In the heart of farming land well known for sheep, wool and wheat crops, around 150kms north of Adelaide in South Australia, is a small hamlet called Snowtown. Settled in 1867, today the boom now long past, it has been slowly dying as economic times get tough. In May of 1999 everything changed. Snowtown overnight became infamous in Australia’s dark murderous history as the site of one of the most gruesome discoveries, eight bodies buried in plastic barrels.
South Australian detectives had already been on the case for two years, suspecting they had a serial killer on their hands after five people had vanished over a period of four years, presumed dead although cash had continued to be taken from their bank accounts. No bodies had been found. They had three suspects, John Bunting, Robert Wagner and James Vlassakis, but not enough evidence to proceed.
That is, until a woman went missing, her disappearance reported by her brother but not her husband, an associate of the suspect trio. Police received information about unusual activity regarding a vehicle parked outside one of the suspects’ homes in the northern suburbs of Adelaide and when the vehicle in question reappeared outside a house in Snowtown days later, police hit the trail.
After questioning the owner of the property in Snowtown where the vehicle was now parked they learnt that it had been towed there by two friends who were indeed suspects. Apparently there had been several large black barrels inside the broken down vehicle but the smell emanating from them was so foul that neighbours had complained, so the barrels were moved to a disused bank which was being leased by the so called friends.
Inside the bank vault the police were met with a scene obviously used for unspeakable acts of violence along with the overpowering stench of human decay. Along with the 6 barrels there were an array of knives, rope, tape, rubber gloves, handcuffs, an electric shock machine and plastic bottles labelled as hydrochloric acid. They would discover the remains of eight victims in these barrels, although only one of them was actually killed in Snowtown, the remainder were held in various locations around Adelaide and moved to Snowtown in 1999.
The remains of two other victims were found in the backyard of Bunting’s home in the northern Adelaide suburb of Salisbury and another two previously recovered bodies, designated as unsolved murders were now linked to the Snowtown murders. The charges for the twelfth murder were dropped before trial due to insufficient evidence.
John Bunting was the ring leader, profiled as a psychopathic killer who derived satisfaction from controlling his victims. In his youth his favourite past time was burning insects in acids, as a teenager he was a neo Nazi and as an adult he developed a strong hatred of paedophiles and homosexuals. His accomplices were either befriended by Bunting or drawn into helping with the torture and the murders for fear of retribution in some cases.
He chose his victims at random, sometimes because of a rumour of paedophilia, others because they were obese, drug users or because they were gay. Most of his victims had some link to the group. They were either friends or acquaintances, even relatives, sometimes living in the same house as the killers. Others were simply picked as easy targets to satisfy Bunting’s warped desire to kill. He called these poor souls a ‘waste’, believing them to be a scourge on society. He subjected his victims to incomprehensible acts of prolonged torture, using every day tools such as pliers to crush their toes. He tortured them mercilessly with beatings, electrocution, genital mutilation and cigarette burns.
His final kill in Snowtown had parts of the body cooked and eaten. One of the most disturbing facts was that he is said to have laughed whilst participating in these vile acts. At the trial several jurors refused to continue due to the horror of the evidence, but on September 8, 2003 Bunting and one of his co-conspirators, Wagner, were found guilty of murder. The judge commented that these men were in the business of killing for pleasure and were incapable of true rehabilitation. The third perpetrator, Vlassackis was sentenced two years earlier after pleading guilty to four of the murders.
He became the crown’s star witness. This particular case has both horrified and fascinated the public with Snowtown gaining unwanted attention due to the murders. The bank building is visited and photographed by a steady stream of visitors drawn to the scene of the gruesome discovery. Some locals took sick advantage of the notoriety and cashed in by selling magnets with slogans such as ‘Snowtown SA, You’ll have a barrel of fun’ along with barrel shaped figurines and other similar paraphernalia. Bunting’s home in Salisbury North was demolished and housing for the aged has been built on the site.
Numerous books have been written, and a movie produced, a true crime film, that has been critiqued as “an uncompromising ordeal that will be too much for most viewers”. Needless to say, history shows that unfortunately, there will always be vile and depraved characters such as Bunting in this world, just as there will always be the ones who make it their life’s work to bring them to justice. May good always dominate over evil.
Sources: http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/crime-week-book-extract-snowtown-the-bodies-in-barrels-murders-by-jeremy-pudney/story-fni6uo1m-1226797590803 http://aussiecriminals.com.au/2012/04/25/snowtown-murders-bodies-in-the-barrels/
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