This week, we’re going to start in Bay City, Michigan in 1925. John Frederick and Alma List welcomed their only child together, John Emil, on September 17. He had two half-siblings on his father’s side.
His father was 28 years older than his mother, a devout Lutheran, owner of a grocery, and known to be cold and strict. His mother was overprotective and dominating. Stories from his hometown talked of John not being allowed to play with other children and not being popular even through high school.
John graduated from Bay City Central High School in 1943 and enlisted in the U.S. Army. In the Army, he served as a Lab Technician through World War II and was honorably discharged in 1946. It was at this point that he enrolled in the University of Michigan, earning a Bachelor degree in Business Administration and Master degree in Accounting while serving as second lieutenant in the ROTC.
He was recalled into active service in 1950 during the Korean War. While stationed at Fort Eustis in Virginia, John met Helen Morris Taylor, a widow and mother. In 1951, John and Helen married before John was reassigned to the Financial Corps of the Army and the family moved to California. The marriage was a little rushed due to a pregnancy scare and held in Maryland. After completing this second tour in 1952, they relocated outside of Detroit in Kalamazoo.
John and Helen welcomed their daughter Patricia in 1955, son John in 1956 and son Frederick in 1958. In 1960, Helen’s first daughter, Brenda, married and left the home. This same year, John got a job for Xerox and the family moved to Rochester, NY.
A few years later in 1965, John got a vice president position at a bank in Jersey City, NJ, relocating the family once again. This time, they settled into a 19 bedroom Victorian mansion named Breeze Knoll in Westfield, NJ. The house even boasted an original Tiffany skylight in the ballroom valued at $100K at the time (approximately $974,685 today). The family even moved John’s mother, Alma, into an apartment on the third floor.
Through his life, John maintained the same religious values as his father. A devout Lutheran who attended church every week, John also became a Sunday School teacher and volunteered for the church.
After 18 years of marriage, John learned of some deceptions from his wife. Her first husband had given her tertiary syphilis, a non-contagious strain of the disease. The reason she pushed to get married in Maryland was that the state did not have a mandatory syphilis screening for marriages. She had either neurosyphilis or meningovascular syphilis which cause dementia, personality changes, delusions, seizures, psychosis and depression. She was losing her eyesight from the disease, and in combination with her heavy drinking, she because mean and unpleasant to be around. She would privately and publicly demean John to the point of possibly being verbally abusive. Due to her health, Helen even stopped attended church each week.
In 1971, after being laid off from the bank, John was too embarrassed to tell the family, so he continued to get up each morning, dress for work and leave the house. He would then spend the day either interviewing for other jobs or simply sitting at the train station reading the newspaper. He got an lost a few jobs, with former coworkers saying that he was cold and unlikeable. Being the only income for the house, he emptied his mother’s savings to pay the mortgage, but the home was on the verge of foreclosure.
He had the kids to get part-time jobs under the guise of learning responsibility and finance. While they had a strict religious upbringing, the children were happy and well-liked in school. Patricia wanted to be an actress and attended drama class to pursue her dream and John Jr. played soccer.
On November 9, 1971, John took the children to school as usual. He then returned home, and while still seated in the vehicle, began loading bullets into his two fire arms: a 9mm Steyr 1912 and a Colt .22 revolver. He walked into the house to find Helen at the kitchen table drinking her morning coffee. It was here that he shot her in the head.
He then went upstairs to his mother’s apartment, and did the same.
He then visited the post office to put a stop on the family’s mail. He left a note for the milkman that they would be out of town and needed to stop service. He went to the bank and withdrew what money the family had left.
He then returned home, and called the kids’ school to say the family would be out of town for a few weeks to go to South Carolina and care for Helen’s ill mother. Once arrangements were set, he placed Helen’s body on a sleeping bag and drug her into the ballroom. He later said that he did not move his mother because she was too heavy to carry from the third floor.
While waiting for the children to return home, he made himself lunch.
Patricia arrived home first, followed by Frederick. Each one, he shot in the head as they walked in the door and then took to the ballroom on a sleeping bag. Finally, John went to watch John Jr’s soccer game and drove the boy home. As they entered the home, he shot John Jr, but his son fought back and struggled. So, John emptied both guns into his supposed “favorite son.”
With the bodies lined up in the ballroom, John cleaned up the kitchen, leaving bags of bloody paper towels and a bloody mop behind. He turned the thermostat all the way down to help preserve the bodies, and turned the radio to a classical station. He turned the lights on throughout the house to make it appear that people were home and busy.
He went into the study and wrote a letter to his pastor confessing to what he did, and then went through all the photos in the house to cut himself out so police would have a harder time finding him.
Once he was done, he got in his car and disappeared.
Neighbors, the church and the children’s teachers became suspicious after awhile when the family didn’t return from South Carolina. Slowly the lights burned out, and the eerie classical music could be heard if you ventured near the house.
On December 7, 1971, police were finally called and discovered the horrible scene. The bodies had been there for 29 days and started to decompose. Officers on scene described the whole scene like something from a horror movie with the classical music playing and decomposing corpses lined up meticulously in the grand architecture of the ballroom.
Both murder weapons were left at the scene, and while he cleaned the blood, he didn’t take forensic countermeasures to hide prints or his identity.
Police discovered the letter to his pastor outlining his reasons for killing the family. He admitted to the financial hardships and said he feared bankruptcy. He did not want his children to live in poverty and feared what living on welfare would do to them. He also noted that Patricia’s interest in acting was going to pull her from Christianity, and that Helen’s not going to church was going to hurt the children’s attendance as well. He said that he killed them to preserve their place in Heaven because he saw they were starting to stray from the religious path.
At this point, he had a month’s head start and police didn’t even know where to look. His car was found at JFK airport, but they couldn’t track him to a particular flight or location. A 50-state alarm and manhunt began, but he covered his tracks.
The case went cold for 17 years. Police kept it alive with news stories and calls to the public for help, but found nothing. They developed two possible theories for what happened to John List: he had either committed suicide or relocated to somewhere in the midwest. Their psychological profile outlined a man who killed out of anger and retaliation at his own failures.
Investigators decided to take a chance. In 1989, they reached out to America’s Most Wanted. At the time, this would be the oldest case they covered, but the show agreed to air the story. Normally, they would show a photo of the suspect at the very end of the story, but they had a single photo that was over 20 years old.
The show brought in Frank Bender, a forensic sculptor who worked in both skull reconstruction and suspect aging busts. Bender spent years working and studying with anthropologists, doctors and police to hone his skills. For the John List case, he also teamed up with forensic psychologist Richard Walter. Together, they looked at his upbringing, family genetics and psychological profile to determine what his life would be like. How would he take care of himself? How would he have changed in 20 years? How would he stay the same?
On May 21, 1989, the episode aired nationally. Wanda Flanery and her daughter Eva were watching that night and recognized the bust. But his name wasn’t John List. It was their former neighbor Bob Clark. Bob was a volunteer at their church in Denver, CO and even married another attendee of the church, Delores Miller. He was an accountant, but seemed like an okay guy.
Wanda told the tip line that he had moved to Richmond, VA, and police had their first lead in almost 20 years. They were then able to track him down, and he looked identical to the forensic bust by Frank Bender.
For the first month, he denied being John List, but he knew they had fingerprint evidence, he finally confessed to his true identity. After the murders, he made his way to Denver. He got a new social security card under the name Robert Peter Clark. When he met Delores, he told her that his first wife died of cancer and that he had no children.
At trial, he was convicted of five counts of 1st degree murder and sentenced to 5 consecutive life sentences. He never showed remorse, and in an interview with Conny Chung, he said that he didn’t kill himself at the same time so that he can make his way back to them in Heaven.
He has been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. He literally felt there were only two options: ridicule and embarrassment at losing their home or murdering his entire family.
This actually lines up with a lot of the research that has been done into family annihilator killers. In a family annihilation or familicide, all members of the family are killed in a single incident. A 2013 study found that 83% of these types of killers are male with 50% of those being middle-aged like John List. Additionally 57% of these types of killings are performed in the family home. Professor Jack Leven of Northeastern University in Boston described a family annihilator as “a middle-aged man, a good provider who would appear to neighbors to be a dedicated husband and father.”
Studies have also outlined that the common triggers or causes for these crimes are:
- breakdown of the family relationship and issues regarding access to the children
- financial worry or trouble and/or employment issues
- cultural honor killings, which are murders trying to protect their family and themselves from disgrace or dishonor
- mental illness
- substance misuse
- history of domestic violence
John List died in 2008 after complications from pneumonia while still incarcerated.