The Snowtown murders (also known as the bodies in barrels murders) were a series of murders committed by John Bunting, Robert Wagner and James Vlassakis between August 1992 and May 1999, in and around Adelaide, 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 publicized in Australian legal history.
Most of the bodies were found in barrels in a bank vault in Snowtown, hence the names given in the press for the murders. Only one of the victims was killed in Snowtown itself, which is approximately 140 kilometres (87 miles) north of Adelaide, and neither the eleven victims nor the three perpetrators were from the town. Although motivation for the murders is unclear, the killers were led by Bunting to believe that the victims were paedophiles, homosexuals, or “weak”. In the case of some victims, the murders were preceded by torture, and efforts were made to appropriate victims’ identities, social security payments and bank accounts.
Although initially the notoriety of the murders led to a short-term economic boost from tourists visiting Snowtown, it created a lasting stigma, with authorities considering a change of the town’s name and identity.
Initially, the body of Clinton Trezise was found at Lower Light 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 a disused bank vault. For this reason, the murders were dubbed the “bodies in barrels murders”.
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 Mark Haydon on 21 May 1999 for the murders. At the time of the arrest, 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.
Justice Brian Ross Martin determined 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 18 years.
John Justin Bunting (born 4 September 1966 in Inala, Queensland) was found to be the leader of the perpetrators. When he was 8 years old, Bunting was beaten and sexually assaulted by a friend’s older brother. He is reported to have “enjoyed weaponry, photography and anatomy,” and grew to develop a strong hatred of paedophiles and homosexuals. At age 22, Bunting worked at an abattoir and reportedly “bragged about slaughtering the animals, saying that’s what he enjoyed the most”. Bunting moved to a house in Salisbury North, South Australia in 1991 and befriended his neighbors Mark Haydon and Robert Wagner. Wagner’s romantic partner, Vanessa Lane, a.k.a. Barry Lane, was a male cross-dresser with a history of pedophilia.
Robert Joe Wagner (born 28 November 1971 in Parramatta, New South Wales) was befriended by Bunting in 1991. Bunting encouraged Wagner to assist in the various murders.
James “Jamie” Spyridon Vlassakis (born 24 December 1979), along with his mother and half-brother, lived with Bunting and was gradually drawn into helping with the murders. Vlassakis, 23, helped torture and kill his own half-brother, Troy Youde, and his stepbrother, David Johnson. He confessed in 2001 to four murders, including Johnson’s, and became a key witness for the Crown. 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 South Australia prison.
Mark Ray Haydon (born 4 December 1958), an associate of Bunting, was initially the subject of “suppression orders or statutory provisions prohibiting publication” and could not therefore be identified as anything other than an alleged perpetrator. In January 1999, he reportedly rented the abandoned state bank building at Snowtown. A jury deadlocked on the murders of Haydon’s wife, Elizabeth Haydon, and of Troy Youde. The murder charges were not retried when Haydon pled guilty to helping the serial killers dispose of the bodies of Elizabeth and Youde.
Clinton Trezise, 20, killed 31 August 1992, body found 16 August 1994
Ray Davies, 26, killed December 1995, body found 26 May 1999
Suzanne Allen, Bunting’s ex-girlfriend, 47, died November 1996, body found 23 May 1999 (perpetrators were tried but not found guilty as a result of a hung jury; her case was never tried again, but it is believed she was likely a victim of Bunting)
Michael “Michelle” Gardiner, 19, killed September 1997, body found 20 May 1999
Barry “Vanessa” Lane, Wagner’s ex-partner, 42, killed October 1997, body found 20 May 1999
Thomas Trevilyan, 18, killed 5 November 1997, body found 5 November 1997
Gavin Porter, Vlassakis’s friend, 29, killed April 1998, body found 20 May 1999
Troy Youde, Vlassakis’s half-brother, 21, killed August 1998, body found 20 May 1999
Frederick Brooks, 18, killed September 1998, body found 20 May 1999
Gary O’Dwyer, 29, killed October 1998, body found 20 May 1999
Elizabeth Haydon, Mark Haydon’s wife, 37, killed 21 November 1998, body found 20 May 1999
David Johnson, Vlassakis’s stepbrother, 24, killed 9 May 1999, body found 20 May 1999