Mugshot of John List, c.2005
September 17, 1925|
Bay City, Michigan, U.S.
|Died||March 21, 2008
Trenton, New Jersey, U.S.
Cause of death
|Complications of pneumonia|
|Other names||Robert Peter "Bob" Clark|
|Five counts of first degree murder|
|Five consecutive life terms|
|Spouse(s)||Helen List (m. 1952; died 1971)
Delores Miller Clark (m. 1985; div. 1989)
|Parent(s)||John Frederick List (1859–1944)
Alma List (1887–1971)
Time at large
|17 years, 6 months, 23 days|
|Date||November 9, 1971|
|Location(s)||Westfield, New Jersey|
|June 1, 1989|
|Imprisoned at||May 1, 1990|
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 at 431 Hillside Avenue 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 at New Jersey State Prison, where 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 thereafter.
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 Colt .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 repeatedly in the chest and face.
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 he had ended the lives of his family members 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 until December 7, 1971, 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. Police investigated hundreds of leads without success. No reliable photographs of List were available because he had removed his own face from every family photo in the house. The family car was found parked at Kennedy Airport, but there was no evidence that he had boarded a flight. 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
As the FBI later discovered, List traveled by train 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 claimed 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 base 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.
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.
At trial, List testified that he was faced with grave financial difficulties in 1971. He had lost his job as an accountant, and hid his unemployment from his family, sitting at the Westfield train station each day until the time he normally came home from work. 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 — a soldier killed in action during World War II — and concealed from List for 18 years. According to trial testimony, Helen told List she was pregnant, though she was not, then insisted that they marry in Maryland, which does not require blood testing to obtain a marriage license. Though her health progressively worsened, she said nothing to List or physicians until 1969, when a thorough workup revealed the diagnosis. By then the disease had "transformed her from an attractive young woman to an unkempt and paranoid recluse," according to testimony.
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 the 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 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." When asked by Connie Chung in 2002 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 from complications of 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 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 at Saint Lorenz Lutheran Cemetery 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
Over the years, List and his crimes have furnished inspiration for a number of movies and documentaries. Examples include 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 investigation 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". 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 that played a pivotal role in List's apprehension to a forensic science exhibit at the privately owned National Museum of Crime & Punishment in Washington, DC.
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