Mugshot of John List, c.2005
|Birth name||John Emil List|
September 17, 1925|
Bay City, Michigan
|Died||March 21, 2008
Trenton, New Jersey
|Cause of death||Pneumonia|
|Penalty||Five consecutive life terms|
|Parents||John Frederick List, father, 1859–1944 and Alma List, mother, 1887–1971|
|Spouse(s)||Helen List 1926–1971, (m. 1952–1971, her death)
Delores Clark (Miller), (m. 1985-?)
|Date||November 9, 1971|
|Location(s)||Westfield, New Jersey|
|Target(s)||Mother, wife, and children|
|Killed||5; bullet wounds to head and body|
John Emil List (September 17, 1925 – March 21, 2008) was an American fugitive convicted of murder. 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, List, after assuming a false identity and remarrying, was finally apprehended on June 1, 1989, after the story of his murders was broadcast on America's Most Wanted. List was found guilty of the murders and sentenced to five consecutive terms of life imprisonment. He died of pneumonia while in prison custody 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 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 John, Jr.'s school to watch him play in a soccer game. After the game he drove his elder son home and 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. After cleaning up the crime scene he departed, leaving on all of the house lights and the radio. In a letter to his pastor, found on his desk in his study, he wrote, "Mother is in the attic. She was too heavy to move." He added that he had prayed over the bodies before leaving.
The murders were not discovered for a month, due in part to the Lists' reclusiveness, and 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. He also stopped the family's milk, mail and newspaper deliveries. After emptying his own and his mother's bank accounts, he fled in the family car, a Chevrolet Impala.
The case quickly became the second most infamous crime in New Jersey history, surpassed only by the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh Baby. A nationwide manhunt was launched. His Impala was found parked at Kennedy Airport, but there was no evidence that he boarded a flight. The police checked out hundreds of leads without results. The victims were buried at Fairview Cemetery in Westfield.
John List moved to Colorado and assumed the identity Robert "Bob" Clark and in 1985 married divorcee Delores Miller.
In 1989 New Jersey law enforcement approached the producers of the television show America's Most Wanted about doing a show on List; at the time, it was the oldest unsolved case the show had ever featured. The broadcast included an age-progressed clay bust, which, as it turned out, looked remarkably similar to List, even though he had been missing for 18 years.
The bust was sculpted by forensic artist Frank Bender, who had successfully captured many aging fugitives and identified decomposed bodies via his art. To imagine what an older List would look like, he consulted forensic psychologist Richard Walter, who created a psychological profile. He looked at photographs of List's parents and predicted his appearance, giving List a receding hairline and sagging jowls. Bender and Richard Walter were particularly praised for one final touch: they accurately predicted the type of eyeglasses frames that List would be wearing, by taking into account his personality type and the kind of eyeglasses he had favored in the past.
John Walsh, the host of America's Most Wanted, called Bender's work the most brilliant example of detective work that he had ever seen. Walsh kept Bender’s bust of List in a place of honor in his office for many years, and in 2008 donated it to a forensic science exhibit at the privately owned National Museum of Crime & Punishment.
Arrest and trial
List was arrested on June 1, 1989, nearly 18 years after killing his family. At the time he was employed by a Richmond, Virginia accounting firm where he worked while living under the fictitious name Robert "Bob" Peter Clark. List had chosen the name because it had belonged to one of his college classmates, who later stated that he had never known List. List had lived in Denver, Colorado and Midlothian, Virginia before his arrest, having remarried and resumed working as an accountant. Upon viewing the broadcast, a friend of the Clarks recognized the subject of the profile as a neighbor and contacted the authorities. FBI agents arrested List at the office where he worked after visiting his home and speaking with his current wife, Delores.
List was extradited to New Jersey as Robert Clark and sent to the Union County, New Jersey jail to await trial. He continued to stand by his alias despite overwhelming evidence - including his fingerprints at the crime scene - of both his true identity and his guilt.
List made his first admission of his identity to a fellow inmate while he was still in the Union County Jail. During a casual discussion List made reference to his military service during World War II, and the inmate said to List (using his alias), "Bob, that might be just what you need to prove that you're not John List. They took your fingerprints when you joined the military, didn't they?"
List hesitated for a moment, then lowered his head and mumbled, "Yes, they did." He then excused himself, saying that he was tired and needed a nap. The next day, List said, "Richard, my name is John List, not Bob Clark." List thereafter corrected any inmate or staff member who called him "Bob" or "Mr. Clark."
List would not admit his true identity to the court until February 16, 1990, eight months and fifteen days after his capture.
On April 12, 1990, List was convicted in a New Jersey court of five counts of first-degree murder. On May 1, he was sentenced to five consecutive terms of life imprisonment. List would express remorse for his crimes, stating, "I wish I had never done what I did. 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 was in the midst of a financial crisis at the time of the murders. Having lost his job as an accountant, he 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 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 was destroyed by arson ten months after the murders. 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
- 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.
- The Season Six episode of Law & Order, "Savior" was based on the List story. This episode starred Ellen Pompeo of Grey's Anatomy fame.
- List's crimes and disappearance were an inspiration for the character of Keyser Söze in the 1995 film The Usual Suspects.
- 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.
- Notorious, television series, Episode: "To Save Their Souls", 2005
- "FBI Richmond Division History". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved 19 December 2011.
- Death Sentence: The Inside Story of the John List Murders Joe Sharkey, Signet, 305 pp., ISBN 0-451-16947-6.
- Ryzuk, pp.396-399
- Ryzuk, p.452
- 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 03, 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