How John List Killed His Whole Family — And Got Away With It For 18 Years

Published February 16, 2024
Updated March 18, 2024

After John List murdered his wife, mother, and three children in 1971, he assumed a different identity, remarried, and started a new life — until an episode of America's Most Wanted finally led police to him in 1989.

John List appeared to be the perfect son, husband, and father. He worked hard as an accountant to provide for his family. The Westfield, New Jersey mansion where he lived with his mother, wife, and three children had 19 rooms, including a ballroom, marble fireplaces, and a Tiffany skylight.

John List

John List with his wife and three children.

List and his family were the embodiment of the American dream in the early 1970s. They attended church every Sunday as devout Lutherans, and List even taught Sunday school. Everything appeared great on the surface.

Tragically, however, almost nothing was as it seemed.

The Grisly Murder Of The List Family

In 1971, 46-year-old John List lost his job at a New Jersey bank. He tried to find new employment, but nothing panned out. List couldn’t bear to tell his family about the loss of income — so he just kept pretending to go to work each morning.

List spent his days at the train station, reading the newspaper and secretly skimming money from his mother’s bank accounts to pay the mortgage. He refused to go on welfare, as it would entail excruciating embarrassment in the community and violate the principles of self-sufficiency that he’d learned from his father.

It’s hard to believe the solution he arrived at would have been more acceptable to his dad, but John List would later say it seemed to him the only option: murdering his mother, wife, and children.

Patricia And John List

Wikimedia CommonsTwo of the List children, Patricia and John.

As reported by The New York Times, on Nov. 9, 1971, John List shot and killed his wife, Helen; his 16-year-old daughter, Patricia; his 15-year-old son, John; his 13-year-old son, Frederick; and his mother, Alma, aged 85.

They were shot methodically, one by one. Helen was first. List saw the children off to school and then shot her in the kitchen as she sipped her usual morning coffee. Then, he went up to the third floor and murdered his mother in her bed.

He shot Patricia and his youngest son, Frederick, when they returned home from school. Then, he made himself a sandwich, closed out his bank accounts, and cheered for his other son, John, at his high school soccer game. He gave him a ride home and then shot him in the chest.

With his entire family dead, John List then set out to escape justice for his grisly crimes.

How John List Evaded The Authorities

John List laid the bodies of his family members on top of sleeping bags in the ballroom and then composed a note to his pastor, who he felt would understand his actions. He feared his family, confronted with a world full of evil and poverty, would turn from God. Killing them was the only way to secure their spot in Heaven.

List was not, however, willing to suffer the earthly consequences of his actions. In an effort to baffle the police, he cleaned the crime scene and used scissors to remove his face from every photo in the mansion.

He canceled all deliveries and contacted his children’s schools to let their teachers know the family would be on vacation for a few weeks. He turned on the lights and the radio, leaving religious hymns playing in the house’s empty rooms.

Mugshot Of John List

New Jersey Department of Corrections/Wikimedia CommonsA mugshot of John List from c. 2005.

He slept in the mansion where his family lay dead, then he walked out the door the next morning — and wasn’t seen again for 18 years.

A month passed before neighbors, curious about the constantly burning lights and empty windows, began to suspect something was wrong at the List mansion.

When authorities entered the home on Dec. 7, 1971, they heard organ music piped through the intercom system. They also found the five-page note from John List explaining that the bloodied bodies on the ballroom floor were his family members, killed out of mercy. He had saved the souls of the people he loved.

The FBI found his car parked at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, but there was no trace of List. The trail quickly came to an end.

John List Is Captured After 18 Years

Though the List family murder case had gone cold early on, New Jersey prosecutors refused to give up on their hunt for justice. In 1989, they came up with an idea.

They contacted Michael Linder, the executive producer of America’s Most Wanted, and told him about the case. Linder was intrigued, but he wanted to ensure that he had an updated image of John List to air on the program, as so many years had passed since the murders. “It seemed to me that it was a job for Frank Bender,” Linder told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1989.

Bender was an expert forensic artist, and he agreed to create a physical bust of John List as Bender imagined he might have aged. Bender gave him a hawk nose, grizzled eyebrows, and horn-rimmed glasses. Psychologists theorized that List would wear the same spectacles he’d donned as a younger man to remind him of his more successful days.

It was a masterful depiction of John List. When America’s Most Wanted aired the story of the murders on May 21, 1989, an audience of 22 million saw Frank Bender’s sculpture. Tips came pouring in.

One came from a woman in Richmond, Virginia, who thought her next-door neighbor, Robert Clark, bore a striking resemblance to the bust. The tipster said her neighbor was also an accountant and attended church.

Authorities went to Clark’s home and spoke to his wife, whom he’d met at a church social gathering in 1977 and married in 1985. Her story put an end to the 18-year-long mystery.

Americas Most Wanted

National Museum of Crime & Punishment/Wikimedia CommonsJohn List was finally captured after the story of the List family murders was featured on America’s Most Wanted in 1989.

It turned out that List had changed his identity and moved to Colorado under the assumed name Robert Clark. The alias worked, and he’d kept it when he moved to Richmond.

Police in Virginia arrested John List on June 1, 1989, a mere 10 days after America’s Most Wanted 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. Expert psychologists believed that List was going through a mid-life crisis — but, as the prosecution pointed out, that was no excuse for killing five innocent people.

The jury found John List guilty, and a judge sentenced him to five life terms in a New Jersey prison.

In an interview with ABC’s Connie Chung in 2002, List said he didn’t kill himself after murdering 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 he believed there would be no pain or suffering.

John List died in prison in 2008 at age 82.

The mansion in New Jersey where the List family was killed burned down several months after the murders. Authorities never found the cause of the fire, and a new house was built on the property years later.

The memory of the murders still haunts Westfield residents, however. Children reportedly will not walk past that property to this day.

And who can blame them?

After learning about the murders committed by John List, check out the story of Dale Cregan, the one-eyed killer. Then, read the chilling story of John Wayne Gacy, the original killer clown.

Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.