This story is super crazy, and is one that stood out to me from when I listened to My Favorite Murder all the time. I was excited for this one to come up because it is such a crazy case.
On November 9, 1971, John List killed his wife, mom, and 3 children in Westfield, New Jersey, and then disappeared. He planned everything out so well that almost an entire month passed before anyone realized anything was amiss.
But even though the family was found a month later, List wasn't. He took a new identify and remarried, eluding authorities for almost 18 years. He wasn't apprehended until the story was broadcast on America's Most Wanted and somebody recognized him. He was convicted of 5 counts of first degree murder and sentenced to 5 life sentences.
He said he killed his family because of financial reasons, and because he believed they were straying from their religious faith. He said killing them would assure their souls a place in heaven, where he would eventually join them. He died in prison at the age of 82 in March of 2008.
John List was born in Bay City Michigan, the only child of German-American Parents, John Frederick and Alma Barbara Florence. His father was a devout Lutheran and Sunday school teacher, and List followed in his father's religious footsteps. In 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, servicing as a lab tech during World War II. His father died while he was serving. He was discharged in 1946. After the army, he enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, getting a bachelor's degree in business administration and a master's in accounting.
After he received his degrees, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant through ROTC. In November of 1950, as the Korean War escalated, he was called to active military service. While at Fort Eustis, Virginia, he met Helen Morris Taylor, the widow of an infantry officer who had been killed in action. She lived nearby with her daughter, Brenda. He married Helen in 1951, and they moved to northern California. The Army reassigned List to Finance Corps after realizing his skills in accounting.
List did a second tour in 1952, and then began working at an accounting firm in Detroit, moving the family to Michigan from California. His next job took him to Kalamazoo, an audit supervisor at a paper company. There, his 3 children was born. By 1959, he moved up the ranks, now the general supervisor of the company's accounting department. But Helen wasn't finding the success her husband was, and was becoming an increasingly unstable alcoholic. In 1960, Brenda (Helen's daughter from her first marriage) married and left the household.
List and Helen took their 3 other kids to Rochester, New York, where he took a job with Xerox. There, he became the director of accounting. He continued moving up the financial ranks, accepting a position as VP at a bank in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1965. He moved his wife, children, and mother, Alma, into a 19-room Victorian mansion in Westfield.
On the surface, it seemed like List was doing well in life. He was moving up the latter professionally and had a beautiful family. But it was all a facade.
On November 9, 1971, List killed his entire family using 2 different guns. While his children were at school, he shot Helen, 46, in the back of the head, and then shot his mother, 84, above the left eye.
When the children got home from school, he shot them one by one as they came inside. Patricia, 16 years old, was shot in the back of the head and then Frederick, 13, was killed in the same way. While he waited for his last child to return home, he made himself lunch. Then, he drove to the bank to close his and his mother's bank accounts.
In what I find to be one of the most chilling parts of the crime, after this, he drove to Westfield High School to watch his other son, John Jr., 15, play in his school's soccer game. He watched and cheered for his kid as the child's brother, sister, mother, and grandmother were lying dead in their home. He drove John Jr. home and then shot him. He had to shoot him repeatedly, as he attempted to defend himself.
List put the bodies of his wife and children in sleeping bags in the mansion's ballroom, and left his mother's body in the attic where she lived. He left a 5-page letter to his pastor, claiming that he saw too much evil in the world and had to kill his family in order to save their souls. He cleaned up the home, removed himself from family photographs in the house, turned on a religious station on the radio, and left. He would not be seen again for 18 years.
It took nearly a month to the day, December 7, for the murders to be discovered. Firstly, the family was kind of reclusive, and they didn't leave their house much anyway. On top of that, List sent letters to the children's schools and jobs that they would be visiting their grandmother in North Carolina due to illness, and would be gone for a couple of weeks. In another chilling detail, Helen's mother was ill, and had actually planned to make the trip to Westfield to visit them that week, but decided against it because she wasn't feeling well. List said that she would have been his 6th victim if she came.
List also halted milk, mail and newspaper deliveries. Neighbors did notice things were odd. They saw all of the lights in the mansion were on all day and night long, with no real activity going on, but didn't assume anything sinister. But when light bulbs began burning out one by one and they continued to see no movement inside, they called the police.
Investigators came by and did an outside search of the mansion, but found nothing suspicious. They, along with local residents, believed that perhaps the family had gone on an extended vacation and perhaps forgot to turn the lights off. But on the night of December 7, Patricia's drama coach convinced the officers to go inside and look around. There, they found the bodies of the entire family lined up in sleeping bags in the ballroom. Alma's body was found in the attic later.
Westfield is not the home of a lot of violent crime, though it does have another high-profile crime on its resume: the kidnapping and murdering of the Lindbergh baby back in 1932. But it had been almost 40 years since that, and thus, the case received national media attention nearly immediately. Police launched a manhunt and investigated lead after lead to no avail. List had destroyed all reliable photos of himself. The family car was found at the airport in NYC, but police found no evidence that he boarded a flight there. He was gone.
The mansion remained empty until a fire destroyed it in August of 1972. The destruction was officially ruled as an arson, though there are no suspects in the case. A stained glass skylight in the ballroom, rumored to be worth around $100,000 (or $610,000 in 2019 dollars) was destroyed in the fire. Obviously, if finances were a partial motive for the crime, selling the mansion would have helped. But, it is ironic to know that the solve for his financial issues was right above where he left his victims.
ON THE LAM AND LEGAL PROCEEDINGS
After escaping the crime scene, List traveled by train to Michigan and then to Colorado. He settled in Denver in 1972 and took an accounting job as Robert Peter "Bob" Clark, one of his college classmates. In 1979, he was the controller at a paper box manufacturer, where he worked util 1986. He joined a Lutheran church and ran a car pool for church members. At one religious gathering, he met an Army clerk named Delores Miller, and married her in 1985. The couple moved to Midlothian, Virginia, where List (now Bob Clark) resumed working as an accountant.
He lived a quiet life with Delores, working and going to church. It wasn't until 1989 when the crime, now 18-years-old, was broadcast on America's Most Wanted, during its first year on the air. The segment featured an age-progressed bust sculpted by Frank Bender, a forensic artist, which turned out to be extremely close to List's appearance. A neighbor of "Bob Clark" from Denver saw the broadcast and recognized the description and timeline immediately. List was arrested at his accounting firm in Richmond on June 1, 1989.
List continued to stand by his alias for months, claiming he was just an accountant named Bob Clark. But finally, once he was faced with irrefutable fingerprint evidence from his military records matched with the crime scene evidence, he confessed his true identity, and thus his crimes, on February 16, 1990.
During his trial, he testified that the family was in dire financial straits in 1971. He was laid off from the Jersey City bank when it closed. He didn't want to humiliate himself to his family, for whom he was supposed to be providing for, so he would spent each day sitting at the train station until it was reasonably time to come home from work. He skimmed money from his mother's bank account, and asked the children to get part-time jobs to keep the family afloat. (Again, I'm not sure why they couldn't just move out of their 19-room mansion?)
A psychiatrist testified that List likely suffered from obsessive compulsive personality disorder, and saw only 2 solutions to the issue: accept welfare, or kill his family and safely send their souls to Heaven. Because welfare was unacceptable because it would expose him as a fraud to his family, and violate his authoritarian father's teachings to care for your family, he had to choose murder. (Which I would imagine is also unacceptable?)
On April 12, 1990, List was convicted of 5 counts of murder. He denied direct responsibility for his actions, claiming that his mental state at the time meant he wasn't really accountable for what happened to them. The judge was unconvinced. He said his life was "without remorse and without honor". He hammered in that he had been on the run for 18 years and now, after son long, it was time for the victims to receive justice. He was sentenced to 5 life sentences.
List tried a variety of appeals, including a PTSD appeal from his military service, and he argued that the letter left behind for his pastor was confidential communication and thus, inadmissible. Both appeals were rejected.
List was interviewed while in prison in 2002, and eventually expressed some semblance of remorse. He said he wished he hadn't done what he did and "regretted by action and prayed for forgiveness ever since". He said he did not commit suicide (something fairly common of "family annihilators" who kill their families because of financial issues) because he thought it would bar him from heaven, and he wished to be reunited with his family there.
He died at age 82 on March 21, 2008 while in prison from pneumonia complications. I would say, in my own personal option, he was likely not reunited with his family in the afterlife, but who am I to make that guess.
Family annihilators typically do receive extensive press coverage, because the thought of murdering your entire family is so incredible unthinkable that it will always be newsworthy. But on top of that, the John List case is so insane because he not only got away with it for 18 years, he lived a completely normal life during that time. His new wife had no idea. Over the years, his crimes have been inspiration for a number of movies, documentaries, and TV shows.
Law & Order did an episode on the case, the film Judgement Day: The John List Story and The Stepfather were inspired by the case. Forensic Files discussed the List murders, American Justice did an episode on the show, as well as Your Worst Nightmare, a show on Investigation Discovery. There is no shortage of shows, movies, documentaries, blogs and podcasts about the case.
Interestingly, in 2008, John Walsh of America's Most Wanted donated the bust of List to the National Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington, D.C. It played a massive role in the case, essentially the reason List was ever caught. Though the museum has since closed, it can now be found at Alcatraz East Crime Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
John List is one of those people that I think most true crime fanatics have heard about. Eating lunch and watching his child's soccer game while the rest of his family lay dead in his house. The solve for his financial woes right above him in a $100,000 skylight. Preparing so thoroughly that he let his family decompose for nearly a month before anyone realized something was amiss. Spending 18 years evading justice, while living just a normal life as an accountant married to a woman he met at church. It is all so incredibly insane, and makes for a fascinating case.
But, like every time I become really fascinated by a case, I always have to bring myself back and remember more than just the killer and the details. 5 people were killed. An 84-year-old mother and grandmother. A loving mother. A 16-year-old who loved the drama club. Her younger brother who had to watch his sister die. A 15-year-old soccer player. 5 people with lives and passions and interests outside of their creepy ass father, husband and son who's lives were extinguished for no reason at all. It is fascinating, but more than that, it is heartbreaking.
You can blame a lot of things for this. Mental illness or PTSD may have been the reason he felt there was no way out. Toxic masculinity and paternity that his father had hammered into him so be didn't think he could ask for help. A devout religious upbringing that allowed him to believe this was the right thing. But I don't buy it. I think John List was just a monster, a terrible person who was having an issue and thought it would be easier to be alone. This wasn't a mental break or a quick decision. It was extremely well-thought out. He lived for 18 years while those who loved his family wished for justice. He was a cold blooded murderer, no ifs, ands, or buts.
Rest in peace to Alma, Helen, Patricia, John Jr., and Frederick List. You deserved a better son, husband, and father.