Mugshot of List, c. 2005
John Emil List
September 17, 1925
|Died||March 21, 2008 (aged 82)|
|Other names||Robert Peter "Bob" Clark|
|Education||University of Michigan, Ann Arbor|
(m. 1951; died 1971)
Delores Miller Clark
(m. 1985; div. 1989)
|Criminal charge||Five counts of first degree murder|
|Penalty||Five consecutive life terms|
Time at large
|17 years, 6 months, 23 days|
|Date||November 9, 1971|
|Location(s)||Westfield, New Jersey, U.S.|
|June 1, 1989|
John Emil List (September 17, 1925 – March 21, 2008) was an American mass murderer and long-time fugitive. On November 9, 1971, List killed his wife, mother, and three children at their home in Westfield, New Jersey, then disappeared; he had planned the murders so meticulously that nearly a month passed before anyone suspected that anything was amiss.
List assumed a new identity, remarried, and eluded justice for nearly eighteen years. He was finally apprehended in Virginia on June 1, 1989, after the story of his murders was broadcast on the television program America's Most Wanted. After extradition to New Jersey, he was convicted on five counts of first degree murder and sentenced to five consecutive terms of life imprisonment without parole.
List gave critical financial problems, as well as his perception that his family members were straying from their religious faith, as his rationale for the murders. He reasoned that killing them would assure their souls a place in Heaven, where he hoped to eventually join them. List died in prison in 2008 at the age of 82.
Born in Bay City, Michigan, List was the only child of German-American parents, John Frederick List (1859–1944) and Alma Barbara Florence List (1887–1971). Like his father, List was a devout Lutheran and a Sunday school teacher. In 1943, he enlisted in the United States Army and served as a laboratory technician during World War II. After his discharge in 1946, List enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and a master's degree in accounting, and was commissioned a second lieutenant through ROTC.
In November 1950, as the Korean War escalated, List was recalled to active military service. At Fort Eustis, Virginia, he met Helen Morris Taylor, the widow of an infantry officer killed in action in Korea, who lived nearby with her daughter, Brenda. List and Helen married on December 1, 1951, in Baltimore, Maryland, and the family moved to northern California. The Army, realizing List's accounting skills, reassigned him to the Finance Corps.
After completion of his second tour in 1952, List worked for an accounting firm in Detroit, and then as an audit supervisor at a paper company in Kalamazoo, where his three children were born. By 1959, List had risen to general supervisor of the company's accounting department; but Helen, an alcoholic, had become increasingly unstable. In 1960, Brenda married and left the household, and List moved with the remainder of his family to Rochester, New York, to take a job with Xerox. There, he eventually became director of accounting services. In 1965, List accepted a position as vice president and comptroller at a bank in Jersey City, New Jersey, and moved with his wife, children, and mother into Breeze Knoll, a 19-room Victorian mansion at 431 Hillside Avenue in Westfield.
On November 9, 1971, List murdered his entire immediate family, using his own 9mm Steyr 1912 semi-automatic handgun and his father's Colt .22 caliber revolver. While his children were at school he shot his wife Helen, 46, in the back of the head, and then his mother Alma, 84, above the left eye. As his daughter Patricia, 16, and younger son Frederick, 13, arrived home from school, List shot each of them in the back of the head. After making himself lunch, List drove to his bank to close both his and his mother's bank accounts, and then to Westfield High School to watch his elder son John Jr., 15, play in a soccer game. After driving John Jr. home, List shot him repeatedly because, as misfire evidence showed, his son attempted to defend himself.
List placed the bodies of his wife and children on sleeping bags in the mansion's ballroom. He left his mother's body in her apartment in the attic. In a five-page letter to his pastor, found on the desk in his study, List claimed that he saw too much evil in the world, and he had killed his family to save their souls. He then cleaned the various crime scenes, removed his own picture from family photographs in the house, tuned a radio to a religious station, and departed.
The murders were not discovered until December 7, nearly a month later, due in part to the family's reclusive tendencies, and in part to notes sent by List to the children's schools and part-time jobs claiming that the children would be visiting their maternal grandmother in North Carolina for a few weeks due to illness. (Helen's mother was in fact ill, and had canceled a visit to Westfield because of it. Had she made the trip, List later said, she would have been his sixth victim.) List also stopped milk, mail and newspaper deliveries. Neighbors noticed that all of the mansion's rooms were illuminated day and night, with no apparent activity within them. After light bulbs began burning out one by one, they called police.
Investigators made an outside search of Breeze Knoll but found nothing suspicious, and local residents believed that the List family had indeed gone on an extended vacation. But on the night of December 7, police were again called to the house, where they found Patricia List's drama coach calling for her from near the front door. He convinced the officers to enter through an unlocked window leading to the basement, where they found the family's bodies in the ballroom.
Westfield, where few violent crimes had been recorded since 1963, received national attention as the site of the most notorious felony in New Jersey since the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby. A nationwide manhunt was launched. Police investigated hundreds of leads without success. All reliable photographs of List had been destroyed. The family car was found parked at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, but police found no evidence that List had boarded a flight. Alma's body was flown to Frankenmuth, Michigan, and interred at the Saint Lorenz Lutheran Cemetery. Helen and her three children were buried at Fairview Cemetery in Westfield.
Breeze Knoll remained empty until it was destroyed by fire in August 1972, nine months after the murders. Although the destruction was officially ruled as arson, it remains officially unsolved with no suspects. Destroyed along with the home was the ballroom's stained glass skylight, rumored to be a signed Tiffany original, worth at least $100,000 at the time (equivalent to $610,000 in 2019). A new house was built on the site in 1974.
In 1971, as the FBI later discovered, List had traveled by train from New Jersey to Michigan, and then Colorado. He settled in Denver in early 1972 and took an accounting job as Robert Peter "Bob" Clark, the name of one of his college classmates (although the real Bob Clark later asserted that he had never known List). From 1979 to 1986, he was the controller at a paper box manufacturer outside Denver. He joined a Lutheran congregation and ran a car pool for shut-in church members. At one religious gathering, he met an Army PX clerk named Delores Miller and married her in 1985. In February 1988, the couple moved to Midlothian, Virginia, where List, still using the name Bob Clark, resumed work as an accountant.
In May 1989, the 18-year-old crime was recounted on the Fox television program America's Most Wanted during its first year on the air. The segment featured an age-progressed clay bust, sculpted by forensic artist Frank Bender, which turned out to bear a close resemblance to List's actual appearance. On June 1, less than two weeks after the broadcast, List was arrested at a Richmond accounting firm after a Denver neighbor recognized the description and alerted authorities. List continued to stand by his alias for several months, even after extradition to Union County, New Jersey, in late 1989; but finally, faced with irrefutable evidence—including a fingerprint match with List's military records, and then with evidence found at the crime scene—he confessed his true identity on February 16, 1990.
At trial, List testified that his financial difficulties reached crisis level in 1971 when he was laid off with the closure of the Jersey City bank. To avoid sharing this humiliating development with his family, he spent each workday sitting at the Westfield train station, reading newspapers until it was time to come home. List skimmed money from his mother's bank accounts to avoid defaulting on his mortgage. As the family's financial situation and List's own unemployed status became more frustrating, the List children had to take part-time jobs after school to keep afloat.
A court-appointed psychiatrist testified that List suffered from obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and that he saw only two solutions to his situation: accept welfare, or kill his family and send their souls to Heaven. Welfare was an unacceptable option, he reasoned, because it would expose him and his family to ridicule and violate his authoritarian father's teachings regarding the care and protection of family members.
On April 12, 1990, List was convicted of five counts of first degree murder. At his sentencing hearing he denied direct responsibility for his actions: "I feel that because of my mental state at the time, I was unaccountable for what happened. I ask all affected by this for their forgiveness, understanding and prayer." The judge was unpersuaded: "John Emil List is without remorse and without honor," he said. "After 18 years, five months and 22 days, it is now time for the voices of Helen, Alma, Patricia, Frederick and John F. List to rise from the grave." He imposed a sentence of five terms of life imprisonment, to be served consecutively, the maximum permissible penalty at the time.
List filed an appeal of his convictions on grounds that his judgment had been impaired by post-traumatic stress disorder due to his military service. He also argued that the letter he left behind at the crime scene, essentially his confession, was a confidential communication to his pastor and therefore inadmissible as evidence. A federal appeals court rejected both arguments.
He was interviewed at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton by Connie Chung in 2002. List eventually expressed a degree of remorse for his crimes: "I wish I had never done what I did," he said. "I've regretted my action and prayed for forgiveness ever since." 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 died of complications from pneumonia at age 82 on March 21, 2008, while in prison custody at St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton, New Jersey. In reporting his death, the New Jersey Star-Ledger referred to him as "The Boogeyman of Westfield."
Over the years, List and his crimes have furnished inspiration for a number of movies and documentaries. Examples include the 16th episode of the 6th season of Law & Order, the 1993 film Judgment Day: The John List Story, in which List was portrayed by Robert Blake; the 1987 film The Stepfather and its 2009 remake; and the character Keyser Söze in the 1995 film The Usual Suspects.
In 1972, List was proposed as a suspect in the D. B. Cooper air piracy case because of the timing of his disappearance (two weeks prior to the airline hijacking), multiple matches to the hijacker's description, and the reasoning that "a fugitive accused of mass murder has nothing to lose". Another factor that made List a suspect was that Cooper demanded $200,000, which would have been enough to amortize the mortgage on Breeze Knoll and List's other debts. List was questioned by FBI investigators after his capture, but he denied any involvement in the Cooper case. While his name is still occasionally mentioned in Cooper articles and documentaries, no direct evidence implicates him, and the FBI no longer considers him a suspect.
In 2008, John Walsh, the host of America's Most Wanted, donated the age-progressed bust by Frank Bender that played a pivotal role in List's apprehension to a forensic science exhibit at the National Museum of Crime & Punishment in Washington, DC. The museum collection can now be viewed at Alcatraz East Crime Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
A 1996 episode of the series Forensic Files discussed the List murders. A 2003 episode of the A&E series American Justice also detailed the case and featured an interview with List. In 2015, the story was covered in Season 2, Episode 2 of the Investigation Discovery show, Your Worst Nightmare. The episode was named "Murder House" and premiered on November 18, 2015.
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