This week we are doing something a bit different, so hold on to your fanny packs and if you’re in the car, buckle on up, because I am taking over the show. Well, for this week anyway. And, we are traveling back to the States this week, for this episode on notorious mass murderer and family annihilator, John Emil List. But before we get into the details surrounding the murders, let’s dive into his background.
John Emil List was born on September 17th, 1925 in Bay City, Michigan to John Frederick List and Alma Barbara Florence LIst, both German-Americans. His father was 66, at the time of his birth, but his mother was 38. Big age gap there. Not sure if that meant they had a hard time getting pregnant or if he was sort of an “oopsie” baby. He was an only child, though he did have a paternal half-brother and half-sister. John Sr. owned a local grocery business and was also a Sunday school teacher for their local church. His family was conservative, and as such, John grew up in a devout Lutheran household with very strict rules. Reportedly, John wasn’t bothered by this and embraced the strict religious upbringing. Unlike many murderers in their childhood years, there actually was nothing to indicate how things would turn out so many years later. No harming or killing of animals. His family, although strict, was not abusive or unstable. No drug or alcohol abuse. No bed wetting. No acts of arson or setting fires. No antisocial behavior to speak of. John List really wasn’t ticking off any of the boxes we usually read or hear about when talking about warning signs for future murderers.
Even while attending Bay City High School, John didn’t exhibit any behaviors viewed by peers or teachers as concerning. He wasn’t very popular and had a small group of friends. Those that knew him, just described him as someone who was usually in the background, and didn’t do anything to stand out from a crowd. So, not necessarily a loner, but not someone who was a troublemaker either. Kind of middle of the road, as many high school students are.
After graduation, in 1943, John en-“list”-ed, see what I did there? Anyway, he enlisted in the United States Army and served as a laboratory technician during WWII. His father died in 1944, at the age of 85. By 1946, John was discharged from the Army, and decided to enroll at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration, and subsequently a Masters Degree in Accounting. In addition to earning those degrees while at the University of Michigan, he also trained for the Reserved Officers’ Training Corps, also known as the ROTC, and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant.
In 1950, 2nd Lieutenant, John List, returned to active duty at Fort Eustis, Virginia, as the Korean War was intensifying. I actually wasn’t sure where Ft. Eustis was in Virginia, so I looked it up, and it is located in the Newport News area of Virginia Beach. While John was there, he met a widow, by the name of Helen Morris Taylor. Helen’s husband was an infantry officer who had been killed, while in the line of duty, in Korea. Helen had a young daughter, by the name of Brenda, and was now a single mother. In doing my research, I found an article written by “True Crime 365”, that indicated Helen had contracted syphilis from her deceased husband, clearly while he was still alive. She actually had it since the 1940’s, was treated for it at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC, and because it is not contagious in its later phases, she did not pass it on to John or their future children. Although it did lead to several miscarriages in her first marriage. Now if this wasn’t enough, supposedly Helen also had an issue with alcohol, specifically scotch, as well as an addiction to painkillers.
Despite her misgivings, John decided to marry her on December 1st, 1951, in Baltimore, after only a year of courtship.. Their marriage may have been accelerated because Helen allegedly faked a pregnancy in order to get John to marry her. After John found out this was untrue, he still chose to abide by the “til death do us part” section of his vows, and remain committed to her and their marriage. If you can’t tell by now, Helen was not the conservative Lutheran wife, I imagine John pictured having. She was very outspoken, and unfiltered to say the least. Even once saying John was less endowed and less of a man than her first husband. That had to be great for his esteem I would think. This wasn’t an isolated incident either. Over the course of their marriage, Helen belittled John and was described as very demanding, and materialistic. But John was committed and tried to immerse Helen into the Lutheran church, hoping this would change her for the better.
John, Helen, and Helen’s daughter, Brenda moved to Northern California, where John used his accounting skills in the Finance Corps of the Army until he was discharged in 1952. After his discharge from the military, the Lists moved again, this time to Detroit, Michigan where John got a job as an accountant. But John had problems keeping any job for a significant period of time. So it wasn’t long before he left his accounting job, and took a job as an audit supervisor, for a paper company in Kalamazoo, Michigan. During this span, John and Helen had 3 children of their own, Patricia, John Jr., and Frederick (his father’s middle name if you remember). By 1960, Helen’s daughter Brenda, from her previous marriage, got married herself and moved out. Likely because her home environment was not what appeared to be from the outside. Her mother’s alcoholism was in full swing, and Helen was starting to experience medical issues related to her syphilis.
Shortly after, John decided to take a position at the Xerox Company. This of course, meant another move for his wife and 3 children. And, this time to Rochester, New York. He was successful in his position and was promoted to Director of Accounting Services. His career was definitely in an upswing, even if his personal life wasn’t. Eventually, the family moved to the affluent town of Westfield, New Jersey, located in Union County. John had taken a lucrative position as Vice President and Comptroller for a bank in Jersey City, NJ. In 1971, they purchased a lavish, 19 room, post-Victorian era Mansion, called “Breeze Knoll”. Located on Hillside Avenue, this was known as an “exclusive” area of Westfield. Around this time, John also moved his aging mother Alma in with him, Helen, and their 3 children. John List was living the American Dream, at least that’s what it looked like to outsiders. John, like his father, taught Sunday School at the Lutheran Church they attended weekly. He became a Boy Scout leader. Really, he was just trying to have a “normal” family and a “normal” life. But, John’s family was far from normal, as was he. And, he kept his children somewhat isolated from others, maybe to protect them, or maybe it was to protect his family’s image, the one he had created for onlookers. Either way, something was bound to give, and when it did, it was unlike any crime known to that date.
By 1971, John and Helen had been married for 20 years. They’ve had 3 children together, all of whom are now teenagers. Patricia – 16, John Jr. – 15, and Frederick – 13. They have this large mansion in this well to do neighborhood. They attend church together. Boy Scouts with his sons. What could possibly go wrong? Oh that’s right, John’s inability to keep a job. That is the catalyst of what’s to come. But John wouldn’t dare let anyone know he is losing control of his job, his house, his cars, his lifestyle, and his family. At age 46, John lost his job at the bank. He quickly tried to find subsequent jobs, but none of them panned out. Having difficulty working for others, John tried to go into business for himself as an insurance agent. But for a guy who is socially awkward, not liked by many for his rigidness, and lacked the ability to hold even the most casual of conversations with his neighbors, John failed miserably as an agent.
So, with no other means of employment leading to a paycheck at this point, John took out not one, but two second mortgages on their house. (Would that make it a 2nd & 3rd mortgage technically?) He then sold the family’s second car. Not sure how he explained that decision away. And, when all this was not enough to make ends meet, he began siphoning money from his mother’s bank account, unbeknownst to her. But John was a proud man, and would not ask for help. Instead, he continued to hide the financial hole he had dug for himself and his family. John would get up every morning, get dressed and go through the motions of going off to “work”. When, in all actuality, he was spending his days at the train station, reading the newspaper. But the walls were caving in. Financially, he couldn’t afford to pay any of the mortgages he had on his home, and by the winter of 1971, foreclosure was in his foreseeable future. His dream was now becoming a nightmare.
His home wasn’t the only thing slipping away from him. So was his family. His wife, at this point, was nearly fully dependent on alcohol and tranquilizers, and would either spend hours every day confined to her bedroom, or could be found crying in one of the many other rooms of their house. The Syphilis, by this stage, had caused cerebral atrophy and a debilitating brain disease. John believed his wife’s lack of interest in attending the church or living a Lutheran lifestyle was now affecting his children. More specifically, List believed his daughter, Patricia, was practicing witchcraft, a definite no-no in living the Lutheran lifestyle. He also suspected she was using marijuana and cocaine. Though I could not find any evidence to support his belief. She also wanted to be an actress, which List viewed as immoral and Godless. In any case, he believed what he believed, and for him, that was his reality. So, when John List could no longer maintain control of his family, in addition to his financial woes, he decided he had to take action. He believed he was going to be their “Savior”. Instead, the next actions of John List, would make him one of the most prolific family annihilators to date in the U.S.
November 9th, 1971 began like any other day. John drove the 3 children to school and dropped them off, while Helen and Alma stayed at the house. After arriving back at his house, John List took two weapons, a 9mm semiautomatic handgun – a Steyr 1912, and a .22 caliber Colt revolver, and carried them with him into the house. He first went into the kitchen, where his wife was having her morning cup of coffee, and proceeded to shoot her one time in the back of the head, execution-style. She died instantaneously. Next, he went upstairs to his mother’s 3rd floor apartment, where she was also getting ready to have breakfast. Supposedly, she asked John what the noise downstairs was. He said nothing, but in return, shot her above her left eye, causing her knees to buckle and break, as she fell dead on the floor of her kitchenette. He attempted to move his mother’s body downstairs to the ballroom, but she was too heavy for him to do so, so he left her body upstairs, and went back downstairs to the body of his wife. He dragged Helen’s body into the ballroom, and placed it on top of a sleeping bag. John then began to clean up the literal mess he had made. Mopping and wiping up the blood in the kitchen before his children came home from school. Patricia was the first of his children to arrive home from school. He waited til her back was to him, and then he proceeded to shoot her in the back of the head, just as he did his wife. His next victim was his youngest son, Frederick. Following the same pattern as his daughter, List waited for his son to turn his back to him, and shot him dead, with one bullet to the back of the head.
And what do you think is the next thing John List did after killing his wife, his mother, his daughter, and his youngest son? If you guessed made himself a sandwich, you would be correct! But I would question your thought process in coming to that conclusion. Unless of course, you already know the details of this story. In any case, John was hungry and needed a sandwich, after all the murder and clean up he had just done. After this, he left the house, stopped by the bank to close out his and his mother’s accounts and continued his check list of things to do. This list included: canceling their milk & newspaper delivery, putting a stop on the mail being delivered, and writing a letter to inform the children’s schools that they would be out of school for a while, as they would be taking care of a sick relative in North Carolina. He seems to be covering all his bases, don’t you think? Sadly, though, he was not done yet. John Jr. was at a soccer game at his high school, and his father, John Sr. did what any other father would do, he went to watch his son play. Only, instead of buying him an ice cream or taking him to get something to eat after the game, John Sr. brought him home, sealing his fate, just like the others. But, the murder didn’t go as smoothly as John Sr. planned it would. Instead, John fought back after seeing that his father was trying to shoot him. Unfortunately, with no weapon, John Jr. was at an insurmountable disadvantage, and ended up dying from 10 gunshot wounds to his face & chest. Having now committed the quadruple homicide of his family, better known as familicide, John List Sr. began placing the bodies of his children, alongside his wife’s on top of sleeping bags in the ballroom. He also placed the two handguns down on the floor next to them. John claims he then prayed over them before going to bed for the evening.
Supposedly, John List spent one more night in the lavish house where he had just annihilated 4 of his family members. The next day, before he left for good, John List Sr. went around the house, with a pair of scissors, and cut out every image of his face from the family photos, to make it more difficult for police to identify him. John put on religious organ music and played it on repeat throughout the house’s intercom system. He turned the thermostat down to reduce the rate of decomposition. He then left behind a letter addressed to his pastor, Eugene Rehwinkel, at the Redeemer Lutheran Church. It was a confession for why he felt he needed to do the things he did. I’m not going to read the letter in its entirety, as it is quite lengthy, but we will include a link in our sources, if you would like to read it in full. However, I am going to read for you now, in his words, some of the points John List made for murdering his family:
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.
Now John, for as righteous as he was, still fled as he knew that his reasoning for committing the murders was not going to accepted by police and us mortals here on Earth. Unfortunately for his family who were laid out for display in the ballroom, it would be almost a month before police would find them. In fact, neighbors started to become suspicious after one by one, the lights in the house started to burn out, and there was no movement in or around the house. One of Patricia’s teachers also became concerned, as she had been out of class for so long, sick family member or not. In fact, it wasn’t until December 7th, 1971 that police went to the List’s residence to check on their well-being. This gave John List a one month head start on his escape. Police searched for him but were unable to locate him or anyone who had seen him since the murders. They had a brief glimmer of hope a couple days after the discovery of the bodies, when the FBI located John List’s Chevy Impala in a carpark at JFK Airport in New York City. Unfortunately, he was nowhere to be found, and they were unable to find any evidence that he boarded or left on any flight.
A nationwide manhunt was on for John List, but the case went cold. Years went by, with some people believing he committed suicide, while others thought that he may have assumed a new identity and moved to the mid-west. Detectives, on the anniversary of the murders, would try to bring back attention to the case and generate new leads, but this never panned out. His own Pastor, Reverend Eugene Rehwinkel, even released a statement to the NY Times begging John to contact him, saying:
“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.”
A similar message was released by the Pastor, supposedly from John’s step-daughter, Brenda:
“Daddy, you are all I have left. Please call me.”
Neither message led to any response from John. Fast forward now to the year 1989, 18 years after the murders. Prosecutors from New Jersey wanted to get a fresh perspective on what John List might look like now. They hired a forensic artist & sculptor, by the name of Frank Bender to create a bust of a more age appropriate version of John List. In order to do so, Bender enlisted the help of physical anthropologists, forensic dentists, pathologists, forensic psychologists, detectives, and used photos of List’s parents for reference purposes. Psychologists believed he would be wearing the same style of black, horn-rimmed glasses as he wore back then. Because in their opinion, the glasses defined his success, and he would still want to look successful, 18 years later.. They sagged the skin around his face a bit, gave him what’s called a “hawk nose” and bushy, gray eyebrows.
In the 80’s, a show by the name of “America’s Most Wanted” had become pretty popular on Fox and was hosted by John Walsh. For those that don’t know, John Walsh, had a son, Adam Walsh, who went missing and later determined to be the victim of a homicide, when his severed head was discovered next to a drainage pipe. This may be a story we cover in the future.
But, for now back to John List. Law enforcement reached out to the powers that be at America’s Most Wanted and requested John List be added to the fugitives depicted on their show. Producers agreed, and the story of the List Murders, along with the age enhanced bust of John List aired on May 21, 1989. Over 22 million people tuned into the AMW broadcast that night. One of those people was a female neighbor of a gentleman she knew by the name of Robert Peter Clark. Robert Clark was also an accountant and attended church regularly. He was married and lived with his wife in Midlothian, Virginia, a suburban area just outside of Richmond, VA. Another call to the AMW tip line came from an individual in Denver, CO who stated they had a former neighbor that resembled John List, who went by the name Robert Clark. Is it starting to come together now?
FBI agents went to the home of Robert Clark, and spoke with his wife to find out some more information about her husband. She told them they had met at a church social. With the information obtained via tips, his wife, AMW, and other evidence, the FBI arrested John List, at his office for the first degree murders of his wife, children, and mother. Fingerprints confirmed his identity, since he did not immediately admit his true identity when taken into custody. But his likeness to that of the forensic bust created by Frank Bender was spot on. We’ll also like that so you can compare his likeness to that of the bust. Absolutely amazing just how similar they are.
John List was charged with 5 counts of first degree murder and went to trial in February of 1990. Police were able to determine List’s movements after the murders. He told them that after leaving the Mansion he had parked his car at JFK airport, then took a train to Michigan, and then to Denver, Colorado where he began his new life under the alias, Robert. P. Clark. Interestingly enough, he chose that name & identity because it was the name of a guy he’d attended college with. Meaning, if any background checks were done then they would be confirmed, along with the real Robert. P. Clark’s educational achievements. He found a job as an accountant and decided to attend the local Lutheran church. It was there that he met Delores Miller and they married in 1985. Delores said she knew nothing of her husband’s past and was devastated when she found out who he really was.. She had thought his first wife had died from cancer and that they didn’t have any children. Delores divorced John after his arrest. The evidence against him was overwhelming, and he was convicted of murder and sentenced to 5 life terms, one for each family member. According to the NY Times, List made an attempt to appeal the decision “on grounds that his judgment had been impared by post-traumatic stress disorder from military service in WWII and Korea and that his letter to the pastor should have been kept confidential ”. The appeal was unsuccessful, and John List remained incarcerated until his death, from pneumonia, on March 28th, 2008. For a religious man, it was probably an appropriate day to die, as March 28th that year was Good Friday. Which is the day Christians commemorate the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ, who some believe is the son of God.
Prior to his death in 2002, John List was asked why he didn’t take his own life after the murders of his family. Simply put, he said because of his religious beliefs, he wouldn’t be given the opportunity to see his family in Heaven, because suicide is forbidden by the church. However, he believed by repenting for his sins and asking for forgiveness, that God may allow him to be reunited with his family in death.
Interesting side note. After John’s conviction, when telling his version of the story, he said his mother-in-law, Mrs. Eva Morris was originally supposed to be visiting on the day of the murders, but fell ill and didn’t make the trip. Which was probably for the best, because John says she likely would have been his 6th victim that day.
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