SNOW TOWN MURDERS: Australia’s Nightmarish Bodies-in-Barrels Case Crime File

Snowtown , a 2011 Australian release, is a widely acclaimed movie having won the Audience Award at the Adelaide Festival in March 2011. It revolves around the eleven murders that took place in Snowtown, South Australia between August 1992 and May 1999.

Eight of the bodies were found in plastic barrels filled with acid on May 20, 1999 in Snowtown in a bank vault with a 10-cm thick metal door inside a rented building that was formerly a bank. However, the bodies were moved to Snowtown only in early 1999, which was pretty late in the crime sequence, and had been kept at different locations around Adelaide at different points of time. Police estimated that the remains had been stored at that location in the ‘vats’ for around 3 months. They had found in six black, plastic barrels a total of 15 human feet, which meant that they were dealing with a case involving at least 8 dead individuals.

The three missing people who prompted the police to act were Barry Wayne Lane (40), a transvestite and convicted paedophile who had gone missing in October 1997, Clinton Douglas Trezise, who was Lane’s friend and was 22 when last seen in 1993, and Elizabeth Haydon (37), mother of eight, missing since 1999.

The police arrested three men from northern suburbs, and charged them with one count of murder “of a person unknown between August 1, 1993 and May 20, 1999”. These three were John Justin Bunting (32), Robert Joe Wagner (27) and Mark Ray Haydon (40), who were remanded in custody to be brought back to the court on July 2, 1999.

There had to be a few more bodies. On June 23, 1999, the police searched Bunting’s former residence on Waterloo Corner Road, Salisbury North. They brought with them a radar to probe beneath the ground without having to excavate. At around 3:00 pm, a human body was located buried at the depth of 2 meters. Right under this body, further down at 3-meter depth, they found another body; rather the skeletal remains of a body. While the first one was wrapped in plastic, the second one wasn’t. However, the second body was not found the same day, but only on June 26, 1999 because initial scans had not shown that the ground beneath the first body was disturbed. It was only the subsequent scans which suggested that it was already a burial site when the second body was buried. The body count was ten.

Grave SiteA lot of speculation about the motive found its way into the press. However, when Dr. Park Dietz, an expert forensic psychiatrist with the FBI and New York State Police Forensic Sciences Unit, was asked about the case, he opined that when serial killings involved three or more killers, the motive usually turned out to be financial rather than sexual. This was very much consistent with what Chart investigators thought. Soon enough another individual was added to the list of suspects and James Spyridon Vlassakis (19) was arrested on June 2, 1999 from the northern suburbs, and became the fourth to be charged with murder. It is possible that Vlassakis provided some information based on which the police discovered two additional bodies after the Snowtown find. But we don’t know that for sure because the police neither denied, nor confirmed it.

For identification the police turned to DNA technology, which was relatively new at that time, but yielded dependable results. Using DNA technology, X-Ray, fingerprinting and dental matches the police finally managed to identify all 11 victims including Trezise, whose skeletal remains were found in 1994 in Lower Light and had remained unidentified since.

Once all the victims were identified and the circumstances surrounding their disappearance were closely scrutinized, the facts that emerged indicated that money was not the primary motive in most of the killings. It was killing itself. And the group had an undisputed leader in Bunting whose wishes overrode all other considerations.

Clinton Trezise (22), was the first to die. He was killed in August 1992 in Bunting’s living room at his home in Salisbury North, and his skeletal remains were found in 1994 at Lower Light. He had been invited over to Bunting’s place for a social visit. The second to die was Ray Davies (26). Killed in December 1995, his remains were found buried right under the remains of Suzanne Allen (47) wrapped in eleven different plastics bags in Salisbury North. Reportedly, it was Suzanne Allen who accused Ray Davies of being a paedophile, after which Bunting, who had deep hatred for paedophiles, chose to kill Davies. Harvey helped Bunting and others torture Davies. Davies was never reported missing.

Suzanne was Bunting’s friend and her death was kept under wraps so that the accused could continue collecting her pension, but they claimed that she had died of heart attack and was not killed. The evidence brought before the jury during the trial could not establish whether or not she had been murdered. So, the accused were never pronounced guilty of murdering her.

Another person killed on the suspicion of being a paedophile was Michael Gardiner (19), who was openly gay and was slain in August 1997. Barry Lane (42) was another victim who was gay and was also a cross-dresser. He is reported to have been in a relationship with Wagner when he met Bunting the first time in 1991. He was killed in October 1997 after having been brutally tortured.

Thomas Trevilyan (18) had sexual relationship with Lane and is also said to have assisted his killers in slaying him. His body was found hanging from a tree in the Adelaide Hills, which made the authorities consider it a case of suicide, but he was killed by Bunting and his gang in 1997 after it was found that he had been talking about Lane’s killing to others.

Gavin Porter (29) was a friend of Vlassakis and was a heroin addict. He was killed simply because one of the syringes used by Porter pricked Bunting when Porter carelessly left it on the couch in the living room. At that time he had been living with Bunting, Elizabeth Harvey, Vlassakis, and Youde in Murray Bridge, South Australia. He was strangled to death in his car in April 1998.

Troy Youde (21) was Vlassakis’ half-brother, and Vlassakis told Bunting that he had been molested by Youde as a child. He was killed in September 1998 (by some accounts it was in August 1998). This was the first murder in which Vlassakis actively participated.

Frederick Brooks was the son of Jodie Elliott and the nephew of Elizabeth Haydon. He was intellectually disabled, and was killed by Bunting, Wagner and Vlassakis on September 17, 1998 after brutal torture. His welfare payments were regularly collected by Mark Haydon after his death.

Gary O’Dwyer (29) was a man mentally disabled due to a car accident, and was a stranger to the killers. He was picked up because he was an easy target and was killed in November 1998. His body was also found in the Snowtown bank vault and bore burn marks caused by a machine used to deliver electric shocks. He was killed in his own house on Frances Street, Murray Bridge, by Bunting, Wagner and Vlassakis.

Next to die was Haydon’s wife, Elizabeth Haydon (37), who was also killed in November 1998 by Bunting and Wagner in the absence of her husband. Elizabeth was reported missing by her brother and it was inquiries into her disappearance mainly that led the police to the bank vault in Snowtown.

The last victim was David Johnson (24), who was Vlassakis’ stepbrother and was lured to and killed in the same bank building on May 9, 1999 from where the bodies were to be later recovered by the police. He was the only victim killed in Snowtown. Johnson was grabbed by Wagner and handcuffed shortly after he entered the bank building. He was also forced to provide the PIN to his bank account and Wagner and Vlassakis drove down to Port Wakefield to try withdrawing money from his bank account. They could not. By the time they returned Johnson was dead. Bunting and Wagner dismembered Johnson’s body, and fried some of his flesh and ate. He was the only victim to be cannibalized. The group was apprehended soon after.

Snowtown 1Before being shifted to Snowtown the barrels with the bodies in them were stored at several places including a shed behind Bunting’s house at Murray Bridge. The three barrels were later moved in 1998 to Haydon’s property at Smithfield Plains, and then the five barrels were stored in a Toyota Land Cruiser at Hoyleton with the sixth barrel in a Mitsubishi Sigma back at Murray Bridge. The vehicles were then brought to Snowtown and the bodies were stored in the bank vault in the building rented by Haydon under the name “Mark Lawrence”, which was the name he used before marrying Elizabeth.

After several pre-trial hearings, the trial commenced, and Vlassakis was the first accused to be sentenced after pleading guilty to four murders and was awarded four life sentences on June 21, 2001, but the sentence was reduced to 26 years in prison for helping the authorities in obtaining evidence against Bunting and Wagner.

On October 14, 2002, the trial of Wagner and Bunting commenced in the Supreme Court, and soon enough a couple of jurors were reported to have excused themselves from the panel on account of the horrifying evidence they were presented with. Both Bunting and Wagner were found guilty on September 8, 2003. Wagner was found guilty of 7 murders having pleaded guilty to three, and Bunting was found guilty of 11 murders, out of the 12 they were tried for. Both of them were sentenced to life imprisonment.

The presiding judge, Justice Brian Martin, said that the accused were “in the business of killing for pleasure” and were “incapable of true rehabilitation”.

Originally written for an published in LAWYERS UPDATE  as ‘Crime File’ in June 2012.

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