John List — A Killer’s Secret Life Exposed by Art

The bombings I featured last week shock us because the random act of a stranger can cause such widespread damage. This week’s case is even more chilling. It’s the story of John List, a seemingly normal guy who murdered his entire family, then disappeared. He successfully eluded law enforcement for 18 years before television and an artist led to his arrest.

John List – Outwardly Normal

John Emil List was a native of Bay City, Michigan born in 1925. He joined the army in 1943 during World War II. After the war, he earned a degree in business administration and a master’s degree in accounting. In 1950, the Army recalled List to active duty in Korea (he was a reserve second lieutenant). While in the military, he met and married Helen Taylor, the widow of an officer killed in Korea.

After his discharge from the Army in 1952, John List took a job with an accounting firm in Detroit. Next, he worked as an audit supervisor for a Kalamazoo paper company. He and Helen had a daughter and two sons in Kalamazoo. After working at Xerox in Rochester, New York, he assumed a position as vice president and comptroller at a bank in Jersey City, New Jersey. He moved his family, including his mother into a Victorian mansion in Westfield, New Jersey.

The John List family in 1971. (L. to R.) John (46), Patricia (16), Helen (46), John Jr. (15), and Frederick (13)
The John List family in 1971. (L. to R.) John (46), Patricia (16), Helen (46), John Jr. (15), and Frederick (13)

To his friends and neighbors, John List was a successful professional with a typical American family.

Signs of Trouble

Despite their normal outward appearance, all was not well in the List household. For one thing, John List was a devout Lutheran and a Sunday school teacher. One might even call him a religious zealot. He convinced himself that his family members were leading unholy lives. Another problem was that Helen List was an alcoholic and was becoming increasingly unstable.

Breeze Knoll, the List home in Westfield, NJ. The house remained empty and burned down nine months after the murders.  Although authorities ruled the fire arson, it remained unsolved. A new house was built on the site in 1974.
Breeze Knoll, the List home in Westfield, NJ. The house remained empty after the murders and burned down nine months later. Although authorities ruled the fire arson, it remained unsolved. A new house was built on the site in 1974.

Then List lost his job and bills started to pile up. With debts mounting, List’s world was crashing in on him. He began to dissociate from reality. He pretended to commute to work each day. Instead, he sat in the Westfield train station and reading the paper. He also siphoned money out of his mother’s bank account to pay the mortgage on the mansion.

In this state of mind, List feared his family was straying from the paths of righteousness. He decided to “ensure their place in heaven” by killing them all. He expected to join them there later. At least that’s the story he told authorities after his arrest.

A Family Murdered

On November 9, 1971, John List put his plan into action. When the children left for school, he shot his wife and his mother to death. When his daughter and youngest son came home, he shot them in the back of the head. That left his oldest son. He watched John Jr. play soccer at school, then drove him home and killed him, too.

List left his mother’s body in her upstairs apartment. He laid out the bodies of his wife and children on sleeping bags in the mansion’s ballroom. He then turned on all the lights, tuned a radio to a station that played classical music and walked out.

John List planned his exit carefully. He closed his and his mother’s bank accounts. Next, he stopped the mail, milk, and newspaper deliveries. List even sent notes to the children’s schools and part-time jobs saying the family was taking an extended vacation. Consequently, no one knew anything was amiss for almost a month.

Neighbors noticed that the lights in the List house burned day and night, although they saw no activity. When the lights began to burn out one by one, they called police, who found nothing wrong and left. A few days later, police were again called to the mansion. They found daughter Patricia’s drama coach calling to her from the front of the house. He convinced officers to enter the home through an unlocked basement window. Once inside, they found the bodies.

John List had left behind a five-page letter to his pastor that was essentially a confession. But there was no sign of the man himself.

John List on the Lam

John List was in the wind. Police later learned that he had traveled to Michigan and then on the Denver, Colorado. He settled there as Robert “Bob” Clark (he “borrowed” the name from someone he knew in college). Like List, “Bob Clark” was a CPA. Also like List, he joined a Lutheran church, where he ran a carpool for shut-in church members. In 1985, he married an Army PX clerk named Delores Miller.

In May 1989, the television program America’s Most Wanted featured the List murders. By now it had been seventeen and a half years since John List disappeared and old photos would have been of little use. Instead of photos, the program commissioned forensic artist Frank Bender to create an age-progressed clay bust of List. The bust featured prominently in the broadcast.

Frank Bender's age-progressed bust of John List
Frank Bender’s age-progressed bust of John List

By this time, “Bob Clark” had moved with his new wife to Midlothian, Virginia. However, one of his former neighbors in Denver recognized the bust and notified authorities. They arrested List on June 1, 1989. Bender’s bust had been almost a dead ringer. Strangely, List continued to insist he was Robert Peter Clark. That is, until faced with a fingerprint match to John List’s military records.

Photos of Bender's bust of List (left) and of List  (right) taken after his arrest show the  uncanny resemblance between the two
Photos of Bender’s bust (left) and of List (right) taken after his arrest show the uncanny resemblance between the two

Trial and Conviction

At trial, John List claimed that financial stress and concern for his family’s spiritual well-being led to the murders. He was convicted anyway. The judge sentenced him to five consecutive life terms. During his appeals, List contended that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from his military service. He also tried to claim that the letter left behind was a confidential communication to his pastor and therefore inadmissible. Not surprisingly, these arguments failed.

John List prison mugshot ca. 2005
John List prison mugshot ca. 2005

John List died in prison on March 21, 2008.

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