He is sometimes referred to as the nastiest mass-murderer in America’s history, and not without merit. In November 1971 John Emil List annihilated his entire family, shooting them in the back of the head, execution style. He then managed to get a hefty head start on his escape as authorities failed to discover the bodies for almost an entire month! It took nearly two decades before List was captured in 1989, having lived a blissful new life under an alias for 18 years. After a member of the public recognised List on America’s Most Wanted, she alerted the FBI and he was promptly arrested. List was ultimately sentenced to 5 life sentences for the first degree murders of his family.
Here’s the story of John List…
CHILDHOOD / EARLYLIFE
John Emil List was born on 17th September 1925 in Bay City, Michigan, U.S, to German-American parents, John Frederick List and Alma Barbara Florence List. His father, John List Sr was a devout Lutheran and his mother was described as protective, overbearing and domineering. List, their only child, was raised with a strict religious upbringing. Something he claims he embraced whole-heartedly. Overall his childhood was normal and unremarkable, with none of the usual killer traits we so often hear about in regards to other murderers.
In 1943 at the age of 18/19, List enlisted in the United States Army, serving as a laboratory technician during WWII. Three years later, in 1946, he was discharged, after which he enrolled himself at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Studying hard, List earned himself a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and later, a master’s degree in accounting. Whilst at university, he also trained for the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) where he was commissioned as a second Lieutenant.
As a result of the Korean War intensifying, in 1950, List was recalled back into active military duty at Fort Eustis, Virginia. It was during his time there that he met widowed, single mother of 1, Helen Morris Taylor. After a short romance, on 1st December 1951, List and Helen wed. Allegedly, Helen had tricked John into the marriage by telling him she was pregnant. When he discovered she wasn’t, although furious, he decided to stand by his vows and continue the marriage. Not long after the wedding, List relocated his family to Northern California, where he was reassigned to the Finance Corps due to his accounting skills.
In 1952 List was discharged once again after completing his 2nd tour. He took employment as an accountant for a firm in Detroit, Michigan, before moving onto a company in Kalamazoo, Michigan, as an audit supervisor. It was during this time his wife, Helen, who had become an increasingly unstable alcoholic, gave birth to List’s three children – Patricia, John Jr and Frederick.
Over the next few years, List accepted various work promotions via different companies and with his career thriving he eventually settled his family in the affluent town of Westfield, Union County, New Jersey. It was here the couple purchased a 19 room Victorian Mansion called Breeze Knoll and List moved his elderly mother into the family home with himself, his wife and their 3 children. Helen’s eldest daughter, (from her previous marriage) had already married and left the household.
List, now 46, was still a dedicated Lutheran, attending church every week with his family and serving as a Sunday school teacher. He and Helen had been married for almost 20 years and the family appeared to be living the American dream. In realty, people who know them described the mansion as being dilapidated and sparse, while List himself was described as somewhat of a social outcast, rigid and generally just unlikeable. Helen was described as unkept and was often heard humiliating List in public. In contrast, the media reported them as being a fine and wonderful family who simply kept to themselves.
List, was thriving in his job at the bank, he and his family were wealthy enough to live a decent, although slightly reclusive lifestyle. As is usual with these type of cases though… the dream very quickly became a nightmare.
*** WARNING!! The following contains crime scene photographs which may cause distress. Viewer discretion is advised.***
In November 1971, the church, schools, neighbours and friends of the List family were informed the family would be away for a while, visiting a sick relative in North Carolina. However, after teachers and neighbours realised they hadn’t seen a single member of the List family in over a month, concern grew and eventually the police were called to conduct a welfare check at the property. On 7th December, when officers failed to receive a response from knocking on the front door, they gained access to the premises via an unlocked basement window.
The officers began a search of Breeze Knoll, List’s Mansion. They knew instantly something bad had happened within the home as the tell tale stench of death surrounded them. Bizarrely, funeral dirge music could be heard throughout the cold house, playing on repeat over an intercom system. As they entered the ornate ballroom, with the magnificent, signed, Tiffany stained glass skylight, they were met with the gruesome discovery of the List Family. Helen, 45, Patricia, 16, John Jr, 15, and Frederick, 13, were found dead, laying upon sleeping bags, side by side, on the ballroom floor. List’s mother, Alma, 85, was discovered upstairs in her apartment on the third floor. All the victims had been fatally shot at close range. But one family member was missing – List! Where was List?
A further search of the property led to the discovery of a letter in the study, written by List, alongside a couple of guns. (Ballistic tests would later reveal these were the guns used in the murders.) The five page confession / explanation, addressed to, Rev. Eugene A. Rehwinkel, (List’s Pastor) left police in no doubt as to who the murderer was. John Emil List had annihilated his entire family.
The American dream had become a nightmare when List lost his job as vice president of a bank in New Jersey, due to closure of the branch. A proud man, List refused to admit to his wife what had happened, opting instead to head to the train station and read the newspaper each day whilst pretending to be at work. As time went on the family’s financial situation worsened, (unbeknown to Helen) furthering List’s humiliation. He feared the family would lose everything and end up on welfare. Believing a man’s responsibility was to provide for his family, he despaired at the fact that he was unable to do so. Years later, List commented;
“I grew up with the idea that you should provide for your family and to do that you had to be a success in the job that you had – or you’re a failure, and that was not a good thing to be.”ThecriminalCode.com
On top of his financial woes, List feared his family were not as dedicated to the Christian life as he was and that he was losing them to an more immoral, Godless, lifestyle, especially Patricia who was interested in pursuing an acting career, Heaven forbid!
“With Pat being so determined to get into acting I was also fearful as to what that might do to her continuing to be Christian. I’m sure it wouldn’t have helped.“List’s confession letter
To add to List’s discontent, Helen had renounced the church and he feared the children would soon follow. She was also still dependant on alcohol as well as suffering from untreated syphilis, caught from her first husband, or so List later claimed in court for his defence. As for why List killed his mother, it’s likely he didn’t want her to find out he’d been skimming money from her bank account. However, Joe Sharkey put it best when he said..
“Well, he killed the old lady because she would have been horrified at what he’d done to the rest of them.”Joe Sharkey / Joesharkey.com
In List’s mind there was only one thing he could do to saviour his family, he had to send them to God and save their souls.
In his letter List explained not only why he had murdered his wife and children but also how…
On November 9th 1971, whilst his children were at school, List prepped and loaded his two handguns, a 9mm Steyr 1912 and a Colt .22 Revolver. He calmly approached his wife in the kitchen, raised his gun and shot her in the back of the head., execution style. She dropped dead in the very spot she had been drinking coffee only moments before.
Upstairs, List’s mother was beginning her morning. As she ate her breakfast in the kitchen of her self contained third floor apartment, List shot her in the face, just above her left eye. He attempted to move her body downstairs to the ballroom but admitted in his confession that she was too heavy to move, so he left her where she fell.
Whilst he waited for the children to finish school, List busied himself with dragging his wifes lifeless body into the ballroom and cleaning / mopping up the deathly scene in the kitchen.
As his children, Patricia and Frederick, returned home from school he shot them each in turn, in the back of the head. After making himself a sandwich, List attended John Jr’s soccer match before driving the ill-fated teenager home. Once back at the mansion, he shot John Jr just as he had his sibling mere hours before. However, he unexpectedly had to shoot John Jr several times more in order to kill him because the youngster fought hard to defend himself and took longer to die.
“John got hurt more because he seemed to struggle longer.”Forensic Files / List’s confession Letter
Afterwards, List dragged his children’s corpses to the ballroom and placed them on sleeping bags beside their mother. He prayed for his family, confident he had saved their souls and that they were with God now, then wrote the letter to his pastor. Before retiring to bed, List carefully removed and destroyed all pictures of him and his face from the family photographs in the house, presumably to make it harder for police to identify him in the media. He’d also turned the thermostat right down in order to reduce the rate of decomposition.
“I said some prayers for them all – from the hymn book. That was the least I could do.”List’s confession Letter
“At last I’m certain that all have gone to heaven now. If things had gone on, who knows if that would be the case.”List’s Confession letter
Dear Pastor Rehwinkel:
I am sorry to add this additional burden to your work. I know that what has been done is wrong from all that I have been taught and that any reasons that I might give will not make it right. But you are the one person that I know that while not condoning this will at least possibly understand why I felt that I had to do this. 1. I wasn’t earning anywhere near enough to support us. Everything I tried seemed to fall to pieces. True, we could have gone bankrupt and maybe gone on welfare. 2. But that brings me to my next point. Knowing the type of location that one would have to live in, plus the environment for the children, plus the effect on them knowing they were on welfare was just more than I thought they could and should endure. I know they were willing to cut back, but this involved a lot more than that. 3. With Pat being so determined to get into acting I was also fearful as to what that might do to her continuing to be Christian. I’m sure it wouldn’t have helped. 4. Also, with Helen not going to church I knew that this would harm the children eventually in their attendance. I had continued to hope that she would begin to come to church soon. But when I mentioned to her that Mr. Jutze wanted to pay her an elder’s call, she just blew up and said she wanted her name taken off the church rolls. Again this could only have an adverse result for the children’s continued attendance.
So that is the sum of it. If any one of these had been the condition, we might have pulled through but this was just too much. At least I’m certain that all have gone to heaven now. If things had gone on who knows if this would be the case.
Of course, Mother got involved because doing what I did to my family would have been a tremendous shock to her at this age. Therefore, knowing that she is also a Christian I felt it best that she be relieved of the troubles of this world that would have hit her.
After it was all over I said some prayers for them all – from the hymn book. That was the least that I could do. Now for the final arrangements: Helen and the children have all agreed that they would prefer to be cremated. Please see to it that the costs are kept low.
For Mother, she has a plot at the Frankenmuth Church cemetery. Please contact Mr. Herman Schellkas, Route 4, Vassar, Mich. 41768.
He’s married to a niece of Mother’s and knows what arrangements are to be made. (She always wanted Rev. Herman Zehnder of Bay City to preach the sermon. But he’s not well.) Also I’m leaving some letters in your care. Please send them on and add whatever comments you think appropriate. The relationships are as follows: Mrs. Lydia Meyer – Mother’s sister. Mrs. Eva Meyer – Helen’s mother. Jean Syfert – Helen’s sister.
Also I don’t know what will happen to the books and personal things. But to the extent possible I’d like for them to be distributed as you see fit. Some books might go to the school or church library.
Originally I had planned this for Nov. 1 – All Saints’ Day. But travel arrangements were delayed. I thought it would be an appropriate day for them to get to heaven.
As for me please let me be dropped from the congregation rolls. I leave myself in the hand of God’s Justice and Mercy. I don’t doubt that He is able to help us, but apparently He saw fit not to answer my prayers the way that I hoped they would be answered. This makes me think that perhaps it was for the best as far as the children’s souls are concerned. I know that many will only look at the additional years that they could have lived, but if finally they were no longer Christians what would be gained.
Also I’m sure many will say, ”How could anyone do such a horrible thing?” – My only answer is it isn’t easy and was only done after much thought.
Pastor, Mrs. Morris may possibly be reached at 802 Pleasant Hill Drive. Elkin – home of her sister. One other thing. It may seem cowardly to have always shot from behind, but I didn’t want any of them to know even at the last second that I had to do this to them.
John got hurt more because he seemed to struggle longer. The rest were immediately out of pain. John didn’t consciously feel anything either.
Please remember me in your prayers. I will need them whether or not the government does its duty as it sees it. I’m only concerned with making my peace with God and of this I am assured because of Christ dying even for me.
P.S. Mother is in the hallway in the attic – 3d floor. She was too heavy to move.
By the following morning, John List had left the mansion, his deceased family and his old life behind. By all accounts, his plan had worked out marvellously, It would be another month before the bodies were discovered, by which time List was long gone. Two days after the tragic discovery, List’s car was located in a carpark at JFK airport. There was no evidence to suggest he had boarded a plane and detectives were left with two possible scenarios. Either List had gone on the run or he had taken himself off somewhere and committed suicide. When later questioned about this, List commented that committing suicide wasn’t an option for him because it would have prevented him from going to heaven and that would mean he’d never be re-united with his family. It’s interesting to think that even after murdering his entire family, he still thought he was going to Heaven, so long as he didn’t kill himself.
As to be expected, the list murders became a high priority case and a nationwide murder warrant was issued for List’s arrest. A massive manhunt involving the FBI and other law enforcement agencies ensued but despite all best efforts, John List had simply vanished. Years passed, but there was still no sign of List. He was gone, but not forgotten. Many assumed he had committed suicide and his body had just not been located, yet some believed he was still out there somewhere, living a new life, possibly in the mid-west. Detectives repeatedly tried to keep the murder investigation alive, often turning to the media to generate interest, on each anniversary of the murders. Unfortunately, against all their efforts, List continued to allude them and the case went cold.
List’s Pastor, Rev. Eugene A. Rehwinkel, whom he had left his confessional letter to, attempted to convince List to contact him;
“John, as your pastor, I am still very much your friend who will always support you, stand by you and help you. The Lord God, whom you know and believe in, will not forsake you in these most agonizing times. Please contact me. If you are prevented by other circumstances at this time, wait, pray and contact me when you can, any time, day or night.”Rev. Eugene A. Rehwinkel / NY Times
Rev. Eugene A. Rehwinkel also claimed List’s stepdaughter (Helen List’s eldest daughter) asked him to say the following, on her behalf;
“Daddy, you are all I have left. Please call me.”Rev. Eugene A. Rehwinkel / NY Times
Undeterred by the amount of time that had passed, detectives investigating the murders were resolved to capturing List. In the 1980’s, true crime programmes such as ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ and ‘America’s Most Wanted’ featured on the television sets of many American citizens. This gave detectives an idea and they approached the producers of the latter and asked them to feature the List murders and fugitive, John Emil List, on the show. The hope was that a viewer would recognise List and call into the show with a tipoff which would lead them to List’s location. However, concerns were raised on America’s Most Wanted side due to the amount of time that had past. The only photographs they had to feature were the few remaining ones of List which were decades old. (Remember – he had destroyed all the ones in the family home.)
Fortunately, producers of the show agreed to feature the story.
To overcome the issue of the photograph, America’s Most Wanted decided to employ facial reconstruction expert, Frank Bender, whose work had successfully helped authorities track down other aging fugitives in the past.
Bender was asked to produce a forensic sculpture of List and age progress him by 18 years. To do so he used photographs, including some of List’s parents and consulted with physical anthropologists, forensic dentists, pathologists, forensic psychologists and detectives on the case.
As it turns out, the finished fibreglass sculpture was so accurate it was almost as if List had been sitting in front of him as he carved it, even down to the detail of the glasses.
“I really paid attention to… I think, as much information as I had about John List, what he was all about.”Frank Bender / Forensic Files
In May 1989, America’s Most Wanted aired the episode featuring John Emil List and recounted the story of the List family murders. The episode’s pièce de résistance was the facial reconstruction bust created by Frank Bender. Wanda Flanery and her daughter, Eva Mitchel, in Denver, Colorado, tuned into the show that night and to their horror they recognised the man portrayed in the re-enactment as their former neighbour.
NOTE WORTHY: Joe Sharkey, author of ‘Death Sentence: The Inside Story of the John List Murders‘, reports on his website that during an interview with Wanda Flanery she divulged to him that she had actually suspected her old neighbour, Robert Clark, as being the elusive John Emil List after reading an article on the List family murders – months before the T.V show aired. She had also gone so far as to inform her good friend, Delores, Clark’s wife, of her suspicions but Delores dismissed her concerns as absurd. Fast-forward to the airing of the show, Flanery (allegedly) wasn’t all that surprised or horrified at what she saw, she felt more that her suspicions had been confirmed and so she rang the number on the screen. This version of events is worth considering because, as we all know, what we read and what is portrayed via the news media is not always an accurate version of events.
CAPTURE, TRIAL & SENTENCING
Wanda Flanery called the number printed across her T.V screen and reported her former neighbour, and husband of her good friend, Robert ‘Bob’ Clark as their possible suspect.
“And it just all started adding up, gradually, that he was an accountant, and a Lutheran and he had a scar behind his ear and that he was well put together and a classy dresser and by the time they got to the sculpture I was convinced it was him. The clincher for me was the glasses.”Eva Mitchell: Forensic Files / The List Murders
It took the authorities less than two weeks to locate ‘Robert. P. Clark’ A.K.A John Emil List in Richmond, Virginia and FBI agents arrested him at his place of work, for the murder of his family. He denied it, of course, for several months, even after he was extradited back to to Union County, New Jersey. Eventually, in February 1990, faced with the overwhelming evidence, (including his finger prints matching the ones on military files for John Emil List) and seemingly tired of the charade, ‘Clark’ finally confessed his true identity was that of List and to the murders of Helen, Patricia, John Jr, Fredrick and Alma List.
Police were at last able to piece together List’s movements after the murders. He told them that after leaving the Mansion he had parked his car at JFK airport and then hopped on a train to Michigan and then to Denver, Colorado where he settled and began his new life under the alias, Robert. P. Clark. He chose that identity because it was the name of a guy he’d attended university with so if any background checks were done then they would be confirmed, along with the real Robert. P. Clark’s educational achievements. Having found himself employment as an accountant, (just like the good ‘ole days) he decided to attend the local Lutheran church. It was here he met Delores Miller and the pair married in 1985. Delores claimed to have known nothing of her husbands past and was devastated to learn who he really was. She had been under the impression his first wife had died from cancer and that he’d never had children. Delores divorced List / Clark after his arrest.
During the trial a court-appointed psychiatrist testified that in his medical opinion List was suffering from an obsessive compulsive disorder and that in his head he had believed he had only two options to get out of the situation he was in, admit failure and go on welfare, or murder his family and save their souls. Tragically, we know which option he chose.
List later told detectives that his mother-in-law, Mrs. Eva Morris, had originally been due to visit the family at the time of the murders but cancelled due to illness. He confirmed that had she have done so then she would’ve more than likely become his 6th victim.
List was ultimately sentenced to five counts of first degree murder. Superior Court Judge William Wertheimer handed List the longest sentence in his power, telling List and the courtroom;
“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.”
List didn’t take the stand but after sentencing he attempted to deny responsibilities for his crimes;
“I wish to inform the court I remain truly sorry for the tragic events of 1971,” List said in a strong voice, staring straight ahead. 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.”Los Angeles Times
In 2002 he demonstrated a hint of remorse when he stated during an interview with journalist Connie Chung;
“I’ve regretted my action and prayed for forgiveness ever since.”
Despite appeals, in which List claimed he’d acted under diminished responsibility during the murders, (as a result of post traumatic stress from his military service) and that his letter to his Pastor was confidential and therefore inadmissible as evidence in court, he remained in prison for the rest of his life.
I’d like to end this story with a quote from The New York times magazine;
“John List outlived the family he killed by 37 years. Those people inclined to believe he went anywhere at all afterward surely have no doubt which way he went.”Elizabeth McCracken / New York Times Magazine
On March 17th 2008, List was transferred via police custody from New Jersey State Prison to St. Francis Medical Centre, New Jersey, where four days later, on March 21st, 2008, he died of complications from pneumonia aged 82.
REFERENCES: Forensic files podcast / Podbean: Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_List#CITEREFListGoodrich2006 LA Times: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-05-01-mn-423-story.html Joe Sharkey: https://joesharkey.com/2019/06/11/death-sentence-the-new-epilogue/ Square Mile of Murder: https://squaremileofmurder.com/the-list-family-murders/ New York Times Magazine: https://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/28/magazine/28List-t.html The Criminal Code: https://www.thecriminalcode.com/index.php/2016/06/17/john-list-history-crime-and-psych-profile/ New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/1971/12/12/archives/pastor-makes-appeal-to-man-being-sought-in-murder-of-5-in-jersey.html / https://www.nytimes.com/1990/03/29/nyregion/i-know-that-what-has-been-done-is-wrong.html My Central Jersey: https://eu.mycentraljersey.com/story/news/history/2020/06/01/remember-when-westfield-killer-john-list-arrested/5192043002/ Find a Grave: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/23085/alma-marie-list#view-photo=67879942 FortWiki: http://www.fortwiki.com/Fort_Eustis Murderpedia: https://murderpedia.org/male.L/l/list-john-emil-photos.htm Forensic Tales: https://forensictales.com/the-list-family-murders/ Medium: https://medium.com/the-true-crime-edition/the-case-of-john-list-f5136c52062 Americas Most Haunted: https://www.americas-most-haunted.com/2016/06/28/twisted-mind-family-annihilator-john-list/ Forensic Files Now: https://forensicfilesnow.com/index.php/tag/john-list/ True Crime 365: https://truecrime365.com/2018/06/24/family-annihilator-john-emil-list/ The Famous People: https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/john-list-10634.php