified SA prison.
Mark Ray Haydon, an associate of Bunting, is the subject of "suppression orders or statutory provisions prohibiting publication" and cannot therefore be identified as anything other than an alleged perpetrator. In January 1999, he reportedly rented the abandoned State Bank building at Snowtown.:242 A jury deadlocked on initial murder charges against Haydon, which were not proceeded with when Haydon pleaded guilty to helping the serial killers dispose of the bodies of his wife Elizabeth and Troy Youde.
Initially, the body of Clinton Trezise was found at Lower Light near Adelaide in 1995, although no connection to Bunting was made at this time. Similarly the death of Thomas Trevilyan in 1997 was initially treated as a suicide. It was police inquiries into Elizabeth Haydon's disappearance which eventually led them to Snowtown, and on 20 May 1999, the remains of eight victims were found by the South Australian Police in six plastic barrels in an unused bank vault. 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. Police later arrested and charged Bunting, Wagner, Vlassakis, and Elizabeth's husband, Mark Haydon on 21 May 1999 for the murders. At the time of the arrest, James Vlassakis lived in Bunting's home.
Trials and verdicts
The trial of Bunting and Wagner lasted almost twelve months, the longest in the history of South Australia. In December 2003, Bunting was convicted of committing eleven murders, and Wagner of ten murders, 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 two murder charges against Haydon, and another charge of assisting murder, at which the senior prosecutor, Wendy Abraham, indicated that she would seek a retrial on those charges. The final count against Bunting and Wagner—that of murdering Suzanne Allen—was dropped on 7 May 2007, when a jury had been unable to reach a verdict.
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, and at his sentencing, he stated from the dock: "Paedophiles 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." 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.
The notoriety of the murders led to a short-term economic boost from tourists visiting Snowtown, but created a lasting stigma. 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 house in Salisbury North where Bunting lived and buried two bodies was demolished by its owner, the South Australian Housing Trust. 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 later that year 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.
Books detailing the crimes include:
- Marshall, Debi: Killing For Pleasure: The Definitive Story of the Snowtown Serial Murders, ISBN 1-7405-1248-0
- Mitchell, Susan: All Things Bright And Beautiful: Murder In The City Of Light, ISBN 1-4050-3610-9
- McGarry, Andrew: Snowtown Murders: The Real Story Behind the Bodies in the Barrels Killings, ISBN 0-7333-1482-1
- Pudney, Jeremy: Snowtown: The Bodies In Barrels Murders: The Grisly Story of Australia's Worst Serial Killings, ISBN 0-7322-6716-1
- AAP (19 December 2004). "Bodies-in-barrels trial not over". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 11 January 2014.
- Newton, Michael (1 January 2006). The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. Infobase Publishing. 242–244. ISBN 9780816069873. Retrieved 14 March 2014.
- Johnston, Chris (7 May 2011). "Snowtown: Living with a death penalty". The Age. Retrieved 8 August 2015.
- Heckel, Jessica; Drum, Tracy; Gravitt, Karoline (26 November 2008). "John Justin Bunting" (PDF). Dept of Psychology, Radford University, Va. Retrieved 14 March 2014.
- Debelle, Penelope (9 September 2003). "Gruesome trail of killing". The Age (Melbourne). Retrieved 14 March 2014.
- "Snowtown killers 'cooked victim's flesh'". ABC News. 19 September 2005. Retrieved 11 January 2014.
- Debelle, Penelope (9 September 2003). "Sadists get life". The Age (Melbourne). Retrieved 11 January 2014.
- Juan Ignacio Blanco. "John Justin Bunting". Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers. Retrieved 24 May 2015.
- Hull, Tony (8 September 2003). "Snowtown killers likely to die in jail". Lateline (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Retrieved 11 January 2014.
- "Final Snowtown murder charge dropped". ABC News. 7 May 2007. Retrieved 8 August 2015.
- "Snowtown suppression orders lifted for film". News.com.au. AAP. 20 January 2011. Retrieved 8 August 2015.
- Kennett, Heather (15 July 2012). "Tourists snap up souvenirs of Snowtown's past". The Advertiser. Retrieved 8 August 2015.
- "If walls could talk". The Australian. 30 June 2012. Retrieved 8 August 2015.
- Noonan, Amy (29 August 2012). "Snowtown bank sells for more than $185,000". The Advertiser. Retrieved 8 August 2015.
- "Snowtown bank sold". The Age. 29 September 2012. Retrieved 8 August 2015.
- Snowtown (2011) at IMDb, 18 November 2011
- "The victims". The Age (Melbourne). 9 September 2003.