We are back! After a break over the summer, Murder Friends are back in studio (when we say studio we mean our blanket tents). This week we jump straight in with an massive case. Hannah tell us about family annihilator, John List.
John List and his wife, Helen, lived in a huge 19 room, Victorian mansion with their three children (16 year old Patricia, 15 year old John Jr and 13 year old Frederick). This property was so big – it had it’s own ballroom, it was called Breeze Knoll and was Helen List’s dream house. It was in an expensive part of New Jersey and was one of the most expensive properties in the area. John’s mother, Alma, also lived in the property in a self contained apartment on the third floor. She had moved in when the property was bought six years prior as she lent John a portion of the money needed to purchase the home. The List family lived a pretty reclusive lifestyle at Breeze Knoll, they didn’t really socialise or get involved with the community. From the outside they were seemingly living a perfect life in 1971. However, things were far from perfect.
Let’s go back to the beginning. John who was born in Michigan in 1925, met his wife, Helen at Fort Eustis, a military base in Virginia in 1950. John had enlisted in the Army in 1943 and served as laboratory technician. (Just an FYI there, I typed this very poorly and laboratory technician had autocorrected to lavatory technician”). He was discharged from the Army in 1946, did a bachelors in business administration and a masters in accounting but was recalled to military service in 1950 as the Korean War was firing up at that time. Helen lived on the military base as her late husband had been killed in action in Korea. She had a daughter, Brenda. There is speculation here that they married very quickly because Helen told John that she was pregnant. John had a very religious upbringing and was a devout Lutheran. As a result he proposed marriage.
Shortly after their wedding, Helen revealed she wasn’t pregnant. As I said, John was super religious and despite feeling tricked, he couldn’t divorce her due to his beliefs. This didn’t stop them banging out three children pretty quickly. Brenda, Helen’s daughter, moved out of the family in 1960. He had previously struggled to hold a job due to personality differences with his employers and had, six months prior to the murders, lost a prestigious job as vice-president of bank in New Jersey. He had struggled to find alternative employment but pretended every morning to leave for work, get on the train and come back at home time.
Money troubles were probably coming at him thick and fast. He started skimming funds from accounts held by his mother to try and meet his expenses but by 1971 he was on the verge of bankruptcy. As I mentioned earlier, John was a devout Lutheran and some Lutheran’s believe that being poor is a sin. A person should be working hard towards not being poor. Money wasn’t the only problem for John though. His wife, Helen, revealed she had been diagnosed with tertiary syphilis in 1968-69 and her health was deteriorating. The vision in her right eye was fading, she was experiencing blackouts and falling. She even stopped going to church – which again was another blow for John’s devout beliefs – and started abusing alcohol and tranquillisers.
Patricia, his daughter, wanted to be an actor and had a really strong interest in drama classes at school. There had been allegations that she had been smoking marijuana and practising witchcraft. The sinfulness of modern 1970’s America became an increasing concern for John. So, religious beliefs, his wife’s increasingly erratic behaviour, threat of 70s America having a negative impact on his children, he does the exact opposite of what a normal human being would do and decides that everyone has to die. He’ll just toddle off and start living the life he wanted. He can’t kill himself after all – that was against his beliefs and would plunge his family into poverty.
Here is how 9 November 1971 went down for the List family. The children leave for school. Helen comes downstairs for a coffee. John shoots her once in the head, killing her instantly, with his 9mm automatic pistol. He puts her body in a sleeping bag and drags it into the ballroom. John goes upstairs to his Alma’s little apartment. His mother asks what the noise downstairs was all about. He mutters a response, puts the gun against the left side of her head and shoots. John can’t drag Alma down to the ballroom so leaves her where she fell and places a towel over her face. He decides that after killing his wife and his mother, there is admin to do whilst the kids are at school. He cleans up the blood from killing Helen – later he said that this was a ‘surprising’ amount of blood. He starts writing letters children’s teachers and tells them that the family has to go to North Carolina to look after a sick relative. He cashes a $2,000 savings bond that belonged to his mother at the bank – this would be about $13,000 today. He stops their newspaper deliveries. He stops their milk deliveries. He posts the letters and whilst he is at the post office he stops the mail delivery coming to the property. He returns home to wait. He makes a sandwich. He receives a call from the Patricia’s school. Patricia is unwell and John has to go and pick her up. He goes to the school, collects her and drives her back to Breeze Knoll. Once they were inside the house, he shot her in the face with .22 calibre gun. He dragged Patricia’s body into the ballroom and placed her next to her mother. He exits the ballroom and waits for Frederick to return home. When he does, he shoots him. Takes his body to the ballroom and lays him with his mother and sister. Despite killing four people at this point, John then gets in his car and drives to John Jr’s soccer game at Westfield High School. He watches his son play his game, takes him home and upon entering the kitchen, John shoots John Jr in the back of the head. Everyone else had fallen immediately but it is suggested that John fought back. John ends up shooting John Jr nine more times. As before, he drags John Jr’s body into the ballroom. After saying a prayer over the bodies, John cleans up as much blood as he can. He makes himself dinner. Sits at the dinner table. Eats his dinner. Washes the dishes in the kitchen and sets them in the dish rack. He then goes to bed. And sleeps. A good nights sleep. He actually said it was the best nights sleep he had had in a long time. I don’t think I would have a good night sleep in the same house where the dead bodies of your mother, wife and three children are.
The next morning, he pens a five page letter to his pastor. Once his letter is complete he hunts down every family photograph in the house and cut himself out of them. The last thing he does before leaving is turn on all the lights, turn the air-conditioning down to its coldest setting, puts on a religious radio station on loud. He walks out of the door and leaves.
The house stands silent for almost a month. The neighbours note the eerie-ness of seeing the house fully illuminated but there being no activity. That eerie-ness started to increase when the lightbulbs started burning out one by one. Patricia’s drama teacher starts to get concerned nearly a month later. Patricia had once confided in him that she was scared her father would kill her and her family. The teacher just couldn’t rid him-self of the feeling that something was wrong even though Patricia’s absence had been explained through one of John’s lie filled letters. Taking another teacher with him, they go to the List house. The neighbours have been keeping a closer eye on the property since the lights started to fizzle out and when they see two people wandering around the outside of the property at night, they call the Po-lice. George Zhelesnik and Charles Haller were the first police officers to arrive and after knocking on the front door, with no answer (obviously) and inspecting the property they didn’t think anything was out of place. The neighbours were like “nah, dudes, something is wrong, you gotta get inside and look about or something”. The police enter through an unlocked window. They immediately notice the house is freezing cold and the radio is still playing some creepy organ music. They find the bodies in the ballroom. They find John’s confession let-ter. They find the guns. They follow the directions in John’s letter to find the body of Alma, in her apartment. The police needed to find John List. But the problem was that John had a month head start on starting his new life and John didn’t want to be found. The only lead they had was that John’s car was found at New York’s Kennedy International Airport but after that, John List was in the wind. Eighteen years go by with no progress and no answers. So the FBI decided that at this point there was something that was just becoming popular could help them find List. And that thing was a man. A man with a television show. A man we talked about in the Adam Walsh True Crime 101. That man was no other than John Walsh, host of America’s Most Wanted. Following the successes America’s Most Wanted had, the FBI challenged John Walsh to delve into the cold case. John Walsh recalled that he had received a petition and letters from the friends of John List’s murdered children, asking him to take the case. In 1989, John Walsh commissions Frank Bender, an expert forensic artist, to create a bust of John List. Looking at photos of John, Frank aged the bust by 18 years, giving it wrinkles etc and went to an antiques store to find duplicate glasses. It took Frank three months to finish the bust and even went out to a vintage store to find glasses that he thought that John List would wear. John Walsh then shows the bust off on America’s Most Wanted where an estimated 22 million people saw it.
Tips come flooding it. 20 of those tips come from Richmond, Virginia. One of those tips came from the neighbour of a man called Robert Clark. This neighbour thought Robert looked a lot like this bust and noted the similarities that he had with John List – ie that Robert was also an accountant and attended church. Nine days after this episode of America’s Most Wanted aired, Robert Clark, or should we say, John List, was arrested. He had been on the run for 18 years. After he left Breeze Knoll, he drove his car to Kennedy International Airport and abandoned it to throw the police off his trail, then travelled by train from New Jersey to Michigan to Colorado. He assumed the name Robert “Bob” Clark after a college classmate. He ended up in Denver for a period, remarried a in the end moved to Midlothian, Virginia. After his arrest in June 1989, List refused to reveal his identity but faced with all the evidence in the case and a fingerprint match from List’s military records, he eventually confessed in February 1990 – which is eight months of pure lying. There was a trial where a psychiatrist testified that John suffered from an obsessive compulsive personality disorder but he was con-victed of five counts of first degree murder on 12 April 1990. He denied that he had any direct responsibility for the murders and is quoted as saying:
“I feel that because of my mental state at the time, I was unaccountable for what happened. I ask all affected by this for their forgiveness, understanding and prayer“
The judge was like umm, no thank you and says “John Emil List is without remorse and without honor,” he said. “After 18 years, five months and 22 days, it is now time for the voices of Helen, Alma, Patricia, Frederick and John F. List to rise from the grave.” Then sentenced him to five life terms to be run consecutively which was the harshest punishment available. Obviously, he tried to appeal. He argued he had PTSD from his military career and also that the letter he left that was addressed to his pastor was a confidential communication which should not be admissible in evidence. The federal courts also did an umm, no thank you, and rejected both of these arguments. He eventually expressed remorse but it wasn’t very convincing saying “I wish I had never done what I did,” he said. “I’ve regretted my action and prayed for forgiveness ever since.” Anyway, he died in prison custody aged 82. As if this story isn’t shocking enough, the real kicker in this case is that there was a stained-glass skylight in the ballroom signed by Louis Comfort Tiffany – it would have been worth $100,000 to the list family in 1971 – a whopping $610,000 in today’s money. It would have solved all the money woes John faced plus left extra. Breeze Knoll itself burnt down several months after the murders. A new property was built in its place but even to this day, parents told a reporter in 2008, that children refuse to walk past the property and the parents themselves do not want to even live on the same street.
You can read a copy of John List’s letter to his pastor here: http://crimescenedb.com/john-list-manifesto/
Hannah’s sources for this episode: