On November 9, 1971, a New Jersey accountant named John E. List was looking for a way out of his life.
On the surface, the List family seemed to be a model of suburban success. List, his wife, his three children, and his 85-year-old mother, Alma, lived in an 18-room mansion on Hillside Avenue in Westfield and attended church each week.
But List was hiding a secret from his family: Beneath the surface, his life was falling apart. He had lost his job, and was unable to pay the bills.
So on that fateful morning, after seeing his children off to school, List walked into the kitchen and shot his wife, Helen, point-blank as she sipped her morning coffee. He then walked up to the third floor and fatally shot his mother.
Then List patiently waited downstairs to kill his children — Patty, 16; and Frederick, 13; as they came home from school. List then had lunch and drove to his bank to close his own and his mother’s bank accounts.
His next stop was Westfield High School, where he watched his 15-year-old son John, Jr., play in a soccer game. After driving the boy home, he killed him by shooting him repeatedly in the chest and face.
List laid the bodies of his wife and three children on sleeping bags according to size in the home’s grand ballroom, and then ate dinner and went to bed.
The next day, he simply disappeared — and the hunt for List, and his motive for the murders would remain a mystery until a a true-crime show on television led to his capture almost 18 years later.
After List left town, the neighbors began to wonder why the lights in his family’s house in Westfield were going out one by one, and a high school drama coach of List’s daughter had begun to worry about her absence.
Police finally entered the home on December 7, 1971, just over a month after the slayings. They were greeted by organ music on an intercom system and the decomposed bodies of the List family. The police also found a note from List to his pastor at a Lutheran church where List sometimes taught Sunday school. In it, List wrote that he saw too much evil in the world and that he had ended the lives of his wife, mother, and children to save their souls. List also admitted to taking money from his mother’s account to cover the bills, according to investigators.
Detectives discovered List’s car at Kennedy International Airport not long after the corpses were found — but neither the FBI nor New Jersey investigators found any trace of List himself.
The case went cold until 1989, when Union County prosecutors asked the producers of the TV program America’s Most Wanted to look at the case. The program brought in Frank Bender, a forensic sculptor, who was able to build a bust of what he imagined an older List would look like.
On May 21, 1989, the show aired, and a woman in a suburb of Richmond, Virginia, thought the bust looked like Robert Clark, a former neighbor of hers in Denver — who also happened to be an accountant.
Agents went to the home of “Robert Clark,” and were able later to confirm that he was in fact actually John List, by taking a set of fingerprints.
“Clark’s” wife, whom he had met at a church social, was shocked. The couple had been living a quiet life, much as he had before murdering his first family.
At List’s trial in 1990, a psychiatrist for the prosecution testified that List had been suffering from a “mid-life crisis” when he slaughtered his family. Regardless, List was convicted of murder and sentenced to five life terms in prison.
In a 2002 television interview on ABC with Connie Chung, List explained that he killed his family rather than take his own life because he believed that suicide would have barred him from Heaven, and that he hoped to be reunited there with his family. “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,” he stated.
List died in 2008 of complications from pneumonia. He was 82.
To learn more about this case, watch the “Murder House” episode of Investigation Discovery’s Your Worst Nightmare on ID GO now!
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Main photo: John List [Wikimedia Commons]