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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. List was also known as being an aloof, cold man with few friends. His lack of social skills caused him many problems, one being his history of losing jobs. 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.

List Family House
  • 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.   

Being the religious man that he was, List wrote to his pastor after committing the murders. According to List, he was attempting to save his family’s souls because the 1970s had become a sinful time. List believed that his family was succumbing to temptation especially after his daughter expressed her interest in becoming an actress—he viewed the occupation as corrupt and linked to Satan. However, many criminal profilers concluded that List fabricated this motive in order to ease his mind and lessen his stress in his decision to murder his family. 

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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.

List family mansion ballroom
  • The ballroom where the family was found murdered.

  • Photo Credit: New York Daily News Archive / Getty Images

A New Life

Despite the great lengths List went through in order to delay the search, teachers grew suspicious of the prolonged absence of the children. Concerned neighbors drew in law enforcement after noticing that the lights were constantly left on. Neighbors also realized that the lights in the mansion were starting to burn out one by one—unsettling everyone.

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.

According to authorities, they decided to approach the producers of the show America’s Most Wanted, due to its success in capturing fugitives due to viewer’s telephone calls. The show agreed to feature the case, making it the oldest case on the program—List had been missing for 18 years. They brought in forensic artist Frank Bender to create the bust of the aging fugitive. Bender had success in helping to capture aging fugitives and identify decomposed bodies through his sculptures. In order to create a bust of the aging List, Bender consulted a forensic psychologist in order to make a profile of the man. Bender also used family photographs to predict how he would age. The bust depicted List with a receding hairline, sagging jaws, and a pair of glasses. Bender’s theory that List would use glasses to disguise himself by seeming more important than he was would be proven true—when List was arrested he was wearing the exact style Bender had envisioned. 

John List in court
  • 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.  

Later in trial it was confirmed that List suffered from obsessive-compulsive personality disorder and it caused him to see only two solutions: accept welfare or kill his family. List deemed welfare an unacceptable option because him and his family would be exposed to ridicule; he would also be a failure as it violated his authoritarian father’s teachings. In 2002 interview with Connie Chung, List was asked on his decision against suicide. He stated that he thought taking his own life would forbid him an entrance into heaven, which is where he hoped to reunite with his family.

The FBI posed another question during List’s disappearance: was he D.B. Cooper? The infamous case involved a man—going by the name—Dan Cooper who bought a one-way ticket to Seattle, Washington on November 24, 1971. While the plane was in motion, Cooper hijacked the plane and made several demands. Afterwards, he jumped out of the plane with a parachute and the ransom money he had ordered.

Investigators drew a link between the men as both committed their crimes in November 1971. They also shared physical similarities: both were white men with same height and weight, who appeared to be in their 40s, and they wore glasses. Because the crimes occurred so close in date, investigators believed that List might have committed the crime under the reasoning that “a fugitive accused of mass murder has nothing to lose”. In 1989, List was captured and confessed to the murders but fervently denied any involvement in the Cooper hijacking. Eventually, List was removed as a suspect, thus the true identity of Cooper remains a mystery. As of 2016, the FBI suspended active investigation on the Cooper case, citing the need to focus their resources and power in investigating other issues of higher priority. 

List’s tumultuous life soon transferred over to the silver screen in 1993. The made for TV movie starred Robert Blake and Beverly D’Angelo depicting fictionalized versions of the murders committed by List. Instead of providing a dramatic retelling of the murder, director Bobby Roth focused not only on John List but also a few other perspectives: a hometown Chief police, the dead wife’s sister and her husband. The movie met with critical criticism for Roth’s interest in focusing on what drove List to commit the murders—a lot of the film focuses on the women in List’s life. According to the film, with a controlling, alcoholic wife and a domineering mother, there was only so much List could handle before he was driven to murder. List and his crimes also went on to inspire other films such as The Stepfather—and it’s 2009 remake—and The Usual Suspects. 

On March 21, 2008, List died of complications from pneumonia at age 82 while in prison custody at St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton, New Jersey.

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List family mansion burned down
  • The List mansion was destroyed by arson in 1972.

  • Photo Credit: New York Daily News Archive / Getty Images
Created on 22 Nov 2017

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