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John Emil LIST

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: Parricide - For save their souls and sending them directly to Heaven
Number of victims: 5
Date of murders: November 9, 1971
Date of arrest: June 1, 1989 (17 years after)
Date of birth: September 17, 1925
Victims profile: His wife, Helen, 45; his children, Patricia, 16, John, Jr., 15, and Frederick, 13; and his 84-year-old mother, Alma
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Westfield, New Jersey, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison on May 1, 1990. Died in prison on March 21, 2008
 
 
 
 
 
 

photo gallery

 
 
 
 
 
 

confession letter

 
 
 
 
 
 

The deeply religious John List must have had a religious epiphany before killing his mom, wife and three teenage children. In 1971 this fastidious accountant executed all members of his family, left their bodies neatly laid in the ballroom of his mansion (except for his mom who was too fat to drag down the stairs), arranged photos and books he had borrowed from a neighbor on a table, and disappeared.

Seventeen years later, after his story was detailed on the TV show, "America's Most Wanted", a caller sent authorities to Richmond, Virginia, where they found him living as Robert P. Clark. The Lutheran matricide was leading a normal life there very much like the one he finished off in Westfield, New Jersey, seventeen years before.

 
 

John Emil List (born September 17, 1925 in Bay City, Michigan) is a mass murderer who, on November 9, 1971, murdered his mother, three children and his wife in their sparsely furnished 18-room mansion in Westfield, New Jersey, and then disappeared.

He had planned everything so meticulously that nearly a month had passed before anyone noticed that anything was amiss. A fugitive from justice for eighteen years, he was ultimately apprehended on June 1, 1989 while living under the pseudonym Robert Peter "Bob" Clark, after the story of the murders was broadcast on the television program America's Most Wanted.

List was found guilty and sentenced to five terms of life imprisonment, dying in prison custody in 2008 at age 82.

Motive

Investigations revealed that he had been suffering from financial problems due to losing his job as an accountant, heavy expenses related to his fancy house and family problems caused by his wife's mental illness brought on by advanced syphilis.

After killing his family, List wrote a letter to his pastor, Eugene Rehwinkel of Redeemer Lutheran Church, explaining his motives: He felt that the 1970s were a sinful time, and that his family was beginning to succumb to temptation, especially his daughter, who expressed interest in an acting career, an occupation that List viewed as being particularly corrupt and linked to Satan.

He told his pastor that by killing his family before they had the opportunity to renounce their religion, he was saving their souls and sending them directly to Heaven. Most criminal profilers asked to analyze List--including John E. Douglas-- have concluded that List came up with this motive in order to put his own mind at ease and rationalize murdering his own family to lessen his own stress.

Family history

List was described as an aloof, cold man with few friends. He was the only child of strict German parents. His mother in particular was very domineering and overprotective. He was a devout member of the Lutheran church and taught Sunday school. List served in the Army during World War II and later was given an ROTC commission as an Army Lieutenant.

He attended University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he earned a bachelors degree in business administration and a masters degree in accounting. List's lack of social skills, however, caused him many problems. He had a history of losing jobs.

Murders

List killed his family: his wife, Helen, 45; his children, Patricia, 16, John, Jr., 15, and Frederick, 13; and his 84-year-old mother, Alma. He first shot his wife in the back of the head and his mother once in the left eye, while his children were at school. When Patricia and Frederick came home, they were shot in the back of the head. John, Jr., the elder son, was playing in a soccer game that afternoon. List made himself lunch and then drove to watch John play. He brought his son home and then shot him once in the back of the head. List saw John twitch as if he were having a seizure and shot him again. It was later determined that List had shot his elder son at least ten times.

List then dragged his dead wife and children, on sleeping bags, into the ballroom of his ramshackle 19-room Victorian home. He left his mother's body in her apartment in the attic and stated in a letter to his pastor that "Mother is in the attic. She was too heavy to move." In the letter, List also claimed he had prayed over the bodies before going on the run. The deaths were not discovered for a month, due to the Lists' habit of keeping to themselves. Moreover, List had also sent notes stating that the family would be in North Carolina for several weeks to the children's schools and part-time jobs and had stopped the family's milk, mail and newspaper deliveries.

The case quickly became the second most infamous crime in New Jersey history, surpassed only by the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh Baby. A nationwide manhunt for List was launched. His car was found parked at Kennedy Airport, but there was no record of him taking a flight. The police checked out hundreds of leads without results.

America's Most Wanted

The authorities approached the producers of the show because many fugitives had been captured due to viewer's telephone calls. It was the oldest case they had ever featured. The television program included an age-rendered clay bust which looked very similar to List, even though he had been missing for 18 years.

The man who created the bust of the aging fugitive was forensic artist Frank Bender. Bender had previously had great success in helping to capture aging fugitives and identify decomposed bodies by creating these sculptures.

Bender's work was part art and part forensic science. To imagine what an aging List would look like, he consulted a forensic psychologist and created a psychological profile of this man. He looked at photographs of List's parents and predicted what he would look like as he aged. He gave him a receding hairline and sagging jaws. Bender was particularly lauded for one final touch he added to his completed artwork. It was a pair of glasses.

Bender professed that List would not be vain enough to wear contact lenses. However, he said List would have worn a pair of glasses different from those he wore before the murders. He said they would be a pair with dark thick frames. Bender and the psychologist theorized that List would do this to "hide" in a sense. He would want to disguise the fact that he was a failure and appear more important than he really was. When List was arrested, he was wearing the exact type of glasses.

Arrest

On June 1, 1989, 11 days after his case was broadcast on AMW, List was arrested while living under the pseudonym Robert "Bob" Peter Clark, a name he adopted based on one of his college classmates, who later strangely stated that he never knew of John List. He was identified by a friend who had seen the television feature. In the 18 years since List committed his crimes he had been living in Denver, Colorado and Richmond, Virginia, where he remarried and started a new life and a career as an accountant. On April 12, 1990 he was convicted in a New Jersey court of five counts of first-degree murder, and on May 1 was sentenced to five life terms in prison. List has never expressed any remorse for his crimes, even during an interview with Connie Chung in 2002, and has said he believes he will go to heaven.

Death

List died from complications of pneumonia at age 82 on March 21, 2008, while in prison custody at a Trenton, New Jersey hospital. In announcing his death the Newark, New Jersey, Star-Ledger referred to him as the "boogeyman of Westfield". His body was not immediately claimed, though he was later buried next to his mother in Frankenmuth, Michigan.

Epilogue

John Walsh, the host of America's Most Wanted, called Bender's work the most brilliant example of detective work that he had ever seen. To this day, Walsh keeps Bender's bust in a place of honor in his office.

Trivia

List is the basis for the elusive character of Keyser Soze in the 1995 film The Usual Suspects.

Jerry Blake, the title character in The Stepfather, is also based on List.

Robert Blake played List in the 1993 film Judgment Day: The John List Story.

The original scene of the crime, the List home, burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances shortly after the murders. Along with the fire went perhaps the biggest irony of all: the glass ceiling in the empty ballroom was a signed Tiffany & Co. original. That alone would likely have paid off all of John List’s debts.

In 1971, List was considered a suspect in the "DB Cooper" hijacking, which occurred just after his family's murder. List' age, facial features, and build were similar to the mysterious skyjacker's. "Cooper" parachuted from the hijacked airliner with $200,000, the same amount as List's debts.

From prison, List has strenously denied being "DB Cooper", and the FBI no longer considers him a suspect.

Books

  • Righteous Carnage: The List Murders Timothy B. Benford and James P. Johnson, iUniverse, 332 pp., ISBN 0-595-00720-1

  • Death Sentence: The Inside Story of the John List Murders Joe Sharkey, Signet, 305 pp., ISBN 0-451-16947-6

  • Collateral Damage: The John List Story John E. List, iUniverse, Inc., 130pp., ISBN 0-595-39536-8

  • Thou Shalt Not Kill Mary S. Ryzuk, Warner Books, 509pp., ISBN 0-445-21043-5

Wikipedia.org

 
 

John List

John List lived in Westfield, New Jersey, with his wife, Helen Morris Taylor List, three kids, Patricia Marie, 16, John Fredrick, 15, and Fredrick Michael, 13. Also living in the house was List's annoying old mother, Alma, 85.

John List was known through the town as being a very religious man. He was also a respected accountant. It just goes to show that you really never can tell what's really going on in someones head at any given time.

So the story shall begin in December, 1971 in this loving household of these devout churchgoers something odd occured. Everyone ended up dead and John List went missing. But maybe were getting ahead of ourselves here.

Okay, pretend you didn't know everyone was dead, because the neighbours didn't.

They just knew that not one member of the List family had been seen in weeks.

The lights had been on in the three story Victorian mansion non stop, so something funny was going on but, as in all close knit U.S. communities, no one bothered to do anything about it. Well not until Patricia's drama teacher decided he'd had enough of not knowing what the hell was going on, and decided to pay a visit to the family. it was then that neighbors decided to act.

Thinking the house was being burgled by the snooping drama teacher, a nosy neighbor rang police (probably more worried about her own house than the List family). So when police got to the house and discovered that the guy was actually trying to find out what was going on in the house they decided to break in. And from the smell that hit them as they forced a window opened it was probably a bit late for the family.

The two officers that entered the house followed walked toward some music being played in the room affectionaltly called the 'Ballroom' by the List family.

On there way to this troom they passed through the kitched where they had to step over piles of dirty clothes in the middle of the floor. But when one of the officers noticed what appeared like dried blood stains smeared all over the floor it became apparent that the pile of clothes was a bit more than that. It was in fact Mrs. List and her three children.

Each had been shot in the back of the head, with John jr. also having a few other bullets wounds, obviously picked up by struggling with his killer. Each had their faces covered with a piece of cloth. Not sure what the hell else was in the house police kept going toward the music.

In the upstairs kitchen the encountered another piece of rotten flesh. It was Alma List. She had been shot through the head, the bullet entering just above the left eye. Her head was also covered with a piece of cloth. She was apparently too fat to be dragged downstairs with the others, so the killer had left her upstair to rot on her own.

The house had given up all of it's secrets. Almost. The cops found the last of these upstairs also. It was a note addressed - "To The Finder." It told of where certain documents could be found that would explain the scene in the house.

These 'documents' were written by John List, the missing husband. One was to his employer, telling them how they could win new clients, and finishing up a few files that List had been working on prior to his disapearance. Others were to members of List's family. In these he told of why he had done this deed.

Basically it came down to money. he couldn't earn enopugh to make his wife and children happy, so he decided that since they could be happy, they had to be dead. He claimed that they wouldn't be happy on welfare - even though it didn't seem he was in danger of losing his job. This would probably point to a bit of paranoia on List's part, a trait not too disimmilar to most mass murderers. well anyway he also had written a letter to his local priest. In it he told of how, even though it may have looked bloody, it really was quite peaceful. And he was quite sure John jr. hadn't suffered too much. He had put him out of his misery fairly quickly after the struggle. The note ended -

"I got down and prayed after each one."

Aparently the case caused a huge stir in the U.S. List's face was shown all over the media, but it was all to no avail. he had vanished, and no one at all knew where too. Eventually police stopped looking, and the case file was put to one side.

But in 1989 America's Most Wanted was getting stale. They needed something to spice things up. They needed an old, vicious, unsloved murder to shock the nation. John List's name came up, and the producers agreed - Let's do it.

The show got in Frank Bender, a sculpture. He made a clay mould of John List's face, allowing for twenty years aging, and on May 21, 1989, the show was aired.

The mould cause quite a stir amongst a group of friends in Aurora, Colorado.

They all spoke about the face over the next few days, remarking how much it looked like their friend Robert P. Clark, an accountant who had just moved with his wife to Midlothian, Virginia. For most it was just a bit of a laugh, but one decided to call police and tell them to check out Clark.

Police checked Clark out extensively, and on June 1, 1989 decided that it was time to see if he really was who he said he was. Robert Clark vehemouthly denied that he was List, even after his fingerprints were found to be an exact match to John List's. Not surprisongly police charged Clark with the five murders.

He kept up his denial until February the next year. He told his lawyer that he was John List. He then went on to tell the court that he had felt that there was no alternitive to the murders. His lawyers attempted to get List off with an insanity verdict, but it didn't work.

 
 

Interview With a Murderer

Thirty years ago, accountant John List methodically murdered his whole family — his mother, his wife, and their three children. He says he wanted to spare them the shame of losing their New Jersey mansion and to make sure they got to heaven.

Now, in his first-ever public comments about the 1971 crime, the 76-year-old former Sunday school teacher says he is waiting to be reunited with them in the hereafter.

"I feel when we get to heaven we won't worry about these earthly things. They'll either have forgiven me or won't realize, you know, what happened," List told Downtown's Connie Chung in an interview at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, where he is serving five life sentences. "I'm sure that if we recognize each other that we'll like each other's company just as we did here, when times were better."

List left a confession letter at the scene, so police had little doubt as to who was responsible for the killings. But he fled to Colorado, assumed a new name and remarried, managing to elude a nationwide manhunt for 18 years. He was arrested in 1989 after a former neighbor recognized him from a profile on the syndicated TV show America's Most Wanted. He was sentenced to five consecutive life prison terms.

List, who says he remains deeply religious today, acknowledges that his crimes violated one of the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not kill."

"I knew it was wrong. As I was doing it I knew it was wrong," he said.

But, during a four-hour interview, he sought to explain how worries that financial hardship would split his family and turn them away from their faith forced him to make a tough decision. "I finally decided the only way to save them from that was to kill them," he said.

Bank Vice President and Sunday School Teacher

In 1965, when List and his family moved to affluent Westfield, N.J., he seemed to be a model of suburban success and propriety. He was vice president and comptroller of a nearby bank, and his family lived in an 18-room mansion with marble fireplaces and an elegant ballroom. They attended church each week with List's mother, a strict Lutheran who lived with them.

But then his life began to crumble. He lost the bank job, and a succession of subsequent jobs. By 1971, he was still leaving for work every morning, but — unknown to his family — he was unemployed and unable to pay the bills. He spent his days at the train station reading, napping, and wondering how to get his family out of their financial mess.

He says today he felt he was letting the family down. "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," he said.

Finally, with the prospect of foreclosure threatening to expose his financial failure, List made his terrible decision to kill his family — but not himself.

"It was my belief that if you kill yourself, you won't go to heaven," he said. "So eventually I got to the point where I felt that I could kill them. Hopefully they would go to heaven, and then maybe I would have a chance to later confess my sins to God and get forgiveness."

No Turning Back

After making the decision, List says, there was no turning back. "It's just like D-Day, you go in, there's no stopping after you start," he said.

After finding an old 9 mm pistol he had bought as a souvenir of World War II, and a .22-caliber target pistol, he purchased new ammunition and went to a shooting range for target practice.

One night after dinner, he even asked his family what should be done with their bodies after they died. "I remember talking about funerals and cremation and burials. I thought I was being real clever," he said.

On Nov. 9, 1971, after sending his children off to school, List took his two handguns out to the car to load them, then walked into the kitchen and shot his wife from behind as she was drinking coffee. "I approached all of them from behind so they wouldn't realize till the last minute what I was going to do to them," he said.

Next he went upstairs, to where his 84-year-old mother was having breakfast, kissed her ("like Judas," he told Downtown), and shot her in the head.

Then he went downstairs, dragged his wife's body into the ballroom and began scrubbing up the blood so the children would not realize what was going on when they got back from school.

He went to the post office to stop the family's mail, then to the bank, where he cashed his mother's savings bonds, checking that he got the correct interest to the penny. Returning home, he made several calls to explain that the family had gone to North Carolina to visit his wife's ailing mother, and that he was planning to follow by car.

Breaking for Lunch

Then he sat down and ate lunch at the same table where he had shot his wife hours before. "I was hungry," he told Downtown, adding with a chuckle, "that's just the way it was."

In the afternoon, he killed his children as they came home — first his daughter Patty, a budding actress at 16; then his youngest, 13-year-old Frederic; and finally 15-year-old John, his namesake and his favorite.

Unlike the others, John didn't go quietly, his body jerking as List emptied both the 9 millimeter and the .22 into his son. "I don't know whether it was only because he was still jerking that I wanted to make sure that he didn't suffer, or that it was sort of a way of relieving tension, after having completed what I felt was my assignment for the day," List said.

He lined up the four bodies in the ballroom (he said his mother's body was too heavy to move), put music on the internal intercom, and cleaned up meticulously.

Then he sat down and wrote a confession letter to his pastor explaining his financial problems. "At least I'm certain that all have gone to heaven now. If things had gone on who knows if that would be the case," he wrote.

Dr. Steven Simring, a psychiatrist who examined List after his arrest years later, told Downtown his "sense of neatness" was the result of a compulsive personality. Simring said List showed "no evidence of anything that approached genuine remorse," adding, "He's a cold, cold man."

18 Years on the Lam

The day after the killings, List scoured the house for family photographs, tearing his image out of them so police would have nothing to use in Wanted posters. Then he drove to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, where he left his car as a false lead and took a bus into the city.

Westfield police did not discover the bodies until nearly a month later. When they entered the house, music was still playing on the intercom, but List was long gone.

From New York, he had traveled overland to Denver, where he began a new life under the name Robert P. Clark, working first as a hotel fry cook and later as an accountant for H&R Block. He joined a local Lutheran church and, in 1985, married a widow named Delores Clark, with whom he moved to Richmond, Va.

In 1989, America's Most Wanted featured List and a forensic sculptor's impression of how he would look then, 18 years after the murders. List caught the tail end of the show with his wife, who did not know his past. "I was perspiring like anything," he remembers, but said his wife did not seem to have recognized him.

But back in Denver, his former neighbors did recognize him, and called police. He was arrested 11 days later, and, after a jury rejected his diminished capacity defense, convicted and sentenced. In a three-sentence statement to the court, he said he was sorry for "the tragedy that happened in 1971." He did not mention his wife, his mother, or his children.

On April 12, 1990 John E. List was convicted in a New Jersey court of five counts of first-degree murder, and on May 1 was sentenced to five life terms in prison.

 
 

The Pursuit, Capture and Trial of John Emil List

By Timothy B. Benford - AssociatedContent.com

September 11, 2007

Inmate #226472 in the state prison at Trenton, NJ, doesn't exchange Happy Anniversary cards with his wife. He doesn't receive Father's Day cards from his three children, nor does he send Mother's Day cards to the woman who gave him life.

He celebrates none of these joyous occasions with his family because on the warm Indian Summer day of November 9, 1971, he murdered his three children, his mother, and his wife in an act of righteous carnage to save their eternal souls. Inmate #226472 is John Emil List, the quiet, always proper neighbor, and former Sunday school teacher, and he is spending the remainder of his life in prison.

On April 13, 1990 he was convicted for all five murders. Sentencing by, Judge William L'E. Wertheimer, was at Union County Courthouse in Elizabeth on May 1, in what some say was the second most celebrated and publicized mass murder in state history, 18 years, five months, and 22 days after the fact. I researched the case and, from beginning to end, covered the trial. I wrote a series of Page 1 daily columns for the Union County daily newspaper of record, The Elizabeth Daily Journal. And, teaming up with a co-author, Jim Johnson, wrote the Scribner's hard cover best-seller Righteous Carnage. It is still in print more than 16 years later as a less expensive, large format, soft cover (ISBN 0-595-00720-1) on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com.

The inmate's current accommodations are a far cry from where he had lived between 1966-71 when he took the ultimate step in 'keeping up with the Jones' by purchasing Breeze Knoll, the romantic sounding name that millionaire John S.A. Wittke gave his mansion and massive estate on Hillside Avenue in Westfield at the turn of the last century. The seemingly timid accountant couldn't really afford such a house, because he really couldn't hold a job. But it was an impressive address and his wife wanted it. Also, he became convinced Westfield was a good Christian town in which to raise his family.

The quintuple murders, his flight and escape for nearly two decades, his capture, and subsequent trial, consumed reams of newsprint and hours of TV footage not only in New Jersey but throughout the world. Only the New Jersey kidnapping and murder of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh's infant son and the conviction and execution of Bruno Hauptmann in 1936 received more worldwide media coverage.

List's crime was so unthinkable, heinous, and shocking that during the intervening years while he was living a second life, with a second wife, parents in Westfield and surrounding Union County towns would invoke his name to recalcitrant children: "You be good now, understand? Or John List will come back and get you!" He was indeed New Jersey's real life boogeyman. If Mr. List could kill his children, some youngsters shuddered in thought, could my daddy do that too?

His family crime spree began about 9 o'clock in the morning. Shortly after sending her three children off to school, Helen List sat in the kitchen of the Westfield mansion drinking a cup of coffee. Her husband came up behind her and put a 9mm German made Steyr automatic pistol to the side of her head and fired once. She died instantly. The bullet smashed into the opposite wall. Warm blood immediately formed a pool on the tabletop around her head and began dripping onto her slippers.

Next he made his way up the squeaky stairs to the third floor where his 85-year old mother, Alma, wearing a housedress, was preparing breakfast in her efficiency kitchen. She was standing near the storage room-pantry that adjoined the kitchen and asked "What was that noise?" Her son didn't answer. Instead he raised the Steyr and discharged a round that ripped through the side of her scull. Alma List was dead before her body crumpled in a heap on the floor. He closed the storage-pantry room door and left her there.

A neat man, to the point of being compulsive, in the hours that followed, he attempted to clean up the crimson puddles of blood in Alma's apartment and in the kitchen. He was unable to clean up all traces of it.

At some point he went to the basement and returned to the kitchen with sleeping bags the family used for camping. He put Helen's limp body on one and dragged it like a sled through the hall, through the parlor, then down the longer hall to the mansion's cavernous, unfurnished ballroom in the back of the house.

It wasn't even 10 A.M., and he had murdered his wife and mother in cold blood. But John List had time, a lot of time, to wait until his three children would return home after school.

He went to his study, collected some old photos and documents concerning the mansion's history and put them in a neat pile on his desk and composed a thank you letter to John Wittke, a descendant of the original owner. He also wrote four other letters to relatives.

The murderer then called Barbara Bader, the woman who had car-pooled his sons John and Fred to Roosevelt Junior High School for the last time that morning, and made an excuse that the whole family was leaving for North Carolina the following morning because Helen's mother was extremely ill. He promised to let her know when they returned.

Next he called his employer, State Mutual Life Assurance Co. of America, and said he wouldn't be around for a while because of family illness out of state. He made a few similar calls offering excuses to people and places from which unexplained absences by various family members would raise eyebrows. He remembered to cancel delivery of the local newspaper and asked the Post Office to hold the family's mail until further notice. Ditto the milkman (NOTE: many people still had their milk house-delivered in the 1970s.)

It was nearing lunch time, and all this letter writing and phone calling apparently made him hungry. After all, he hadn't taken breakfast, what with dispatching his wife and mother early on, he had been too busy. So John prepared something to eat and sat at the same kitchen table where earlier he had wiped away his wife's blood.

Then fate stepped in and handed John List a pass card. His daughter Patricia called from school and said she felt ill. She asked if he could come and pick her up. He had been wondering how he would handle things if two of his children, Patricia and John, arrived home at or near the same time. His son Fred had an after school job and not a sudden arrival problem.

He picked up his daughter. Once in the house he shot her in the jaw with a .22 caliber pistol, a much smaller weapon than the 9mm Steyr he used on his wife and mother with. That afternoon he picked up Fred from his job. Even as he was parking his 1963 Chevrolet Impala sedan behind the house, List's other son, John, who usually walked home, was turning the corner onto Hillside Avenue. These last two murders would be the closest in time reference. As he had done with Patty, John List shot Fred almost as soon as the child was in the house.

Johnny, the murderer's last victim, was the only family member with multiple gunshot wounds. When the gunplay was finally done, John List repeated the process of dragging the last corpse on a sleeping bag into the ballroom that had now become a morgue.

After another episode of cleaning up, the overly neat and very religious man returned to his desk in the study and wrote the final letter he would ever write from 431 Hillside Avenue.

The five-page letter was to his church pastor. In it he explained to the cleric the reason he had to wipe out his family, to save their souls.

The text of the 1971 letter to his pastor was not revealed to the public until the 1990 trial. And when it was it confirmed what most people had believed those many years. It was a detailed confession, and explanation of what possessed him to murder the five people who loved him, and whom he loved the most: his mother; his three children; and his wife.

This writer covered the trial for an area newspaper and was in the courtroom the day the letter was read aloud to the jury. I will never forget the audible sigh of shock from the jury, and spectators, when the last line of List's letter was read: P.S.-Mother is in the hallway in the attic-third floor. She was too heavy to move.

It is considered one of the most incredible explanatory confession letters ever written in the annals of criminal justice, and still often quoted when people talk about the murders.

The only place this writer is aware of in which the verbatim text of List's incredible confession letter to his pastor can now be seen is in the critically acclaimed true-crime book "Righteous Carnage" (ISBN 0595007201) which meticulously details the whole incredible story. The book, no longer on bookstore shelves, can nonetheless be special ordered from Amazon.com or BarnesAndNoble.com.

What thoughts pass through a person's mind after they've murdered five members of their family? What do they do? How do they act, or even function, with the realization of what they have done?

Night comes early in November and it was already dark when John List sat down to dinner about 6 p.m. But this evening his meal would be different from any other he had ever had in the mansion. Instead of sharing mealtime with the five members of his family, he dined alone. When he was finished, he washed the dishes and placed them in the drainer to dry.

Afterward he called Barbara Sheridan, one of the adults who worked with Patricia at the Westfield Recreation Commission's drama workshop. He explained that his daughter would be missing some play rehearsals, and used the family illness trip ploy for the last time. Mrs. Sheridan thanked him and advised she would inform the workshop director, Edwin Illiano.

His duties and arrangements completed, List feed his children's pet fish in the 20 gallon tank in the dining room. Then, the man who had spent the day murdering five people in this house, climbed the stairs, went into the bedroom and retired for the night.

Before he left Breeze Knoll and Westfield for good the following morning, the Sunday school teacher turned down the thermostat and turned on a recorder which would play the same classical music on a loop over and over till it was physically turned off. He also turned on all the lights. Each evening thereafter the house was lit up like a Christmas tree. By early December neighbors noticed they had begun going off, one by one.

The bodies wouldn't be discovered until December 7, 1971, 29 days after the murders, because the drama workshop director Illiano thought the family's prolonged absence was strange, and he couldn't shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong at 431 Hillside Avenue. Patty List confided in him as a surrogate uncle because he encouraged her acting ambition, which she was smitten by, while her own father didn't. Illiano recalled she once said her father was going to kill the whole family. He had met John List and thought the man strange. Illiano convinced his workshop associate, Barbara Sheridan, to go with him to the house. Their presence in the driveway and walking around the house in the dark caused neighbors William and Shirley Cunnick to call the police. The List family was away, after all. Patrol car Officers George Zhelesnik and Charles Haller were first to arrive.

What happened after the police arrived, and who or how the bodies were discovered, is an American version of the ancient Japanese classic Rashomon. The police, Illiano, Sheridan, and each of the Cunnicks remembered events differently. Only Officer Zhelesnik, who called in the mass-murder crime scene to Westfield Police Headquarters, and Officer Haller told the same version [These amazingly contradictory eye witness accounts, as well as other events, are dealt with fully in the book Righteous Carnage].

For the next 18 years no viable trace of John List could be found. He seemed to have vanished off the face of the earth. But that didn't mean law enforcement people in Union County had given up on finding him. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s every possible sighting, any new information, was checked out. As the decade was nearing its end the torch had passed to two new cops, Detective Bernard (Barney) Tracy of the Westfield Police Department, and Captain Frank Marranca of the Union County Prosecutor's Office. Each of them often returned to the cold case file on the still open List murders. From time to time they discussed the case and exchanged information, but for the most part they worked independently within their own departments.

By 1989 the television show America's Most Wanted was already a sensation. With considerable effort by Marranca and the Prosecutor's Office, and after initially being rejected, the show agreed to feature the List murders. It would be the oldest cold case they ever attempted to solve.

On Sunday evening, May 21, 1989, the show aired broadcast #66 with a mere eight minute segment about John List. Film crews had been to Westfield and visited relevant sites. As is the show's style, the events were dramatized with actors portraying the principles. Barney Tracy and another Westfield detective, Kevin Keller, were at America's Most Wanted's TV studio in Washington manning the phones with scores of volunteers waiting for the expected 'tip' phone calls. After the show ended nearly 250 calls came in, including at least one that was right on the money!

It was obvious that something had happened that Thursday afternoon, June 1, even to a casual observer driving through Colonial Westfield. It was 12 days since the America's Most Wanted broadcast, and to many that was 'old news.' Yet small groups of neighbors huddled on well-manicured lawns, congregated and clustered on street corners and in front shops in the quaint business district.

"Hey, what happened?" an uninformed passing motorist queried.

"They got HIM!" was the joyful reply.

No further identification or explanation was needed. Everyone in Westfield, nay, in Union County, knew the HIM was Sunday School Teacher John Emil List.

Westfield's 'bogeyman' would no longer give children nightmares.

 

 

 
 
 
 
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