Between 1992 and 1999, John Bunting and a trio of sadistic associates splattered the South Australian district of Adelaide blood-red with 12 horrific slayings.
Aided and abetted by worshipful friends James Vlassakis, Robert Wagner, and Mark Haydon, Bunting orchestrated, oversaw, and actively executed the torture-laden homicides. The group largely targeted individuals Bunting judged to be “homosexuals and pedophiles” or, at the very least, “weak.”
The makeshift murder gang dismembered and stored their prey in hidden barrels until finally getting busted on May 21, 1999. At their trial, prosecutors said the men even cooked and ate one victim.
Despite only one killing happening in Snowtown, the case came to be known as the “Snowtown Murders.” The stigma still afflicts the city to this day, where many residents wish the killings’ original nickname had stuck: the “bodies-in-barrels murders.”
John Justin Bunting initially hatched his plan while befriending and mentoring James Vlassakis, the brother of his wife, Elizabeth Harvey. Vlassakis rapidly latched on to his brother-in-law as a father figure and followed him everywhere.
Bunting next enraptured his neighbor, Robert Wagner. (Bunting and Wagner are pictured above.) Mark Haydon also declared himself on board. Fueled by hate of those they deemed degenerates, Bunting knew his boys would back him wherever his rage would take them.
Twenty-two-year-old Clinton Trezise died first. Bunting invited the young man into his home and bashed in his skull. Afterward, Bunting buried Trezise’s remains in his backyard. Next, Bunting murdered Suzanne Allen, a local woman who apparently had become infatuated with him. He dumped her out back alongside Trezise.
Before she died, Allen accused her intellectually disabled neighbor Ray Davies of making sexual advances toward her grandsons. Bunting and Wagner killed him together, after which Bunting kept cashing Davies’ welfare checks. Davies, too, was disposed of in Bunting’s backyard.
Now fully inflamed with a taste for homicide, Bunting, accompanied by Wagner and Vlassakis, slaughtered at will over the next few years. The killings almost always involved torture first which, at the trial, was said to include the use of a hammer, pliers, syringes, cigarettes, rope, handcuffs, and an electric shock generator.
Their victims included:
• Michael Gardiner, 19, a gay crossdresser.
• Barry Lane, 42, another gay crossdresser who had actually been in a previous live-in, romantic relationship with his most vicious assailant, Robert Wagner.
• Thomas Trevilan, a former housemate of Wagner’s who suffered from mental illness and who had helped him murder Barry Lane. Bunting and company killed Trevilan to keep him quiet.
• Gavin Porter, 31, a friend of Vlassakis who was addicted to heroin.
• Frederick Brooks, 17, a schizophrenic relative of Mark Haydon’s by marriage. He was found hanging from a tree, prompting investigators to originally deem his death a suicide.
• Gary O’Dwyer, 29, who suffered debilitating handicaps as a result of a car accident. Bunting ordered him dead so he could collect his welfare payments.
• Troy Youde, 21, a stepbrother that Vlassakis accused of molesting him.
• David Johnson, Vlassaskis’ half-brother who Bunting deemed weak. After torturing Johnson to get his bank account info, the gang fried and ate parts of his body.
With this many people going missing so quickly in so small an area, police took notice. Bunting’s boys felt the heat and leased an unused bank building to hide the barrels into which they ditched all the lifeless bodies.
In January 1999, the gang murdered Elizabeth Haydon, Mark’s 37-year-old wife, in order to steal her pension. Officers investigating this latest disappearance smelled something fishy about Mark and his friend suddenly acquiring the bank property.
Police launched surveillance operation of the bank and, shortly thereafter, discovered the horrifying reality contained in all those barrels.
The trial of Bunting and Wagner, his main accessory, lasted an entire year, making it the longest in Australian history. Neither expressed remorse. After being found guilty, Bunting was sentenced to 11 consecutive life terms; Wagner got 10.
Vlassakis turned state’s evidence and pleaded down to four guilty murder verdicts. Haydon went down for assisting with five murders.
Following the trial, Snowtown experienced a brief tourist boom, and local shops even sold bad-taste gag gifts such as miniature barrels marked, “Come to Snowtown — you’re in for a barrel of fun.” The macabre humor streak didn’t last, though, and Snowtown citizens have long campaigned for a name change.
Main photo: Barrels [Pixabay]