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Alleged seial killers await their fate in grisly Australian murder case

Catherine Hours | September 3, 2003

ADELAIDE — Two men accused of Australia's worst serial killings because they were "driven by a hatred of homosexuals and paedophiles" awaited their fate here Wednesday after one of the country's longest criminal trials.

South Australia's infamous "bodies in the barrels" case followed the gruesome discovery in May, 1999, of eight dismembered bodies in six plastic barrels in the vault of an abandoned bank at Snowtown, north of Adelaide.

Another two bodies were found buried in the backyard of an Adelaide home and two more elsewhere.

John Bunting, 36, who is facing 12 murder charges, and Robert Wagner, 31, who is charged with eight, had tortured and killed their victims for enjoyment and gain, South Australian Supreme Court was told during a 10-month trial which heard from 230 witnesses.

Wagner pleaded guilty to three murder charges before the trial started on October 16 last year.

James Vlassakis, Bunting's 23-year-old heroin-addicted son, is already serving a 26-year non-parole jail term after pleading guilty to four of the murders.

After a decision on Bunting and Wagner, the trial of a fourth accused, Mark Haydon, will begin early next year on four charges.

Prosecutors alleged they were all members of a gang that tortured and murdered their victims to fraudulently claim their welfare benefits, typically averaging less that AUS$200 ($128 US) a week each.

At the start of the prosecution's final submissions in July, Wendy Abraham, QC, told the court that Bunting and Wagner were driven primarily by a hatred of paedophiles and homosexuals - but that they also killed for pleasure.

"I suggest in relation to these murders there was another motive – that is enjoyment," Abraham said.

"You've heard evidence that in relation to a number of the murders, a number of the counts, that torture was inflicted upon victims by the accused. You've head that over time, Mr Bunting and Mr Wagner bragged, they laughed about what they were doing." The court heard that some of the victims were homosexuals and at least one, Barry Lane, was a transvestite and convicted paedophile.

In several cases victims were allegedly forced to repeat phrases into a tape recorder which were later replayed over the telephone to obtain money or reassure concerned friends about their health.

Toes were crushed with pliers, sparklers were inserted into a victim's penis and lit, electric shocks were inflicted and one victim allegedly had a lit cigarette stuck in his ear while Bunting softly blew on it to keep it burning.

Another of the victims was totally dismembered – her head and arms cut off and her torso almost entirely de-fleshed, with breasts and genitals removed.

Bunting and Wagner had boasted that the "good ones" didn't scream, the jury heard.

The jury of six men and six women retired to consider its verdict on Tuesday after judge Brian Martin told them that if they found the accused guilty of murder, their decision must be unanimous and a not guilty verdict required a majority decision of at least 10.

The jury heard that Wagner had sought to defend himself in a catchy jailhouse poem that compared his life to a "Stephen King thriller."

In the poem allegedly written to a fellow convict he started by professing his innocence then launching an attack on paedophiles who prosecutors say were targeted in the Snowtown killings.

In one line, Wagner wrote: "See you know I only provided a service that's needed; For just like your gardens our street should be weeded."

The poem, which a handwriting expert confirmed was written by Wagner, went on to threaten police and media with the warning: "I know where you live". –Sapa-AFP

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