Nicole Zuritta’s friend was murdered in one of Australia’s most notorious serial killings, turning her world upside down. Almost three decades on, she wants to reframe the way victims of the Snowtown murders are remembered. 

When Nicole Zuritta returned from a holiday in September 1997, she found her home had been ransacked. 

Drawers were open, clothes were strewn across the floor. 

Valuables including her television, VHS tapes and computer games had been stolen. 

But what initially looked like a run-of-the-mill robbery was anything but. 

She soon realised her housemate Michael Gardiner, who sometimes preferred to be called Michelle, was nowhere to be seen.

Michael Gardiner was one of the victims of the serial killings known as the bodies-in-the-barrels murders.(Courtesy: The Advertiser)

“I went to the police and advised them about the robbery and that I did have a boarder and he’s no longer here and I can’t get in contact with him,” she says. 

“I did say to them that there’s no way that he burgled me.”

When Nicole returned home from a holiday, she found the place had been ransacked.(ABC News: Michael Gardiner)

She knew the 19-year-old had been planning to move out of her home in Adelaide’s northern suburbs, but firmly believed he had not robbed her.

They were close friends and he did not drive or own a car. 

“So, how could he take all my things?” she says. 

“After I cleaned up a little bit, I found a wallet under the bed in the room that Michael was in and it was Michael’s wallet.

Despite the apparent robbery, and the disappearance of her boarder, Michelle suspected things were not as they seemed.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

“It had a note in it and it said, ‘I just wanted to thank you for allowing me to be my true self without judgement. I’ll forever be your friend. We’ll keep in touch after I move to Goolwa’.

“It cemented that he didn’t rob me.”

Nicole was right to trust her instincts.

But she could never have predicted the horror and fear that would follow in the months and years after Michael’s disappearance. 

He was one of 11 victims of the Snowtown killings, but it would be almost two years before his remains would be found. 

‘Just a game to them’

Speaking out for the first time in more than a decade, Nicole recalls the bizarre and at times confronting experiences in those first few months. 

First, she received a phone call demanding Michael’s wallet. 

More than 25 years later, Nicole vividly recalls the bizarre sequence of events.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

“I said, ‘well, if Michael needs his wallet, he can come and get his wallet … but I’m not sending it anywhere’,” she recalls. 

She stood her ground for weeks, but the phone calls grew more disturbing.

And acquaintances started showing up at her house, demanding the wallet. 

A roadside in Adelaide’s northern suburbs, not far from where Nicole lived in the 1990s.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

What Nicole did not know at the time was that people known to her through family, friends, and her local community were on a killing spree, and her beloved boarder was their latest victim.

A mural in the streets of Adelaide’s north.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

She spent months posting missing persons signs throughout the suburbs, calling for information about Michael, with the killers reaching out to her directly with information about recent “sightings”. 

Her cousin’s fiancé, Robert Wagner and his friend John Bunting – who were later found guilty of Michael’s murder – would turn up at her house with so-called information.

“For a good nine months afterwards, I was running around town putting up flyers, ‘Have you seen this person?’ at locations that they had been feeding me,” she says. 

“I think it was just a game to them.”

A dark web of connections and lies 

Almost two years later in May 1999, with no word of Michael’s whereabouts, her life took another sharp turn.

Police had uncovered a gruesome scene, decomposing human remains in six plastic barrels, hidden in an old bank vault, more than 100 kilometres north.

Nicole learned of tragic and gruesome details at a scene far from Adelaide’s north.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

In the early hours police knocked on the door, with her cousin’s children in tow.

Bodies-in-the-barrels serial killer Robert Joe Wagner escorted handcuffed by court sheriffs outside the disused bank vault in Snowtown.(AAP: Rob Hutchison)

“‘We’ve just arrested Robert for murder. You need to take care of these kids’,” she recalls them stating. 

To Nicole, Robert Wagner was a man of good character. 

Engaged to her cousin who lived nearby, he was a present stepfather and active member of the community, even sitting on the committee of the children’s kindergarten.

The former home of bodies-in-the-barrels serial killer Robert Wagner.(ABC News: Che Chorley)
The fence outside Wagner’s former home.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

“He was the first partner that she’d had that was actually interested in doing things with her children and making sure they were cared for properly, which was obviously something that I valued,” Nicole says. 

“Him being on the kindergarten committee was next level. Nobody had ever been that person for her, and I was impressed initially.”

The disbelief of his involvement in the murders soon turned to shock when she realised how close she had been to Wagner and his co-accused, John Bunting and Jamie Vlassakis. 

The perimeter of Nicole’s former home.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

“Who the hell do you think you are that you can come into my home, where my children live? I thought you were a decent human being,” she says. 

Nicole remembers feelings of disbelief and disgust.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

“I was angry.

“It was like being in The Matrix. It was very slow motion, it was very painful and it was very confusing.”

The investigation and multiple trials seemed to last an eternity.

The first Supreme Court trial — for the worst of the offenders Bunting and Wagner — began in 2002 and ended in late 2003, when Bunting was found guilty of murdering 11 people.

A court sketch of serial killer and bodies-in-the-barrels ringleader John Justin Bunting.(ABC News)
Mark Ray Haydon was the last of four men convicted over the crimes.(The Advertiser)
A court sketch of Wagner from the 2010s.(Supplied: Tim Ide)

Wagner had already pleaded guilty to three counts and was convicted of another seven.

Vlassakis helped convict his co-accused by giving evidence against them, and was given a life sentence after pleading guilty to four of the murders.

He will be able to apply for parole next year.

Haydon at the Adelaide Pre-Release Centre at Northfield in May this year.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Their accomplice Mark Ray Haydon was sentenced to 25 years in prison for assisting in covering up the crimes.

Haydon has spent 25 years in prison.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

On Thursday, May 16, Haydon was released to live in the community on parole.

The day before, measures to monitor and control his movements when his parole ends were handed down by the Supreme Court.

The controls include banning Haydon from contacting any victims or their family members.

He must live at a pre-approved address, wear an electronic monitoring bracelet, comply with a curfew, avoid alcohol, and have a mobile phone so that he can be contacted at any time.

For Nicole, remembering her friend, as well as the cruel reason he was targeted is front of mind. 

The killers were unable to distinguish between a shared hatred of paedophilia and homosexuality.

Few of the victims were paedophiles. Many, like Michael, were simply targeted for being gay.

“We all look for people that are kind and generous and [Michael] was all of that and then some,” she says.

“He just had a beautiful soul, very joyful and wanting to please.

“What I liked most about him was that he was being true to himself.

“I used to paint his fingernails for him. Sometimes he’d ask me to call him Michelle instead of Michael.

“He wasn’t accepted by a lot of people in his life for being gay, but he wasn’t scared … didn’t shrink at the loss of not being accepted.”

Portrayal ‘needs to be corrected’

He, and some of the other victims, Nicole says, were failed by the media hype, which has reduced them to cliched stereotypes.

“I think if these people were a bit more ‘worthy’ to society, then I think there would have been a bit of a harder push to get a quicker result than what there was,” she says. 

Ronald Lane was a teenager when news of the crimes broke.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

The family of another Snowtown victim shares a similar sentiment.

For Ronald Lane, the memories of the time remain etched in his mind.

“These crimes were the worst serial killings in South Australian history,” he says.

His uncle Barry Lane, who also went by the name Vanessa, was killed in October 1997. 

Police had found human remains at the bank vault, but the family did not yet know that Barry/Vanessa was among the victims. 

Barry/Vanessa Lane was one of the serial killers’ victims.

He recalls the sound of digging at Bunting’s former home in Salisbury. 

“I was going to a doctor’s appointment, and I could hear all these tractors and I was looking over wondering what was going on,” he says. 

“All of a sudden they were finding all these human remains.”

Barely a teenager, he remembers the deep trauma felt by those around him. 

An overhead view of an excavation at Waterloo Corner where the bodies of two victims were found.(ABC News)
The excavation occurred at Bunting’s former home on Waterloo Corner Road.(ABC News)
A sign at the entrance to Snowtown.(ABC News: Che Chorley)
Farmland around Snowtown in South Australia’s Mid North.(ABC News: Che Chorley)
A Snowtown street scene.(ABC News: Che Chorley)
Eight bodies were found inside the Snowtown bank vault.(ABC News: Che Chorley)
Today, the bank’s rear brick wall is overgrown with a climbing plant.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

“My Dad and my Nanna were very upset, they were traumatised, they were (in) disbelief,” he says.

“I mean, Robert (Wagner) was alongside my great-nanna before she passed away, holding her hand and everything, and then he goes and does this to my uncle.”

Before she died, Ronald’s grandmother urged him to continue speaking out.

Ronald Lane says he is determined not to let the victims be forgotten.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

“I think she just wanted me to be the advocate on behalf of the victims’ families,” he says.

“I think some of the other victims out there might be scared to come forward. It’s like a reminder where we were 25 years ago to now, and people just want to move on with their lives.

Ronald believes those responsible for the crimes should be in jail for the rest of their lives.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

“That’s what we were promised, that when the court was over, the person promised that these killers would never see the light of day, would never walk the streets of Adelaide ever again.

“They should be in there for life.”

Sarah Quick is South Australia’s Commissioner for Victims’ Rights.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

South Australia’s Commissioner for Victims’ Rights Sarah Quick says people who are marginalised for their differences can become isolated from society, and that can make them more vulnerable.

“The more inclusive we are of people in society, the more we minimise the risk that those people are vulnerable to the crimes that happened,” she says.

Ms Quick says inclusion is key.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

“Including people, making sure people are connected, is a protective factor.”

The victims of the serial killings were dealing with different levels of social disadvantage.

They were preyed upon for their sexual preferences, close proximity to the killers and social security payments.

Others were at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Gary O’Dwyer was killed in Murray Bridge in 1998.

Gary O’Dwyer, who was a neighbour of Bunting’s and lived with an intellectual and physical disability, was targeted because Bunting took a disliking to him.

The claims made by the murderers about their victims only added to the trauma of those left behind.

“It’s incredibly important to remember them as individuals who had full lives, that were connected to family, family loved them and still grieve them. It’s important not to judge them or stigmatise them,” Sarah Quick says.

“When we do judge and stigmatise victims, or even blame victims for crime, that compounds the trauma of those left behind and also when we sensationalise high-profile crimes, that can also compound victims’ trauma.”

Aside from losing her friend, Nicole also had to say goodbye to life as she knew it. 

She moved away, sold her home and became estranged from family and friends.

“I lost my home that I’d got for my children,” she says. 

“I certainly couldn’t be in the place where they took Michael from, and I wanted to remove my children from any exposure to any possible negative outcome from society for them.”

But she hopes in speaking out she will be able to give a voice to those who can’t.

A fragmented portrait of Snowtown and its old bank building.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

“The way that it was portrayed, who they were and what they were, was so far from who they actually were and it really needs to be corrected,” she says. 

Nicole Zuritta says the victims have been misremembered for too long.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

“Most of them were just people who were a little bit different to the rest of us, or a little bit different to the societal normal.

“But most of them had a lot of good in them.”

For Nicole, the victims “had a lot of good in them”.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

She says it is time to remember them for the good people they were.

“As a society we really need to take a good hard look at ourselves and how we have a certain level of expectation of people and judgement of people,” she says.

“We’re all human beings.”


Authors: Rebecca Brice and James Wakelin
Photography: Danielle Bonica and Che Chorley
Graphics: Stephan Hammat
Videos: Sebastian Dixon