Prosecutors and expert psychologists believed List was going through a mid-life crisis, though that was no excuse to kill five innocent people.
John List appeared to be the perfect son, husband and father. He worked hard as an accountant to provide for his family. The mansion he inhabited with his mother, wife and three children had 18 rooms. The opulent home in Westfield, New Jersey, had a ballroom and marble fireplaces.
List and his family were the embodiment of the American Dream in 1965. He was an accountant working for a nearby bank. The Lists attended church every Sunday as devout Lutherans. List occasionally taught Sunday school. Everything looked great.
Soon though, a series of unfortunate events would change the Lists forever.
John List’s Murders
In 1971, John, the hardworking father, lost his job at the bank at age 46. Subsequent jobs didn’t pan out. Rather than tell his family about the loss of income, he spent his days at the train station pondering what to do. List said he would read, take naps and try to find a solution to his financial mess.
The solution he came to was the murder of his mother, wife, and children.
One day in late 1971, List simply shot them and killed them. Dead were Helen, his wife, his 16-year-old daughter named Patricia, sons John (15) and Frederick (13), as well as his mother, Alma, aged 85.
They were shot methodically, one by one, starting with his wife. List shot her in the kitchen as she sipped her customary morning coffee shortly after seeing his children off to school. Then, he went up to the third floor and murdered his mother in her bed. The children he shot one at a time as they came home from school in the afternoon.
He laid all of the bodies on top of sleeping bags in the ballroom. He stayed in the mansion that night and fled the next morning.
When authorities entered the mansion almost a month later on Dec. 7, 1971, they heard organ music piped through the intercom system. They also found a five-page note from John List explaining he felt they were mercy killings. He wanted to save the souls of the people he loved because there was too much evil in the physical world.
His crime was well thought out. No one had found out about the murders for a month. The FBI found his car parked at Kennedy International Airport in New York City, but they never found him. The trail went cold.
18 Years Later
Fast forward 18 years to 1989. Prosecutors in Union County, New Jersey had come up with a plan. They had a profiler create a physical bust of what List may have looked like after aging nearly two decades. They even put horn-rimmed glasses on the bust because psychologists theorized that List would wear the same spectacles he wore as a younger man to make him appear successful.
The case appeared on America’s Most Wanted on May 21, 1989. An estimated 22 million people saw the show, and tips came pouring in. Authorities had a match from a tip in Richmond, Virginia, from a woman who thought her next-door neighbor bore a striking resemblance to the bust. The tipster said her neighbor was also an accountant and attended church.
Authorities went to the home of Robert Clark and spoke to his wife, whom he met at a church social gathering. She helped fill in the blanks. It turned out that List had changed his identity and moved to Colorado under the assumed name “Robert Clark” before ultimately moving to Richmond.
Police in Virginia arrested the mass murderer on June 1, 1989, a mere nine days after the TV show aired his case.
At his trial in 1990, defense lawyers argued that List suffered from PTSD from his military service in World War II and Korea. Prosecutors and expert psychologists believed List was going through a mid-life crisis, though that was no excuse to kill five innocent people.
The jury finally found List guilty, and a judge sentenced him to five life terms in a New Jersey prison.
In an interview with Connie Chung in 2002, List said he didn’t kill himself after killing his own family because he felt that would prevent him from getting to heaven. All List wanted was to reunite with his wife, mother, and children in the afterlife where there is no pain or suffering.
List died in 2008. Whether he got his wish, no one knows.
The mansion in New Jersey where John List lived with his family burned down five years after the murders. Authorities never found the cause of the fire, and a new house was built on the property in later years. Even though the murders happened more than 45 years ago, the stories of what happened still haunt residents of Westfield. In an interview in 2008, parents told a reporter in New Jersey that children flat-out will not walk past that property, nor do they want to even live on the same street.
Who can blame them?