I grew up in Adelaide, South Australia in the 1990s. Known as the “City of Churches,” Adelaide, with a population of over a million and situated between glorious hills and a magnificent shoreline, was one of the safest places to grow up in Australia. Yet, between 1992 and 1999, John Bunting and his co-conspirators committed some of the most heinous crimes ever recorded in the country’s history in and around the city. They left the physical evidence and rotting bodies of their victims in a tiny rural community just 90 miles north of Adelaide called Snowtown.
In what became known as the bodies-in-barrels murders, John Bunting, Robert Wagner, James Vlassakis, and Mark Haydon killed twelve individuals, some of whom included their own family members and neighbors. Bunting and his crew targeted those they believed were homosexuals or pedophiles. Many of their victims suffered from mental disabilities and received welfare benefits. The gang tortured most of their victims using various tools, electric shock and blunt force trauma, all the while forcing them to falsely confess to being pedophiles or sexual deviants. The perpetrators also dismembered and consumed some of their victims’ body parts before dissolving the rest in acid-filled barrels. Investigators note that the murderers claimed close to $90,000 in welfare checks after their victims’ deaths although Bunting has always maintained that his primary motive for the killings was to rid the world of pedophiles. Money just happened to be a bonus.
By all accounts, John Bunting, the group’s leader, was a charismatic and manipulative person who made friends easily. On the outside, he came across as a great person who loved helping people in need. But underneath that facade, he was a troubled individual who despised pedophiles and gay men. His hatred of those individuals is often attributed to the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a friend’s older brother at a young age. As a teenager, Bunting was drawn to violence and torture, working in a slaughterhouse and telling friends he loved torturing and killing animals.
While the first body was discovered in 1994, it wasn’t until 1999 that South Australian police made the connection to Bunting and company. On May 20, 1999, the police discovered eight bodies cramped into barrels in a bank vault in Snowtown. Investigators later discovered that though the bodies were found in Snowtown, the actual murders had taken place elsewhere. Two more bodies were discovered in the backyard of Bunting’s house in a suburb of Adelaide.
In one of the longest trials in Australian history, Bunting was convicted of the murders and sentenced to 11 life sentences without the possibility of parole. Wagner received 10 life sentences without the possibility parole while Vlassakis (also Bunting’s stepson) and Haydon (whose victims included his own wife) were sentenced to 26 and 25 years respectively.
A number of documentaries have been released on the case, most notably Snowtown: The Bodies In The Barrels Murders linked below. Also, the award-winning drama-horror, Snowtown (directed by Justin Kurzel), captures the atrocious nature of the crimes in chilling detail and is highly recommended.