John Emil List was born on September 17, 1925, in Bay City, Michigan, to strict German parents. His mother was extremely protective and controlling over him throughout his childhood and into his adult life. When he was of age, John joined the army, and once he was discharged, he got his bachelor’s degree in business administration along with a master’s degree in accounting.
He was called back to duty in 1950 for the Korean War. While he was in Fort Eustis, Virginia, he met Helen Taylor. She was a young mother to her daughter, Brenda, from her previous marriage. In 1952, he married Helen and moved to Michigan and then to New York.
Everything seemed to be going great. They had three more children together: Patricia, Frederick, and John, Jr. He took a job in New York. In 1965, he accepted a position in Jersey City, New Jersey, and moved the whole family there, including his mother. At the time, Brenda had already married and moved out, so she stayed back. The List family moved into a Victorian mansion, “Breeze Knoll.” John thrived there and did well at his company. He appeared to be the perfect family man.
However, his cold demeanor caused problems at work. He lacked the social skills needed to work at the bank and was fired in 1971 at the age of 46. He couldn’t bear to tell his family the loss he suffered. He wanted to keep the appearance of the perfect American dream. They kept attending church, and he even taught Sunday school. To anyone on the outside, everything looked perfect.
John couldn’t find another job. He didn’t have an income, so he resorted to taking money from his mother to pay the bills. Every day, John would go to the train station and read the newspaper or take naps to pass the time. He could only keep the act up for so long.
On November 9, 1971, John killed his entire family.
That morning, he got his kids ready for school and sent them off. He then walked back into the house and shot both his wife, Helen (46), and his mother, Alma (84). John went to the post office to stop their mail and called the school to explain the kids would be gone for a while. When John got home, he moved his wife’s body into the ballroom, cleaned up the blood, and made himself a sandwich.
When Patricia (16) and Frederick (13) got home from school, he shot both of them in the head as they walked into their home. However, John Jr. was not home yet. He had a soccer game to play in. John went to his son’s soccer game and watched him play. After the game, he drove his son home, where he shot him repeatedly in the face and chest. John Jr. was 15-years-old.
John then placed all the bodies, except for his mother’s, in the ballroom. He wrote a note to his pastor, played classical music on the intercom, and went to bed. The next morning, after cutting himself out of all the family pictures, he disappeared.
A month later, the neighbors got suspicious of the lights that were always on. They hadn’t seen anybody in the windows and thought something might be wrong. They called the authorities. The family was discovered on December 7, 1971, along with a five-page note from John. The note explained that he had killed his family out of mercy to save their souls.
John List’s car was found in New York City at Kennedy International Airport. John, having a month’s head start, was nowhere to be found.
In 1989, 18 years after the killings, a forensic artist named Frank Bender created a bust of John List, guessing how he might have aged. This depiction was shown on America’s Most Wanted on May 21, 1989. Twenty-two million people saw the lifelike bust of John.
Many tips came in, including one from a woman in Colorado. She said her previous neighbor, Robert Clark, looked a lot like the depiction. However, he had recently moved to Richmond, Virginia. This man regularly attended church and was an accountant. The authorities went to Robert Clark’s house and talked to his wife. He was John List.
John List, aka Robert Clark, was arrested on June 1, 1989, just nine days after the episode of America’s Most Wanted aired.
While his defense lawyers argued that John had PTSD from the military, psychologists disagreed. They stated he was having a mid-life crisis. John List was found guilty and sentenced to five life terms.
He died in prison at the age of 82 in 2008 from pneumonia. Oddly enough, he was buried next to his mother in Michigan. He died, having never shown remorse for the killings. He believed he would still go to heaven because he hadn’t killed himself along with his family.
The mansion burned down mysteriously soon after the murders. A new house has been built in its place.
Blanco, J. I. (n.d.). John Emil List | Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers. Retrieved February 21, 2020, from https://murderpedia.org/male.L/l/list-john-emil.htm
Cole, C. (2016, September 3). John List – History, Crime and Psych Profile. Retrieved February 21, 2020, from https://www.thecriminalcode.com/index.php/2016/06/17/john-list-history-crime-and-psych-profile/
John List, The Mass Murderer Who Killed His Family So He’d See Them In Heaven. (2018, March 1). Retrieved February 20, 2020, from https://allthatsinteresting.com/john-list