During his years on the run, List went by the name Robert Clark. He died at 2:30 p.m. Friday March 20th, 2008, four days after being transported from a New Jersey Prison to the St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton.
When police officers busted into the home of John List on Dec. 7, 1971, they heard creepy organ music playing on an intercom system and found the bodies of Mr. List’s wife, Helen, 46; his daughter, Patricia, 16; his sons John, 15, and Frederick, 13, and his mother, Alma, 85 whose body had been stuffed in a closet. All had been shot to death.
The police also found a note from Mr. List to his pastor at a Lutheran church where Mr. List sometimes taught Sunday school. Over five pages John 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.
On a chilly Autumn morning in 1971 after seeing his daughter and two sons off to school, John List walked into the kitchen of his 19-room mansion in Westfield, and shot his wife to death as she sipped her morning coffee.
He then walked up to the third floor and shot his 85-year-old mother, Alma. Then he waited downstairs to kill his children, one by one, as they came home from school. First Patty, 16. Then Frederick, 13. Then John, 15, after the boy put his bookbag down on a kitchen countertop.
John List then dragged all of the bodies of his wife and children into the Ballroom and laid them on sleeping bags according to size. He made himself some dinner, went to sleep and then fled the next day. Neighbors at the time saw nothing and heard nothing. School Administrators thought that nothing was odd when the children failed to show up for school because they were told ahead of time that they would be traveling with the family for and extended period of time. Newspaper and mail delivery was halted by List so as to give the appearance that all was normal at the house. The lights were left on.
List at 46, had trouble holding a job, was strapped by a mortgage and was apparently taking money from his mother’s bank account to keep his household running.
His car was discovered in a parking lot at Kennedy International Airport not long after the corpses were found, but dozens of F.B.I. agents and investigators from Union County, N.J., found no trace of Mr. List in the United States or overseas.
He was caught 18 years later after the television show “America’s Most Wanted” aired a segment on the murders. The producers of the show brought in Frank Bender, a forensic sculptor, and Richard Walter, a criminal psychologist to help them try to create an accurate image of what he would look like after so many years on the run. Studying photographs of Mr. List when he was in his mid-40s, they imagined how he might look in 1989, and employing psychology and science in equal measures they built a lifelike bust of List, complete with grey hair and a receding hairline, drooping brows and jaw, and thick dark glasses.
On May 21, 1989, Fox televised the segment and displayed the bust of an older John List on the show. The network estimated that 22 million people saw it. One was a woman in Richmond, Va., who thought the bust looked like a neighbor, Robert Clark, a churchgoing accountant who wore horn-rimmed glasses.
Agents went to the home of “Robert Clark,” confronted his stunned wife, whom he had met at a church social, then obtained her help in filling in details from the past. They picked him up at his office on June 1, 1989. When the police saw List, they were shocked. He looked exactly like Frank Bender’s bust — right down to the glasses. Fingerprints confirmed that he was John List, although he had denied it.
At his trial in 1990, a psychiatrist for the prosecution testified that List had been suffering only from a “midlife crisis” when he slaughtered his family and that he had enjoyed life in the years afterward. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to five life terms in prison. He appealed, unsuccessfully, on grounds that his judgment had been impaired by post-traumatic stress disorder from military service in World War II and Korea and that his letter to the pastor should have been kept confidential.
In a 2002 television interview with ABC’s Connie Chung, List said he killed his family out of fear that they would be torn apart by a mountain of debt. He feared the family would lose their home and drift away from their Christian beliefs.
He died at St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton four days after being taken there from the New Jersey State Prison, on Good Friday, 2008. The cause was complications of pneumonia. His body remains unclaimed.
John Emil List was reportedly the inspiration for Kevin Spacey’s character Keyser Soze in the 1995 film “The Usual Suspects.”
The film actor Robert Blake who would later go on trial for murdering his own wife played John List in the excellent 1993 Tv movie “Judgment Day: The John List Story”.
The motion picture “The Stepfather” is based on the John List story. A quote from filmaker Donald Westlake who also produced a film about the List case:
“The strange thing about The Stepfather,” is “the source of it was a real life guy, and ultimately there were three movies that all came out of the real life case. A guy in New Jersey named John List who disappeared. Part of what was weird and interesting about it was that for several weeks before he murdered his family and disappeared, he had not been going to work, he had quit his job without telling anybody and would go off everyday as though to work and at the end of the week he would take money out of his savings account and bring it home as though it were his salary.
The John List murder case still baffles criminologists. So many questions remain. The List house mysteriously burned down about a year after the murders. In the remains of the fire investigators found perhaps the ultimate irony: The glass ceiling of the large empty ball room was in reality a signed Tiffany original. The sale of that glasswork alone would very likely have paid off all of John List’s debts. He just never knew it.