Warning: this article contains crime scene images that some readers may find distressing.
All murder is horrifying. A life has been taken and a story needs to be told. We would all love to believe that those who love us won’t hurt us, but this isn’t always true. Especially in the case of John Emil List, a family annihilator.
“Everything I tried seemed to fall to pieces.”
431 Hillside Avenue, Westfield. New Jersey, United States. December 7, 1971.
Breeze Knoll, a 19 bedroom Victorian style mansion has had all of its lights on day and night for a month. One by one, the lights had slowly been burning out. The occupants of the mansion were the List family, a reclusive and unsocial family. The List’s had sent out notes to the children’s school saying they were in North Carolina visiting family. But as those lights began to blow, the neighbours became suspicious, and finally, on December 7, the police were called to investigate. What they found was a scene of macabre deliberation and sacrifice.
Bay City, Michigan, United States. September 17, 1925.
“Please remember me in your prayers.”
Devout Lutheran German-Americans John Frederick List and Alma Maria Barbara Florence List welcome their only child, John Emil List into the world. John took after his father not only in name but also in his deeply religious beliefs and work as a Sunday School teacher. John Emil List also became an accountant and on December 1, 1951, in Baltimore, he married Helen Morris Taylor.
Helen was a widow of an infantry officer killed in Korea and mother of a young girl named Brenda. Helen had contracted syphilis from her late husband and was an increasingly unbearable and unstable alcoholic. It was noted that she would loudly proclaim at social events that her current husband was much less sexually endowed than her previous. She was the type of woman who wanted everything in a gold bow and a bag to put it in. She was apparently addicted to tranquillizers and drank five glasses of Scotch a day. It is believed that Helen was verbally abusive towards John, belittling him both privately and publically. Despite this, they went on to have three children, Patrica, Frederick and John Jr.
431 Hillside Avenue, Westfield. New Jersey, United States. November 9, 1971.
”How could anyone do such a horrible thing?”
Helen, 45, sat at the kitchen table, drinking her morning coffee in the house that, in all truth, the List’s could not afford. The children had gone off to school, leaving the adults to their daily routine. However, John had lost his job (as he usually did) and had been spending his days sitting at the train station, pretending to be going off to work. This day, he did not go to the train station. He left a note on the front door for the milkman, stopping deliveries to the house. He then walked up behind his wife, pressed a 9mm German made Steyr automatic pistol to the side of her face and shot her in the head. Leaving her body where it sat at the table, John then went to the upstairs apartment his mother, Alma, 84, lived in. She was standing in her kitchenette, making breakfast when John entered the room she turned to her son and said: “What was that noise?”. He said nothing. Instead, he shot her just above the left eye. Her knees broke as her already deceased corpse fell to the floor.
John then went downstairs, dragging his wife into the ballroom of the mansion, a room the List’s seldom used, wrapping her in a boy scout sleeping bag. John then drove to his bank and closed both his own and his mother’s bank accounts, cashing in her remaining bonds. He then went to the post office to stop mail before returning home to have lunch at the very table he shot his wife at hours before. He would later remark with a chuckle “I was hungry, that’s just the way it is” during an interview regarding the murders.
When Patricia, 16, and Frederick, 13, came home from school he shot both of them in the back of the head. John Jr, 15, was still at Westfield High School playing soccer. John List drove to the school to watch his son play in the game, then drove him home to the house in which he had committed atrocities most people couldn’t imagine. John Jr struggled with his father when he attempted to shoot the boy, however, he was overpowered and shot multiple times in the face and chest. The bodies of the children joined their mother in sleeping bags places carefully in the ballroom. He cut himself out of every family photo in the home, played religious radio music on a loop over the mansions intercom, turned all the lights on and departed in his Chevrolet Impala.
Richmond, Virginia. United States. 1989.
“I leave myself in the hand of God’s Justice and Mercy.”
Robert Peter “Bob” Clark sits on the couch with his wife, Delores Miller, watching America’s Most Wanted. An image of a forensic sculpture flashes on the screen, with calls for information from the public, they are chasing John Emil List for the murders of his family. Bob begins sweating, his heart racing as the sculptor’s interpretation of John list is highly accurate. He is looking at a sculpture of himself. Bob looks to his wife, she doesn’t see what he sees and carries on with her night, unaware of her husband’s past.
Neighbours from their time in Denver, however, recognised the man and immediately contacted America’s Most Wanted. On June 1, 1989, Bob Clark was arrested at the accounting firm he worked at, claiming that he had no idea who John List was and denying to be the man who had been on the lam for nearly 18 years. Eventually, when faced with overwhelming forensic evidence, Bob confessed his true identity of John Emil List on February 16, 1990.
Dear Pastor Rehwinkel.
In his study, John left a confession note addressed to his pastor, Rev. Eugene A. Rehwinkel. You can read the full letter here, cause it’s a long one. In this letter, John Emil List confesses to the murders of his entire family, stating that he feared for their immortal souls. John believed the 70’s to be a sinful time, and he believed his family was straying further away from God.
Of his daughter, Patricia, a budding actress, he said:
“…being so determined to get into acting I was also fearful as to what that might do to her continuing to be Christian. I’m sure it wouldn’t have helped”
At List’s trial, it was also heard that Patricia was a practising witch, a major sin in the religion of Christianity. Whether or not this is true is unknown. He also listed his financial issues with a cause for his actions, the List’s were severely in debt and John was unemployed. The shoe was about to drop and John was running out of time. He wrote in the letter:
“1. I wasn’t earning anywhere near enough to support us. Everything I tried seemed to fall to pieces. True, we could have gone bankrupt and maybe gone on welfare. 2. But that brings me to my next point. Knowing the type of location that one would have to live in, plus the environment for the children, plus the effect on them knowing they were on welfare was just more than I thought they could and should endure.”
It seems that the public judgement his family may face from their financial and personal troubles was, in John List’s mind, worse than death. He well and truly believed that he was sending his family directly to heaven. He saw there was no other option. However, most family annihilators kill themselves after killing their families. John List decided that suicide was too big of a sin for a good Christian man to commit, even worse than disobeying the commandment “Thou shall not kill.”
The last line of the letter sent a collective gasp through the courtroom during John List’s trials.
“P.S. Mother is in the hallway in the attic – 3rd floor. She was too heavy to move.
431 Hillside Avenue, Westfield. New Jersey, United States. August 20, 1972.
An arson attack (still unsolved) saw Breeze Knoll burned to the ground. It was then discovered that the skylight over the ballroom in which the John List made his makeshift morgue, was a Tiffany original. The estimated value of the piece being $100,000 USD ($590,000 in today’s value), more than enough to cover the List families debts.
New Jersey, United States. April 12, 1990.
John Emil List is convicted of 5 counts of first-degree murder. He attempted to plead insanity, but the jury and judge saw through it. The judge stated.
“John Emil List is without remorse and without honour,…After 18 years, five months and 22 days, it is now time for the voices of Helen, Alma, Patricia, Frederick and John F. List to rise from the grave.”
On May 1, he is sentenced to five life-terms in prison. He continued to show no remorse, believing he would be reunited with his slain family in heaven.
St. Francis Medical Centre, New Jersey, United States. March 21, 2008.
Whilst still in custody, John Emil List dies of complications from Pneumonia. No one came to claim his body.
QUOTES UNDER HEADINGS TAKEN FROM JOHN EMIL LIST’S CONFESSION LETTER. WHICH CAN BE FOUND HERE. (NY TIMES ARCHIVE)
My Favorite Murder Podcast. Episode 29. https://open.spotify.com/episode/0wcy9zgK0caAuO5AM8pRIf