On the surface, John List seemed to have it made: A deeply religious family man with a wife and three kids, he had a successful career as a bank president and a sprawling 19-room Victorian mansion in the comfortable suburban setting of Westfield, New Jersey.
But in December 1971, John List’s neighbors realized something strange. No one had seen any members of the List family for almost a month, since November 9. Neighbors noticed that all the lights in the house were constantly on—at least, until they started to burn out one by one. Eventually, List’s 16-year-old daughter’s drama coach, worried about her extended absence, notified the police.
Investigators were horrified when they entered the List family mansion on December 7, 1971. Inside they found five dead bodies: John’s wife Helen; their three teenage children, Patricia, Frederick, and John, Jr.; and John’s 84-year-old mother, Alma. All had been shot dead. Helen and the children were laid out in the mansion’s grand ballroom. John’s mother was discovered in her apartment in the attic.
Police found a five-page letter that List had written to his pastor, explaining that he killed his family to save their souls because he believed they were “falling away from God.” List’s letter also said he believed that “by killing them, they would die Christians.” The investigation into John List revealed that he had been living a lie for quite some time.
List had been fired from his job as a bank president in Jersey City but hadn’t told his family. Instead, he went about his normal routine each morning as if he were still employed, spending his time reading newspapers at the local train station until the work day was over. List was also having major financial problems; he was even taking money from his mother’s bank account.
By the time investigators had discovered his crimes, 46-year-old John List was nowhere to be found. He had seemingly vanished from the face of the Earth. Before he fled, List had carefully cut himself out of all the family photographs in the house. His car was found abandoned at JFK Airport in New York, but there was no evidence that List had boarded a flight. Where was John List? Authorities would wait almost two decades before they could bring the mass murderer to justice.
The television show America’s Most Wanted was only a year old when John Walsh hosted an episode about the List family murders on May 21, 1989. At this point, List had been on the run for almost 18 years. In the episode, a forensic artist named Frank Bender presented an age-progressed clay bust of what John List might look like at 63 years old.
Hundreds of tips flooded into the show, including one about a man named Robert Clark who lived in Virginia. Eleven days later, FBI agents went to the accounting firm where Clark worked in Richmond and took him in for questioning. Robert Clark looked remarkably similar to the clay bust featured on TV, but he vehemently denied being the mass murderer. Clark’s fingerprints, however, could not be denied: Without a doubt, Robert Clark was John List. Regardless of the evidence, Clark continued to protest that he and List were not the same person. In fact, he didn’t admit his true identity until eight months later, in February 1990.
List eventually opened up about the details of his life after the murders. After he fled New Jersey, List first took a train to Michigan and then to Denver. He remarried and lived in Colorado until 1988, when he and his wife moved to Virginia. It seemed like the cold-blooded John List never missed a beat after methodically murdering his entire family. He simply moved on and started over: new city, new job, new wife.
List stood trial, and, in April 1990, a jury found him guilty of five murders. A judge sentenced List to five life terms behind bars. The killer remained out of the public eye until he agreed to an interview with Connie Chung in 2002. In the interview, conducted from prison in New Jersey, List explained the details and motivations behind his grisly crimes. He told Chung, “I approached all of them from behind so they wouldn’t realize till the last minute what I was going to do to them.”
List added, “I knew it was wrong… I feel when we get to heaven we won’t worry about these earthly things. They’ll either have forgiven me or won’t realize, you know, what happened.”
John List died in 2008, in police custody at a hospital in Trenton, New Jersey, at the age of 82.
Featured photo: Alchetron