In May 1999 eight victims were found encased in barrels inside a disused bank vault in the South Australian town of Snowtown.
They had been de-fleshed and dismembered.
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 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 public trials in Australian legal history.
Only one of the victims was killed in Snowtown itself, which is approximately 140 kilometres (87 miles) north of Adelaide, and none of the eleven victims, nor the 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 at least some instances, the murders were preceded by torture, and efforts were made to appropriate victims' Centrelink social security payments and bank funds.
Ultimately, Bunting’s group would pocket more than $90,000 of their victims’ money.
The Main Perpetrator
The main player in this gut-wrenching case of sadistic torture and murder is John Justin Bunting.
Bunting was a man who took depraved pleasure in torturing and killing people he believed to be a scourge on society — or the “waste”, as he referred to them.
He was a man who liked to look into the eyes of his dying victims so he could “pinpoint” their moment of death.
He was a man who laughed and joked while administering fatal torture. And to inflict that torture Bunting, along with Wagner, used an array of items, including an electric shock machine, hand and thumb cuffs, cigarettes, garrottes, pliers, sparklers, syringes and hammers.
They even cooked and ate the flesh of one of their victims, a court was told.
Bunting, being the ringleader, was sentenced to 11 consecutive terms of life imprisonment without the possibility of release on parole.
- Robert Wagner was sentenced to 10 consecutive terms under the same conditions. At his sentencing, he stated...
"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."
- James Vlassakis was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences with a non-parole period of 26 years and
- Mark Haydon was sentenced to 25 years with no possibility of parole for 8 years.
There were more than 250 suppression orders to prevent more publication of the details of the case.
The remaining orders were lifted in 2011 when a request was made by the producers of the film Snowtown.
Capitalising on Tragedy?
Initially the notoriety of the murders led to a short-term economic boost from tourists visiting Snowtown.
One local businesswoman, Rosemary Joseph, owner of Snowtown Craft and Curios sold locally made 15cm-high plaster barrel ornaments to meet the demand from tourists wanting a reminder of a visit to the town. The ornaments - suitable for desks or shelves - have a crudely painted head and arm sticking out of the top.
"Tourists visiting the town were wanting something more than fridge magnets and spoons," Mrs Joseph said.
"I'm conscious of the family members who have lost their loved ones. But I think the town and the souvenirs are so popular with some people because deep down they are grateful it's not them."
Mrs Joseph said not everyone in Snowtown approved of her decision to sell the souvenirs.
"Half the town don't think anything of it but there are some who would wish it would go away," she said.
When all's said and done, the Snowtown Murders incident created a lasting stigma on Snowtown. So much so that the authorities considered a change of the town's name and identity. Even the local schoolchildren called for it to be renamed Rosetown.
Unfortunately though, such a change could never have sweetened the air around Snowtown. And despite the malignant tumour having long been removed from the bank vault, the town will forever represent a macabre scar on the Australian map.
Rosemary Joseph eventually put her Snowtown Craft & Curios business up for sale at a meagre $5000.
Would you invest in a town with this history?
There were actually 11 victims in total but only 8 were found in barrels.
THE VICTIMS FOUND IN THE BARRELS
- 19-year-old cross-dressing homosexual Michael Gardiner
- Wagner’s 42-year-old former partner Barry Lane
- 29-year-old drug addict Gavin Porter
- Vlassakis’s 21-year-old stepbrother Troy Youde
- Mark Haydons’ sister-in-law’s 17-year-old son Frederick Brooks
- 29-year-old invalid pensioner Gary O’Dwyer
- Mark Haydon’s 37-year-old wife Elizabeth, and
- Vlassakis’ 24-year-old de facto half brother David Johnson.
THE OTHER VICTIMS
In the days after the grisly bank find, detectives discovered two dismembered bodies buried in one of Bunting’s former backyards — at a house in Salisbury North. They were:
- 26-year-old pensioner Ray Davies, and
- 47-year-old Suzanne Allen, one of Bunting’s former partners. (Bunting and Wagner were never convicted of Ms Allen’s death. It was claimed she died of natural causes.)
Another victim had been found hanging from a tree in November 1997:
- 18-year-old schizophrenic boy Thomas Trevilyan.