Mugshot of John List, c.2005
September 17, 1925|
Bay City, Michigan
|Died||March 21, 2008
Trenton, New Jersey
|Cause of death||Pneumonia|
|Criminal penalty||Five consecutive life terms|
|Spouse(s)||Helen List 1926–1971, (m. 1952–1971, her death)
Delores (Miller) Clark, (m. 1985-?)
|Parents||John Frederick List, father, 1859–1944 and Alma List, mother, 1887–1971|
|Date||November 9, 1971|
|Location(s)||Westfield, New Jersey|
|Target(s)||Wife, mother, and children|
|Killed||5; bullet wounds to head and body|
John Emil List (September 17, 1925 – March 21, 2008), sometimes labeled the Bogeyman of Westfield, was a convicted multiple murderer and long-time fugitive. On November 9, 1971, he killed his wife, mother, and three children in their home in Westfield, New Jersey, and then disappeared. He had planned the murders so meticulously that nearly a month passed before anyone noticed that anything was amiss. A fugitive from justice for nearly 18 years who assumed a new identity and remarried, List was finally apprehended on June 1, 1989, after the story of his murders was broadcast on the television program America's Most Wanted. List was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced in 1990 to five consecutive terms of life imprisonment. He died in 2008.
Born in Bay City, Michigan, List was the only child of German American parents, John Frederick List (1859–1944) and Alma Maria Barbara Florence List (1887–1971). He was a devout Lutheran and taught Sunday school. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and later was given an ROTC commission as a Second 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 they married shortly after.
On November 9, 1971 List methodically killed his entire family: his wife, Helen, 45; his mother, Alma, 84; and his children — Patricia, 16, John, Jr., 15, and Frederick, 13. The murder weapons were his own 9mm Steyr 1912 semi-automatic handgun and his father's .22 caliber revolver. He first shot his wife in the back of the head and his mother above the left eye while his children were at school. When Patricia and Frederick came home they were each shot in the back of the head. After making himself lunch, List drove to his bank to close his own and his mother's bank accounts, and then to his elder son's school to watch him play in a soccer game. After driving John, Jr. home he shot him once in the back of the head, then at least ten more times when the body began twitching.
List placed the bodies of his wife and children on sleeping bags in the ballroom of their 19-room Victorian home. 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, he wrote that he saw too much evil in the world, and that he had ended the lives of his family to save their souls. He then cleaned up the various crime scenes, turned on all the lights, tuned the radio to a religious station, and departed.
The murders were not discovered for nearly a month, due in part to the family's reclusiveness and refusal to socialize, and in part to notes sent by List to the children's schools and part-time jobs stating that the family would be in North Carolina for several weeks, staying with Helen's mother. He also stopped the family's milk, mail and newspaper deliveries. Finally, neighbors noticed that lights inside the mansion — which had been illuminated day and night for weeks, with no apparent activity within — were burning out one by one, and called police.
The case became the second most notorious crime in New Jersey history, after the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh Baby. A nationwide manhunt was launched. The family car was found parked at Kennedy Airport, but there was no evidence that List had boarded a flight. Police investigated hundreds of leads without results. Alma 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.
On May 21, 1989 List's case was broadcast on the television program America's Most Wanted, which at the time had been on the air less than a year. The presentation included an age-progressed clay bust sculpted by forensic artist Frank Bender, which turned out to bear a close resemblance to List's actual appearance. List was located and arrested less than two weeks after the episode was broadcast.
Relocation, arrest, and trial
List settled in Denver, Colorado in early 1972, and resumed working as an accountant under the name Robert Peter Clark. He later said that he chose the name because it had belonged to one of his college classmates, although the real Bob Clark later claimed that he had never known List. In the early 1980s he moved to Midlothian, Virginia, and in 1985 married divorcee Delores Miller.
On June 1, 1989 he was arrested at a Richmond, Virginia accounting firm after a neighbor viewed the America's Most Wanted broadcast, recognized the profile, and alerted authorities. He was extradited to Union County, New Jersey in late 1989. He continued to stand by his alias for several months; but finally, faced with irrefutable evidence — including the matching of his fingerprints with List's military records, and with evidence found at the crime scene — he confessed his true identity on February 16, 1990.
On April 12, 1990 List was convicted of five counts of first degree murder, and on May 1 was sentenced to five consecutive terms of life imprisonment. (The death penalty was not an option in New Jersey at the time.) 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." He filed an appeal of his convictions on grounds that his judgment had been impaired by post-traumatic stress disorder due to military service in World War II and Korea. He also contended 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. Both arguments were unsuccessful.
List later 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." 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 faced a grave financial crisis in 1971. He had lost his job as an accountant, and hid his unemployment from his family by sitting at the local bus station each day. He owed $11,000 on his mortgage and was skimming from his mother's bank accounts. He was also dealing with his wife's tertiary syphilis, contracted from her first husband and concealed from List for 18 years, which had "transformed her from an attractive young woman to an unkempt and paranoid recluse," according to testimony.
A court-appointed psychiatrist testified that List, who carried a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, saw only two solutions to his problems: accept welfare, or kill his family and send their souls to heaven. Welfare was an unacceptable option, he reasoned, because it would expose the family to ridicule and violate his authoritarian father's teachings regarding the care and protection of family members.
List died from complications of pneumonia at age 82 on March 21, 2008, while in prison custody at a Trenton, New Jersey hospital. In reporting his death the Newark Star-Ledger referred to him as "the bogeyman 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, a crime which remains unsolved. Destroyed along with the home was the ballroom's stained glass skylight, rumored to be a signed Tiffany original worth over $100,000.
In popular culture
- In 2008 John Walsh, the host of America's Most Wanted, donated Bender’s bust of List to a forensic science exhibit at the privately owned National Museum of Crime & Punishment in Washington, DC.
- 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.
- List's crimes and disappearance were an inspiration for the character of Keyser Söze in the 1995 film The Usual Suspects.
- Di Ionno, M (March 25, 2008). The bogeyman of Westfield, a ghost story that won't end. Star Ledger archive. Retrieved 26 September 2013.
- Ryzuk, Mary S. (1990). Thou Shalt Not Kill. Popular Library. p. 101. ISBN 0-445-21043-5.
- Benford TB and Johnson JP (2000): Righteous Carnage: The List Murders, p. 117.
- Benford TB and Johnson JP (2000): Righteous Carnage: The List Murders, p. 285.
- McCracken, Elizabeth (December 28, 2008). "Wanted: A Killer Disappears Into Another Life". The New York Times. Retrieved May 6, 2010.
- Ramsland, K: John List. Crime Library. Retrieved 26 September 2013.
- Notorious, television series, Episode: "To Save Their Souls", 2005
- Ramsland, K: John List. Crime Library archive. Retrieved 27 September 2013.
- Notorious AMW Fugitive John List Dead at 82 (24 March 2008). amw.com archive. Retrieved 27 September 2013.
- Fox, M (30 July 2011): Frank Bender, ‘Recomposer’ of Faces of the Dead, Dies at 70. New York Times archive. Retrieved 29 September 2013.
- Death Sentence: The Inside Story of the John List Murders Joe Sharkey, Signet, 305 pp., ISBN 0-451-16947-6.
- "FBI Richmond Division History". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved 19 December 2011.
- Ryzuk, pp.396-399
- Ryzuk, p.452
- Associated Press (May 20, 1990). Judge Sentences Family Killer to Life in Prison. Los Angeles Times archive. Retrieved 26 September 2013.
- Stout, D (March 25, 2008). John E. List, 82, Killer of 5 Family Members, Dies. NY Times archive. Retrieved 26 September 2013.
- List and Goodrich (2006): Collateral Damage: The John List Story, p. 80.
- Stout, David (March 25, 2008). "John E. List, 82, Killer of 5 Family Members, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved May 6, 2010.
- The List Murders Stun Westfield In 1971 By Kathy Halverson, February 17, 2001 For The Westfield Leader and The Times. Accessed June 28, 2007
- Sullivan, Joseph F. (April 7, 1990). "Slaying Suspect Saw 2 Choices, Doctor Testifies". The New York Times. Retrieved May 6, 2010.
- "The bogeyman of Westfield, a ghost story that won't end" by Mark Di Ionno, The Star Ledger
- "Killer John List's Body Lies Unclaimed in New Jersey Morgue". mybaycity.com. March 27, 2008.
- John Emil List (1925-2008) - Find a Grave
- Ryan, Desmond (December 3, 1989). "How Profitable Sequels Succeed: They Just Bring 'em Back Alive". Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
- The Usual Suspects DVD commentary featuring Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, . Retrieved 27 September 2002
- Righteous Carnage: The List Murders Timothy B. Benford and James P. Johnson, iUniverse, 332 pp., ISBN 0-595-00720-1
- Death Sentence: The Inside Story of the John List Murders Joe Sharkey, Signet, 305 pp., ISBN 0-451-16947-6
- Collateral Damage: The John List Story John E. List and Austin Goodrich, iUniverse, Inc., 130pp., ISBN 0-595-39536-8
- Thou Shalt Not Kill Mary S. Ryzuk, Warner Books, 509pp., ISBN 0-445-21043-5
- Newspaper articles on John List
- John List, famous murder - The Crime Library
- John Emil List at Find a Grave
- American Justice Episode #169: To Save Their Souls at the Internet Movie Database