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John List Killed His Family, Then Disappeared for 18 Years

Photo Credits: Bettmann / Getty Images / Cropped and Colorized, and Canva / Cropped
Photo Credits: Bettmann / Getty Images / Cropped and Colorized, and Canva / Cropped

The List family – John and Helen, along with their children Patricia, John, and Fredrick – had idyllic lives. They resided with John’s mother, Alma, in a stunning 19-room Victorian mansion in Westfield, New Jersey. John List worked as vice president and comptroller at a nearby bank. Tragically, everything came crashing down when List killed them all before disappearing for the next 18 years.

Second Lieutenant John List

John Emil List was born on September 17, 1925, in Bay City, Michigan. He grew up in an extremely religious Lutheran family, eventually teaching Sunday school as an adult. After his high school graduation in 1943, he enlisted in the United States Army and served as a laboratory technician until the end of the Second World War. He was discharged from the military in 1946.

View of the front of University Hall, University of Michigan, where John List earned his degree.
University Hall at the University of Michigan, where John List earned his bachelor’s degree, 1905. (Photo Credit: Universal History Archive/ Universal Images Group/ Getty Images)

He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and then a master’s degree in accounting, at the University of Michigan. While there, he was commissioned to the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) as a second lieutenant. By 1950 the Korean War had escalated, and List was recalled to service. This was how he first met his future wife, Helen Morris Taylor.

The List family

Helen’s husband had been killed in action in Korea, but she still lived near Fort Eustis, Virginia, where List was stationed. The pair married on December 1, 1951, not long after meeting, and moved to northern California. Around the same time, List was reassigned to the Finance Corps where he stayed until he completed his second tour of service and his military career. The family moved around a lot, as List was constantly changing jobs.

Headshot of John List in a black suit and glasses.
Mass murderer John List presumably before he committed his crimes, n.d. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

The Lists’ three children were born in Kalamazoo, but the family eventually settled down in a Westfield, New Jersey mansion in 1965. This was a very expensive way to live and became hard to sustain when List lost his lucrative job in 1971. It was later revealed that he had been fired from his employment because he had a cold demeanor. Unable to find other work, he started stealing money from his mother Alma, who lived with the family.

Mass murderer

John List began to worry that his financial difficulties would turn his family away from their religion. He said in a 2002 interview, “I finally decided the only way to save them from that was to kill them.” On November 9, 1971, he loaded two guns and killed Helen and Alma after the children left for school. He then, eerily, cleaned up and made himself a sandwich while he waited for his kids to come home.

Side by side headshots of Patricia and John List.
Two of John List’s children and victims, Patricia and John Jr., n.d. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Patricia and Fredrick returned first, and they were both shot in the head. List then traveled to John Jr.’s school to watch him play soccer before taking him home. Compared to the other two who were shot once, the middle child was shot 10 times. Police believe that he put up a fight and was more likely to win as he was much taller, and weighed 170 pounds. List placed the bodies of his family into sleeping bags, leaving them in the ballroom.

Abrupt disappearance

Unable to carry his mother’s body, List left her upstairs. He also wrote a long letter to his pastor detailing his reasons for the murder, which he left in his office. According to this, he truly believed that his actions would save his family from evil and save their souls. After turning on the radio, List simply left. It wasn’t until a month later when neighbors became suspicious that the mansion lights hadn’t been turned off once that the bodies were discovered.

John List in a grey t-shirt holding a police placard.
John List, under the alias Robert Clark, after his arrest, 1989. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

The police quickly launched a search for List but were unsuccessful. All they found was the family car at John F. Kennedy International Airport. As it turned out, he had gone to Colorado where he worked as an accountant under the name Robert Clark.

This new life was incredibly normal. List joined a Lutheran church, ran a carpool for members of the congregation, worked at a paper box company, and married a woman named Delores Miller. Eighteen years after John List killed his family, the crime was recounted on the TV show America’s Most Wanted. The episode featured a clay bust of what he would’ve looked like by this time, and it turned out to be incredibly accurate.

Tried for his crimes

One of his neighbors recognized him and List was arrested in Denver on June 1, 1989. He insisted for months that he was Robert Clark until he was presented with a fingerprint match for List, finally confessing to his real identity. During his trial, List testified about the difficulties he had at home, namely his wife’s illnesses and his loss of income. A psychiatrist said that he suffered from OCD, although it is unclear how that was relevant to the murders.

Despite the many justifications he made for his actions, List was convicted of five counts of first-degree murder on April 12, 1990, and given five life sentences. Of the court’s decision, he said, “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.” List eventually appealed the decision, arguing that he had PTSD from his military service.

An attempt was also made to have his written confession thrown out as evidence, based on the ground that it was private communication with his pastor. Both of these were unsuccessful. John List remained in jail for the remainder of his life, dying on March 21, 2009, at St. Francis Medical Center in New Jersey after contracting pneumonia.

John List in popular culture

Joe Mantello as a character based on John List in 'The Watcher'
Joe Mantello as a character based on John List in ‘The Watcher’ (Photo Credit: Netflix / michaella92 / MovieStillsDB)

Over the years, List’s crimes have inspired many documentaries, TV dramas, and feature films. The most recent is the hit 2022 Netflix series The Watcher, starring Naomi Watts, Bobby Cannavale, and Jennifer Coolidge. List served loosely as the model for John Graff, played by Joe Mantello. The show is set in Westfield, New Jersey, where the List family lived.

More from us: Jennifer Coolidge Admits She Lied To Get Ahead in Hollywood

Actor Kevin Spacey’s character in The Usual Suspects, Keyser Söze, was also based on List.  Other works spawned by the horrific true story include episodes of Law & Order, Forensic Files, American Justice, and Your Worst Nightmare. List-inspired movies include such titles as The Stepfather, Judgment Day: The John List Story, and A Killer Next Door.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.