Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Snowtown Murders

Pandora's Vault

Rural Snowtown, about 150 kilometres north of Adelaide, is home to between 500 and 600 people. Not far from the little wheat-belt community, one low range of hills breaks up kilometres of flat farmland stretching to each horizon. Like most South Australian bush towns, Snowtown has weathered the backwash of the State's economic misfortunes. Housing is cheap, but jobs and services are on the decline in the country. While ambitious youngsters head into the city in search of tertiary education and work, many of the urban poor and unemployed are attracted to rural centres, the only places they could ever afford a home. The sudden influx of strangers frequently raises the level of angst — and some claim, crime — in beleaguered, close-knit bush towns. It is an economically-driven pattern now reflected in every Australian State.

In the early 80s, Snowtown gave one the impression was turning back the clock to that nostalgic — perhaps romanticised — old world of hardworking, peaceful country folk. Snowtown's aura held no trace of the tension and menace usually associated with cities. But on Thursday the 20th of May, 1999, that traditional, restful persona was shattered.

Former Snowtown Branch of State Bank of South Australia
Former Snowtown Branch of State
Bank of South Australia

In the final stages of a complex, year-long missing persons investigation, police entered the former Snowtown branch of the State Bank of South Australia. Like many rural banks, the branch was no longer in service. The red brick building in the town's main street proved to be a chamber of horrors. Six black plastic barrels or "vats" were located behind the old bank vault's 10-cm thick metal door. They contained acid and human body parts from eight different victims, including 15 human feet. Police information suggested the victims' remains had been in storage there for at least three months. Outside the vault itself, the former main banking area contained electrical and computer equipment.

Bank Vault
Bank Vault

Disbelief and revulsion gripped the small town as word quickly spread. An early topic of conversation was the unique, stomach-turning stench released from the vault upon its opening. "As a police officer, I've smelt death before," commented Snowtown policeman Ian Young, "you didn't have to get close to this to know what this was." Barry Drew was working next door to the old bank when police began removing evidence. He was later to tell that "they counted the toes and then divided."

Police also removed evidence from a rented house less than a kilometre from the bank. Located between the Uniting and Catholic churches, it was the home of a suspect in the matter. Neighbours described the occupants of the house as reclusive strangers who had never bonded with the Snowtown community and so had been "left separate."

Over 100 kilometres away, sprawling between the Adelaide foothills and the sea, the northern suburbs were about to enter the case. The collective northern suburbs region has always been "blue-collar to middle income." In recent decades, much of Adelaide's suburbia has suffered high unemployment levels. Unpretentious and multicultural, the northern zone straddles mostly flat, featureless coastal plains until it meets low, rolling hills to the east.

The day after the Snowtown find, police swooped early on 3 northern suburbs addresses. Three men were each charged with one count of murder "of a person unknown between August 1, 1993 and May 20th, 1999."

The accused
The accused

John Justin Bunting, 32, of Craigmore, Robert Joe Wagner, 27, of Elizabeth Grove, (described by some neighbours as "brooding" and "illiterate") and Mark Ray Haydon, 40, of Smithfield Plains, were arrested with an expectation that more charges would later be laid. All were remanded in custody to reappear on July 2nd, 1999.

By Sunday the 23rd of June, police were searching for more bodies. They arrived at a former residence of Bunting's, a double-fronted, semi-detached house on Waterloo Corner Road, Salisbury North which has since been demolished. A new hi-tech ally accompanied their search for evidence. Instead of the traditional cadaver dogs and methane probes, investigators employed ground-penetrating radar, a spin-off of technology developed to find plastic land mines in the 1982 Faulklands War. The compact invention had already proved itself in finding bodies in Britain's infamous 1994 "House of Horrors" case, involving serial killer Fred West.

Police broke up a concrete slab just outside the public housing property's back door. Apparently, the suspected gravesite had once also been covered by a rainwater tank. Once the earth was exposed, a bright yellow box resembling an oversized lawn mower was wheeled across the spot. Within minutes, the device's read-out supplied the anticipated data. An area about 2 metres square had been disturbed, then refilled.

A hole excavated by police where a body was found
A hole excavated by police where a
body was found

At 3 PM, after careful digging, forensic police located a human body at a depth of about 2 metres, secured in two separate plastic bags. It was clear that investigators had arrived armed with detailed information. In fact, the arrests and searches were the culmination of long months of behind-the-scenes preparation.

Unknown to the Snowtown case's alleged offenders, Acting Police Commissioner Neil McKenzie had authorised the formation of a Taskforce. Named "Chart," it was under the command of veteran Detective Chief Superintendent Paul Schramm. Chart's original brief was to investigate the connection between three missing people. By the time it was fully assembled, Chart included 33 police from Major Crime, Crime Scene Examination (forensic evidence gatherers), and Missing Persons Squad. Supporting them were administrators to help handle the information and manpower workloads, as well as anthropologists and pathologists. "Never before, in the history of South Australia has the challenge been so great," declared McKenzie, "— to investigate a series of crimes as a single event."

Det. Chief Paul Schramm
Det. Chief Paul Schramm

Who were the three subjects of the initial inquiry? Barry Wayne Lane, a 40-year-old transvestite and convicted paedophile who vanished in October 1997, his friend Clinton Douglas Trezise, who was last seen in 1993 at the age of 22, and mother of eight, Elizabeth Haydon, declared missing in 1999 aged 37, and married to one of the accused. Linking these identities and their last known movements and associates, had ultimately led Chart investigators north to the bank vault. One specific development was the movement to Snowtown, over the preceding months, of certain motor vehicles. Allegedly, these "vehicles of interest" belonged to key associates of the prime suspects. Suspects who obviously had no inkling that a net was closing around them.

A shocked public absorbed the details of the "vault of horrors" in Snowtown, then the bagged body in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. It was announced that Chart forensic detectives suspected the latter might have been 3-4 years in the ground. But there was little time for contemplating the significance of that. Wednesday the 26th brought another twist to the case. A second, older body was located, buried virtually under the first. Initial sweeps with ground-penetrating radar had suggested that the soil beneath the first body had not been disturbed. However, subsequent scans disclosed re-compaction over an earlier burial site. Digging again, police discovered skeletal remains about 3 metres down, this time not enclosed in plastic. The body count had climbed to ten.

Public anxiety grew, as did media speculation about the identities of the victims. Christine Spek, sister of missing Elizabeth Haydon, spoke to journalists of her darkest fears. Ms Spek said that Elizabeth would not have disappeared "of her own free will" because of her commitment to her sons. Elizabeth Haydon's brother Garion Sinclair and his wife Rae told reporters they had also entertained grim suspicions following Elizabeth's vanishing. State housing Minister Dean Brown said he expected the public housing property to be demolished. Residents on either side of the "death house" were given the option of moving out. One quickly accepted.

On May 27th, police announced that the first of the 10 bodies recovered so far — that of a male — had been identified by fingerprints. The victim's name was withheld, pending notification of all his relatives. With three people now charged and a plethora of interviews with neighbours, relatives and friends of the accused under way, a picture began to emerge. It presented a surprising alleged motive for the killings: social security pensions. Federal welfare agency Centrelink sifted through their Disability Support Pension files, seeking connections to a list of missing persons provided by police. Some of those missing had not been formally reported to authorities. Others apparently had, yet it was believed that in both cases, routine welfare payments were still outgoing. And someone was allegedly receiving them.

Certain media reports suggested secondary motives of a psychosexual nature. Others implied a possible link to neo-Nazism by one alleged offender. Yet consistently, police press releases remained centred on a financial motive. Some investigators suspected victims' welfare payments had been accessed for years after they'd gone missing. Serial killing, if you will, for serial benefits. "We do not believe these are random killings," said Detective Superintendent Schramm. Also concerned to allay public fears, Acting Commissioner McKenzie suggested that the killings could be characterised as "a group that preyed on itself."

In the United States, comment was invited from forensic psychiatrist with the FBI and New York State Police Forensic Sciences Unit, Dr. Park Dietz. Dr. Dietz compared the body disposal techniques of Snowtown to those of prolific serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who alone murdered 17 young boys and men. But on learning that 3 alleged offenders were involved in the Snowtown case, Dr Dietz added a comment regarding motive. His expert view was that in cases involving three or more killers, the motive usually proved financial, as opposed to sexual. This certainly supported Chart police's impressions. However, a further twist awaited. The three alleged offenders were soon to have company.

 

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