By GREG ANSLEY
The most remarkable feature of the old State Bank in Snowtown, a slowly vanishing village an hour and a half north of Adelaide, is its absolute ordinariness.
Opened in the late 1950s, it bears the dull conformity of the age: square, featureless red brick, tiled at the front, a green corrugated iron verandah extending over the footpath.
The architecture is a sad contrast to the Snowtown Hotel across the road, a magnificent sandstone pub with an iron lacework balcony topped by bullnose verandah.
But the vaults below the old bank hid a secret that will begin to unfold in Adelaide on October 14 - a horrifying tale of serial torture and murder, even cannibalism, with the victims' dismembered bodies stored for months in barrels.
The trial of the two central figures in the now infamous Snowtown murders is expected to last for up to six months, exposing a saga of depravity that has gained the small town of about 1000 inhabitants international notoriety.
The infamy has not been welcomed. Locals switch their natural friendliness to curt and dismissive replies when the murders are mentioned.
"We're sick and tired of people asking where the bank is," says one.
The town simply wants to get on with the business of survival, an increasingly serious proposition as economics, time and technology continue to erode its reason for existence.
There was one death last month at the local Memorial Hospital, but no births.
What little commerce there is in the early afternoon occurs at the bric-a-brac shop, the news agency, the butcher in an imposing sandstone corner store, or at the pub.
From the highway running north from Adelaide to Alice Springs, Snowtown is screened by a row of pines, stretching along the railway line that has defined the town since its birth late in the 19th century. Now it handles only grain trains stopping at the silo in town, and the passage of the Indian Pacific racing across the continent.
The entrance to the town is framed on one side by a small collection of local service badges and a sign reading "Welcome - please help keep Snowtown beautiful," and on the other by a large tin shed and rusting farm equipment.
Across the railway line Snowtown is bounded on its northern extreme by Centenary Park and the bowling club, and on its southern border by the hospital.
In between is a narrow grid of streets identified by number rather than name, lined in the small commercial centre by a dwindling number of shops and a growing number of vacant shopfronts, and elsewhere by a varied mixture of well-kept sandstone villas, more modern brick and fibro houses, and a depressing number of decaying homes.
Snowtown is struggling to keep itself together, bonding with the nearby town of Blyth to maintain netball and football teams, and immensely proud that their best topped the local league competitions.
A community management group is being formed and a community newspaper, printed on A4 sheets and stapled together, has just published its second edition.
It is, by any measure, an improbable setting for tales of murder, torture and the eating of human flesh.
"That's why they chose Snowtown," says the elderly woman running the bric-a-brac shop, who really doesn't want to talk about the murders.
The rest of Australia will hear a great deal in the coming months, whatever Snowtown may feel.
John Justin Bunting, 34, will be tried for 12 counts of murder, to which he has pleaded not guilty. His alleged accomplice, Robert Joe Wagner, 29, has pleaded guilty to three counts of murder and not guilty to eight others.
James Spyridon Vlassakis, 22, was sentenced to life, with a minimum 26 years before parole, after admitting four counts of murder. His sentence was reduced from a 42-year minimum sentence by Justice Kevin Duggan in July when Vlassakis agreed to appear as a prosecution witness.
Vlassakis had come under Bunting's influence during the period Bunting lived in a de facto relationship with his mother, and remained living with him after his mother left the alleged killer for another man.
Two of Vlassakis' half-brothers were among the victims. One other alleged accomplice, Mark Ray Haydon, 43, will be tried separately on 10 murder counts.
The charges against them were laid after police opened the vault of the old Snowtown State Bank vault in May 1999 and found eight bodies in six plastic barrels.
The remains of four further victims were uncovered elsewhere, two buried in a backyard in the Adelaide suburb of Salisbury North.
In court, police will unravel a horrific story centred around Bunting - an alleged sadist who hated paedophiles and the disabled, and who maintained a list of intended victims on what he called his "wall of spiders" - and Wagner, an alleged cannibalistic neo-Nazi and homosexual whose alleged victims included one of his former partners.
According to evidence presented in hearings, the killings began in 1992 with the death of Clinton Tresize, a young homosexual whom Bunting called "Happy Pants". Bunting is alleged to have murdered him in company with Haydon, a long-haired, heavily bearded man who, police allege, included his wife Elizabeth among his eventual victims.
Tresize's remains were found two years later, but his murder remained a mystery until the Snowtown discoveries.
In 1996, Ray Davies, 26, and Suzanne Allen, 47, were killed. The following year Michael Gardiner, 19, Barry Lane, 42, and Thomas Trevilyan, 18, died.
Gardiner was among those alleged to have been tortured for PIN numbers to clean out their meagre accounts. Police will produce evidence of scorch marks on the teenager's scrotum, and they recovered bone-crushing instruments and an electrical generator with alligator clips.
The killers are also alleged to have stolen welfare payments paid into their victims' accounts.
Lane, a flamboyant transvestite and convicted paedophile, was once a homosexual partner of Wagner. Gavin Porter, 31, Troy Youde, 21 - a half-brother of Vlassakis - Frederick Brooks, 18, Garry O'Dwyer, 29, and Elizabeth Haydon, 37, were killed between September and November 1998.
Brooks, Elizabeth Haydon's nephew, was described by Bunting as "waste" because of disability and learning problems. He was tortured by the insertion of a sparkler into his penis.
Bunting hated Haydon because she was unattractive, obese and had eight children by different fathers.
The final victim, 24-year-old David Johnson, was tortured and killed in May 1999, lured to his death in Snowtown by his half-brother Vlassakis on the pretext of a cheap computer buy.
Johnson's death, described by Vlassakis, was appalling: allegedly strangled by Wagner, the usual killer, to ritual music chosen by Bunting who, as with the other victims, allegedly cut up the body.
Vlassakis said Wagner later cut a slice from Johnson's corpse and fried and ate it.
During the murders, police allege, Bunting demanded obeisance from his victims, following a "routine of confession ... the screaming for mercy, the crack of broken bones, the smashed teeth and bloody clots of hair".
By the time of the gruesome vault discoveries, the rumours were already circulating.
"There were stories going around that they were cannibals, that they were into social security fraud, that the coppers could have saved some of the victims," Tina Dowling, a friend of Vlassakis, told a hearing.
Police also said earlier that they came close to breaking the ring six months before Snowtown, when they searched Haydon's suburban home in Smithfield Plains during the investigation of his disappearance.
A disabled Toyota Landcruiser with the decomposing bodies of six men and the recently dismembered body of Elizabeth Haydon had been at the house, but was pushed on to a trailer and towed 100km to a farm belonging to friends, who were told the six barrels held kangaroo carcasses.
The bodies were not moved for three months, when Hunting and Haydon rented the old bank and moved the barrels to Snowtown.
With the selection of a jury under way, the trial is expected to continue to produce more sensational and deeply disturbing evidence.
But in Snowtown, everyone yearns for a return to the obscurity of gentle decline.
By GREG ANSLEY