Robert Joe Wagner (born 28 November 1971 in
Parramatta, New South Wales) is an Australian serial killer, currently
serving ten consecutive sentences of life imprisonment without the
possibility of parole for his role in the murder of ten victims of the
Snowtown murders. Wagner, driven to murder by his hatred for
pedophiles, has been described as being amongst "Australia's worst"
Wagner fried and ate the flesh of his final victim,
David Johnson. At his sentencing, Wagner rose in the dock and stated:
"Pedophiles were doing terrible things to
children. The authorities didn't do anything about it. I decided to
take action. I took that action. Thank you."
On 27 September 2002, Wagner pleaded guilty to
three charges of murder for the murders of Barry Lane, Fred Brooks and
David Johnson. He would plead not guilty to the remaining seven murder
charges against him, and eventually be convicted of them, bringing the
total number of victims to ten.
The Snowtown murders, also known as the
Bodies in Barrels murders, were the murders of 12 people in South
Australia, Australia between August 1992 and May 1999. The crimes were
uncovered when the remains of eight victims were found in barrels of
acid located in a rented former bank building in Snowtown, South
Australia on 20 May 1999. The town of Snowtown is in the Mid North of
South Australia, 145 km north of Adelaide. Though Snowtown is
frequently linked with the crimes, the bodies had been held in a
series of locations around Adelaide for some time, and were moved to
Snowtown in early 1999, very late in the crime spree that had spanned
several years. Only one victim was killed in Snowtown; none of the
victims or the perpetrators were from that town.
Eight bodies were found in plastic barrels in the
disused bank vault on 20 May. Three days later two bodies were found
buried in a backyard in Salisbury North, a suburb north of Adelaide.
By the end of June, nine of the ten victims had been identified. The
discoveries followed a lengthy, covert criminal investigation by South
Australian Police. During the investigation two mysterious deaths
already known to authorities were found to have been murders
perpetrated by the "Snowtown" murderers.
A total of four people were arrested and charged
over the murders. All were convicted of the murders or assisting in
the murders. This group was largely influenced by ringleader John
Justin Bunting. Much detail was not made public with the cases having
been subject to over 250 suppression orders, many of which have not
yet been lifted.
John Justin Bunting (b. 1966 in Inala,
Queensland) was convicted of murdering all listed victims except
Suzanne Allen. He is considered to have been the central figure
throughout all of the killings and torture and the one whose
personality provided motivation for the other perpetrators. While
psychological reports are not available to the public, it has been
suggested by forensic psychiatrist Professor Kevin Howells, who has
worked at Broadmoor Hospital in the United Kingdom, that Bunting's
behaviour suggested he lacks emotion and the capacity to empathise
with his victims. Howells believes Bunting fits the profile of a
psychopathic killer who derives satisfaction from controlling his
victims. When he was young, his favourite pastime was burning
insects in acid, and during his teenage years he was a neo-Nazi.
During adulthood Bunting developed a deep hatred of paedophiles and
Robert Joe Wagner was befriended by
Bunting in 1991. He was encouraged by Bunting to assist him in the
various murders, and complied.
Mark Ray Haydon was not convicted of any
of the murders, but pleaded guilty to helping the serial killers
dispose of the bodies.
James Spyridon Vlassakis, along with his
mother and half-brother, lived with Bunting, and was gradually drawn
into helping with the murders and torture. Later became the Crown's
Elizabeth Harvey, Vlassakis' mother, who
knew about the murders, and with Bunting's encouragement, assisted
in one of them. Died of cancer after the arrests of Bunting, Wagner,
Vlassakis, and Haydon.
Thomas Trevilyan assisted in the murder of
Barry Lane in 1997, murdered by the other gang members prior to
Jodie Elliott, sister of Mark Ray Haydon's
wife Elizabeth Haydon, was a woman with below-average intelligence
who had become besotted with Bunting. She impersonated a deceased
former acquaintance of Bunting's, Suzanne Allen, to collect her
social security payments. Elliott's son Frederick Brooks was later
murdered by the gang.
Bunting moved into the Salisbury North home in 1991
and quickly befriended Wagner and his boyfriend Barry Lane, and Mark
Haydon, who all lived nearby.
The various victims were mainly chosen on a whim by
John Bunting for imagined infractions. He especially hated paedophiles,
and some victims were murdered as Bunting suspected them of being a
paedophile, usually based on flimsy evidence or rumour. Others were
killed due to dislike of obese people, or drug users or because they
were gay men. Most of the victims were friends or acquaintances of at
least one of the group. Others were relatives, sometimes living in the
same house as one of the killers. Others were briefly befriended and
drawn into the group as they were picked as easy targets to satisfy
Bunting's desire to commit murder. Usually victims' social security
and bank details were obtained, and the murderers or their associates
impersonated the victims to continue to collect their pensions after
their deaths. Although a total of $97,200 was obtained in this manner,
social security fraud was not judged to have been the primary motive
for the killings.
The final murder was conducted in the bank building
after the barrels had been moved there for storage. Of the scene
encountered in this building, one Snowtown officer said: "It was a
scene from the worst nightmare you've ever had, I don't think any of
us was prepared for what we saw." The building was littered with tools
used by the killers to torture and murder their victims, including:
The pathologists report later revealed that
prolonged torture had taken place using everyday tools such as pincers,
pliers and clamps — examples of all of these were found in the vault.
Wendy Abraham QC, the deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, reported
at the Supreme Court of South Australia that the victims were forced
to call their torturers 'God', 'Master', 'Chief Inspector' and 'Lord
Ray Davies was garrotted with a piece of rope and a
tyre lever after being placed in a bath, attacked with clubs,
repeatedly beaten about his genitals and having a toe crushed with a
pair of pliers.
Frederick Brooks received electric shocks to his
penis and testicles, and had a burning sparkler pushed down into his
penis; after his toes were crushed and his nose and ears burned with
cigarettes, he was allowed to choke to death on his gag.
A piece of the flesh of the eleventh and final
victim, David Johnson, was fried and eaten by Bunting and Wagner.
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
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
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
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
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, ISBN
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, ISBN 1-4050-3610-9