Snowtown murders

Snowtown murders

Snowtown killers
Birth name: John Bunting
Robert Wagner
Mark Haydon
James Vlassakis
Number of victims: 12
Span of killings: August 1992–May 1999
Country: Australia
State(s): South Australia
Date apprehended: 21 May 1999

The Snowtown murders, also known as the Bodies in Barrels murders, refers to the murders of 12 people in South Australia, Australia between August 1992 and May 1999. The crimes were uncovered when the remains of eight victims were found in barrels of acid located in a rented former bank building in Snowtown, South Australia on 20 May 1999. The town of Snowtown is in the Mid North of South Australia, 145 km north of Adelaide. Though Snowtown is frequently linked with the crimes, the bodies had been held in a series of locations around Adelaide for some time, and were moved to Snowtown in early 1999, very late in the crime spree that had spanned several years. Only one victim was killed in Snowtown; none of the victims or the perpetrators were from that town.

Eight bodies were found in plastic barrels in the disused bank vault on 20 May. Three days later two bodies were found buried in a backyard in Salisbury North, a suburb north of Adelaide. By the end of June, nine of the ten victims had been identified. The discoveries followed a lengthy, covert criminal investigation by South Australian Police. During the investigation two mysterious deaths already known to authorities were found to have been murders perpetrated by the “Snowtown” murderers.

A total of four people were arrested and charged over the murders. All were convicted of the murders or assisting in the murders. This group was largely influenced by ringleader John Justin Bunting. Much detail was not made public with the cases having been subject to over 250 suppression orders, many of which have not yet been lifted.


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  • John Justin Bunting (b. 1966 in Inala, Queensland) was convicted of murdering all listed victims except Suzanne Allen. He is considered to have been the central figure throughout all of the killings and torture and the one whose personality provided motivation for the other perpetrators. While psychological reports are not available to the public, it has been suggested [1] by forensic psychiatrist Professor Kevin Howells, who has worked at Broadmoor Hospital in the United Kingdom, that Bunting’s behaviour suggested he lacks emotion and the capacity to empathise with his victims. Howells believes Bunting fits the profile of a psychopathic killer who derives satisfaction from controlling his victims. When he was young, his favourite pastime was burning insects in acid, and during his teenage years he was a neo-Nazi. During adulthood Bunting developed a deep hatred of paedophiles and homosexuals.
  • Robert Joe Wagner was befriended by Bunting in 1991. He was encouraged by Bunting to assist him in the various murders, and complied.[1]
  • Mark Ray Haydon was not convicted of any of the murders, but pleaded guilty to helping the serial killers dispose of the bodies.
  • James Spyridon Vlassakis with his mother and half-brother lived with Bunting. After being gradually involved in the murder spree was drawn by Bunting into helping with the murders and torture. Later became the Crown’s star witness.
  • Elizabeth Harvey, Vlassakis’ mother, who knew about the murders, and with Bunting’s encouragement, assisted in one of them. Died of cancer after the arrests of Bunting, Wagner, Vlassakis, and Haydon, during the investigation.
  • Thomas Trevilyan assisted the murder of Barry Lane in 1997, murdered by the other gang members prior to police involvement.
  • Jodie Elliott, sister of Mark Ray Haydon’s wife Elizabeth Haydon was a woman with below-average intelligence who had become besotted with Bunting. She impersonated the deceased former acquaintance of Bunting’s, Suzanne Allen, to collect her social security payments. Elliott’s son Frederick Brooks was later murdered by the gang.

The murders

Bunting moved into the Salisbury North home in 1991 and quickly befriended Wagner and his boyfriend Barry Lane, and Mark Haydon, who all lived nearby. [2]

The various victims were mainly chosen on a whim by John Bunting for imagined infractions. He especially hated paedophiles, and some were murdered as Bunting suspected them of being a paedophile, usually based on flimsy evidence or rumour. Others were killed due to dislike of obese people, or drug users or because they were gay men. Most of the victims were friends or acquaintances of at least one of the group. Others were relatives, sometimes living in the same house with one of the killers. Others were briefly befriended and drawn into the group as they were picked as easy targets to satisfy Bunting’s desire to commit murder. Usually victims’ social security and bank details were obtained, and the murderers or their associates impersonated the victims to continue to collect their pensions after their deaths. Although a total of $97,200 was obtained in this manner, social security fraud was not judged to have been the primary motive for the killings.

The final murder was conducted in the bank building after the barrels had been move
d there for storage. Of the scene encountered in this building, one Snowtown officer said: “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.” The building was littered with tools used by the killers to torture and murder their victims, including:

  • knives
  • a bloodstained saw
  • double barrel shotgun
  • coils of rope
  • rolls of tape
  • rubber gloves
  • cloths
  • a Variac metallurgy tool that the killers used to administer electric shocks to the genitals and other sensitive parts of the victim’s body

The pathologists report later revealed that prolonged torture had taken place using everyday tools such as pincers, pliers and clamps — examples of all of these were found in the vault. Wendy Abraham QC, the deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, reported at the Supreme Court of South Australia that the victims were forced to call their torturers ‘God’, ‘Master’, ‘Chief Inspector’ and ‘Lord Sir’.

Ray Davies was garrotted with a piece of rope and a tyre lever after being placed in a bath, attacked with clubs, repeatedly beaten about his genitals and having a toe crushed with a pair of pliers.

Frederick Brooks received electric shocks to his penis and testicles, and had a burning sparkler pushed down into his penis; after his toes were crushed and his nose and ears burned with cigarettes, he was allowed to choke to death on his gag.

A piece of the flesh of the eleventh and final victim, David Johnson, was fried and eaten by Bunting and Wagner.

The victims

  • Clinton Trezise, 22 (d. Aug 1992) was found buried in a shallow grave in 1994 at Lower Light. Was killed in Bunting’s living room at his home in Salisbury North, by being bashed with a shovel after being invited in for a social visit.
  • Ray Davies, 26 (d. Dec 1995), a mentally handicapped man who lived in a caravan in the back yard behind Suzanne Allen’s house who became a target after her accusation that he was a paedophile. Harvey assisted in his torture. Davies was never reported missing.
  • Suzanne Allen, 47. Allen was a friend of Bunting’s. She died some time after Davies, and her remains were found buried above his in the garden of the house at Salisbury North. Her remains were wrapped in eleven different plastic bags. Her death was concealed by the accused and they continued to collect her pension, but they later claimed she had actually died of a heart attack. Based on the evidence presented at trial, the jury was unable to decide without doubt that she had been murdered.
  • Michael Gardiner, 19 (d. Aug 1997) an openly gay man murdered after a suspicion arose that he was also a paedophile.
  • Barry Lane, 42 (d. Oct 1997), a gay man and cross dresser who had been in a relationship with Wagner at the time Bunting first met them in 1991 when he moved to their neighbourhood. Trevilyan was a later boyfriend of Lane’s. Lane had been tortured by having his toes crushed with pliers.
  • Thomas Trevilyan, 18 (d. 1997) was found hanging from a tree near Kersbrook in the Adelaide Hills, and was initially presumed to have committed suicide. He had helped in the murder of Barry Lane, but was later killed after discussing the crime with others. He was known to his family to have suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was easily persuaded.
  • Gavin Porter, 29 (d. Apr 1998), a heroin addict and friend of Vlassakis. After Bunting, Elizabeth Harvey, Vlassakis, and Youde moved to Murray Bridge, South Australia, Porter also moved in. Bunting decided he should be the next victim after he was pricked by a discarded syringe Porter left on the couch in the living room. Porter was strangled in his car parked on the property.
  • Troy Youde, 21 (d. Sep 1998), Vlassakis’ half-brother and son of Elizabeth Harvey who was living with them at Bunting’s Murray Bridge house at the time of his death. He was killed in the house after being dragged from his bed while asleep. This was the first murder Vlassakis participated in.
  • Fred Brooks, 18 (d. Sep 1998). The intellectually disabled son of Jodie Elliott, a woman in love with Bunting, was chosen by Bunting as an easy victim and lured to his house where he was attacked and brutally tortured.
  • Gary O’Dwyer, 29 (d. Nov 1998), man disabled in an earlier car accident and on a pension, O’Dwyer was a stranger, picked as an easy target. Was killed in his home in Frances Street, Murray Bridge, by Bunting, Wagner and Vlassakis.
  • Elizabeth Haydon, 37 (d. Nov 1998), Mark Haydon’s wife, killed by Bunting and Wagner in her home while her husband was out.
  • David Johnson, 24 (d. May 1999) Vlassakis’ half-brother. Murdered by Bunting in the bank building having been lured there by Vlassakis. He was the only victim to have died in Snowtown.

The investigation began to take shape after Elizabeth Haydon’s brother reported her missing within days of her disappearance. Her brother did not believe her husband Mark Haydon’s explanations for her disappearance, which seemed to contradict each other in varying versions he gave, and the brother also did not believe she would leave without her two young sons. Police found it suspicious that her husband had not reported her missing, and investigated her disappearance. Elizabeth Haydon was closely affiliated with all of the murderers, so they all fell under close scrutiny once police started their investigations.

The discovery that Trezise and Lane had known each other was one of the first clues in the police discovering that there was more than a routine missing person investigation.

The storage of bodies

The discovery of the barrels in May 1999 in Snowtown was the culmination of five years of criminal investigation. Police involvement with the then unlinked crimes had begun with the discovery of human remains at Lower Light. After Elizabeth Haydon’s disappearance, the police installed a listening device in Mark Haydon’s house in Smithfield Plains, recordings from which were later used as court evidence.

The remains found at Lower Light were later determined to have been those of Clinton Trezise, who had been murdered in Bunting’s living room at Salisbury North, South Australia. Ray Davies and Suzanne Allen were found buried in the back yard of that house.

The bodies in barrels were variously stored in several places before finally being moved to the bank vault in Snowtown. These included a shed behind Bunting’s house at Murray Bridge in April 1998; the three barrels were then moved to Haydon’s property at Smithfield Plains later in 1998. Then five barrels were stored in a Toyota Land Cruiser at Hoyleton, a locality on the Adelaide Plains near the Clare Valley, with a sixth in a Mitsubishi Sigma back at Murray Bridge. Both of these vehicles were later moved to Snowtown, and afterwards the barrels moved into the bank vault, which had been rented by Haydon, using the name “Mark Lawrence”, the name he had used before he married.

The movement of unfamiliar vehicles to Snowtown, a small town where strangers stand out, and loading activity at the old bank led to the bank building being searched. Of the Snowtown location one local police source said, “From what I understand there was no person involved in those murders from within Snowtown or the surrounding district. They were murdered elsewhere and the drums were brought to Snowtown because it was a quiet little town and there was a premises ideal for the persons involved.”

Examiners attempting to identify the remains found them mummified rather than dissolved, the latter being the apparent intention of storing the bodies in barrels of acid. The killers had chosen hydrochloric acid which mummified the remains.


After a series of pre-trial hearings, the first of the accused to be sentenced was Vlassakis, who was given f
our life sentences on 21 June 2001 after pleading guilty to four murders. Later that summer, Bunting, Haydon and Wagner each pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of murder. Many of the charges against Haydon were later dropped due to insufficient evidence.

The Supreme Court trial for Wagner and Bunting began on 14 October 2002 and within a short space of time the court experienced difficulties with the jury. At least one juror refused to continue due to the horror of the evidence and some sources report that a total of three jurors withdrew from the panel for this reason. Both Bunting and Wagner were found guilty on 8 September 2003. Bunting was convicted of eleven murders and Wagner, who had pleaded guilty to three murders, was convicted of seven; both appealed their convictions. They were each sentenced to imprisonment for life on each count to be served cumulatively; the presiding judge, Justice Brian Martin, stated that the men were “in the business of killing for pleasure” and were also “incapable of true rehabilitation”.

The proceedings against Haydon continued into 2004, and on 2 August a trial opened in which he was charged with two counts of murder and six counts of “assisting offenders”. Haydon testified that he was not party to the crimes. However, on 19 December, the jury returned from four days of deliberations, convicting Haydon of five counts of assisting in the crimes and reaching no verdict on the two counts of murder and the remaining charge of assistance. Haydon was held in detention as of December 2004 awaiting a possible retrial. In May 2005 the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by Bunting and Wagner, who have now exhausted their avenues of appeal in South Australia. In September 2005 the murder charges against Haydon were dropped in return for guilty pleas to two new charges of assisting in the killings of his wife, Elizabeth Haydon, and Troy Youde. Prosecutors also agreed to drop an additional charge of assisting offenders in relation to the murder of David Johnson.

The final outstanding murder charges against John Bunting and Robert Wagner, concerning Suzanne Allen, were dropped on 7 May 2007, when a jury was unable to reach a verdict.[3]

Community impact

Snowtown map with Aust.jpg

Bunting and Wagner have been described, alongside backpacker murders killer Ivan Milat as Australia’s worst serial killers.

The particulars of the case, especially the manner in which the victims were found, horrified and fascinated the public. The murders garnered Snowtown much unwanted attention, and the town is now best-known for the murders. According to local residents, in the 18 months following the discovery in the disused bank vault, a steady stream of unwelcomed visitors would stop to look at and photograph the building.

At the time, the local press reported a suggestion that the town’s name be changed to avoid the stigma now associated with the name, although this suggestion was never acted upon. One suggested new name in press reports was “Rosetown”.

The house in Salisbury North was owned by the South Australian Housing Trust, and has been demolished. Today units for older people are in its place.

See also

  • Crime Investigation Australia (TV series)
  • List of serial killers by country


External links and references

News articles:


  • 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

Web sites:

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