Claims to fame: Devout Lutheran and Sunday school teacher deeply concerned by the moral decay of American society; fornicator; porn junkie; mass murderer
Moral apex: On November 9, 1971, John List shot to death his wife, Helen, 45; their three children, Patricia, 16, John, Jr., 15, and Frederick, 13; and his own 85-year-old mother, Alma, in their home in in Westfield, New Jersey, then disappeared for eighteen years… until a cold-case recap on “America’s Most Wanted” led to a hot tip.
Motive: Most accounts note that List was deeply in debt; his wife was losing her mind as a result of advanced syphilis, and her addiction to both alcohol and tranquilizers was only exacerbating her mental condition; and his wife and mother could barely stand living in the same house. If John List just wanted out of a failed life, and to start anew with no strings, that’s only half the story.
Wikipedia tells the complete story (record updated since List’s death):
John Emil List (September 17, 1925 – March 21, 2008) was an American murderer. On November 9, 1971, he murdered his wife, mother, and three children in Westfield, New Jersey, and then disappeared. He had planned everything so meticulously that nearly a month passed before anyone noticed that anything was amiss. A fugitive from justice for nearly 18 years, he was finally apprehended on June 1, 1989 after the story of his murders was broadcast on “America’s Most Wanted.” List was found guilty and sentenced to five consecutive terms of life imprisonment, dying in prison custody in 2008 at age 82.
Born in Bay City, Michigan, List was the only child of German American parents, John Frederick List (1859–1944) and Alma List (1887–1971). He was a devout Lutheran, and taught Sunday school. List served in the U.S. Army during World War II and later was given an [ROC] commission as a lieutenant. He attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in accounting. List met his wife, Helen in 1951 and married shortly after.
List killed his family: his wife, Helen, 45; his children, Patricia, 16, John, Jr., 15, and Frederick, 13; and mother, Alma, 84. He had used his father’s 9mm Steyr automatic handgun and his own .22 caliber revolver in the murders. He first shot his wife in the back of the head and his mother once in the left eye, while his children were at school. When Patricia and Frederick came home, they were shot in the back of the head. John, Jr., the oldest son, was playing in a soccer game that afternoon. List made himself lunch and then drove to watch John play. He brought his son home and then shot him once in the back of the head. List saw John twitch as if he were having a seizure and shot him again. It was later determined that List had shot his eldest son at least ten times.
List dragged his dead wife and children, on sleeping bags, into the ballroom of their 19-room Victorian home after each kill. He then cleaned up the crime scene, turned on all the lights, and switched on the radio. He left his mother’s body in her apartment in the attic and stated in a letter to his pastor on his desk in his study that “Mother is in the attic. She was too heavy to move.” In the letter, List also claimed he had prayed over the bodies before going on the run. The deaths were not discovered for a month, due to the Lists’ reclusiveness. Moreover, List had also sent notes stating that the family would be in North Carolina for several weeks to the children’s schools and part-time jobs and had stopped the family’s milk, mail and newspaper deliveries, he also took money from his bank account, as well as his mother’s bank account. List then fled in his Chevrolet Impala.
The case quickly became the second most infamous crime in New Jersey history, surpassed only by the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh Baby. A nationwide manhunt for List was launched. His Chevy Impala was found parked at Kennedy Airport, but there was no record of his taking a flight. The police checked out hundreds of leads without results.
“America’s Most Wanted”
In 1989, New Jersey law enforcement approached the producers of the television show “America’s Most Wanted” because of that show’s track record of fugitive captures. It was the oldest unsolved case the show had ever featured. The broadcast included an age-progressed clay bust, which, as it turned out, looked remarkably similar to List, even though he had been missing for 18 years.
The man who sculpted the bust of List was forensic artist Frank Bender, who had successfully captured many aging fugitives and identified decomposed bodies via his art. To imagine what an older List would look like, he consulted forensic psychologist Richard Walter, who created a psychological profile. He looked at photographs of List’s parents and predicted his appearance, giving List a receding hairline and sagging jowls. Bender and Richard Walter were particularly praised for one final touch: a pair of glasses. They theorized that List would want to appear more important than he really was, and would affect a stereotypical intellectual/professional appearance by wearing glasses. John Walsh, the host of America’s Most Wanted, called Bender’s work the most brilliant example of detective work that he had ever seen. Walsh kept Bender’s bust of List in a place of honor in his office for many years, and in 2008 donated it to a forensic science exhibit at the privately owned National Museum of Crime & Punishment.
Arrest and trial
List was arrested on June 1, 1989, nearly 18 years after killing his family. At the time he was employed by a Richmond, Virginia accounting firm where he worked while living under the fictitious name Robert “Bob” Peter Clark. List had chosen the name because it had belonged to one of his college classmates, who later stated that he had never known List. List had lived in Denver, Colorado and Midlothian, Virginia before his arrest, having remarried and resumed working as an accountant. Upon viewing the broadcast a friend of the Clarks recognized the subject of the profile as a neighbor and contacted the authorities. The police immediately arrived to arrest List, who refused to voluntarily surrender.
List was extradited to New Jersey as Robert Clark and sent to the Union County, New Jersey jail to await trial. He continued to stand by his alias despite overwhelming evidence, including his fingerprints at the crime scene, of both his true identity and of his guilt.
List made his first admission of his identity to a fellow inmate while he was still in the Union County Jail. During a casual discussion List made reference to his military service during World War II, and the inmate said to List (using his alias), “Bob, that might be just what you need to prove that you’re not John List. They took your fingerprints when you joined the military, didn’t they?”
List hesitated for a moment, then lowered his head and mumbled, “Yes, they did.” He then excused himself, saying that he was tired and needed a nap. The next day, List said, “Richard, my name is John List, not Bob Clark.” List thereafter corrected any inmate or staff member who called him “Bob” or “Mr. Clark.”
On April 12, 1990, List was convicted in a New Jersey court of five counts of first-degree murder. On May 1, he was sentenced to five consecutive terms of life imprisonment. List never expressed any remorse for his crimes. In a 2002 interview with Connie Chung, when asked why he had not taken his own life, he said he believed that suicide would have barred him from Heaven, where he hoped to be reunited with his family.
List had lost his job as an accountant and was suffering from financial problems before the murders. He would sit at the local bus station everyday, hiding his unemployment from his family, and making believe he was traveling to his accountant job. He owed $11,000 on his mortgage and was skimming from his mother’s bank accounts. He was also dealing with his wife’s dementia, brought on by advanced syphilis contracted from her first husband and hidden from List for 18 years.
List was described by a psychiatrist as having obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. A psychiatrist who interviewed List testified that he saw only two solutions to his family’s financial and health problems — either go on welfare or kill his family and send their souls to heaven. He was especially concerned about the soul of his daughter, Patty, who showed little interest in church. She was also active in the theater department, smoked cannabis, and dabbled in witchcraft. He was afraid that welfare would expose them to ridicule, show that List did not love them, and violate his own authoritarian father’s teachings to always care for and protect the family.
List died from complications of pneumonia at age 82 on March 21, 2008, while in prison custody at a Trenton, New Jersey hospital. In announcing his death the Newark, New Jersey, Star-Ledger referred to him as the “boogeyman of Westfield”. His body was not immediately claimed, though he was later buried next to his mother in Frankenmuth, Michigan.
The List home was destroyed by arson ten months after the murders. Destroyed along with the home was the ballroom’s stained glass skylight, rumored to be a signed Tiffany original worth over $100,000. The value of the skylight, if a genuine Tiffany item, would have covered List’s debts, thereby eliminating the motivation for the killings.
List was one of the people suspected of being “D. B. Cooper”; his age, facial features, and build were similar to those of the mysterious skyjacker. “Cooper” parachuted from a hijacked airliner with $200,000 fifteen days after List murdered his family. List strenuously denied being Cooper and the FBI no longer considers him a suspect in that case.
In popular culture
• The 1987 film The Stepfather and the 2009 remake were loosely based on the List case.
• Robert Blake portrayed List in the 1993 film Judgment Day: The John List Story.
• Even though the episode was not based on this case, an episode of “Cold Case” referenced John List when a whole family was found murdered and the father was suspected.
• Multiple books recount the murders.
• An episode of “Forensic Files” was made about the case; it was titled “The List Murders.”
• Christopher McQuarrie, the writer of the 1995 film The Usual Suspects, used List as the inspiration for character Keyser Söze.
• A 1996 episode of “Law & Order” entitled “Savior” was based on the John List case. The List case is referred to specifically in both the investigation and the eventual trial.
• A 2007 episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” entitled “Annihilated” had strong similarities with the List case, whereby the father kills his family and secret fiancee when his deceptions are uncovered. Similarly, a 2000 “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” episode, “Phantom”, deals with a man who is finally cornered by his lies and sees killing his two children as the only way to salvation.
• A 2009 episode of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” entitled “Family Values” (“Happy Family,” alternate title) was based on the John List case as well, though only on the investigation.
• An episode of “American Justice” entitled “To Save Their Souls” explained the investigation and trial of the List case.
Also well worth reading:
“Straight to Hell,” Katherine Ramsland, Crime Library
“Concern Over ‘Moral Values’ Led To Family Murders, Lawyer Says,” Joseph F. Sullivan, New York Times, April 3, 1990
“Slaying Suspect Saw 2 Choices, Doctor Testifies,” Joseph F. Sullivan, New York Times, April 7, 1990
“The Talk of Westfield; Old Crime Held Town In Thrall,” New York Times, June 7, 1989
“The List Murders Stun Westfield In 1971,” Kathy Halverson, Westfield Leader and Times, February 17, 2001
Maybe-There-Is-A-God fact: One of John List’s favorite TV programs was — you guessed it — “America’s Most Wanted.” He missed the May 21, 1989, show in which he was featured because he and his (new) wife went to a church social.
Why he’s here: Certainly not for something so piddly as mass murder — the Bible’s chock-full of mass murder, much of it condoned (Judges 4:15-16), commissioned (Numbers 31:16-18), or committed (1 Samuel 6:19) by God himself. Rather, John List wins a spot in Conservative Babylon for fornication. You see, John had to marry Helen; she was pregnant. Or so she told him. She lied. But that doesn’t erase the fact that the two had carnal knowledge of one another before marriage.
In fact, wrote Katherine Ramsland (Inside the Minds of Serial Killers: Why They Kill), List “seemed proud that there was some evidence that he had already been to bed with her.”
But premarital sex wasn’t his greatest exercise in hypocrisy. This man who was so concerned about the future of his family’s everlasting souls (particularly his “troublesome” daughter’s) rented a private post office box so he could receive pornography through the mail.
Now that’s some twisted thinking at work. We can’t even begin to comprehend the sort of “logic” that would lead a man to slaughter his family in order to save them from “the immoral influence of ‘rebellion, war, drugs and fragmented families,’” while clinging so tightly to the “moral values of the early 1900s.”
Suggested Bible reading for Mr. List:
Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.
And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God?
— Romans 2:1,3