John List: The Perfect Family Man Who Killed His Perfect Family

    John Emil List planned the murders so carefully, he almost got away with it. In fact, it took 18 years to catch him.

    John List was a Sunday school teacher and a successful bank executive. He lived in a mansion in New Jersey with his wife and their three children. It was big enough they could make an apartment for List’s mother. He was the perfect family man. But then things went wrong. So John List killed his perfect family and started a new one. And he almost got away with it. 

    For weeks before the murders, List left every day for work, but got only as far as the train station, where he would spend the day reading. His family did not know he had lost his job. But he knew they were going to find out. The mortgage was not being paid; the house was being foreclosed. He was about to be exposed as a failure. Something had to be done.

    On November 9, 1971, after the children left for school, List shot his wife Helen in the back of the head as she was drinking her coffee. He went upstairs and shot his 84-year-old mother. He took a break and made himself lunch. Then, he went to the bank to close his accounts and cash his mother’s savings bonds.

    The List family mansion.
    Photo Credit: New York Daily News Archive / Getty Images

    When his daughter Patricia, 16, and his son Frederick,13, came home, he shot them too. Then he went to the High School to watch his 15-year-old son John, Jr. play in a soccer game. After the game, he drove his son home and shot him in the chest and face. He called his children’s schools to say they’d be away for a while. 

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    He put the bodies of his wife and children in sleeping bags and left them on the floor of the mansion’s ballroom. He left his mother’s body in her apartment. The next day, he cut his picture out of all the family portraits so police would not have a photo for the Wanted poster. He turned down the thermostat and turned on the radio, tuned to a religious station. Then he thoroughly vanished.

    The ballroom where the family was found murdered.
    Photo Credit: New York Daily News Archive / Getty Images

    A New Life

    It was a month before police even found the bodies. They launched a nationwide manhunt, but the trail was cold. It wasn’t for another 18 years that police would learn where he went.

    List had left his car at the airport, but that was a ruse. In fact he had taken a bus to Denver where he found a job as a hotel cook, using the name Robert Clark. Eventually, he got a better job as an accountant for H&R Block. He joined the Lutheran church and met a widow named Delores Clark. They married and moved to Richmond, Virginia. 

    John List might have lived the rest of his life in freedom if it weren’t for the TV show America’s Most Wanted. The show featured List in 1989. They had a forensic sculptor create a bust showing what List most likely looked like today.. His old neighbors in Denver recognized him. He was sentenced to five consecutive life terms and died in prison in 2008.

    John List waiting for his verdict.
    Photo Credit: New York Daily News Archive / Getty Images

    List said he killed his family to spare them the humiliation of losing their home and because he hoped they would go to heaven. Psychiatrists say he never showed remorse for his cold-blooded murder of the List family.

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    The List mansion was destroyed by arson in 1972.
    Photo Credit: New York Daily News Archive / Getty Images
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