Could murder be justified as an act of love? Well, according to Mr. List, love was enough to justify killing his mother, wife and three children.
Who was Mr. List?
Mr. List was not born a murderer. In fact, he lived an honest life until his late thirties. In 1965, he moved to Westfield, New Jersey with his mother, wife, daughter and two sons. Due to List’s success, they lived in an 18-room mansion. He was the vice president of a nearby bank and he went to church every Sunday with his family. He was the perfect portrait of an honest citizen.
Suddenly, everything began to go wrong. He lost his job at the bank and worked many different jobs over the next few years. By this time, he still left for work every morning, despite the fact that he was now unemployed. He would sit at the train station all day thinking about how he would get his family out of debt. The only short-term solution that he found was to take money from his mother’s bank account.
It was in 1971 that John Emil List murdered his entire family. Accompanying the corpses, he left a letter to his pastor explaining his actions and then vanished into thin air.
A short investigation
It was a month later, on December 7th, that police officers finally entered the Lists’ home. They were alerted by the neighbours, who had begun to worry about the fact that nobody had been seen leaving or entering the house in weeks. The children’s teachers were also worried, as their unjustified absences grew longer.
When the police went in, organ music was playing on an intercom system and they found the deceased. The remaining Lists were displayed in the ballroom and they had all died from gunshots. Police officers also found a letter of five pages on the scene of the crime. It was addressed to the pastor where Mr. List used to teach Sunday school. It explained how much evil was in this world and that that was why he had decided to save his family’s souls by ending their lives. With this letter as a confession, the investigators had no doubt about the murderer’s identity.
Shortly after the discovery of the corpses, Mr. List’s car was found in a parking lot at Kennedy International Airport. Apart from this, F.B.I and county investigators have found no other trace of the killer.
Eighteen years later
In 1989, a woman from Virginia provided a new lead to the investigation. Indeed, as a fan of “America’s Most Wanted,” a true-crime program televised by Fox, she was surprised to see a sketch of her neighbour appear in the show.
A couple of months earlier, the producers of “America’s Most Wanted” were asked by the prosecutors of Mr. List’s case to look into it. Forensic sculptor Frank Bender and criminal psychologist Richard Walter were asked to come in, in order to help the producers. Bender studied pictures of Mr. List at the time of the murders. From there, he was able to figure how he would now look. Mr. Bender stated that he believes Mr. List would still be wearing his horn-rimmed glasses, as a ruse to make him look successful.
The show televised a sketch of an older John List on May 21st of 1989. That is when, among the 22 million people that saw the show, one woman in a Richmonds suburb in Virginia recognized the man as her neighbour, Robert Clark.
Police officers were sent to Clark’s house to confront him. Instead, they came across his wife. Although she had also viewed the show when it aired, because she knew nothing of her husband’s gruesome past, she had not recognized him.
They finally arrested Mr. Liston June 1st at his office. Fingerprints were taken as proof of his identity, which he had denied.
The murders: what happened?
Because of all of his financial difficulties, he felt like a true failure as if he had let his family down. He later confessed that he grew up with the belief that he had to be successful to provide for his family, which he had failed to do. Once he set his mind on the idea of the massacre, there was no turning back.
He planned to use a 9 mm pistol that he had brought from World War II and a .22-caliber target pistol. He bought new bullets and he went to a shooting range to practice himself shortly before the tragic day. He even remembers that one night, he had asked his family what he should do with their bodies in case they encountered a sudden death. “I remember talking about funerals and cremation and burials. I thought I was being real clever,” he specified (abcnews.go.com).
On the morning of November 9th of 1971, John Emil List sent his three children to school as if it was a normal day. Then, after loading his guns, he entered his house, went into the kitchen and killed his wife as she was making coffee.”I approached all of them from behind so they wouldn’t realize till the last minute what I was going to do to them,” he confessed (abcnews.go.com).
After that, he went upstairs, where his mother was eating her breakfast, kissed her and shot her in the head. He came back to his wife and moved her to the ballroom. He then cleaned up the blood in the kitchen so that his children would not suspect a thing.
Next, he left his house to go to the post office to stop his family’s mail from coming in and he went to the bank. When he came back home, he made some calls explaining that the family would be going to North Carolina to visit the wife’s ill mother.
After, he took a break to eat lunch as he would have normally. He sat at the very same table where he had shot his wife earlier.
When his children finally came home from school in the afternoon, he shot them one after the other, starting with his daughter Patricia. As soon as it was done, he felt a relief like if he had just completed his task for the day.
Then, he dragged the bodies, except his mother’s due to its heaviness, to the ballroom. He put them all next to each other, put music on and washed off the blood.
Finally, he wrote the confession letter to his pastor where he explained his financial problems and the reason why he did what he had just done.
The day after the slaughter, he destroyed every photo of himself so that the police would have no picture of him to put on Wanted posters. That is when he drove to the airport in New York, where his car was found, and took a bus into the city. From there, he fled to Colorado, assumed a new identity and remarried a widow named Delores Clark. As such, he lived in plain sight in the regions around Virginia and Denver for 18 years.
His trial began in 1990. A psychiatrist defended that Mr. List was suffering from a “midlife crisis” when the murders occured. Ever since the slaughter, he had enjoyed his life peacefully.
During the trial, he explained that he wanted to save their souls from the poverty that they would soon face. According to him, sending them to heaven was better than facing the shame of losing their mansion. Strangely, even if he was undoubtedly religious, he did not see this slaughter as such but as a liberation, even though ending one’s life contradicts one of the Ten Commandments. He knew how much it was wrong.
Finally, John Emil List was convicted of murder and he was sentenced to five life terms in prison. His later appeal was unsuccessful.
In 2002, Mr. List confessed to Connie Chung in an interview on ABC that suicide was not the solution. In fact, his overwhelment was not an excuse to end his life as it would have deprived his soul from going to heaven, where he had hope to see his family again. Of course, when he will die, he hopes that he will be reunited with his family and they will be as happy as they once were.
He was 82 when he died at the St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton. He was brought there due to a grave pneumonia from the New Jersey State Prison.
“1971 Family Killer Breaks Silence.” abcnews, 6 January 2006, https://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=132646&page=1
Stout, David. “John E. List, 82, Killer of 5 Family Members, Dies.” The New York Times, 25 March 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/25/nyregion/25list1.html