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True crime. Casually done.

John List: The ‘Righteous’ Killer

On the morning of June 1st 1989, housewife Delores Clark (nee Miller) of Midlothian, Virginia received a phone call that would blow her world to pieces. It was about her husband, Bob: he’d just been arrested by the FBI. A team of agents had broken the perpetual boredom at the small accounting firm in Richmond where he worked, and dragged him off in handcuffs.

How is that possible!? she must have thought as her husband’s boss delivered the news. Bob was no criminal — in fact, he was probably the most boring, mild-mannered man you could ever meet. 62 years old, balding, bespectacled, and God-fearing, the only thrill he ever got was discovering a rounding error in a spreadsheet. 

But to hear the FBI tell it, Delores never actually knew the real Bob Clark at all. In fact, they said that wasn’t even his real name. It was actually a man named John List the feds were after, and they were convinced that he and old Bob were one and the same.

Dolores was about to discover that her husband wasn’t the white-bread Christian gentleman she thought he was, but one of the most notorious, most detested, most monstrous killers in American history, who had been on the FBI’s most wanted list for almost two decades…

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Who Was John List?

John List,

So who exactly was the real man behind this fake identity? Well, it turned out that this painfully boring, churchgoing accountant was in reality… a painfully boring, churchgoing accountant. Okay, so John List wasn’t exactly a master of disguise. In fact, his new life was so similar to the old one that it’s a wonder it took 18 years to catch up with him. 

Born in 1925 to German immigrant parents, John Emil List was a Michigan native raised in a strict Lutheran household. His parents enforced strict regimentation throughout his upbringing, centred around intensive Bible study. His authoritarian father drummed it into little John that, above all else, a man should be self-sufficient, and provide for his family.

But on the flip side, his parents were already deep into middle age when he was born, and were so terrified of him getting hurt that they essentially turned him into a complete shut-in. As you’d expect, John grew up to become quite a repressed, neurotic young man, not particularly well liked by his peers. 

He was, by all accounts, extremely intelligent, but lacked even the basic social skills to function alongside others. What I’m saying is, from an early age he was basically doomed to a career as an accountant. That’s what he got his MA in after a stint as a lab technician during World War 2.

John would be called into active service again in 1950, as the Korean War began to heat up. At that time, he was assigned to Fort Eustis in Virginia. It was there he met a woman named Helen, a widow whose first husband was killed in combat.

She had a daughter named Brenda from that first marriage, and not long after meeting John she was pregnant for a second time (our prudish apostle was, as you’ll soon see, very selective with which parts of the bible he followed). Fearing what his bible-bashing parents might think if they discovered he was having pre-marital sex, John agreed to Helen’s demand of marriage. 

The two were joined in holy matrimony on December 1st 1951. After which, Brenda pulled the ol’ baby-baiting switcheroo manoeuvre, and revealed she was never pregnant at all. John was understandably pissed, but in his old-school Christian morality getting divorced was almost as bad as siring a bastard; he decided to stick the marriage out despite that unfortunate start. 

And any hope of being bailed out of his predicament by a communist’s bullet were dashed when the army reassigned him to the ‘Finance Corps’ for his second tour in Korea (not one of the branches of the military that they make a lot of war movies about). Rather than manning a machine gun, he’d be pushing a pencil for the remainder of his military service.

After a few more years of high-intensity war accountancy, List left the military, and settled into a typical suburban life with Helen. In the second half of the fifties, they had three kids together (for real this time): Patricia, John Jr, and Fred. To provide for his growing family, John took on a string of accounting jobs, each blander than the last.

Colleagues from those days remembered him as an odd guy, who was a bit up himself and generally unlikeable. He had learned to completely conceal all emotion from a young age, which gave him a robotic demeanour — sort of guy who just stares right through you.

In fact, John was so strange that he had barely any friends outside of work either. His only social contact was with the parishioners at his church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the kids he taught at Sunday school.

Still though, our soulless Tin Man managed to build a successful career for himself. In 1960, he was offered a well-paying job in New York. Within another five years, he was Vice President of a bank in New Jersey. Now John was finally able to provide all the luxuries of the American dream for his family, just as his father always demanded.

Now, I understand if the biography of an accountant’s rise to riches isn’t exactly raising your blood pressure, but trust me, there’s a reason we’re covering this guy on a true crime show. If anything, the absolute, excruciating mundanity of his character makes his bone-chilling crimes stand out all the more…

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Man on the Run

From that relatively bland origins story, we’re jumping back forward in time to the early 1970s, when the story of John List took an unexpected turn. That’s when the FBI raised the alarm: our mild-mannered accountant was on the run, to be considered highly dangerous. His license plates and description was passed to law enforcement up and down the east coast.

Ultimately, his car was found, but by this point there was no trace of the man who owned it. He had abandoned the vehicle at JFK Airport in New York about a month prior. This was the last trace that investigators were able to find of his existence. 

On December 12th 1971, the day of the funeral, police officers cruised around the blocks surrounding the cemetery in plain clothes, hoping that List might have returned to town for the event. No such luck — he had well and truly disappeared. 

In fact, by this point, the man named John Emil List didn’t even exist at all…

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The Trail Goes Cold

The abandoned vehicle was the last trace of John List for years. By the 1980s, any hope of capturing the fugitive accountant had gone up in smoke, much like the opulent mansion house where he and his family had lived in Westfield, New Jersey, during the final years of his past life. 

The house burned down years ago, and pieces of rubble still lay scattered on the vacant lot like toppled gravestones, a grim reminder of what happened there way back in ‘71. The events of that December  were now shared as more of an urban legend than a true crime story. List himself was the boogeyman at the centre of it all: a creature who the parents of Westfield threatened naughty children with: “Don’t stay out after dark, or John List will get you with his guns.”

Some said that Satanists burned the boogeyman’s old home down, some said List himself returned to do it. But what all of the young people of Westfield generally agreed on, was that you should stay the fuck away from it. Don’t live on the same street, don’t even walk past. Every now and then the neighbours would have to call the cops on the teenagers who dared each other to go inside, or would-be ghost hunters from out of town. 

And as far as the cops were concerned, the man himself might as well have been a ghost by now. That’s how perfectly and completely he had vanished off the face of the earth. Tips came in throughout the eighties, but they were all dead ends. By the end of the decade, the case was 18 years old and about as cold as can be.

Most of the original detectives had retired or moved on to other positions, leaving New Jersey’s most unsolvable mystery on the desk of a new pair of investigators: Captain Frank Marranca at the county prosecutor’s office, and Detective Barney Tracy of the Westfield PD. The two men had shared notes on the case for several years, but never managed to make any progress.

Then something happened which opened up a novel avenue of investigation: a little-known TV show called America’s Most Wanted premiered on the Fox Network in 1988. Marranca and Tracy sensed an opportunity to inject a bit of fresh life into the investigation — what was the harm in trying, after all?

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The Bust

John Walsh. By dbking, is licensed under CC-BY

When Marranca and Tracy sent the case files to host John Walsh and his production team, they were essentially hoping for a miracle. After all, it had been almost a whole 19 years since anyone last saw him. He could have changed his whole appearance by now. Hell, he could even be off living in South America, or dead, for all they knew.

How do you begin going about a task like that? Thankfully the science of modern forensics had an answer. The team enlisted the help of a SCULPTOR named Frank Bender, who was also a self-taught expert in forensic anthropology. Together with the help of a forensic psychologist, the sculptor produced an aged bust of what John List would look like now, in his sixties. 

It wasn’t just a matter of scribbling some wrinkles on and old Polaroid and whipping up a plaster cast version; Bender’s process was all about getting to know the suspect as deeply as possible, to envision how every little part of their psychology and lifestyle might affect their look:

“I get into the head of the person. In a sense, I wanna become the person while I’m working on the fugitive. I wanna feel like that person. I wanna know everything about that person.”

For that, they began with his genetics, gathering pictures of List’s parents to see how his father’s cheeks sagged with age. Then they studied his diet and lifestyle habits. After that, all the little psychological nuances that might be etched on a person’s face. For example, Bender even added a very slight downward slant to the sculpture’s lips, signifying the constant fear of capture weighing on the old boy all those years.

But the real master stroke was a pair of dark, thick-framed glasses. A psychological profile of List suggested that he wasn’t physically vain enough to wear contact lenses, but was intellectually vain enough that he would want to wear a pair of glasses somewhat similar to his old ones, but darker. The idea was that he probably wanted to appear more important than he really was (reminding him of the old days, when he was a big shot at the bank). 

That is a lot of guesswork there, but it’s amazing how accurate it would turn out to be…

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The Bust

The result was lifelike visage of what John List should conceivably have looked like almost 19 years after anyone last saw him. This model made a relatively brief appearance on the May 21st 1989 episode of America’s Most Wanted, following a segment of reenactments of the events of 1971. 

john list

Host John Walsh led the appeal for information, while the cameras focussed in on the uncanny plaster image of the renegade accountant. That image reached 22 million households all across the country — the biggest dragnet that any cold case detective could hope for. And among the viewers who tuned in that night, lo and behold, was one Robert Peter Clark of Richmond, Virginia. 

He and his wife Delores tuned in just as the eight-minute segment was coming to a close, and Bob was shocked to find a mirror image of himself staring back at him from the TV screen. “I was perspiring like anything,” he later said. ‘Bob’ had been so careful all these years to stay hidden, stay out of trouble, and keep his fingerprints off the record, yet somehow this damned sculptor had managed to learn everything about him. 

An awkward moment passed as Bob/John prayed the missus wouldn’t catch on that he was the wanted man depicted in plaster cast on TV. But thankfully she wasn’t paying too much attention, and the show cut to a commercial before she could connect the dots. Bob breathed a sigh of relief, but little did he know the wheels of his downfall were already in motion.

That was thanks to another woman over in Colorado, who had managed to put 2 and 2 together. Wanda Flanery was a neighbour of Bob’s from his Denver days when he worked as a fry cook at a city hotel. The image turned out to be so accurate that she recognised her old neighbour right away. And on top of that, his entire character fitted the profile. 

Wanda knew him as a quiet guy, bookish and reclusive — a bit of a religious nut who only really left the house to go to work or church. And all in all, a bit… off. Now she finally understood why he made her so uncomfortable. Her call was among the 250 tips which came through on the night of the broadcast.

And so, just 11 days after the broadcast, a 19-year manhunt came to an end. When FBI agent Kevin August walked into that Richmond accounting firm, he must have felt a bit of deja vu as he spotted the bald spot of Bob Clark, who sat hunched over his desk. When he raised his head, he was an exact match for the sculpture down to the last detail — he was even wearing the exact same style and colour of specs. 

Seriously, if you take a look at the man and the model side by side, you can barely tell them apart. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind: this was the monster of Westfield, and he would finally be facing justice for the nightmare eye unleashed upon the quiet suburban town almost two decades ago… 

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Westfield Bound

Let’s flashback again to the mid 1960s, when John List’s American Dream was at its peak. He’s just landed that executive role at the New Jersey bank, and now has the money to move his family into one of the most desirable neighbourhoods in the affluent town of Westfield. This is a town of colonial mansions, homeowner’s associations, and good churchgoing families.

The sort of place where your neighbours will gossip about you if your lawn grows 1mm above the permitted length. Moving to a swanky suburban paradise like this seemed like the ‘proper’ thing to do when you come into a bit of money — a way of showing the world (and the ghost of your overbearing father) that you can provide for your family.

That’s the kind of pride List must have felt as his family moved their things into Breeze Knoll: a 19-room post-Victorian mansion on one of the town’s most desirable streets, Hillside Avenue. Think marble fireplaces, claw-footed bathtubs, four-poster beds — real luxury. It even had a self-contained apartment in the loft, for John’s mother Alma to live in.

To get an idea of how much this place must have cost him, consider the fact the ‘ballroom’ at the rear featured a stained-glass skylight said to be a Louis Comfort Tiffany original. It was valued somewhere around $100,000 for that one feature alone (about $650,000 today).

To any outside observers, it must have seemed like the Lists had a dream life, even though they also had their… quirks. For example, John became something of a running joke among the neighbours: he was so uptight that he cut his lawn in a shirt and tie. Then there was the little incident with the pie. Ex-neighbour Wende Gates recalled: 

“When the Lists moved in, my father went over with a pie my mother baked to welcome them. John List opened the door just a crack, took the pie and said, ‘We don’t socialize.”‘

Lovely first impression John. I’m sure you’ll fit right in. Understandably, the socially awkward sociopath never really kept much company besides his students at Sunday school and the kids at his boy scout group. John was a strict disciplinarian in class and at home, and he enforced an old-school Lutheran upbringing on his three kids. However, this was the ‘60s, and the devil was around every corner. 

As his kids grew up, he soon lost control over them, and  Patricia, his eldest, started to rebel. She had dreams of becoming an actress, and John heard on the grapevine that she might have started smoking pot after school. 

List was losing control of his little Lutheran world. Even his romantic relationship was on the rocks, as by the 1960s his wife Helen was a full-blown alcoholic who barely left the house. To be fair, I’d probably need a half bottle of whisky a day if I lived with a guy like that. 

But it wasn’t just that stress that was getting to Helen. She had a dark secret of her own that was eating her up inside… in a sense, quite literally.

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Helen’s Big Reveal

Throughout the 1960s, Helen’s health started mysteriously failing. She’d had vision problems for as long as John had known her, but now even the sight in her one good eye was beginning to fade. On top of that she had trouble walking, kept falling over, and was in and out of hospital with brittle bones. 

The doctors couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong with her, but judging by her erratic moods and periods of incoherent rambling, it appeared as if part of the problem was latent schizophrenia. The patient herself knew that wasn’t the case, but it wasn’t until 1969 that she finally came clean to her husband about the source of all these unexplained ailments: Helen had syphilis.

Now, you might be sitting there thinking, “Big deal, who hasn’t had a little bit of syphilis every now and then?”. But back in the old days when Helen contracted the disease, it wasn’t just a matter of a shameful visit to the clinic and a little injection in the arse. This was serious stuff. So serious that the majority of US states required mandatory premarital syphilis tests to get a wedding license (sounds like a romantic day out with the fiancé).

Suddenly the circumstances surrounding their elopement made a lot more sense to John. Helen had demanded they go to Maryland to get hitched, one of the only states where syphilis testing wasn’t mandatory. Yes, this wasn’t a recent diagnosis — she had been concealing her condition from him from the very first day they met!

She contracted it from her first husband way back in the 40s, when treatment was still very rudimentary, and now she was deep into the tertiary phase of the disease. At that point, it’s largely incurable even today, and can cause severe damage to the brain and central nervous system. 

Things went from bad to worse for Helen as her condition progressed, leading her deeper into alcoholism, and addictions to barbiturates and tranquillisers which she tried to keep hidden from the family. Oh and, of course, her dearest husband was almost definitely infected too… oopsie. 

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John’s Little Secret

But amazingly, the fact he was most likely in the intermediate stages of a sometimes-fatal STD wasn’t the biggest of John List’s issues; Helen wasn’t the only one keeping secrets. As it turned out, our high-flying accountant actually crashed and burned just one year after getting that bank job, and suddenly didn’t quite have the budget for ballrooms and Tiffany skylights.

But as he learned as a child, a man was supposed to provide for his family — to admit to them that he had been laid off would be the ultimate shame: “I grew up with the idea that you should provide for your family and to do that you had to be a success in the job that you had — or you’re a failure, and that was not a good thing to be.”

So he decided to just… pretend it didn’t happen. John would get up in the morning, put on his suit, have breakfast, grab his briefcase, and head off to work. In the evening, he would come back and tell his wife about how busy his day was, dealing with clients and balancing the books.

However, in the time between leaving and returning, he was actually just sitting at the train station, reading newspapers for hours until it was time to come home. For years, he had been performing this precarious balancing act, trying to scrape together enough cash to pay for the house without revealing to his family they were broke. 

Sure, he’d managed to get a few lower-paying jobs along the way, but his poor people skills and obsessive-compulsive work style meant he rarely kept them for long. The debt kept on piling up and piling up. In the end, List had to skim money from his mother’s savings account in order to keep the wolves from the door. 

Even that pot would eventually run out, and what then, John? 

He didn’t have an answer…

John List was a 46-year-old, unemployed, bankrupt accountant on the verge of a midlife crisis, whose children and wife were turning away from their Christian faith. The house of cards he had built for himself was swaying in the wind, and if it fell he’d be revealed as a fraud and a failure to everyone who knew him.

Something had to give…

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The Horror at Breeze Knoll

Throughout November 1971, the mansion at 431 Hillside was eerily quiet. Neighbours saw the lights in the windows all night, but no sign of anyone coming or going. Not even the milkman walked up the driveway — the family had left him a note saying they’d be gone for several weeks.

The kids’ school teachers were informed that Helen’s ailing mother was at death’s door down in North Carolina, so they’d be taking an unplanned trip down to see her. The funny thing was though, none of the kids said goodbye to their friends at school.

The neighbours never thought that much note at first — this was a weird family at the best of times. However, as the weeks passed with no news, and those lightbulbs started to burn out one by one, they grew suspicious. Next door neighbours William and Shirley Cunnick would look out their window towards Breeze Knoll every evening, checking to see if the family had returned. 

Then, on the evening of December 7th, they finally spotted some activity by the house, which now sat completely dark after over a month of silence. Skirting around the walls they could make out two silhouetted figures, peering through the windows. Thinking it might be burglars, the couple called the police. 

When Officers Charles Haller and George Zhelesnik rolled up a few minutes later, those two trespassers never ran off. Actually, they were grateful for the assistance. They weren’t a pair of thieves at all — they were teachers: Mr Illiano and Mrs Sheridan, who taught the oldest List child drama at the community centre. 

Illiano was like an uncle to Patricia. It was he who encouraged her to follow her passion for acting despite the seething disapproval of her father. He had met Mr List on several occasions, and the guy gave him the usual spine-chilling bad vibes.

So after Patricia missed four weeks of rehearsals in a row, he worried that her father’s disapproval might have manifested into violence. She once told him after class: “If you hear anything about us ‘going on vacation’, it’s probably because he’s killed us all.”

Could have just been a bit of dark humour. But now that his young protégée had been ‘on vacation’ for 28 full days, Illiano started to take that ominous warning a bit more seriously…

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Hell House 

The teachers explained all this to Officers Haller and Zhelesnik, who were about to find themselves wrapped up in their very own gothic horror story. It fell to them to find a way inside the creaky old house, and discover the fate of the occupants.

Their entrance point was a basement window around the side of the property, loose enough to pry open. The cops managed to lower themselves down into the utility room, and started exploring the pitch-black mansion by torchlight. All was completely silent, but as their ears tuned in, they could hear something upstairs. Was that… music?

As the officers opened the door at the  top of the stairs, they heard classical Christian hymns playing through the house’s intercom system. That’s the point at which I’d have gone into horror movie survival mode, and clambered right back out that basement window in 5 seconds flat. But the cops pressed on to the kitchen.

They passed their flashlights over the floor, and noticed some rusty-red stains on the grout between the tiles — faint, as if someone had tried to clean it up. Onwards through the entrance hallway, and into the parlour room. No sign of the family — only their smiling faces looking down from the picture frames on the walls. But for some reason, the father was missing. Mr List had been cut out of every image. 

Next, the dining room, and a tank of dead, skeletal fish along one wall. Apparently the family were in such a rush they left their pets to die…

There was only one room left on the bottom floor: the ballroom, which lay at the end of another long, dark hallway. The officer crept down the hall over creaking floorboards. And then, the smell — a smell which any cop who’s been on the job more than a few months would recognise. It was the smell of death and decay.

The stench became stronger and the music louder, as they reached the centrepiece of the house. Here the moonlight shone brighter through the ornate skylight overhead, illuminating four sleeping bags laid out in a row at the centre. Poking out from the ends were the pale white faces of Helen, Patricia, John Jr, and Frederick.

It would have been an eerie sight: a wake with no mourners, completely still and silent, save for the sound of hymns still playing over the speakers. Breeze Knoll’s ballroom had become a suburban tomb for the family who once filled the house with life…

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The Massacre at Breeze Knoll

So, I know you’re probably wondering: what… the… fuck? Well, before we continue, maybe you should ask yourself if you really want to know the answer to that question. What you’re about to discover is the handiwork of one of the most cold, emotionless, downright creepy murderers I’ve ever come across. 

On the morning of November 9th, 1971, John List sent his children off to school like any other day. Once they were out of sight (and out of earshot), he walked through the crisp autumn air to his car in the driveway. In the trunk were two boxes of ammunition, from which he loaded his 9mm Steyr automatic pistol — a souvenir from the Second World War — and a 22 caliber target pistol. 

When he returned Helen was still enjoying her morning coffee in her nightgown, staring absentmindedly out the window from the kitchen table. John later explained: “I approached all of them from behind so they wouldn’t realise till the last minute what I was going to do to them.”

By that he meant placing a gun to the side of their heads and pulling the trigger. With an accountant’s soulless precision, he held the 9mm to the side of his wife’s right temple. The bullet passed through to the wall opposite, and Helen slumped over dead, a pool of blood spreading out from her heading and dripping onto the floor.

Expressionless, John List turned away from his wife’s corpse and made his way up the stairs, to confront the other woman in his life: his 84-year-old mother. Alma List was in the middle of gathering ingredients from her pantry when John opened the door to her loft apartment.

“What was that noise?” She asked. But John never answered. Instead, he walked over to his mummie dearest and kissed her (“like Judas” he described it). She died instantly from a single shot above the left eyebrow…

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The Gospel According to John

It wasn’t even 9 o’ clock yet, and John List had already callously executed his wife and mother in cold blood. Judging by his account, he didn’t even feel regret at the time. If anything, he was actually quite pleased at his own efficiency.

It would be hours before the kids came home, leaving him plenty of time to tidy up the scene. First, he went to the basement and grabbed a pile of Boy Scout sleeping bags. He unfurled one on the kitchen floor, and rolled his wife’s body onto it, dragging her through the hallways and into the ballroom.

His mother turned out to be too heavy to move, so he left her upstairs with a dish towel covering her face. With both bodies safely out of sight, he began scrubbing the floors in the kitchen and attic, determined to clean away every trace of blood. But the tiles and floorboards were already deeply stained. 

He checked the clock: 10am. Still plenty of time to wrap up the rest of his to-do list for the day. As if it were just another day at the office, he went into the study and started drafting letters to his family and acquaintances. After that he wrote one to his employer, sealed in an envelope with a few bits of paperwork. 

In the letters to relatives, he outlined his justifications for breaking the 5th (and most crucial) of the Ten Commandments. He talked about how his kids were being corrupted by modern life, and his wife had “transformed […] from an attractive young woman to an unkempt and paranoid recluse.”

As an unkempt and paranoid recluse, I take offence to that. Just because I haven’t showered in a couple weeks, doesn’t mean you can shoot me. But John List had genuinely convinced himself that he was actually doing his family a kindness.

As he saw it, they were on the verge of spiritual and moral ruin. Soon they’d be out on the streets, cold and ashamed, living on welfare, and he would be to blame. He wanted — no, he needed — to spare them that embarrassment. As things stood, they hadn’t strayed from the righteous path entirely, meaning there was still a chance they could get into heaven… if only someone could speed up their arrival at the pearly gates.

With that in mind, earlier that year he had started dropping casual hints at the dinner table: “I remember talking about funerals and cremation and burials. I thought I was being real clever.” Little did they know, his questions were not hypotheticals. (Side note: if a family member ever starts dropping hints like that, you better start coming to the dinner table strapped).

Specific burial instructions for each family member were included in his letters. I’m pretty sure they would all have ticked the “no death, thanks” box if given the choice. Sadly, their father had already made that decision for them…

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“My assignment for the day”

With his confessions all signed and sealed, it was now time for List to start laying the foundations for his great escape. He made a phone call to the woman who drove his two sons to school each morning, to tell her that she wouldn’t have to come for them the next morning — the family were taking a trip down to North Carolina. 

A bunch more phone calls to friends, neighbours, and his employer followed. After that, John took a trip into town to have the post office hold the family’s mail, and went to the bank to cash out the little left of his mother’s savings bonds. The teller reported that he even stayed to make sure they gave him the correct interest down to the exact cent. 

All that deception is hard work, so when the cold-blooded killer returned home, he cooked himself up some lunch and ate it at the same table that was slick with his own wife’s blood just hours before. As he was finishing up, the phone rang — it was the nurse at the high school. His daughter Patricia wasn’t feeling well. 

That was unexpected, but not unwelcome. John was a little worried about what might happen if two kids arrived home at once, so any chance to bring them back one by one was welcome. So he drove to the high school to bring Patricia back to 431 Hillside. Just moments after she stepped through the door, he pulled out his 22 caliber pistol. A few minutes more, and Patricia lay next to her mother in the ballroom. 

After a couple more hours of admin, it was time to pick up the younger son Fred from his football game. Just like his sister before him, the teenager met his end just seconds after he stepped through the door. Now three bodies lay side by side in the ballroom, pedantically arranged in a row. List approached massacring his family with the same clinical efficiency he applied to every area of his life. 

The last to arrive was John Jr, who was just turning onto Hillside Avenue when his younger brother was murdered. The last victim must have sensed that something was very wrong when he saw his father standing there, with a vacant malice in his eyes. He was the only one who might’ve had a chance to escape. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. One gunshot sent the 15-year old falling to the floor, and then…

“I don’t know whether it was only because he was still jerking that I wanted to make sure that he didn’t suffer, or that it was sort of a way of relieving tension, after having completed what I felt was my assignment for the day.”

That’s John List explaining why he chose to unload 9 further rounds into the dead body of his eldest son, emptying the magazines of both handguns into him… Jesus Christ John! ‘Relieving tension’ you say! Just get a stress ball or something! Go for a massage! Literally anything but opening fire on your eldest son like he’s a platoon of Vietcong.

Can you imagine the kind of ice-cold, reptilian psychology it must take to describe such a thing in those terms? I guess you now see why John List was no ordinary murderer; he was something right out of a nightmare…

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The Disappearing Act

His “assignment for the day” (meaning, the slaughter of all his loved ones) wasn’t totally complete until the last of the bodies was arranged in the centre of the ballroom. After that, the mass murderer knelt down beside them and said a prayer.

He then returned to the study to pen a five-page letter to his pastor, explaining again that he only annihilated his family to save their souls. He wrote: “At least I’m certain that all have gone to heaven now. If things had gone on who knows if that would be the case.”

Yeah, good save mate. Wouldn’t want something horrible to happen to them. Phew

By the time signed and sealed that last letter, night had fallen, and John List went back to the kitchen to cook himself his last dinner at 431 Hillside Avenue. After that, the ever-prudish List washed the dishes, and left them to dry in an orderly pile.

The last bit of preparation before turning in for the night was calling Patricia’s drama coach, Mrs Sheridan, at the Westfield Recreation Commission, to explain that she would be absent from classes for the next few weeks.

At dawn the next day, he rose from bed, packed his bags, dressed in a suit and tie, and prepared to start a new life on the run with a nice hearty breakfast. He stacked the letters neatly in a filing cabinet, placed the two murder weapons next to them, and left the key out on top of his dresser for the cops to find. 

Before walking out the door for the last time, he turned on a recorder next to the intercom, to play those classical hymns on loop ad infinitum, set the thermostat on low to better preserve the bodies, and meticulously cut his face out of every photograph so the cops would struggle to put a wanted poster together. The man had thought of every single detail.

He then drove to JFK airport with $2000 in the glovebox, and abandoned his car as a little red herring to throw the cops off the scent. After that it was just a matter of hopping on a bus into the city, and travelling by train to Denver. By the time the decaying bodies of his family were found, John list’s old identity had dissolved entirely. He was now Bob the fry cook, going on with his new life as if nothing had happened. 

So began a manhunt that would span almost two decades, and ultimately be undone by the magic of forensic art and prime time television.

And the rest, as they say, is history…

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Judgement Day

You’re now basically all caught up with the story of John List, from birth to capture, and the bone-chilling incident at the centre of his life. All that’s left is to look at exactly how his past ultimately came crashing down on top of him. If we cut back to that scene in the office building, when a 64-year-old List is being apprehended with the FBI, we find that he sticks to his story to the bitter end.

Even as he was being interrogated, he denied that he was the man they were looking for. Delores, his second wife of four years, clung on to the belief that he was telling the truth. Even after ‘Bob Clark’ was extradited to New Jersey, he kept playing dumb, until some evidence cropped up that proved who he was once and for all. 

Shortly before the murders, List had applied for a gun permit so he would be able to take his 9mm to the shooting range for practice. On that application was a fingerprint, which turned out to be an exact match for the man arrested halfway across the country 18 years later. That and a telltale scar behind one ear were all the evidence the prosecution needed to conclusively prove he was the boogeyman of Westfield.  

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The Trial

In the lead up to the trial List was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, and seemed to display a psychopathic lack of remorse for his crimes. In his eyes, it was just a plain matter of pragmatism. The psychiatrist Dr Miller reported: 

“He was trapped into believing, that as wrong as it was to murder your family, it was more wrong not to take care of them. He believed he was saving them from the humiliation and embarrassment of being on the public dole.”

So of course, if you can’t take care of them, you… take care of them. The logic simply doesn’t make sense to most people — thankfully. Dr Simring added that List showed “no evidence of anything that approached genuine remorse. He’s a cold, cold man.” 

That was very much how he appeared in court when the trial began in April 1990: cold and emotionless. Since his identity was now confirmed without a doubt, his defence team led with claims of diminished responsibility instead:

“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.”

But Johnny boy, this is a court of law — thoughts and prayers aren’t legal tender here. What matters are the facts, and they quite clearly portrayed a man very much in possession of his faculties. So much so, that he could meticulously plan the massacre weeks in advance, and spend an entire day tying up every loose end.

When the last line of List’s letter to the pastor was read out to the jury, everyone in the courtroom gasped at just how nonchalant he actually was about matricide: “P.S.-Mother is in the hallway in the attic-third floor. She was too heavy to move.”

So he knew The diminished responsibility defence fell to pieces, and John List was found guilty. In his sentencing statement on May 1st 1990, the judge said: “John Emil List is without remorse and without honor. 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.”

By now his children would have been in their thirties, probably with kids of their own. But their young lives were cut short, all because their own father was too cowardly to admit his own failings. For murdering them all in cold blood, without repentance, the judge gave him the maximum sentence possible: five life sentences, to be served consecutively. 

Just like that, he began a brand new life, with a third identity: New Jersey State Prison inmate #226472.

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Wrap-up

It appears that for the rest of his days, List clung on to the twisted justification for his crimes. In a 2002 interview, he reiterated the claim that he killed his family to save their souls from eternal damnation. However, psychologists who have studied his case call this what it is: a pathetic, weak-willed attempt to shield himself from guilt. 

Incapable of seeing himself as the mean-spirited failure of a man that he was, he cooked up a complex moral justification for his actions. And everything he did, he was deluded enough that he still expected a happy ending in the next life:

“I feel when we get to heaven we won’t worry about these earthly things. They’ll either have forgiven me or won’t realise, you know, what happened,I’m sure that if we recognise each other that we’ll like each other’s company just as we did here, when times were better.”

Yeah John, they probably won’t even remember the whole murder thing; just let bygones be bygones, eh. And is it not a bit bloody optimistic that he’s planning on getting into heaven himself? I mean, I’m no biblical scholar, but let me have a quick Google:

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed (Genesis 9:6)

We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother (1 John 3:12)

Probably best thou not massacre thine own family, thou absolute ballbag. (Callum 7:14)

Yeah John, the Good Book is pretty damn clear on this one: murder bad.So, even though I’m not religious, I’m willing to bet it wasn’t the land of milk and honey waiting for our righteous mass-murderer when he passed away in 2008, at the age of 82. 

The papers announced his passing at the St Francis Medical Center on Good Friday, where he had been transferred after complications from pneumonia caused massive blood clots in his lungs. I know we were all  hoping for “struck down by holy lightning” but I guess we’ll take what we can get.

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Dismembered Appendices 

1. I’d have to say the main hero of today’s story was forensic artist Frank Bender (1941-2011). The rest of his career is equally as fascinating as his work on this case. After volunteering to assist a coroner in his youth, he ended up becoming an expert in creating lifelike sculptures of John and Jane Does from nothing but their skulls and other remains, often leading to positive IDs.

2. The name which List was living under when he was arrested, Bob Clark, was actually borrowed from a university classmate. Strangely, the real Bob Clark said he had never even spoken to List back in their uni days. Seems oddly specific to choose that name, right? Maybe the awkward, unattractive List secretly harboured a bit of jealousy against the other man for all those years.

3. Helen List’s medical records were examined by the defence during the trial, revealing that due to the experimental nature of penicillin (and wartime shortages) she received the traditional treatment for the disease when she was diagnosed in the 40s… malaria. Yep, using ‘swallow the spider to catch the fly’ logic, the common treatment for this STD was a heavy dose of a tropical virus. Apparently old-timey doctors thought they could just infect you with anything and hope the diseases battled to the death. 

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