True Crime: John List, Family Annihilator
The Tragedy Of It All
He killed his family to hide his debt; unbeknownst to him, he was sitting on a treasure.
For John List, success was everything. Equally as important was his image and he did everything in his power to keep himself perceived well by those around him. Managing that image, however, took a lot of work and in 1971 it began to take a toll on his mind.
List had always been a meticulous planner and was always careful to weigh his options when making important decisions. Later in life, he would be diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but traits of his illness were visible throughout his life in many of his choices and life decisions. So when his life began to unravel List felt cornered and set out to do the one thing that had always come easy to him: plan and execute whatever was necessary to make sure his life had as little interruption as possible.
After all, perception and image was everything.
After serving in the Army during WWII, List eventually found himself working as the Vice President at a bank in New Jersey. He and his family were regulars at their local church and he taught Sunday school. At the height of his success List was able to move his family of four, as well his ailing mother, into a nineteen-room mansion in town. The mansion boasted a beautiful ballroom, an upstairs apartment for his mother, and a beautiful skylight( more on that skylight later)but the picture-perfect lifestyle wasn’t meant to last.
When List lost his job at the bank in 1971 he began to fall behind on his mortgage payments. Rather than opting for honesty, he began stealing money from his mother’s account to cover bills and everyday expenses.
Each workday List left for the office as usual, but instead, he spent the day at the train station reading the newspaper and weighing his options. A “devout Lutheran” List believed it was shameful for a man to not provide for his family. He wasn’t working and soon he’d be unable to afford any of the comforts they’d grown accustomed to. His relationship with his wife wasn’t any better.
Helen had always had a problem with alcohol, but now she was barely functioning. List would later describe her as “unkept, and unwell.” Previously a widow, she had contracted Syphilis in her earlier marriage and was said to be devolving mentally. To List it was beginning to seem almost merciful to take his family out of the misery of their truth; at least that’s how he would later rationalize his actions.
So List began planning.
On November 9, 1971, John List sent the children off to school and calmly shot his wife as she drank her morning coffee. He then walked upstairs and shot and killed his mother as she slept.
When his sixteen-year-old daughter Patricia came home he shot her, quickly followed by his thirteen-year-old son Frederick. He made himself a sandwich sometime in-between and then drove himself to his fifteen-year-old son John Jr.’s soccer game where he proudly cheered him on. Afterward, he would drive him home, follow him inside and like the others, shoot him. Evidence shows that John Jr. attempted to defend himself and thwart off the attack. Ultimately he was shot several times.
List called the children’s school to explain they would be leaving town to visit an ailing relative. He canceled all deliveries to the family home. He thoroughly cleaned the crime scene and cut himself out of every family picture found in the home. He played religious hymnals over the mansion’s intercom system and left lights on throughout the home to throw off neighbors, and just like that, List disappeared for eighteen years.
After the television series America’s Most Wanted highlighted the List family murders, tips began pouring in. In just nine days List had been captured.
He’d started a new life, remarried, and was living as Robert Clark in Richmond VA. He would eventually be sentenced to five consecutive life sentences and would die in custody in 2008.
For all his planning, however, List had overseen one crucial element to his life story that could have potentially changed the family’s course: In his 19 room mansion, was a signed Tiffany skylight. Had it been discovered it would have certainly cured his financial problems. It was valued at over $100,000 in 1971. In 2019 that would equate to over $600,000.
In another odd twist, nine months after the murders, the family home and skylight were burned to the ground. The fire was deemed arson and remains unsolved to this day. Would the discovery of the skylight have made any difference to List? The answer to that question remains buried with him in a New Jersey cemetery, one of many unanswered questions the world will never know.