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The Perfect Family Murder

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

On the surface, it was the perfect American family; grandmother, mom, dad, and three children. Accountant father taught Sunday school and the family never missed worship. They lived in a 19-room mansion in Westfield, New Jersey. Then, in November 1971, something terrible happened.

The perfect family (l to r) John List Sr, Patricia, Helen, John Jr, and Frederick.

The perfect family (l to r) John List Sr, Patricia, Helen, John Jr, and Frederick.

Methodical Murders

November 9, 1971 started as all days did for the List household. The children, Patricia,16, John, 15, and Frederick, 13, had been packed off to school.

But then, John Sr. went to his car and retrieved two loaded handguns. In the kitchen, he shot his wife Helen, 46, in the back of the head as she drank a cup of coffee. Then, he went up to the third floor and murdered his 85-year-old mother, Alma.

He waited until Patricia came home and shot her. The same fate awaited Frederick. John Jr. was playing soccer after school so List went to cheer him on. After the game, he took the lad home and killed him. He put his victims on sleeping bags and laid them out in the mansion's ballroom.

He cleaned up the blood, made himself a meal and turned in for the night.

The next morning, he cut his face out of all family photos and tuned a radio to a Christian station. He turned on all the house lights, locked the place up, closed his bank accounts, and vanished.

A month passed before the murders were discovered because List had told the schools his children would be away for a while visiting an ailing grandparent in North Carolina. List had cancelled deliveries such as mail and newspapers. Also, Helen and Alma were quite reclusive.

Eventually, neighbours noticed the lack of activity in and around the house and called police, who made their grisly discovery on December 7.

The List family home.

The List family home.

A Letter of Confession

At the crime scene, police found a letter List had written to the family pastor. It revealed that his life had come apart.

He had been fired from his high-paying bank job, but could not bring himself to reveal this to his family. Other jobs at lower pay didn't work out. To save face, he pretended to go to work in the usual way while draining his mother's bank account to pay the bills.

Another blow to his carefully constructed image of an upright moral pillar of society was when he learned that his wife had tertiary syphilis, a condition she got from her first husband and that she had concealed for years. (The disease is not contagious in its latter stages).

List came to the conclusion that the world had descended into a pit of evil and that this was causing people to turn their backs on God. He believed his own family was in danger of being contaminated by the collapse of morality and was on the road to perdition.

He concluded they needed to be sent to heaven before it was too late. In his mind, he had performed mercy killings, although he didn't see the need to join his family in their journey to salvation.

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Where Was John List?

A manhunt began for the presumed murderer. His car was found at New York's Kennedy Airport but there was no evidence he had taken a flight to anywhere. He simply disappeared for 18 years, but police never gave up trying to find him.

In May 1989, an episode of America's Most Wanted aired featuring the story of John List. A forensic sculptor had created a bust of List to show how he might have aged over almost two decades.

Tips flooded in, one from a woman in Richmond, Virginia. She thought her neighbour, an accountant and churchgoer, looked a lot like the missing man. The bust was an uncanny likeness of List.

Police arrived and the man who called himself Robert Clark was unmasked as John List.

After the murders, List had changed his identity to Robert Clark and had settled down in Denver, Colorado. He took up his profession of accountancy and became active in the Lutheran Church as before. He met Delores Miller at a church social; she, of course, was completely unaware of his past. They married and moved to Richmond.

He was convicted at trial and given five consecutive life sentences. List died in prison in March 2008 at the age of 82.

List's arrest mug shot.

List's arrest mug shot.

Inside the Killer's Mind

John List was clearly a man with a disturbed mind. Superior Court Judge William Wertheimer, who presided over his trial, described him as “without remorse and without honor.” Psychiatrist Dr. Steven Simring, who examined List, diagnosed an obsessive personality, adding List showed “no evidence of anything that approached genuine remorse. He's a cold, cold man.”

In 2006, he gave an interview to ABC News in an obvious attempt to make himself look less like the monster he appeared to be. However, his distorted thinking comes through plainly for all to see.

Claiming to be a devout Lutheran, he would be familiar with Christianity's Ten Commandments, particularly the sixth—Thou shall not kill.

So, how did he feel about executing his family? “I knew it was wrong,” he told ABC News. “As I was doing it, I knew it was wrong.” On the other hand, he decided against taking his own life because he knew that was a sin that would keep him from the joyful reunion he anticipated with his victims in the hereafter.

So, when he died, was he smothered with hugs and kisses by Alma, Helen, Patricia, John, and Frederick in the heaven he says he believed exists?

At a guess, no.

Bonus Factoids

  • The house in which the List family murders took place was call Breeze Knoll. It remained unoccupied until August 1972 when it was destroyed by fire that was deemed to be arson. A stained glass skylight that was said to be signed by Tiffany was a casualty of the blaze. If it had survived, it would likely be worth about $650,000 in today's money.
  • Early in the 20th century, Martha Wise killed numerous members of her family in Ohio. You can read her story here.
  • America's Most Wanted first aired in February 1988 and ran for 25 seasons. The show's producers claimed it led to the capture of more than 1,000 fugitives. The program was resurrected in March 2021.

Sources

  • “Was John List the Nastiest Mass Murderer of all Time?” filmdaily.co, undated.
  • “The List Family Murders.” Courtney J. Fretwell, forensictales.com, February 2, 2020.
  • “1971 Family Killer Breaks Silence” ABC News, January 6, 2006.
  • “John E. List, 82, Killer of 5 Family Members, Dies.” David Stout, New York Times, March 25, 2008.
  • “Jury in List Family-Killing Trial Told of Wife's Syphilis.” Frances Ann Burns, United Press International, April 7, 1990.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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