Transcript: 150. Snowtown | Australia

You are listening to: The Evidence Locker.

Our cases have been researched using open source and archive materials. It deals with true crimes and real people. Some parts are graphic in nature and listener discretion is advised. Each episode is produced with the utmost respect to the victims, their families and loved ones. 

This month, we are celebrating Evidence Locker’s third birthday, as well as our 150th episode. In the spirit of celebration, we decided on a Blockbuster theme for the month of July. This week, we look into the true crimes behind the critically acclaimed, chilling Australian film, Snowtown


This episode contains reference to child abuse and details of severe torture by homophobic killers and would not be suitable for sensitive listeners.

In May 1999 an investigation into five missing person’s led South Australian police to a rural town north of Adelaide, called Snowtown. Specifically, a disused bank in the town centre. 

Officers gained access through a side door and at first, they saw nothing suspicious. There were some office supplies and boxes, as one could expect to find in an abandoned bank. But there was an ominous feeling that the bank held a grim secret. By manipulating the safe door open, they were greeted with a black plastic sheet, covering the entrance. An officer ripped it open and saw an eerie scene in the darkness: six black barrels, bottles of acid, coils of rope, rubber gloves, a double barrel shotgun and some kind of electric tool. 

With trepidation, they opened the first barrel, only to confirm their worst suspicions: the first discernible shape was unmistakably that of a mummified foot. As the police worked their way through the other barrels, they recovered more remains, all soaked in acid. One of the first officers at the scene described it like this:

“It was a scene from the worst nightmare you’ve ever had, I don’t think any of us was prepared for what we saw.”

As forensic experts moved in, they were able to untangle the remains of eight victims in the six barrels. Because of the water content of the body parts, the amount of acid used was not enough to dissolve the remains. In fact, the oxygen-free environment of the barrels preserved the body parts. Forensic pathologists could use fingerprints, tattoos and dental records to identify the victims. Wounds on the body parts also told the truth about the torture suffered by the victims before they died. 

DNA evidence inside proved that the suspects who had taken the investigation to Snowtown, had all been inside the disused bank vault. The race was on to catch the most sadistic group of killers Australia had ever seen: John Bunting, Robert Wagner and Jamie Vlassakis. This is the grim and unsettling story of the bodies in the barrels murders…

>>Intro Music

Adelaide is a small Australian city and the capital of South Australia. The city is innocent in appearance with no real skyscrapers and a charming, historic CBD. A wealth of parks and gardens adorn the city, known as ‘The City of Churches’. It seems like an overgrown country town, a welcoming and friendly place that’s easy to navigate. From the CBD, suburbs sprawl into the surrounding countryside, with the Adelaide Hills visible in the distance.

John Justin Bunting was born on the 4th of September 1966 in Brisbane, Queensland to parents Tom and Jan. He did not have much growing up and spent a lot of time outdoors. As a kid, he enjoyed catching insects and dropping them into acid and watching as they dissolved.

When Bunting was only eight years old, he was sexually assaulted by an older brother of a friend. This incident changed his life and inside him festered a hatred for paedophiles and gay men. According to Bunting, all paedophiles were gay, therefore it was one and the same thing.  

He never finished high school and when he was 18, he moved to South Australia. He found a job at a crematorium, where his employer said that he was a good worker, but they had to let him go due to budget cuts. From the crematorium, he moved on to a job at an abattoir, and it is said that he "bragged about slaughtering the animals, saying that's what he enjoyed the most".

Even in his late teens, Bunting took a keen interest in white supremacy and in an effort to learn more about it, read Mein Kampf. He owned a Nazi flag and painted a Swastika inside the trunk of his first car. He was outspoken and opinionated and never shied away from a confrontation. 

Bunting married Veronica Tripp in 1989, but left her for Elizabeth Harvey, who, along with her sons, moved into Bunting’s house in Salisbury North, Adelaide in 1991. During this time, Bunting met neighbours Robert Wagner and Barry Lane. Barry was a cross-dresser and a convicted paedophile. When he donned women’s clothing, he went by the name Vanessa.

Robert Joe Wagner was born on the 28th of November 1971 in Parramatta, NSW. At the age of seven he attempted suicide by drinking his mother’s sleeping pills. It was after being abused by an older family friend that young Wagner decided to end his life.

In his teens he was an openly white supremist, who even called his Doberman puppy ‘Adolf’ after Hitler. He skipped school and spent a lot of time at an individual’s house, called Barry Lane. Lane was a convicted paedophile and lured Wagner with presents and treats. Despite Wagner’s mother’s efforts to keep her son from seeing Lane, Wagner was under Lane’s spell. When Wagner was only 14, he disappeared with 31-year-old Lane. 

They reappeared four years later, as partners. People called them two peas in a pod. Wagner re-established contact with his mother and told her that they had lived under the radar, so as to keep their situation from authorities. Only when Wagner turned 18, did Lane relax and they settled into a community in the north of Adelaide. 

Barry Lane was a flamboyant character who caused a stir by parading around in short pink shorts. With a history of child abuse and continuous habit of hassling young kids, everyone knew he was bad news. Lane and Wagner’s house often got egged by neighbourhood kids, causing them to install a high wall and purchase guard dogs, like Wagner’s Doberman, Adolf. 

When Bunting learnt how Wagner spent his teenage years with Lane, he was appalled. He befriended him and took him under his wing. He saw Wagner as a victim, but still kept things polite with Lane – with the idea of ‘keeping one’s enemy close’. 

Wagner fell under Bunting’s spell, being swept up in his hate-talk of others. Like Bunting, he believed that law enforcement was not doing enough to eradicate paedophiles from family neighbourhoods and saw himself as a crusader of sorts. Soon the verbal tirades were aimed at a broader group, including gay men, people with disabilities, even acquaintances who simply annoyed them. They all congregated at Bunting’s place, on Waterloo Corner Road, where he lived with Elizabeth and her kids.

Her 14-year-old son, Jamie Spyridon Vlassakis never had much of a chance in life. He grew up in poverty and had a violent and abusive upbringing. His own father sexually abused him, and then died in front of him. But the abuse did not end – his half-brother Troy Youde continued molesting and abusing Jamie. His mother had mental health and addiction problems, and the young Jamie had no one to look out for him. 

When Jamie’s mom moved them all into John Bunting’s house, Bunting became a father figure, and Jamie grew close to him. For the first time it felt like someone had his back. Bunting drew the impressionable Jamie into his belief system and cultivated a hatred towards others within him. Bunting killed animals and skinned them in his backyard – and made Jamie watch as he did it.

Another familiar face around the house on Waterloo Corner Road was Mark Ray Haydon. Mark lived with his parents until he got married in his late 30s. He was a quiet, unassuming, intellectually challenged man. He was usually found under the hood of a car and according to neighbours often had friends around to see him. 

His wife, Elizabeth, was a single mother of seven, who felt that she had finally met her knight in shining armour in Mark. All of Elizabeth’s kids were from different fathers and theirs was a busy and chaotic home. Her family thought she was happy for the first time in years and supported the marriage. Neighbours described Elizabeth as ‘a bit slow, but happy-go-lucky’.

Mark met John Bunting met during a welding course and they soon became friends. Because of his low intellect, Mark was easily manipulated by the charismatic and opinionated Bunting. Bunting dated Haydon’s sister Jodie for a while. He also had a romantic relationship with Elizabeth’s sister Gail Sinclair, who had a mentally disabled son called Fred Brooks.

One night, Bunting was watching television with Elizabeth Haydon and her son Jamie, when Australia’s Most Wanted came on. There was a segment about an unsolved disappearance to which Bunting boasted that it was his ‘handiwork’. The case was that of 22-year-old Clinton Trezise, whose remains were found in a shallow grave on farmland in Lower Light (about a 30-minute drive from Salisbury North) in 1994. 

Clinton was a drifter who had lived with Barry Lane and Robert Wagner. He had fallen out of contact with his family and lived a quiet life. He was openly gay, something 25-year-old Bunting did not like. He asked Lane for information about Clinton and made up his mind that he was a paedophile. Bunting sardonically teased Clinton, always calling him ‘Happy Pants’. A storm was brewing, and the degenerate group would soon turn teasing into malice. Lane raped Clinton, and he, Bunting and Wagner decided to discard of him. Bunting invited the unsuspecting Clinton over for a social visit on the 31st of August 1992. But John Bunting had something else in mind. While Clinton was sitting on a sofa, Bunting approached from behind and hit him over the head with a heavy object like a hammer or a shovel. He then drove out to Lower Light where he buried his first victim’s body in a shallow grave, where it was discovered two years later. 

It would be three years before Bunting killed again.

His next victim lived in a caravan in the backyard of one of Bunting’s friends, Suzanne Allen. 26-year-old Ray Davies was suspected to have abused children in the neighbourhood, including Elizabeth Haydon’s boys. He was often out in the streets, causing scenes and Bunting saw him as a nuisance. Intellectually disabled, Ray was unemployed and received welfare payments. 

Davies reportedly had a brief sexual relationship with Suzanne Allen, who accused him of attempting to interfere with her grandchildren. He was last seen around the neighbourhood in December 1995 and vanished overnight. No one ever reported him missing. Neighbours recalled seeing Bunting and Wagner cleaning the caravan shortly after Ray’s disappearance. They painted it and moved it to another property from where they sold it two months later. 

Ray Davies’ landlady and Bunting’s friend, 47-year-old Suzanne Allen met her brutal end almost a year later in November 1996. She was in love with Bunting and hoped that they would end up together. He strung her along, but never intended to take the relationship anywhere. An emotional Suzanne called her sisters one day and said she was moving away and would call once she’d settled in. But the call never came, and no one ever heard from Suzanne ever again.

Life in Salisbury North carried on for Bunting and his mates. They congregated at Bunting’s home for the most part, continuing slanderous conversations about neighbours, friends and family.

Wagner had a gay friend called Michael Gardiner. Wagner, a bisexual man himself, found it offensive that Michael made no effort to hide his sexual orientation. This of course was hypocritical to the next level, seeing as Wagner was still close friends with the colourful Barry Lane at the time. 19-year-old Michael lived down the road from Wagner in a shared house. By this time Wagner was in a heterosexual relationship and had fathered a son. He was appalled by Michael Gardiner’s open lifestyle, which became a constant source of scrutiny for Wagner and Bunting.

In September 1997, they overpowered Michael Gardiner. Michael had endured horrendous torture before he was killed. He had burn marks all over his body, with the most severe injury being a burn would on his scrotum. Once the deed was done, they forced Mark Haydon’s nephew, the mentally disabled Fred Brooks, to impersonate him. He called Michael’s friends, pretending to be Michael, and asked them for his wallet, as he needed his ID. Of course, the puppet master John Bunting was pulling the strings, hoping to use Michael Gardiner’s ID to gain access to his banking accounts.

Over the years, Bunting’s main source of information about suspected paedophiles and people who lived openly gay lives, was Barry Lane. At this point, 18-year-old Thomas Trevilyan lived with Lane and Wagner and had a sexual relationship with Lane. Bunting decided it was time to end things for Barry. He was involved in the killing of Clinton Trezise and Bunting did not feel he could count on Lane to keep it to himself. The 42-year-old Lane met his end in October 1997. Thomas Trevilyan assisted in the murder, torture and disposal of Lane’s body. 

When Bunting felt that Thomas had served his purpose, it was time to eliminate him too. Thomas was unpredictable and vocal about everything he did. Bunting realised that as long as Thomas was alive, there was a risk that their crimes would be revealed. Thomas Trevilyan’s body was found hanging from a tree in Kersbrook in November 1997. His death in November 1997 was ruled a suicide, and Bunting was never suspected of any wrongdoing. 

All the while, Bunting was still playing happy families with Elizabeth Haydon. One of Jamie Vlassakis’ friends, 29-year-old Gavin Porter, was always around their house. He was a heroin addict, and in Bunting’s opinion he was a ‘waste’. When Bunting settled down to watch TV one night, he sat on one of Gavin’s used needles. That was the last straw. Gavin was killed in his car, in the driveway of Bunting’s house. He dragged his body into the shed, where he called Jamie to come and look at the lifeless body of his friend. 

Noticing that Jamie did not take it all that well, Bunting did what he did best: he manipulated the 19-year-old, who regarded him as a father, by promising to do something for him. Jamie had confided in Bunting and told him about the abuse he had suffered as a young teen at the hands of his half-brother, Troy Youde. 

Bunting had decided that 21-year-old Troy had to pay the ultimate price for what he had done to Jamie. In August 1998, Bunting, Wagner and Vlassakis found him asleep in his bed when they launcher their attack. They bundled him into a bathtub, where they tortured him. They crushed his toes with pliers, one by one, and burnt his body with a Variac machine, the kind that is used to apply electric shocks. Jamie Vlassakis looked on as his half-brother begged for mercy but did nothing. Wagner and Bunting ended Troy’s torture, strangling him in the tub.

The next month, Mark and Elizabeth Haydon’s 18-year-old nephew, Fred Brooks disappeared. He had helped Bunting and his crew to access Michael Gardiner’s money, so he had served his purpose. To justify killing Fred, Bunting told everyone he was a paedophile. Bunting had dated Fred’s mom (Elizabeth Haydon’s sister Gail) for a while, so he claimed that he ‘knew things’. However, this was not true. Fred was mentally disabled and harmless. But once Bunting had placed a label on someone, his cronies did not question his decision to ‘do what needed to be done’. Fred was burnt with cigarettes his toes were crushed with pliers and his killers inserted a lit sparkler into the front of his penis, and watched it burn out.

The murders were more frequent now, with Fred being the sixth in the space of one year. In October 1998, it was time to claim the next victim. Gary O'Dwyer, 29, had the misfortune of making the acquaintance of John Bunting. Gary did not fit any of Bunting’s typical criteria: he was not gay, nor was he a suspected paedophile. Gary had been left disabled after he suffered a head injury in a car accident, and he had no family to care for him. He was receiving disability support from the government and lived alone. All of these factors made him a soft target for the diabolical killers. Bunting claimed that Gary looked like Troy Youde, and that was enough to seal his fate. Besides, it had been more than a month since they had killed Fred Brooks, and Bunting said he killed Gary, simply because the need to kill had overcome him. Like Troy, Gary was shocked and burnt with the Variac machine before meeting his final demise. 

At this point, the victim count was 10 – and they were running out of paedophiles and gay people to murder. Bunting, who had known Mark Haydon’s wife Elizabeth for years – through her sister – couldn’t stand her. He found her annoying and made Mark Haydon aware of his wife’s shortcomings. Mark was easily manipulated and agreed that they had to get rid of Elizabeth. She knew about most of the murders and with her limited intellect, Bunting feared she’d say something. Elizabeth was last seen on the 21st of November 1998.

When Mark told her brother Garion Sinclair that she had left him, he did not buy it. Elizabeth had settled down for the first time in her life and she would not simply up and go, especially not without saying anything. Her brother went to Adelaide Police and informed them of his sister’s disappearance, a couple of days after she was last seen. Garion Sinclair told police that Mark Haydon had told them that Elizabeth had stolen money from a joint account Mark held with his father and run off with one of her boyfriends. Police shared Garion’s concerns and agreed that it was strange that Mark Haydon did not report the theft or her disappearance. 

Police interviewed her husband Mark Haydon at his house in Smithfield Plains, Mark insisted that Elizabeth had left him and that his marriage was over. Mark, uneducated and intellectually challenged, did not convince investigators and they decided to investigate further. Enquiries took them into Elizabeth and Mark’s circle of friends, and the names John Bunting and Robert Wagner came up.

Neighbours told police that, before Elizabeth’s disappearance, an old Landcruiser used to be parked in the Haydon’s driveway. Around the time she was last seen, they noticed Bunting and Wagner loading the truck with garbage bags and drove off into the night. The vehicle seemed to have disappeared along with Elizabeth. Investigators questioned Mark Haydon, John Bunting and Robert Wagner in connection with the Landcruiser, and received three different accounts as to what had happened to it. Despite scouring the entire area, it was nowhere to be found.

After Elizabeth’s murder, the killings stopped for a while, possibly because of police enquiries into her unexplained disappearance. But Bunting and Wagner were not done yet. Six months later, they hand-picked another family member. This time it was 24-year-old David Johnson, Jamie Vlassakis’ stepbrother. On the 9th of May 1999, on Bunting’s instruction, Vlassakis lured David, offering to drive him to see a man about a computer. He knew David wanted to buy a computer and Bunting and his crew told him about a good deal in the small rural town of Snowtown, located about an hour and a half’s drive north of Adelaide.

David was a clean-cut young man who liked to stay out of trouble. He was determined to make something of himself, which is why he wanted to buy a computer. Bunting never liked David and called him a ‘faggot’. 

When David arrived at a disused bank in Snowtown’s main stretch, he realised that there was no computer and that it had been a trap. He was shaking with fear and complied with everything his attackers asked him to do. He gave them his ATM card and the password. Wagner and Vlassakis went to an ATM in nearby Port Wakefield to test it, leaving David with Bunting. When they returned, David was no longer alive.

Unbelievably, Bunting and Wagner were ready to escalate their behaviour even further. 

They removed portion of David’s flesh and packaged it into a plastic glove. Then, they walked to a friend’s house – across the road from the bank. They told him they had some Kangaroo meat and used the friend’s kitchen to fry it up, before serving it in three portions. The friend claimed he had no idea he was consuming human flesh. 

Meanwhile… South Australia Police were still investigating Elizabeth Haydon’s disappearance, when another unsolved missing persons’ case came under review. They learnt that Clinton Trezise, whose last known address was the same as Robert Wagner’s, had disappeared in 1992 and never made contact with his friends or relatives again. 

The other resident of that house, Barry Lane, had also gone missing. Lane was no stranger to police, due to his previous convictions. At the time of his disappearance Lane was unemployed and living off welfare payments. Clinton Trezise also received financial disability support, and even though neither of the two had been seen in years, their cheques were still being claimed. To the cold case detectives, this fact opened the possibility that they were alive, and left on their own volution. Following bank account activity, investigators noticed that frequent withdrawals were made from Barry Lane’s account, always from the same ATM, at a service station in the north of Adelaide.

Cross-dressing Barry Lane was a recognisable person. Surveillance footage clearly showed that the person making the cash withdrawals was very definitely NOT Barry/Vanessa Lane. Investigators identified the man in the footage as Lane’s ex-partner, Robert Wagner. Police decided to place surveillance on Wagner before questioning him and saw that he spent most of his idle time with John Bunting. 

At the same time, the police were re-visiting all unsolved disappearances in South Australia. Yet another missing person’s case was connected to Bunting and Wagner, that of Bunting’s friend, Suzanne Allen. And then they learnt that Suzanne’s backyard tenant, Ray Davies, had also vanished shortly before her.

Police upped surveillance on Bunting and Wagner, who led police to Snowtown. At first they did not know what the men’s connection to Snowtown was. The small town showed signs that there was once a boom of sorts with wide roads a railway station and large lots where family homes were built. However, due to economic decline, the town had become a shadow of its former self. 

Police observed as Bunting and his mates visited an unknown man at 25 Railway Terrace, Snowtown. In the cluttered yard of the property, they noticed the missing Landcruiser that disappeared along with Elizabeth Haydon. This was the first break in her disappearance case, and police knew it held essential evidence, enough to arrest the men. Once Bunting and co had left, police paid the owner of the property a visit. He told police that he knew Bunting, Wagner and Haydon and that the men had rented a disused ‘State Bank of Australia’ building, across the road. The man also made a statement that caused immediate concern: when the men arrived at his house, there the Landcruiser was filled floor to roof with black plastic barrels. After securing the lease of the bank, they moved the barrels there. 

On the 20th of May 1999, on entering the disused bank vault, police officers discovered the six black barrels. The press was all over the gruesome story and dubbed it the ‘Bodies in the Barrels Murders’. David Johnson’s was the only murder that took place in Snowtown, yet, over time, the case became commonly known, simply as Snowtown.

As the investigation continued, police determined that the bodies were kept at several locations throughout South Australia (including a shed on Bunting’s Property in Murray Bridge), before they were all moved to the vault in Snowtown. When the killers realised police were onto them, they decided to move all the bodies to one location that had no obvious links to any of them. Mark Haydon, using the name Mark Lawrence, signed the lease.

Forensic testing confirmed that the six barrels in the vault contained remains of eight victims: Gavin Porter, Troy Youde, Frederick Brooks, Gary O’Dwyer, Elizabeth Haydon and David Johnson. Barry Lane and Michael Gardiner’s bodies were in the same barrel, and the killers removed one of Michael’s feet because the lid of the barrel wouldn’t close. 

The investigation had brought a lot of evidence against the men involved, and neighbours and friends began to talk. Police received a tip, suggesting police would find human remains at John Bunting’s previous residence in the Adelaide suburb of Salisbury North. They used ground penetrating radar, similar to the one used in the Fred and Rose West case in the UK. An excavation of Bunting’s backyard did in fact yield a body, that of Suzanne Allen. She had been dismembered and her body parts were wrapped in plastic bags, before Bunting buried it under a rainwater tank stand in his backyard. The remains had been there for two-and-a-half years. The same excavation operation uncovered the remains of Ray Davies, who was last seen in 1995. His body was hidden in a disused cellar at the same property.

On May 21st 1999, police arrested 32-year-old John Bunting, 27-year-old Robert Wagner and 19-year-old Jamie Vlassakis and 40-year-old Mark Haydon. The nation was shocked when they learnt about the horrific murders that went unnoticed for years. 

Bunting and Wagner did not reveal anything to police. Mark Haydon claimed he was not involved in any of the murders, only in the disposal of the bodies. The youngest of the group, Jamie Vlassakis admitted to his involvement in four of the murders, that of his half-brother Troy Youde, his stepbrother David Johnson, Fred Brooks and Gary O’Dwyer.

During his first week in custody, Jamie Vlassakis tried to end his life on two occasions. He was overcome with guilt and decided the only way out was for him to tell authorities everything he knew. It took him two years to pluck up the courage to speak. He claimed that he remained silent, because he wanted to protect his mother, Elizabeth Harvey,

who was suspected of assisting Bunting in the torture and murder of Ray Davies. Vlassakis said that he had gone along with the murders, because if didn’t, Bunting would have killed him too. 

In 2001, he made a statement, which became a 2000-page document, compiled in the course of various interviews. Jamie’s confession became a roadmap, helping police in tying up loose ends in the case. He became the Crown’s key witness, ultimately ensuring the conviction of John Bunting and Robert Wagner. 

Bunting was clearly the leader of the group, and psyched up his cronies, constantly talking about the revolting crimes of paedophiles. He stuck notes with names, addresses, phone numbers and photos of local people on a wall in a spare room, interlinking items with pieces of yarn. He called it a ‘rock spider’ wall. A rock spider is an Australian colloquial term for a paedophile. Whenever he felt inspired, he’d picked a person on his wall and called them on the phone anonymously, warning that they would ‘get what was coming to them’.

In his testimony, Jamie Vlassakis outlined the true horror of the crimes by walking police through the group’s MO. Once they had chosen their victim, they’d kidnap them and for the most part, take them to Bunting’s house. The terrified victims were made to record a message, saying that they were leaving town and that no one should worry about them. Then Bunting would press play on the CD player, it was always the same album – Throwing Copper by the band Live. 

This was the cue for the torture, or ‘playing’ as Bunting called it, to commence. Under duress, the victims were forced to hand over their identity documents and reveal information about bank accounts. The victims all gave the information, hoping it would save their lives. But Bunting and his cronies knew all along that they would never see the light of day again. Torture included mutilating the victim’s toes with pliers, burning them with cigarettes, shocking them with the Variac machine and beating them up. The victims were often tortured to the brink of death, then Bunting would revive them and made them call him ‘God’, ‘Master’, ‘Chief Inspector’ or ‘Lord Sir’. Finally, either Bunting or Wagner would strangle their victims with rope or cord. Then someone would jump onto the chest to make sure all air was out.

The information they extracted from their victims enabled them to access their bank accounts and receive their welfare payments. In the end, they raked up $95,000 in welfare and credit card fraud. 

It was a sensational case, and police were careful not to release too much information to the public, due to the shocking elements of the case. Acting Police Commissioner stated that the group ‘preyed on itself’. They killed their neighbours, friends and family members. The nation followed the 12-month trial with morbid interest, watching in disbelief as the macabre details of the case unfolded. It was the longest trial in South Australian history, and every appearance was thoroughly covered by the media. In the course of the trial, three jurors dropped out, unable to handle the gruesome details of the murders. Remaining jurors requested counselling after the trial.

Bunting and Wagner opted NOT to take the stand in their own defence and practiced their right to remain silent instead.

In the course of the trial, police recovered multiple audio cassette recordings. One of them had Suzanne Allen’s voice, saying that she had met a guy and was going away with him and that her friends should not worry about her. This was the exact message Suzanne’s sisters received after she disappeared. In hindsight they realised that someone else must have called them and played the recording over the phone. Other recordings were made while the victims were being tortured. It was played in court and the families had to sit through the gruelling end terrifying last moments of their loved ones. The recordings were deemed too shocking to play again and have never been made public.

In December 2003 John Bunting was convicted of 11 murders, and Robert Wagner of 10. However, Wagner only admitted to three. He made only this statement in court, attempting to justify his actions by saying:

"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 found guilty on four counts of murder and was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences with a non-parole period of 26 years. Because of his assistance in the case, his identity has largely been kept private and is serving his time in an undisclosed facility, in isolation. 

For years, due to a suppression order, Mark Haydon’s involvement in the crimes remained a mystery. Once the order was lifted, it was revealed that Haydon was the one who had rented the disused bank in Snowtown in January 1999. He assisted in the disposal of the bodies by his own admission, but his role in the murders remain murky.

Mark Haydon was found guilty of assisting in five of the murders – he only admitted to helping with two: that of his wife, Elizabeth and Jamie Vlassakis’ half-brother Troy Youde. Haydon was sentenced to 25 years with non-parole period of 18 years.

No one was found guilty of Suzanne Allen’s murder, because of a hung jury. Bunting and Wagner claimed that she had died of a heart attack and that they only discarded of her remains. There was not enough evidence to prove otherwise. Although Suzanne’s case was never taken back to court again, the general belief is that she was also one of Bunting’s victims. 

Although the murders of Ivan Milat created an international sensation, he was only ever convicted for seven murders. Bunting and Wagner’s crimes exceeded that, making them Australia’s most prolific serial killers.

The horror and scandal of the crimes lured many curious tourists to Snowtown. Thirty years on, town is still fighting the stigma of the bodies in the barrels. Local residents discussed changing the town’s name to Rosetown, but it never amounted to anything. It’s rather unfair really, that this town became synonymous with the murders, when in fact, most of the killings took place in Salisbury North.

The disused bank was sold, and the new owners live in the attached home. They plan to keep the bank as a museum, commemorating the horrible discovery that was made there more than 20 years ago. Bunting’s Waterloo Corner Road house in North Salisbury, where Suzanne Allen and Ray Davies’s bodies were found, has been demolished.

Due to the horrific nature of the murders, more than 250 suppression orders were brought in to prevent the media from publicizing certain details of the case. In 2011, a judge lifted the remaining orders, and producers of the film Snowtown gained access to the brutal truth for research purposes. The film invites the viewer to linger in the world of Bunting’s dysfunctional social group. It is dark and unsettling, really hard to watch in all honesty. There is no romance in the killings, just a man on a mission, believing himself to be a saviour of sorts, but then his bloodlust got the better of him… Apart from the main roles, the filmmakers used actual residents as extras, giving the backdrop an authentic feeling. 

Paedophilia was an actual and serious problem in the neighbourhoods where Bunting found himself. In an environment where vulnerable members of society were at the mercy of these perpetrators, one can perhaps understand the frustration of someone who had once been a victim of sexual abuse himself. In this case Bunting, Wagner and Vlassakis were all victims of abuse. Under Bunting’s leadership, it felt like they were righting the wrongs that had been done to them. In their minds they were preventing others to suffer the same fate – or at least that is how they justified it. 

However, many of their victims had never harmed anyone else. None of his co-conspirators dared to ask Bunting for proof – he identified people who he deemed to be paedophiles and rallied the others up against them. He also blurred the lines between paedophiles and homosexuals – to him it was the same thing. And then there were incidental victims, like Elizabeth Haydon and Suzanne Allen, who knew too much.

Bunting and Wagner claimed to be crusaders against child molesters, and that was their reason for the murders. But that was only an excuse. In the end, the financial gain from the murders proved to be the strongest motive. The sadistic element to the murders were just a part of what they called ‘playing’ with the victims.

John Bunting used his leadership characteristics to take charge of the group of lost souls and weak individuals. He made them feel looked after and protected, and in doing so, gained their blind loyalty. He knew his associates were broken individuals and his bloodthirsty cause gave them a sense of purpose. 

Robert Wagner, Mark Haydon and Jamie Vlassakis were all fuelled with hatred, because of horrendous personal experiences. John Bunting with, the ringleader, was the match that lit the fire and created a blaze that scorched Australian criminal history forever.

If you’d like to read more about this case, have a look at the resources used for this episode in the show notes. 

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