People do crazy things in the name of their faith. I mean, how many times have you opened up a newspaper (do people even do that anymore?) or opened up a news webpage and you come across a title like, “Panama religious sect kills seven in bizarre ritual!” Just take a look into Jim Jones. Remember the saying, “What was in the Kool-Aid?” And… as I’m doing the research for this blog, I come across a Yahoo article with the headline, “Multiple people stabbed at a Bible Study in Virginia.”
At first, this story isn’t about the family’s faith. In fact, at first, you’ll probably think, “Why the heck did she mention Jonestown, and other religious-fueled murders in correlation to this case?” But the further on you read, you’ll see why I mentioned it. This is the story of the List Family Murders.
John Emil List was born in Bay City, Michigan on September 17th, 1925 to John and Alma List. He was an only child, and just like his father, he was a devout Lutheran and later became a Sunday school teacher. World WarⅡeffected everyone’s lives in that time- and in 1945 (just as the war was about to end) John enlisted in the US Army and served in the infantry as a lab tech. He was discharged in 1946 and eventually enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor- where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s in accounting. Throughout his time in school, John was commissioned a second lieutenant through ROTC.
In November of 1950, just as the Korean War was escalating, John was recalled to active military service. While at Fort Eustis in Virginia, he met Helen Morris Taylor. Helen was a widow of an infantry officer who was killed in action in Korea, and she lived nearby to Fort Eustis with her daughter, Brenda. John and Helen married on December 1st 1951 in Baltimore, Maryland and the new family made their way to northern California. The Army- taking note of John’s accounting skills, reassigned him to the Finance Corps.
After he completed his second tour in 1952, John worked for an accounting firm in Detroit, and then as an audit supervisor at a paper company in Kalamazoo- where his three children were born. By 1959, John had risen to general supervisor of the company’s accounting department. While this was happening, Helen had grown into an alcoholic- and grown a little unstable.
In 1960, John’s step-daughter, Brenda, got married and left the home. Shortly thereafter, John took a job in Rochester, NY at Xerox. While working for Xerox, John became director of accounting services. In 1965, John accepted a position as vice-president and comptroller at a bank in Jersey City, New Jersey. There, John moved his wife, children and mother into Breeze Knoll- a 19-room Victorian mansion at 431 Hillside Avenue in Westfield.
November 9th, 1971. John was 46. Helen, also 46. Patricia (daughter) was 16. John Jr (son) was 15. Frederick (son) was 13. John List woke up his three children- just like he did every morning. He sat with them while they ate breakfast. The three children then left for school, again, like normal. Helen woke up and came downstairs for her customary cup of coffee. John and Helen at a quick chit-chat while she enjoyed her cup of brew.
Out of nowhere, John came up behind his wife and shot her once in the head with a 9mm Steyr pistol that his late father had given him. Helen was killed instantly. John placed Helen’s body on a sleeping bag and dragged her through the house and placed her body in the grand ballroom and laid her out underneath the stained-glass ceiling. He turned, and made his way to the upstairs (third floor apartment) where his 84 year old mother lay waiting.
Alma was fixing her own breakfast when John entered her in-law apartment. John, “feeling like a Judas,” gave her a kiss. Alma asked what the noise was that she heard from downstairs. John gave a vague non-answer. And like he had done before, he quickly took his gun, put it to his mother’s left temple and pulled the trigger. John wanted to do the same as he did with his wife to his mother, but her body was too heavy to get downstairs. So, he simply put a towel over her face and left her where she had fallen.
Back downstairs, he cleaned up the “surprising” amount of blood in the kitchen. Afterwards, he wrote letters and made phone calls to the kids’ teachers, his boss and others- stating that the family had to leave to go tend to Helen’s sick mother in North Carolina. (John later had said that Helen’s mother was planning on visiting the family in Westfield, but had cancelled due to her sickness. He confessed that if she made the trip, he would have killed her too.) After sealing the letters, he made his way to the Post Office to mail them, and also told the people there to stop mail delivery. While out of the house, he also stopped the milk and newspaper deliveries. Finally, he dropped by the bank, and cashed his mother’s $2,000 savings bond.
Back at Breeze Knoll, John made himself a sandwich and laid in wait for his children to return home. But then he received a phone call from Patricia- she called and told her father that she was feeling ill and wanted to come home early. Being the great dad that he was, John went to get his only daughter from school. Once returning to the house, John shot Patricia in the jaw with his antique .22 pistol, a souvenir that he had kept from his time in the war. Just like Helen, he took Patricia and laid her out in the ballroom.
Next home was Frederick. John had shot his youngest son just like he had done with the others, and again, laid him in the ballroom next to Patricia.
John Jr had a soccer game that day. John Sr drove to the soccer field and watched his eldest son play, then drove him home. Once inside the kitchen, John shot his namesake in the back of the head. But, unlike the rest of his family, John Jr fought back and struggled. John Sr eventually ended up shooting his son nine times before dragging his body into the ballroom with the others.
Like the devout Lutheran that he claimed to be, John took out his hymnal and said a prayer over his family’s bodies.
John cleaned up the blood the best he could, then made dinner and sat at the table to eat. When he was done, he washed his dishes and set them to dry in the drainer. He went to bed and slept- and later admitted that it was the best sleep he had in years.
The next morning, he turned down the air conditioning to better preserve the bodies. He turned on every light in the house and turned on the radio to his favorite religious music station. Other resources state that it was a classical music station. He did so in hopes of tricking any intruder to think that there were (alive) people in the home. John then sat down at his desk, and penned a five page letter to his pastor, confessing for the five murders. He claimed in the letter that he saw too much evil in the world, and had killed his family to save their souls. Then finally, he found every family picture he could, and cut his image out of them.
John left Breeze Knoll like he normally would have- locking the door behind him.
He drove to John F Kennedy International Airport to drop his car off, then took a bus back into the city. From there, he took a train to Denver. There, he applied for a social security card under the name: Robert Peter Clark. He got a job as a short-order cook and started a new life.
Meanwhile, Breeze Knoll sat still, empty of life. As the weeks passed, the lights began to burn out and eventually leaving the mansion dark and void of light. Only the sound of classical music playing from the speakers could be heard.
Because the Lists’ were so reclusive, it took nearly a month before anyone noticed anything was amiss. The neighbors did make note that it was odd that the mansion’s lights were on both day and night, but because they knew that the List family were homebodies, they didn’t think much of it.
By the first week of December, Patricia’s drama teacher grew concerned over her prolonged absence. The drama teacher went on to say that he knew that John List was an odd man, but when Patricia had confided in him that she thought her father could murder her family, he grew more worried. He asked a fellow teacher to accompany him to the List home to see if anything was wrong, and when they went peeking through windows and walking around the outside of the house, the neighbors called the police. Officers George Zhelesnick and Charles Haller were the first to arrive.
The family was discovered on December 7th. Like the teachers, the officers knocked on doors and looked through windows. At the neighbor’s urging, the officers found an unlocked window and climbed through.
The house was almost entirely dark. Upstairs there was a single light still on that cast long and spooky shadows. The air was frigid. And creepiest of all, was that music described as “funeral music” was playing through the house’s speakers. The officers let their flashlights lead the way and eventually they came across a set of curtains, and then were immediately hit with the smell of decomposing bodies. And there they found them; neatly laid out on sleeping bags were the bodies of Helen, Patricia, Frederick and John Jr.
The officers didn’t finish their search in the ballroom. They continued to search the house and eventually came across John’s confession letter and the guns he used in the murders. They also found Alma’s body from the instructions in the letter.
The two officers immediately sent out a nationwide APB for John List. They soon found his car at the airport, but couldn’t find evidence of him ever boarding a plane. Any leads came up short and no clues as to where John might have gone. John List was in the wind.
Alma’s body was flown to Frankenmuth, Michigan and interred at the Saint Lorenz Lutheran Cemetery. Helen, Patricia, Frederick and John Jr were buried at the Fairview Cemetery in Westfield.
Breeze Knoll stood empty until it was destroyed in an arson fire in August of 1972. Destroyed with the home was the stained-glass skylight that was rumored to be a signed Tiffany original- and worth more than $100,00 at the time. (610,000 as of 2019) A new house was built on the plot of land in 1974.
Over the years, the police followed every tip, sighting and lead- but to no avail. The police and the press did everything they could to keep the case in the public eye. They published and broadcasted the case on every significant anniversary- the first, the third, the fifth and the tenth. They even tried to get the murders onto Unsolved Mysteries, but were unlucky in doing so. By 1989, the List case was almost 18 years cold. America’s Most Wanted was on the air for a little over a year at the time, so Captain Frank Marranca of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office thought that the show could broadcast the case to a wider audience and hopefully, bring John List to justice. But just like Unsolved Mysteries, America’s Most Wanted (producers) thought that the case was “too old, too cold.”
Enter: John Walsh. If you’re reading this and don’t know who John Walsh is, then here’s a tiny snip-it: John Walsh’s son (Adam) went missing when he was abducted from a Sears department store on July 27th, 1981. His severed head was found two weeks later in a drainage canal alongside highway 60/Yeehaw Junction in rural Indian River County, Florida. John Walsh, alongside his wife, became an advocate for victims of violent crimes and Walsh became the host of America’s Most Wanted. (He’s now the host of In Pursuit with John Walsh) Because of what John Walsh has been through, he had some strong feelings against John List. Walsh has referred to List as a “son of a bitch”, “a coward”, and a “child-killer.” Walsh was dead-set on bringing List to justice, but he needed a current picture of him. (Remember- List had destroyed all pictures of him in the home before fleeing) So… what did Walsh do? He called in a forensic sculptor (Frank Bender) to create an age-progressed bust of List. In addition to using the standard facial-reconstruction measurements that most forensic anthropologists use, he also reached out to forensic psychologist Richard Walter, to get a detailed psychological profile of List. He also looked at pictures of List’s parents to see how their faces had aged. Using all that information, along with his own intuition, he created a bust of what List, now in his 60’s, (in 1989) would look like. But the bust couldn’t be complete without his glasses. Knowing List’s personality, Bender scoured thrift stores to find just the right frames that someone like List would likely wear — conservative, with thick black frames. Once he found the pair he thought would be a good fit, the bust was finished.
The case of John List aired on AMW on May 21st, 1989. An estimated 22 million people saw the program, including true-crime fans Wanda Flanery and her daughter Eva Mitchell in Denver. Even before the bust was shown, Flanery and Mitchell were sure their former neighbor, Bob Clark, fit the description: soft-spoken, always wears a suit, an accountant, a devout Lutheran. When Bender’s forensic bust was shown on screen, they were stunned. It looked just like Clark, right down to the glasses. So Flanery called the tip line. Eleven days later, the FBI showed up at “Bob Clark’s” home in Richmond, Virginia. His new wife, Delores, told them that he was at work. So on June 1st, (less than two weeks after the broadcast) the agents showed up at the office where “Clark” was working as an accountant. One of the agents said it was striking how much he looked like Bender’s sculpture. List was arrested and charged with five counts of first-degree murder.
Investigators asked him if he was Bob Clark, and he said yes. They then asked if he was John List. He denied it. He continued to deny it until his prints were found to be a match to military records and when he applied for a handgun permit… and when they showed him evidence of the crime scene- he confessed his true identity on February 16th, 1990.
His trial began on April 2nd, 1990… just 18 and a half years after the killings. Throughout the trial, we learned of the REAL John List. Things had always been strained in the List family, at least to John. He had met Helen, who was a widow, after college. Soon after they began dating, she told him she was pregnant, so John, a devout Lutheran, agreed to marry her. However, after the wedding she revealed that she had not been pregnant after all. John felt, rightly, that he had been tricked, but his religious beliefs would not allow him to break his marriage vows. And while Helen might not have been pregnant before they were married, she wasted no time in getting that way. Within four years, Helen and John had their three children.
This put immense pressure on John to provide for his family, but he couldn’t seem to hold down a job. While the quality of his work was never an issue — he was meticulous and hard-working — he was often let go because he just rubbed his bosses or coworkers the wrong way. Something about John List was off-putting in a way that was hard to pin down. So when he landed a job as a vice president of a bank in New Jersey, it seemed their problems were over. Helen insisted that John purchase her dream home — Breeze Knoll (the most expensive house in the most expensive part of town.) They couldn’t really afford such an extravagant place, but rather than risk a confrontation, John went to his mother, Alma, to ask for a loan.
While John’s late father had been the more traditional, distant type, John and his mother were always close. Friends said Alma doted on her only child. So she lent him the money he needed, and in exchange, she got to live in a self-contained apartment on the third floor of the mansion.
Everything had gone downhill. In less than a year, he was fired from the bank job — again, due to personality clashes. Rather than tell his family what had happened (and admit failure), he continued to get dressed and go to “work” every day. He would drive to the train station and ride it a few stops, get off, and return on a different train. He did eventually find another, lower-paying job, which he also lost, and another, and another. His income was not keeping pace with his expenses, and he had begun skimming money from his mother’s accounts. By 1971, he was bankrupt. This presented a deep moral crisis for the devout Lutheran, who believed that poverty itself was a sin. On top of that, he had three teenagers who were, in his mind, turning more towards the sinful culture of 1970’s America. He was particularly worried about Patricia: she had expressed a desire to go into acting, which, John believed, was an especially corrupt profession. There were even rumors she was dabbling in witchcraft and experimenting with marijuana. But that was not even the worst thing tearing the List family apart. Helen’s health was deteriorating rapidly, thanks to a terrible secret she had hidden from John for years. Not long after they moved to New Jersey, she began experiencing blackouts and falling down. The vision in her right eye was going. She was drinking heavily and had become dependent on tranquilizers. In the winter of 1968–69, tests revealed she had tertiary syphilis, which she had contracted from her first husband. To make matters worse, Helen, either from embarrassment or mental instability, had stopped going to church. John had been silently churning all of this around in his mind for months. Going bankrupt was inevitable. However, this would put the family in poverty, dependent on charity and welfare — a completely unacceptable option, according to John. He had considered taking his own life. But in his religion, suicide was the one unforgivable sin. As much as he resented his family for the burden they placed on him, he did, in his way, love them. He wanted to know that he would at least have a chance of seeing them again on the other side. He was determined that there was only one way to save his family from the humiliation and sinfulness of poverty. Much like he did everything in life, he had worked out his plan in meticulous detail.
During the trial, a court-appointed psychiatrist testified the List suffered from obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. List had said that he saw only two solutions to his situation: accept welfare, or kill his family and sent their souls to heaven. Welfare was an unacceptable option, he reasoned, because it would expose him and his family to ridicule and violate his authoritarian father’s teachings regarding the care and protection of family members.
On April 12th, 1990, John List was convicted of five counts of first-degree murder. At his sentencing hearing, John List denied direct responsibility for his actions, “I feel that because of my mental state at the time, I was unaccountable for what happened. I ask all affected by this for their forgiveness, understanding and prayer.” The judge being unpersuaded, “John Emil List is without remorse and without honor..” , “After 18 years, five months and 22 days, it is now time for the voices of Helen, Alma, Patricia, Frederick and John F List to rise from the grave.” He imposed a sentence of five terms of life imprisonment, to be served consecutively. (This was the maximum permissible penalty at the time)
John List filed an appeal of his convictions on grounds that his judgement had been impaired by PTSD due to his military service. He also argued that his letter that he wrote to his pastor that was found at the murder scene was supposed to be a confidential communication to his pastor, and therefore inadmissible in court. A federal appeals court rejected both arguments.
List eventually expressed a degree of remorse for his crimes, “I wish I had never done what I did…” , “I’ve regretted my action and prayed for forgiveness ever since.” When List was asked by Connie Chung in 2002 why he had not taken his own life, he said he believed that suicide would have barred him from heaven, where he hoped to be reunited with his family.
In doing research for this blog, I found some reports that people thought that John List was autistic. At this point, all speculation is moot, but here is why others believe that he was under the autism spectrum… and why I sort of agree. (And just let me be very, very clear with this. I know, and have loved ones under the autism spectrum. So I know first hand that the majority of those on the spectrum are non-violent, so I’m not saying that autism made him homicidal. AT ALL. And, being on the spectrum would not, should not, and does not excuse him of, or justify his actions.) So here’s why: just look at what his co-workers and neighbors said about him: he was hard-working, focused and meticulous- traits commonly found on the spectrum. He was soft-spoken, polite, and pathologically avoided conflict, yet he seemed “strange”, “odd”, “off-putting”- again, traits commonly found on the spectrum. Those on the spectrum seem to have odd behaviors and seem to lack social skills, which are probably the most-known symptoms of the disorder. List was diagnosed with OCD and as such, the symptoms of OCD and autism are so similar that they are commonly indistinguishable even to doctors and psychiatrists. If you watch his interviews, you’ll notice that before speaking to police, psychiatrists or television hosts, List would carefully, even fussily, arrange any items on the table. Everything had to be just so. His manner seemed flat, emotionless- his tone of voice never changing.
Again, this is all purely speculation. We’ll never really know what went on in his head. John Emil List died of complications from pneumonia at the age of 82 on March 21st, 2008 while in prison custody at St Francis Medical Center in Trenton, NJ. In reporting his death, the New Jersey Star-Ledger referred to him as “the bogeyman of Westfield.”
Over the years, List and his crimes have given inspiration for a number of documentaries and movies. Examples include the 1993 film ‘Judgement Day: The John List Story’, in which List was portrayed by Robert Blake, (who like List was charged with his wife’s murder, but unlike List, was actually acquitted of the crime) the 1987 film ‘The Stepfather’ and it’s 2009 remake, and the character Keyser Soze in the 1995 film ‘The Usual Suspects’. In 1996, an episode from Forensic Files discussed the List murders. A 2003 episode of the A&E series American Justice also detailed the case and featured an interview with List. In 2015, the List murders were featured on season 2, episode 2 of the ID show, Your Worst Nightmare.
List is often compared to, and sometimes confused with, Xavier Pierre Marie Dupont de Ligonnès. Like List, Xavier planned out, and executed his plan of murdering his own family. He too, went on the run and is currently, still on the run. Xavier’s case is currently streaming on Netflix as a part of the newly-revived Unsolved Mysteries. The case is titled ‘House of Terror’ and is episode three. Check it out if you’re interested.
John List is, in my opinion, the very scariest type of killer- the one that you never see coming. How someone can come to the conclusion to murder their entire family on the premise of “saving their souls” is utterly mortifying to me. I pray that his family are at peace and are in fact together in heaven.
**Some images below are extremely graphic. Proceed with caution.
**Warning! Images below are graphic!