Bunting, driven to murder by his hatred for pedophiles and homosexuals, has been described as a skilled manipulator of people and "Australia's worst serial killer".
Bunting was the ringleader of a "degenerate sub-culture" of murderers whose victims were people they already knew. Under the instruction of Bunting, the group would prey upon the weak so they could steal their welfare payments. His crimes led to the longest and most expensive investigations and criminal trials in South Australia's history.
Bunting lived in Murray Bridge, South Australia from November 1991, living on Lohman Street until he moved to Burdekin Avenue in May 1997 where he remained until September 1998. Two of his victims were found in the backyard of his former home in Waterloo Corner Road, Salisbury North, a northern suburb of Adelaide, with the remaining eight discovered in a vault of a disused bank rented by Bunting and Haydon in Snowtown, South Australia, 140 km north of Adelaide. Bunting insisted on playing the 1994 Live album Throwing Copper during many of his later murders.
Rock spider wall
Bunting had fashioned a "rock spider wall" on a wall of a spare room in his house. The chart, created using paper notes and wool, was an interconnected web of names of people Bunting suspected to be pedophiles or homosexuals. At times Bunting would randomly select a name from the wall and call them, insinuating they were pedophiles and "would get what's coming to them".
Relationship with James Vlassakis
Bunting was married to Elizabeth Harvey, mother of co-offender James Vlassakis. Bunting spent a lot of time with Vlassakis, assuming the role of a father figure. Bunting regularly communicated to Vlassakis his hatred for pedophiles and homosexuals. Vlassakis confided in Bunting that his stepbrother, Troy Youde, had molested him at the age of 13. Bunting replied by suggesting that Youde be bashed.
Vlassakis later gave evidence against Bunting, Wagner, and Haydon at their criminal trials. Elizabeth Harvey has since died of cancer.
R elationship with Robert Wagner
Bunting met Wagner when he moved to Waterloo Corner Road. Wagner was living with Barry Lane at the time; both men assisted Bunting in disposing of the body of his first victim, Clinton Trezise. Wagner later assisted Bunting in the remaining ten murders.
- 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 four 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.
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 unwelcome 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.
A movie, "Snowtown", regarding the life of John Bunting was released in Australia on 19 May 2011
- Snowtown Murders: The Real Story Behind the Bodies in the Barrels Killings, Andrew McGarry.
- Snowtown: The Bodies In Barrels Murders: The Grisly Story of Australia's Worst Serial Killings, Jeremy Pudney.
- All Things Bright And Beautiful: Murder In The City Of Light, Susan Mitchell.