John List

I have been doing this blog for nearly four years now and was a bit surprised to discover this is not a case that I had researched and discussed before.  Then again there are many crimes that I know quite a bit about (maybe that is why I could be considered a Death Hag) that I have not taken the time to sit and blog about.  As a true fanatic there are just certain crimes we know.  Many of them are the same ones... we know about John Wayne Gacy, Ed Gein, The Boston Strangler... just to name a few.  John List is one of those cases for me.  I gander to guess that I have not sat down to compile this one because there is so much out on the Internet that is accessible and for me personally since I know the case pretty well (although research lets me narrow down dates, names and places) it is unlike the ones that I research and learn more as I go along.  I mistakenly believe that because I know just about all there is to know about the case, then doesn't every else?  I've been interested in true crime stories since I was in high school and without revealing my age completely, let us just say that it has been more than a few decades since then.  

Oftentimes we rediscover cases we did not know about from the past because of new developments.  In the case of Sylvia Likens, despite the fact that I lived in Indianapolis, where the crime was committed, although several years before my birth, I had not heard of it until 1985 when her tormented was up for parole. The case of John List may have been lost to history a long time ago, even for me if it was not for the fact that he spent nearly 18 years on the run.  He was ultimately captured within the first year of the airing of the show America's Most Wanted.  If you do not know what that show was, it was hosted by the father of Adam Walsh, John, and was a television series whose focus was on capturing fugitives.  This case was also the first case in which an age progressive clay bust was made of the fugitive and many credit that in their success in capturing List.  
In 1965 John, his wife, Helen, his mother, Alma and his three children moved to Westfield New Jersey.  John had accepted a job as the vice president and bank controller in a nearby town.  The home they purchased was a Victorian mansion... literally.  It had 19 rooms and even came with it's own name.... Breeze Knoll. Apparently most who knew John was not likely surprised by the move.  It appears that John, for whatever reason bounced around often when it came to jobs.  Most of the time he did use his degree in accounting but not really highly successful.  Maybe things would change this time. They may have been good for a while but by November 1971 the devoutly religious John had lost his job again and he needed to figure a way out.  For a time he pretended to go to work everyday and skimmed money from his mother's account to keep up on the mortgage but that could not last long.  There is no way he could tell Helen or his mother.  Alma was controlling and demanding and Helen was not much better.  Life inside the List home was already stressful enough so he did not dare give them this news.  No, that would just not do.  A much better plan would be to murder them all and just disappear.

It is not for certain just when John decided that murder was the way out but with all the planning that went into it most believe it was decided quite in advance to the day he carried out his act... November 9, 1971.  That morning while the children were at school John shot Helen in the back of the head and then went to the attic apartment his mother lived in and shot her just above the left eye.  With that part done he sat and waited until his sixteen year old daughter, Patricia and thirteen year old son, Frederick returned from school in the early afternoon.  He shot them both in the back of the head as they came home from school.  Then John must have decided he was hungry and sat down to eat some lunch while four family members lay dead in the house with him. Now it was time to go to the bank to empty out his, and his mother's bank accounts and go watch his fifteen year old son, John Jr. play soccer.  When they returned home together John Jr was shot several times within the chest and face.

With the hard part done John gathered the bodies of his wife and children (his mother remained in her upstairs apartment) and placed them in sleeping bags in the mansion's ball room under the beautiful stained glass sky light.  At some point he wrote out a five page letter to his pastor explaining his reasons for what he had done.  Well, not really.  He blamed a lot of his actions on the evilness of the world and saying how he had to do what he did in order to save their souls.  He wrote notes to the children's schools and part time jobs saying that the family would be visiting other family for several weeks and then he proceeded to cut himself out of every family picture in the home.  This last act may have seemed strange on the surface but John List was not a stupid man.  He knew eventually someone would find the bodies, and his letter and authorities would be looking for him.  It would be hard to find him if they did not have an accurate picture to go by.  They would likely find one sooner or later but he much preferred later, giving him time to get away and resettled.  He then turned on nearly every light in the house and turned the radio, that went into the ballroom by speakers to a religion station and closed the door to his life.

The List's, at least the adult List's, were a bit reclusive as it was already so when people did not see them they were not overly worried right away.  Of course John did not have a job so he did not have an employer looking for her, as did either his wife or mother.  The school's were not looking for them because John had told them they would be out of town.  But neighbors did notice that while the lights were on inside the house there did not seem to be activity.  Finally as the light bulbs began to run out, so did their patience in what was going on at the house and the authorities were called on December 7, 1971, nearly a month after John's evil act.  The police had no idea they would find the bodies of five people inside that home! But hey, John was correct, the hunt was on for him and he had done good by destroying his picture because only a general description could go out at first. The family car was found in the parking lot of Kennedy Airport but there was no proof that John List ever got on a plane. There was a nationwide hunt for the man wanted for the murder of his entire family.  Lead after lead was followed but nothing panned out. 

On August 20, 1972 Breeze Knoll, the mansion the List family owned was apparently purposely set ablaze and totally destroyed.  The crime is considered unsolved but one has to wonder if it was simply done to rid the town of the knowing the horror that took place there and everyone looked the other way. The thing that most find ironic is that it was discovered that the stain glass skylight that was in the ballroom, where List left the bodies of most of his family, although destroyed by the fire was manufactured by Tiffany's and it's value was around $100,000.  Most wonder if John List would have known this if he could have made his financial issues disappear, even if temporarily.

So as the years went on you would hear about the List story from time to time but without any leads nothing was discovered.  It was speculated at one time that possibly John List was the infamous D.B Cooper (the famous highjacker) considering it was only a few months after the murders and list did resemble the sketch of the person.  The FBI has since ruled List out as a suspect but of course rumors continue, especially in that still unsolved case.  Then in May of 1989 America's Most Wanted profiled John List's story and within a short period of time authorities thought they had their man.  A woman in Virginia had called in saying that the clay bust shown looked like her neighbor Robert "Bob" Clark and he was an accountant just as the show had suspected he would be.  On June 1, 1989 authorities went to Bob Clark's place of business and placed him under arrest under the name of John List.  Bob Clark insisted for months that authorities had the wrong man and assured his wife and friends it would be cleared up shortly.  Continued his instance after he was extradited to  New Jersey.  It was not until the authorities had undeniable proof that they had their man that he finally admitted that he was in fact the infamous John List.

John List went to trial for the murder of his family in April of 1990 a mere two months after his admission of his identity.  At his trial a doctor testified that List suffered from obsessive compulsive personality disorder and that at the time of the murders he saw only two solutions, welfare or murder and that his personality would not allow him to apply for welfare and bring shame to his family. The defense made many claims that nearly twenty years after the fact many could not be proven.  One was that Helen was a severe alcoholic who had contracted syphilis from her first husband, a Korean War casualty. They claimed that she had known this for many year but had hidden it from John until 1969 when it came out and that her alcoholism had severely progressed the disease and had altered her personality into a controlling and mean person.  They also claimed that she had tricked John into marriage in 1951 by claiming a false pregnancy and had insisted on getting married in Maryland where she did not have to comply with a blood test.  Now, truthfully I have no idea why this was even mentioned in his trial at all, especially the medical issues because whether she had syphilis or not should have had no bearing on the fact that he murdered her.  But, it was said.  Ultimately the jury did not buy any of the excuses that were given and they convicted him of five counts of murder.  When he was sentenced to five consecutive life terms in prison he spoke at the hearing.  He took no direct responsibility for his actions and blamed his diminished mental state at the time of the murders.  He later attempted to appeal his conviction saying that he suffered from PTSD from time he spent in the military (he may have served in battle in WWII, although I cannot confirm, but during the Korean War when he was called back into service he apparently never left the States and worked in an administrative role).  His appeal also stated that the five page letter he had written to his pastor, that was found in the house when the bodies were discovered was a privileged communication between him and his pastor and should have never been allowed at trial.  His appeal was denied.

In 2002 John List gave an interview for the show 20/20. By now he all but had to admit that he had murdered his family but continued with excuses and unreasonable reasons.  When asked why he had not just committed suicide, with or without murdering his family, he told the interviewer because suicide would have barred him from heaven and he was convinced he would one day see his family again.  

John List died in prison on March 21, 2008 at the age of 82 of pneumonia.  In the end he only spent one more year in prison than he had on the run after the murders.  It was said that his body was not immediately claimed but he was eventually buried next to his mother in Michigan.

On a side note Wikipedia claims that John was an only child of John and Alma, being born in 1925.  According to their site John (the father) was between 61 a 66 years old at the time of his birth (I have seen two different birth years) and his mother was 38.  Upon further research I found my way to findagrave.com and became a bit more confused.  According to that Alma's maiden name was Hubinger but that John had first been married to an Anna Hubinger who died in 1923 and that John and Anna had a child named Frederick Paul who died in 1982.  It shows no relationship between the two wives of John Sr.  Findagrave states that Frederick was born in 1889 and only two years younger than Alma with a 36 year age difference between the two brothers.  While this is not unheard of or impossible it does seem to be a bit strange, even for someone who's other passion is genealogy.


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