Twenty years after police uncovered one of the nation’s worst serial killings, Snowtown locals are facing tough decisions about whether to cash in on the town’s infamy.
Before May 20, 1999, most people outside of South Australia would not have heard of Snowtown.
It was a blink and you’ll miss it kind of place — a subdued little farming community on the edge of a rural highway.
You wouldn’t go there unless you had to, or were passing through on the way to somewhere else, but the town itself was charming enough to draw praise from a visiting journalist in 1923.
“Brown fallowed land, golden crop areas and scattered green foliage combine in a beautiful stretch of scenery,” the reporter wrote.
Today, however, the mere mention of Snowtown is enough to send shivers down the spine.
It has been 20 years since the discovery of eight bodies in six acid-filled barrels inside the town’s former bank vault.
When the crime was discovered, the smell from inside the vault was so pungent that police needed breathing gear.
The crimes now known as the “Snowtown murders”, or the “bodies-in-the-barrels murders”, remain one of the nation’s worst serial killings.
But for two decades, Snowtown has suffered because it was the end point of events which began many miles away — in Adelaide’s northern suburbs, in Brisbane’s south and in Sydney’s west.
“As a story it had all the elements, everything from merciless slaughter to an almost vampiric thing — putting bodies in the barrels and then hiding the barrels away,” said local grain farmer Neville Michael.
Mr Michael vividly remembers the day the bodies were found, when the surrounding streets were filled with police and international media crews.
“It’s a very dark tale and the darkness of that tale is very striking against a town called ‘snow’,” he said.
“You’ve got this strange thing — the blackness of the story and the lightness of the name of the town.”
As Snowtown battles decline and a dwindling population, a longstanding proposal to convert the old bank into a murder museum has the potential to attract tourists — but it would deeply divide the town.
This is Snowtown’s dilemma: Does it use its dark past to secure a brighter future? Does it remember or forget? Would opening the bank to the public also reopen old wounds?
The bodies in the barrels: A case history
The Snowtown murders were a series of killings that, with one exception, occurred in places other than Snowtown.
Neither the victims nor the perpetrators were locals.
Four men were convicted. John Bunting — a former abattoir worker originally from Inala in Brisbane’s south — was the ringleader.
In the early ‘90s Bunting, who was living in Salisbury North in Adelaide’s underprivileged northern suburbs, met Robert Wagner, who was born in Parramatta.
Both men were the product of deeply disturbing upbringings.
From 1992 to 1999 they unleashed a campaign of torturous violence, recruiting two others — James Vlassakis and Mark Haydon — to assist their cause.
Allegedly driven by a hatred of paedophiles and homosexuals, their victims were mostly people the perpetrators themselves associated with, including family members.
People with intellectual disabilities and welfare recipients were also killed for financial gain.
Twelve deaths were linked to the case, 11 of which were deemed murders.
The killings were characterised by extreme sadism, with the perpetrators using various tools to torture their victims before killing them. In one instance, it descended into cannibalism.
The first victim, Clinton Trezise, was buried in a shallow grave at Lower Light.
Another was left hanging from a tree at Kersbrook, in the Adelaide Hills.
Two bodies were later found buried in the backyard of Bunting’s Salisbury North home.
The other victims were stored in barrels which were transferred between several spots, including Murray Bridge, east of Adelaide, Smithfield Plains in Adelaide’s northern suburbs, and Hoyleton, in the state’s mid north.
They were eventually moved to the old Snowtown bank, which was being rented by Haydon and Bunting.
What’s in a name? The Snowtown stigma
Snowtown local Bernie Altmann was at school when the crimes were committed. She remembers going to the bank as a child, before the building became remarkable.
“We didn’t realise it was going to have such a negative impact on the town, how we were going to become a victim of the publicity, of the murders,” she said.
“It could have happened at 20 towns around the community, except it happened to us. That’s frustrating, that we’re the name of this incident.
“If you say you’re from Snowtown, people are like ‘ooh, the murders’. So, some locals don’t even say they’re from Snowtown, they’ll say the mid north.”
Ms Altmann is one of Snowtown’s strongest advocates — she is heavily involved in community projects and has raised a family in the town.
For her and other locals, the recent failed legal bid by one of the Snowtown killers to secure a non-parole date had stirred up unpleasant memories.
But the town is already constantly reminded of the murders by the stream of tourists who stop to take photos outside the bank.
“We’re from Western Australia, and I thought if I’m going that way I’m going to check this place out just to have a look,” said Perth resident John Dawson, who recently detoured to Snowtown for a quick photo outside the old bank.
“If you’re in a country town, you want to do as much as you possibly can to get more tourists through.”
Ms Altmann agrees.
While the town has plenty of other attractions to promote, such as its recently painted water tower and its giant wind turbine blade, she believes Snowtown should not try to deny its past.
“We’ve got to take any good thing that we can get from it because, guaranteed, it’s done more damage than good,” she said.
Dark tourism and the appeal of true crime
After the murders, it did not take long for some to see a silver lining.
Souvenirs went on sale and attempts were made to cash in on the crimes. Documentaries and a feature film were made.
Dark tourism is the practice of attracting visitors to a region where grisly or macabre events have occurred.
In Snowtown, there has been constant talk of turning the old bank vault into a dark tourism site, potentially a museum.
“It’s been suggested that something be done with it,” said former police officer Joseph O’Connell, who was stationed at Snowtown in the late 2000s.
“That was mooted not long after the incident had occurred and it was raised again during my time there.”
The bank vault’s current owners are understood to be interested in such a venture, but have so far not pursued it.
While locals accept they can do nothing to stop the influx of passers-by who pull over to take selfies outside the old bank, many would likely be opposed to a museum.
“There was a suggestion at the end of all the investigations and the court cases, that that building would be taken over by government and, as was done at Salisbury North, it would be demolished so there was nothing to encourage spectator tourism,” Mr O’Connell said.
“It should have been completely removed from the landscape.”
Interestingly, Mr O’Connell’s brother Michael is the state’s former commissioner for victims’ rights, and worked with family members of the Snowtown victims for several years.
“Some of them have reinvented themselves, they have taken new names,” he told the ABC.
“Each time the story of these crimes is revisited, it retriggers the emotional and psychological turmoil that these families have gone through.
“That’s been intergenerational.”
Living in the shadow of Snowtown
The impact on Snowtown locals has also spanned generations.
Neville Michael works the land about 20 kilometres from the town with his son Tom, who has played football for the town.
“I would be perfectly happy for the memory of the bodies in the barrels to fade into the past, but I accept that we will never be rid of the stigma,” he said.
The town’s reputation has followed Neville around the country, and he is growing a little weary of talking about Snowtown’s past.
“I was in Sydney recently and booked into a hotel,” he said.
“When I wrote down I came from Snowtown they said ‘Snowtown! That’s where they had those hideous murders’, and I said: ‘oh right, yeah, okay’.”
Both Neville and Tom regard the town as their local community, and both would be reluctant to turn it into a dark tourism hotspot.
Neville favours a plaque instead of a museum, while Tom has mixed views about the town making money from the murders.
“There are ‘Jack the Ripper’ tours, and you can absolutely understand it,” he said.
“It’s a point of difference that Snowtown has, compared to anywhere else in Australia. Perhaps we should exploit it.
“But the thing is, how do I talk to my little kids about profiting off it?
“My head says that yes, it’s a good idea, but the community as a whole I don’t think would like it, and I care more about their welfare.”