Robert Joe Wagner in handcuffs on a jury view at Snowtown. Picture: File

Snowtown serial killers’ twisted friendship from hell

13th March 2019 6:38 PM
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It started with a hatred of paedophiles and a love of killing, and ended with bodies in barrels and a trial that cost the state $15 million. Court reporter SIMONNE REID reports on how two murderous minds came together.

It was December 1991 when John Justin Bunting and his wife, Veronika Tripp, moved in to a modest home on Waterloo Corner Rd, Salisbury North.

As they unpacked their belongings and became acquainted with new surroundings, Bunting caught the attention of a homosexual couple living nearby.

The couple, Barry Lane and Robert Wagner, introduced themselves to the then 26-year-old Bunting and over the next few weeks Wagner began to spend more time with Bunting and less time with Lane.

A bizarre, twisted friendship blossomed.

It was a union that would ultimately end the lives of 10 people.

Their victims were murdered between December 1995 and May 1999 when the men were arrested, putting an end to the nation's worst serial killings.

Yesterday, a Supreme Court jury found Bunting guilty of 11 murders, including Clinton Trezise in 1992.

Wagner, who had already pleaded guilty to three murders, was found guilty of seven murder counts.

The jury could not reach a verdict in relation to the death of Suzanne Allen, whose dismembered body was found in Bunting's backyard in May 1999.

The jury, which endured 11 months of evidence, was told by Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, Wendy Abraham, QC, that everyone who met Bunting was acutely aware of his deep-seated hatred of paedophiles and homosexuals.

It wasn't long before Wagner was also consumed by this obsession.

Using his loathing of paedophiles, Bunting involved himself in the life of single-mother Elizabeth Harvey and her teenage children, particularly her son, James Vlassakis, who was then 14.

Vlassakis, now 23, was involved in four murders and was the Crown's key witness at trial.

His chilling evidence about death and torture lasted for more than a month.

Vlassakis had been raped by family members as well as a neighbour and Bunting offered him a sympathetic ear and a solution.

Robert Joe Wagner in handcuffs on a jury view at Snowtown. Picture: File
Robert Joe Wagner in handcuffs on a jury view at Snowtown. Picture: File


Murder victim Clinton Douglas Trezise. Picture: File
Murder victim Clinton Douglas Trezise. Picture: File

He and Bunting, whom he thought of as an older brother, would sit up all night discussing the abuse and their now combined dislike of child molesters and homosexuals.

Bunting would break this up by taking the impressionable Vlassakis for motorbike rides. It wasn't long before Bunting was Vlassakis's hero.

"I was comfortable with John, I looked up to him," Vlassakis told the court.

"He was like a father figure, a brother figure to me that I never had.''

When he was 15, Vlassakis told Bunting he could not stand to live with his mother and brothers anymore.

He felt responsible for not stopping the abuse which was also inflicted on his younger brothers at the hands of the neighbour and he did not want to live with that guilt.

When Vlassakis moved in with Bunting and Ms Tripp, he saw Bunting's obsessive hatred come to life.

In his spare room, Bunting boasted a ``spider wall'' - a collection of paedophiles' names written on Post It notes connected with bits of pink and blue wool.

By 1995, Vlassakis and Bunting enjoyed vandalising the homes of people they thought were "rock spiders" or "dirties".

It was a year later when Vlassakis heard the news that would change his life forever.

Bunting told him he had killed a man, Ray Davies, whom he believed was a paedophile, and his own mother, Elizabeth Harvey, took part in the murder.

Mr Davies lived in a caravan in the backyard of a Salisbury North home occupied by Suzanne Allen, who was infatuated with Bunting.

Mr Davies was last seen alive on December 26, 1995.

According to Bunting, Mrs Harvey stabbed Mr Davies in the leg with a ceramics tool and then Wagner strangled him with a pair of jumper leads.

Vlassakis was told that Mr Davies was murdered because he had inappropriately touched Ms Allen's grandson.

Bunting later told Vlassakis that Mr Davies was beaten and strangled and thrown in a hole in the backyard of his home at 203 Waterloo Corner Rd, Salisbury North.

Eleven months later, Ms Allen also disappeared. She was infatuated with Bunting and pestered him with love letters and desperate demands.

A month later, police who were acting on a missing person's report found Bunting and Wagner inside Ms Allen's home.

They gave their correct names and said they were helping Ms Allen move house. They gave the police a telephone number where Ms Allen could be contacted to verify the story.

The phone number belonged to Elizabeth Harvey.

Another local who annoyed Bunting, but more so Wagner, was the overtly homosexual Michael Gardiner.

Mr Gardiner was known to talk and act in an effeminate manner and, at times, wore dresses and high heels.

He was living just around the corner from Wagner before his disappearance in September, 1997.

Shortly before his death, Mr Gardiner was playing with Wagner's defacto's children in his front yard.

Mr Gardiner grabbed one of the children and put his hand over his mouth.

Wagner saw the incident and was infuriated. Beforehand, Wagner would reluctantly mumble "hello" to Mr Gardiner, but now he was ropeable and refused to acknowledge his neighbour.

It wasn't long before Bunting and Wagner bragged to Vlassakis they had strangled Gardiner and put his body in a barrel.

They staged a robbery in the home he was sharing with a friend, Nicole Zuritta, and convinced her that Mr Gardiner had stolen her belongings in order to pay for a sex change operation.

A month later, Wagner and Bunting took their anger out on Wagner's former partner, Barry Lane.

Lane had started an unlawful relationship with Wagner when he was just 14 years old.

He took the boy interstate and away from his family for four years, returning when Wagner was 18. By that time, they acted like a loving, homosexual couple.

Serial killer John Justin Bunting being driven back to Yatala prison from court in 2003.
Serial killer John Justin Bunting being driven back to Yatala prison from court in 2003.

They called each other "sweetie". Wagner was introduced as Lane's fiancé and there was talk of marriage.

Wagner, who pleaded guilty to Lane's murder, tortured him in his own home in the company of Bunting and another friend, Thomas Trevilyan.

They made Lane call his elderly mother, Sylvia Lane, in the early hours of October 18, 1997, to abuse her and to say he was moving to Queensland.

Lane's toes were then pulped with pliers and he was strangled.

As well as Wagner's hatred for the man who robbed him of his childhood, Bunting too had reason for despising Lane.

Bunting believed Lane had told friends that he had murdered Clinton Trezise.

Lane was distraught that he himself had helped dispose of Trezise's body at Lower Light.

Bunting would often introduce Lane as the "freak" or "low-life scum".

He despised him for being a paedophile, but spent time with him in order to get names of other child abusers to add to his wall list.

Bunting told Vlassakis that he, Wagner and Trevilyan wrapped Lane in a big roll of carpet and left him in his Hectorville house.

They laughed hysterically when a friend of Lane's walked on his dead body while visiting his home.

In the months following Lane's death, Wagner frequently claimed his Centrelink benefits.

Murder victim Frederick “Fred” John Brooks. Picture: File
Murder victim Frederick “Fred” John Brooks. Picture: File

Thomas Trevilyan also crossed Wagner by upsetting his de facto's children.

And he was starting to annoy Bunting by telling people he was involved in Lane's murder.

His body was found hanging from a tree near Kersbrook on November 5, 1997. A crate was found near his feet.

His murder was cleverly disguised as a suicide, a stunt that originally fooled police and medical experts.

The day before he was found, Trevilyan chased Wagner's de facto's daughter around his front yard with a knife.

The young girl was carrying a puppy, and Trevilyan, who was schizophrenic and obsessed with the army, became incensed.

Following the knife incident, Wagner's de facto, Vicki Mills, demanded Trevilyan leave their home immediately.

Trevilyan had only just moved in with Wagner and his family.

He had been living with Lane, but Wagner told him to move because Lane was a paedophile and transvestite.

Later that day, Bunting and Wagner told Mills they were taking Trevilyan for a drive so they could have a chat and Wagner later told Ms Mills they dropped Trevilyan off at Gawler to teach him a lesson.

Bunting told Vlassakis they killed Trevilyan because he was a "f**k-up".

By this time, Vlassakis's already unstable life was a mess. He had moved on from taking marijuana to amphetamines and was now addicted to heroin.

He spent a great deal of time with another drug addict, Gavin Porter, who was to become Bunting and Wagner's next victim.

Vlassakis met Porter in 1997 and, from then until his death in April 1998, they lived together at a number of locations.

The Snowtown Wall of Spiders.
The Snowtown Wall of Spiders.

In early 1998, Vlassakis and Porter moved to Murray Bridge to live with Bunting. The pair lived in his lounge room.

Bunting often described Porter, who was an experienced drug user, as a "waste".

On the night of the murder, Vlassakis took his younger brothers to the drive-in.

When he returned, he saw Bunting and Wagner eating Chinese food in the lounge room.

Vlassakis was then led out to the shed where he was proudly shown the body of his best mate.

Next to Porter's body was a barrel containing the bodies of Gardiner and Lane. Vlassakis was told to look inside.

Vlassakis was then asked to go back inside and collect Porter's property, put it in his car and drive to Adelaide.

On the drive back to Murray Bridge, Bunting told Vlassakis that Wagner had strangled Porter while he was passed out from drugs.

A few days later Vlassakis, who was shocked and now terrified of Bunting, helped him put Porter's body into a barrel.

Soon after, a man impersonating Porter phoned Centrelink and asked for his payments to be sent to a post box - it was registered to Wagner.

About the same time, Wagner's de facto, Vicki Mills, registered Porter's car in her own name.

In order to keep the murder a secret, Bunting and Vlassakis devised stories about Porter's whereabouts.

Porter's friends were told by Vlassakis they had a falling out, Porter had moved to Melbourne and had overdosed on drugs.

After reluctantly becoming involved in covering up the murder of Porter, Vlassakis was coerced into killing his own half-brother, Troy Youde.

Vlassakis had already confided in Bunting that Youde had sexually abused him as a young teenager.

Since then, Bunting despised Youde and he claimed he wanted Vlassakis to get his revenge.

In late August 1998, Vlassakis was woken by Bunting, Wagner and allegedly Haydon.

They were each armed with a jack handle and he was given a pair of handcuffs and a wooden leg off a chair.

They all marched into Youde's bedroom and he was badly beaten.

He was handcuffed and taken to the bathroom and ordered to call Bunting "Lord Sir", Wagner "God", and Vlassakis "Master".

Youde, who was just about to turn 22, was tortured until he told Bunting his bank PIN and other personal details.

The torture continued while the CD Throwing Copper, from the band Live, was played. The words of the album's second song were particularly liked by Bunting and Wagner: "Now we won't be raped, now we won't be scarred like that."

Vlassakis and Wagner then strangled Youde with rope.

Vlassakis was in deep now.

He had seen the bodies of Gavin Porter, Michael Gardiner and Barry Lane and he had killed his half-brother.

Three weeks later, he participated in the murder of Fred Brooks, the son of Bunting's new girlfriend, Jodie Elliott.

Mrs Elliott was also the sister of Elizabeth Haydon, Mark Haydon's wife. Mrs Elliott and Mr Brooks had only recently moved to Adelaide from Queensland.

Bunting immediately took a disliking to Brooks.

He thought he was a "dirty" and told Vlassakis he believed the teenager was a paedophile.

Brooks was living in Murray Bridge when he was set upon by Vlassakis, Wagner and Bunting.

He was handcuffed, thumbcuffed and beaten. He was made to repeat abusive phrases into a tape recorder.

Bunting and Wagner also recorded a so-called confession from Brooks that he was involved in the abuse of young girls.

Throwing Copper was also played during Brooks' torture, which involved electric shocks and the use of firework sparklers.

A day after Brooks' disappearance, Mrs Elliott reported him missing.

However, 10 days later, Elizabeth Haydon received a telephone call from someone claiming to be Brooks. She told Mrs Elliott and the missing persons report was subsequently withdrawn.

Elizabeth Haydon with husband Mark Haydon. Picture: File
Elizabeth Haydon with husband Mark Haydon. Picture: File

In the weeks following the murder, Bunting fed Mrs Elliott various stories to stop her continuous questions regarding Brooks's whereabouts.

He said Brooks was a schizophrenic and did not want to see her anymore and would eventually call her when the time was right.

By this time, his body had been dismembered and placed in a barrel.

The next victim's only mistake was bearing a resemblance to Troy Youde.

Bunting would often complain that Gary O'Dwyer was a "fag" who was a "spitting image" of Youde.

O'Dwyer was last seen alive on October 28, 1998.

Some time later, Bunting and Wagner told Vlassakis they wanted to "play" - their codename for murder.

The pair had seen O'Dwyer outside his house, also in Murray Bridge, and they asked Vlassakis to help get them inside.

Vlassakis, who had only ever spoken to his neighbour over the side fence, asked if Bunting, Wagner and he could come over for a beer.

After a few drinks, Wagner grabbed O'Dwyer.

He too was tortured and ordered to repeat phrases into the tape recorder in preparation for his murder.

One of the recorded messages pertained to O'Dwyer's "friends" helping him clean out his house because he was moving to Perth.

Vlassakis, who did not witness the actual murder, punched O'Dwyer five times in the chest before taking his beers and leaving the house to go to a party.

Following his death, Wagner and Bunting were seen clearing out O'Dwyer's belongings.

Murder victim David Johnson. Picture: File
Murder victim David Johnson. Picture: File


Mark Ray Haydon arrives at Adelaide Magistrates Court in handcuffs in 1999. Picture: Martin Jacka/File
Mark Ray Haydon arrives at Adelaide Magistrates Court in handcuffs in 1999. Picture: Martin Jacka/File

Bunting took his fridge, bed and dressing table. Wagner stole Brooks' television and gave it to his de facto, Vicki Mills.

Elizabeth Haydon was the next victim. Despite being the wife of one of his closest mates, Bunting hated Mrs Haydon with a passion.

He would spit in her hair and, behind her back, call her "scabs" and "pus".

On the weekend of November 21, 1998, Mark Haydon and Jodie Elliott went for a drive, leaving Wagner and Bunting alone in their house with Mrs Haydon.

When they returned from their drive to Reynella, Bunting told Mrs Elliott that Mrs Haydon had made a pass at him and when he rejected her she became upset and was sulking.

Mrs Elliott was told not to try and talk to Mrs Haydon and soon after she went home with Bunting.

What Mrs Elliott didn't know was that while she was on her drive, Bunting and Wagner dragged Mrs Haydon into the bathroom where she too was tortured and killed.

Bunting later told Vlassakis that Mrs Haydon said: "If you want sex you only have to ask, you don't have to go through all this."

Her body was also put in a barrel and taken to Snowtown.

Four days after she disappeared, Mrs Haydon was reported missing.

By now, Mrs Elliott was sick with fear.

Both her son and her sister had vanished and she was asking a lot of questions.

In order to deflect attention away from him, Bunting told her Mrs Haydon was a prostitute who had been spotted working at Kings Cross in Sydney.

Naive, Mrs Elliott was distraught when she heard of her sister's philandering.

A police officer in the Snowtown bank vault where eight bodies found in acid-filled drums. Picture: File
A police officer in the Snowtown bank vault where eight bodies found in acid-filled drums. Picture: File

She did not suspect Bunting and even kept a lookout for police while he loaded barrels from a shed into a Toyota Land Cruiser so they could be taken to Snowtown.

On November 26, 1998, Detective Greg Stone was given Mrs Haydon's missing person file and both Bunting and Wagner were interviewed by police as part of that investigation.

Wagner cheekily said he would have to start keeping a little black book just in case any of his other friends went missing so he could jot down the date to tell the police.

It was the start of 1999 when Bunting told Vlassakis the "shit had hit the fan" and the barrels would have to be moved to Snowtown.

Ironically, the disused bank vault was next door to the police station in the Mid North town.

The last murder, on May 9, 1999, was committed while the men were under surveillance from Major Crime detectives.

Bunting wanted to "play" and Vlassakis's half-brother, David Johnson, a fastidious cleanliness-obsessed "yuppie" was the target.

Vlassakis lured Johnson to Snowtown on the pretext of buying a computer.

As soon as he walked into the vault, Johnson was handcuffed and tortured.

Vlassakis always claimed Johnson was murdered by Bunting while he and Wagner drove to Port Wakefield.

Note: Mark Ray Haydon was not convicted of any of the murders but pleaded guilty to assisting Wagner and Bunting. He applied for parole last year but was rejected. James Vlassakis was found guilty of four counts of murder and was also sentenced to life in prison. He will be eligible for parole in 2025.

Murder victim Barry Wayne Lane. Picture: File
Murder victim Barry Wayne Lane. Picture: File