Eight people were found buried in a building in Australia

Four men are accused of torturing and mutilating the dead before stealing their identities. It is the country's worst case of serial killing. And Australians can't get enough of it

Kathy Marks
Tuesday 19 December 2000 01:00

The old State Bank branch squats on a corner of Snowtown's main street, its windows sealed with heavy steel plates, the orange trees in its back yard obscured by high walls. No one in this tiny South Australian farming community gives it a second glance; the town's matrons quicken their pace when they pass by.

The old State Bank branch squats on a corner of Snowtown's main street, its windows sealed with heavy steel plates, the orange trees in its back yard obscured by high walls. No one in this tiny South Australian farming community gives it a second glance; the town's matrons quicken their pace when they pass by.

Locals would prefer to forget the gruesome secret that the redbrick building yielded in May last year, when police discovered eight dismembered bodies in plastic barrels in the disused bank vault. But they might as well wish for a white Christmas to come in this swelteringly hot town, which is destined to be forever associated with Australia's worst serial murders.

Over the coming weeks, Snowtown's notoriety will be cemented as the high-profile criminal case unfolds against four men accused of 10 murders; another two bodies were dug up in a suburban back garden in Adelaide, the graceful state capital 90 miles to the south.

The quartet were arraigned in Adelaide last week amid a blaze of publicity, at the start of a committal hearing that is scheduled to last several months and will see the magistrate, David Gurry, plough his way through a mountain of material that includes 1,300 witness statements and 4,137 prosecution exhibits.

The court has already heard graphic evidence of the fate of the victims, who are believed to have been tortured before they were murdered; several had burn marks on their skin, and equipment recovered from the vault included handcuffs, knives and a machine that administers electric shocks.

Pathologists believe that they were strangled with a rope, or choked to death on a gag - probably a sock - before being cut up and stuffed ad hoc into the barrels. Some had flesh removed from their bodies after they were killed.

In several cases the killers forced their victims to repeat scripted phrases on tape before they died, so that the recordings could be played down the telephone to relatives to reassure them that they were well.

The revelations are discomfiting - and not just for the good burghers of Snowtown, who saw and heard nothing as at least one victim was killed under their noses and the barrels with their grisly contents were stashed in the vault.

Throughout South Australia, people are asking themselves why this most strait-laced and Anglicised region of the country appears to attract far more than its fair share of violence and depravity.

In recent decades South Australia has hosted numerous serial killings, including the rape and murder of seven women in Truro, north-east of Adelaide, in the late 1970s. In the early 1980s, five young men were abducted and killed in a case that triggered speculation about a paedophile ring linked to highly placed members of Adelaide society.

The Snowtown case has also provoked a flurry of national soul-searching, thanks to its brutal exposure of the dark underbelly of the Australian dream. The defendants - Mark Haydon, 42, John Bunting, 34, Robert Wagner, 29, and James Vlassakis, 20 - all come from Adelaide's grim northern suburbs, a place of poverty, alienation, dysfunctionality and despair. While their alleged modus operandi was brutal beyond belief, their supposed motive was staggeringly mundane: to impersonate their victims and claim their social security benefits.

The dead - eight men and two women - were all friends, spouses or neighbours, products of the same harsh milieu. Haydon's wife, Elizabeth, had eight children by eight different men. Barry Lane, Wagner's former homosexual lover, was a convicted paedophile. Predators and prey, some of them illiterate or mentally disabled, gravitated towards each other in a destructive circle. Several victims were never even reported missing by their families.

In the 1960s, this area of Adelaide thrived. Indeed, many "Ten-Pound Poms" - English migrants who accepted the Australian government's offer of a £10 assisted passage to boost the country's population - settled there, attracted by suburbs with comforting names such as Salisbury and Elizabeth and the promise of jobs at the local Holden car factory.

Salisbury is now a neighbourhood of sink housing and third-generation unemployment, where the most striking landmarks are Smokemarts, drive-in cigarette shops the size of service stations.

The prosperous, progressive nation that is modern Australia prefers not to dwell on such places as Salisbury. It was here, in the garden of a council house once rented by Bunting, that two bodies were found after police used ground-breaking radar similar to equipment employed by Gloucester detectives to locate the victims of Britain's infamous serial murderers, Fred and Rosemary West. The family that rented the house after Bunting fled that same day, leaving their washing hanging on the line.

They wear their shame on their sleeve in Salisbury, which has been devastated by the murders; in Snowtown, a community of 500 souls in the South Australian wheat belt, they hide it behind the shuttered windows of their neat bungalows. Conversation across white picket fences is confined to crops and the result of the latest lawn bowls tournament.

When police forced the lock of the bank vault, the sky fell in on Snowtown. "It was a hell of a shock," says the school principal Rob Harkin, one of the few locals who is prepared to talk about the case. "We'd been walking past that bank every day, several times a day. People were saying: 'Why here? Why us? How could someone do something like this?'"

As helicopters from television stations landed on the cricket oval and trucks with satellite dishes blocked the main street, the elders of Snowtown - fearful for the image of their town - composed themselves and agreed "a line". The line was that the murders had nothing to do with Snowtown, and it is still being repeated 18 months later.

"It was all very horrific, but it didn't happen here," says Barbara Reid, a farmer. "The murderers weren't living among us, and we didn't know the victims. We just happened to have an empty bank that was used as a dumping site." Harkin says: "We were innocent bystanders. We were an injured party."

The protestations are a little disingenuous, for Snowtown was not merely a "dumping site". One victim, Vlassakis's stepbrother David Johnson, was allegedly lured to Snowtown and murdered in the bank vault 11 days before police raided the building. The bank, which closed in 1995, is next to the pub and 100 yards from the police station. No one noticed anything amiss, but Snowtown - bisected by a railway line carrying trains that long since ceased stopping there - is that sort of place. "Early to bed, early to rise," says Barry Drew, who runs a bric-a-brac shop. "You could fire a shotgun in the main street in the middle of the night."

The four accused fidget behind a bullet-proof screen in Adelaide Magistrates Court. The prosecution case is that Bunting and Haydon rented the bank building after police began asking questions about Elizabeth Haydon's disappearance in November 1998. It is also claimed by friends of theirs - who had already helped out in the past by storing a Toyota LandCruiser containing the barrels on their property - had moved to Snowtown.

In Snowtown, the initial shock and disbelief have been replaced by a sense of violation and a hostility towards outsiders. But not everybody follows the agreed line, and locals are deeply divided about the tourists who have flocked into town since the murders, posing for pictures in front of the bank and - in one case - kneeling down on the pavement and sniffing the air vents leading to the vault.

Snowtown may detest its new-found fame, but no one visited the struggling town before and some traders believe that the opportunity should be seized with both hands. Mr Drew has been ostracised for selling fridge magnets, T-shirts and baseball caps depicting a grinning skeleton in a barrel, with slogans such as "I've been to Snowtown and survived".

He scoffs at any suggestion of bad taste. "The way I see it, the worse the publicity, the better for the town," he says. "I've been castigated by the churchies and the do-gooders, but I couldn't give a stuff. If this was America, they'd be rolling barrels down the main street by now. I've made a lot of money out of this business. It's put us on the map."

The bank building itself was bought a year ago by a local entrepreneur, Sherlee Randylle, who auctioned some of its contents, including carpet tiles and a fire extinguisher, and talked of turning the vault into a "healing courtyard".

But the demons will not be purged so easily, according to Mark Herburt, an artist and Snowtown resident. A few months ago he offered to hang some of his paintings in the vault, in an effort to rid it of its macabre associations. But when Mrs Randylle took him inside, he changed his mind. "It felt like a lost place," he said. "The building should be bulldozed."

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