The Case of John List: Family Man Turned Killer
On November the 9th, 1971 John List acted out his decision to murder his wife Helen, 45; his children, Patricia, 16, John, Jr., 15, and Frederick, 13; and his 84-year-old mother, Alma. The accountant executed all members of his family, left their bodies neatly laid in the ballroom of his mansion (except for his mother who was too heavy to drag down the stairs), arranged photos and books he had borrowed from a neighbour on a table and disappeared.
Seventeen years later, after his story was detailed on the TV show, "America's Most Wanted", a caller sent authorities to Richmond, Virginia, where they found him living as Robert P. Clark. The Lutheran matricide was leading a normal life there very much like the one he finished off in Westfield, New Jersey, seventeen years before.
List was described as an aloof, cold man with few friends. He was the only child of strict German parents. His mother in particular was very domineering and overprotective. He was a devout member of the Lutheran church and taught Sunday school. List served in the Army during World War II and later was given an ROTC commission as an Army Lieutenant.
He attended University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and a masters degree in accounting. List's lack of social skills, however, caused him many problems. He had a history of losing jobs.
Investigations revealed that he had been suffering from financial problems due to losing his job as an accountant.
Once he'd made the decision to kill his family, List says, there was no turning back. "It's just like D-Day, you go in, there's no stopping after you start," he said.
After finding an old 9 mm pistol he had bought as a souvenir of World War II, and a .22-caliber target pistol, he purchased new ammunition and went to a shooting range for target practice.
One night after dinner, he even asked his family what should be done with their bodies after they died. "I remember talking about funerals and cremation and burials. I thought I was being real clever," he said.
On the day of the murders, after sending his children off to school, List took his two handguns out to the car to load them, then walked into the kitchen and shot his wife from behind as she was drinking coffee. "I approached all of them from behind so they wouldn't realise till the last minute what I was going to do to them," he said.
Next he went upstairs, to where his 84-year-old mother was having breakfast, kissed her, and shot her in the head.
Then he went downstairs, dragged his wife's body into the ballroom and began scrubbing up the blood so the children would not realise what was going on when they got back from school.
He went to the post office to stop the family's mail, then to the bank, where he cashed his mother's savings bonds, checking that he got the correct interest to the penny. Returning home, he made several calls to explain that the family had gone to North Carolina to visit his wife's ailing mother, and that he was planning to follow by car.
Then he sat down and ate lunch at the same table where he had shot his wife hours before. "I was hungry," he told Downtown, adding with a chuckle, "that's just the way it was."
In the afternoon, he killed his children as they came home — first his daughter Patty, a budding actress at 16; then his youngest, 13-year-old Frederic; and finally 15-year-old John, his namesake and his favourite.
Unlike the others, John didn't go quietly, his body jerking as List emptied both the 9 millimetre and the .22 into his son. "I don't know whether it was only because he was still jerking that I wanted to make sure that he didn't suffer, or that it was sort of a way of relieving tension, after having completed what I felt was my assignment for the day," List said.
He lined up the four bodies in the ballroom (he said his mother's body was too heavy to move), put music on the internal intercom, and cleaned up meticulously.
Then he sat down and wrote a confession letter to his pastor explaining his financial problems. "At least I'm certain that all have gone to heaven now. If things had gone on who knows if that would be the case," he wrote.
Dr. Steven Simring, a psychiatrist who examined List after his arrest years later, told said that his "sense of neatness" was the result of a compulsive personality. Simring said List showed "no evidence of anything that approached genuine remorse," adding, "He's a cold, cold man."
The day after the killings, List scoured the house for family photographs, tearing his image out of them so police would have nothing to use in Wanted posters. Then he drove to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, where he left his car as a false lead and took a bus into the city.
Westfield police did not discover the bodies until nearly a month later. The lights had been on in the three-story Victorian mansion nonstop, so something funny was going on but, as in all close-knit U.S. communities, no one bothered to do anything about it.
Not until Patricia's drama teacher decided he'd had enough of not knowing what the hell was going on, and decided to visit the family. It was then that neighbours decided to act.
Thinking the house was being burgled by the snooping drama teacher, a neighbour rang police. So when the police got to the house and discovered that the teacher was actually trying to find out what was going on in the house they decided to break in. And from the smell that hit them as they forced a window open, it was probably a bit late for the family.
The two officers that entered the house walked toward some music being played in the room affectionately called the 'Ballroom' by the List family.
On there way to this room they passed through the kitchen where they had to step over piles of dirty clothes in the middle of the floor. But when one of the officers noticed what appeared like dried blood stains smeared all over the floor it became apparent that the pile of clothes was a bit more than that. It was in fact Mrs. List and her three children. Each had their faces covered with a piece of cloth.
Upstairs they encountered another body. It was Alma List. Her head was also covered with a piece of cloth. She was apparently too heavy to be dragged downstairs with the others, so the killer had left her upstairs on her own.
There was no sign of John List.
The house had given up all of its secrets. Almost. The police found the last of these upstairs. It was a note addressed - "To The Finder." It told of where certain documents could be found that would explain the scene in the house.
These 'documents' were written by John List, the missing husband. One was to his employer, telling them how they could win new clients, and finishing up a few files that List had been working on prior to his disappearance. Others were to members of List's family.
Investigating police found the letter to his pastor, Eugene Rehwinkel of Redeemer Lutheran Church, explaining his motives: He felt that the 1970s were a sinful time, and that his family was beginning to succumb to temptation, especially his daughter, who expressed interest in an acting career, an occupation that List viewed as being particularly corrupt and linked to Satan.
He told his pastor that by killing his family before they had the opportunity to renounce their religion, he was saving their souls and sending them directly to Heaven. Most criminal profilers asked to analyse List--including John E. Douglas-- have concluded that List came up with this motive in order to put his own mind at ease and rationalise murdering his own family to lessen his own stress.
In the letter to his pastor he told of how, even though it may have looked bloody, it really was quite peaceful. And he was quite sure John jr. hadn't suffered too much. He had put him out of his misery fairly quickly after the struggle. The note ended -
"I got down and prayed after each one."
The case understandably caused a huge stir in the U.S. List's face was shown all over the media, but it was all to no avail, he had vanished. Eventually, police stopped looking, and the case file was put to one side.
Meanwhile, List had travelled from New York overland to Denver, where he began a new life under the name Robert P. Clark, working first as a hotel fry cook and later as an accountant for H&R Block. He joined a local Lutheran church and, in 1985, married a widow named Delores Clark, with whom he moved to Richmond, Va.
In 1989, America's Most Wanted featured List and a forensic sculptor's impression of how List would look 18 years after the murders. List caught the tail end of the show with his wife, who did not know his past. "I was perspiring like anything," he remembered, but said his wife did not seem to have recognised him.
However, the show quite a stir amongst a group of friends in Aurora, Colorado.
They all spoke about the face over the next few days, remarking how much it looked like their friend Robert P. Clark, an accountant who had just moved with his wife to Midlothian, Virginia. For most it was just a bit of a laugh, but one decided to call the police and tell them to check out Clark.
Police checked Clark out extensively, and on June 1, 1989 decided that it was time to see if he really was who he said he was. Robert Clark vehemently denied that he was List, even after his fingerprints were found to be an exact match to John List's. Not surprisingly police charged Clark with the five murders.
He kept up his denial until February the next year. He told his lawyer that he was John List. He then went on to tell the court that he had felt that there was no alternative to the murders. His lawyers attempted to get List off with an insanity verdict, but it didn't work.
"I feel when we get to heaven we won't worry about these earthly things. They'll either have forgiven me or won't realise, you know, what happened,"
On April 12, 1990 John E. List was convicted in a New Jersey court of five counts of first-degree murder, and on May 1 was sentenced to five life terms in prison.
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 burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances shortly after the murders. Along with the fire went perhaps the biggest irony of all: the glass ceiling in the empty ballroom was a signed Tiffany & Co. original. That alone would likely have paid off all of John List’s debts.