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Snowtown’s grim legacy of trauma endures over decades

Robert Joe Wagner is escorted by court sheriffs outside the disused bank vault.

Robert Joe Wagner is escorted by court sheriffs outside the disused bank vault. Photo: AAP

When detectives pried open the door of a disused bank vault in rural South Australia, it unleashed a fetid stench of death that would haunt all who entered.

The barrels they found inside the chamber contained the remains of eight victims of a murder spree that would ultimately include the names of 11 people; statistically, Australia’s worst serial killings.

Monday marks 25 years since the discovery of the bodies in Snowtown, and it remains difficult to convey the perpetrators’ depths of depravity and the trauma their actions inflicted on victims, their families and the psyche of an entire state.

Three of the four men who would be convicted over the murders, and attempts to cover them up, were arrested a day later.

John Bunting, 57, and Robert Wagner, 52, continue to serve life sentences without the possibility of parole, after Justice Brian Martin declared in 2003 that they were “in the business of killing for pleasure” and “incapable of true rehabilitation”.

Last Thursday, accomplice Mark Haydon left the Adelaide Pre-Release Centre.

After his prison sentence expires on Tuesday, he will be subject to an interim extended supervision order while the state government continues its bid to have him declared a high-risk offender.

Haydon’s parole address was changed with the approval of authorities, and he was moved to a new community residence once the conditions of the order were confirmed by the Supreme Court.

“We thought it was best to have him settled in appropriate and suitable accommodation while he was still subject to parole conditions,” Parole Board chair Frances Nelson said.

“The location has been very carefully vetted — it is suitable for electronic monitoring, which is a condition of his interim supervision order — and will not be disclosed.

“After his parole expires, he is subject to the order until June, then it’s a matter for the courts.”

The trio was initially each charged with 10 counts of murder. Nine of Haydon’s murder charges were dropped after a judge found there was no reasonable prospect of guilty verdicts.

He went on trial charged with murdering his wife, Elizabeth Haydon, and another victim, Troy Youde, and with assisting the killers to cover up six other murders.

On the witness stand for five days, Haydon defended himself against all charges, telling the court he and his wife were trying to have a baby when she disappeared and his world fell apart after she had gone.

The jury convicted him of five counts of assisting an offender, but they could not agree on the murder charges, and he later pleaded guilty to assisting an offender in those cases.

Bodies were found in barrels hidden at this old bank. Photo: AAP

The story behind the murders is relentlessly grim and there is no light to be found in its darkness.

They were driven by Bunting, a small, darkly charismatic man with a high-pitched voice who was incongruously known as “Big John”.

He proclaimed a hatred of pedophiles and homosexuals but also preyed upon the group’s circle of family and friends.

His crimes revealed an underlying thirst for violence and inflicting pain, and $95,000 was opportunistically stolen from victims’ welfare benefits.

Set against a background of dysfunction in Adelaide’s far northern suburbs, bred by cycles of poverty, unemployment and violence, Bunting and Wagner selected victims carefully.

They were all vulnerable people with varying physical, mental or intellectual disabilities, and even before they fell into the hands of killers, many had endured abuse.

The crimes became increasingly sophisticated and horrifying as they escalated across the late-1990s. There was torture, dismemberment, and, in the case of the final murder committed inside the bank vault, cannibalism.

Bunting and Wagner used an array of items to intensify their victims’ suffering, including an electric shock machine, hand and thumb cuffs, cigarettes, garrottes, pliers, sparklers, syringes and hammers.

Bunting was convicted of 11 counts of murder and Wagner 10. A murder charge was dropped in relation to a 12th person, Suzanne Allen, whose remains were found buried at Bunting’s former house.

Asked if the murders had faded from the nation’s collective memory, criminal psychologist Tim Watson-Munro suggested Australians had become “desensitised to the horror of major crime”.

“Back in the day, we were all collectively and singularly shocked by the horror of it all,” he said.

“It is one of the worst crimes in modern Australian history … Snowtown was serial killing on an industrial scale.”

It did not matter that none of the victims or perpetrators were from the small farming hamlet, nor that only one of the victims was actually killed there.

Within days, Snowtown’s name became inextricably linked with the events that led to those remains being sealed inside the barrels of acid, and some locals continue to campaign to have its name changed.

The Crown’s key witness in the case was James Vlassakis, the third man convicted over the murders and the heroin-addicted son of Bunting’s partner. He pleaded guilty to four murders and is serving a 26-year non-parole period.

Vlassakis, 44, is eligible for parole in 2025.

The spree also became known as the “bodies in the barrels” case, a label which SA Commissioner for Victims’ Rights Sarah Quick described as dehumanising.

The families of victims preferred the killings to be referred to as the social security murders, she said.

Ms Quick and her predecessors have helped victims make submissions to the parole board, keeping them informed and preparing them for Haydon’s release.

It has been difficult for them to contemplate that Haydon will be free to start a fresh life, “a luxury they do not have”.

“Understandably, many have expressed concerns about their own safety and the safety of the community,” Ms Quick said.

“I expect the interim supervision order will provide them with some sense of security.”

-AAP

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