‘America’s Most Wanted’ Killer: John List

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November 9, 1971 began as a typical day in the List home. 13-year-old Frederick, 15-year-old John Jr & 16-year-old Patricia were woken for school & sat with their 46-year-old accountant father, eating breakfast as they did on any normal morning. They sat in the kitchen of their sprawling mansion which was equipped with a ballroom, marble fireplaces & a Tiffany skylight. This was anything but a normal morning. Their father, John List had been meticulously working on a horrific plan for months that would end in his family’s death that same day.

John Emil List was born on September 17, 1925 in Bay City, Michigan, He was described as an aloof, cold man with little friends. He was the only child of strict German parents & his mother was very overbearing. They were devout members of the Lutheran church. In 1943 he enlisted in the US Army & served in WWII as a lab technician. After discharge, he enrolled at University of Michigan & earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration & a master’s degree in accounting & was commissioned to second lieutenant through ROTC. 

In November 1950 he was called to serve in the Korean War. While stationed in Virginia, John met Helen Morris Taylor who was a widow that lived nearby with her daughter Brenda. Apparently Helen had tricked John into marrying her on December 1, 1951 in Baltimore, Maryland after she had lied & said she was pregnant. After the wedding the family moved to northern California. When John discovered Helen’s lie, he refused to break their vows due to his religious beliefs.. He was then reassigned to the Finance Corps when the Army realized his accounting skills. 

After John’s second tour in 1952, he worked for an accounting firm in Detroit & then as an audit supervisor in Kalamazoo where he & Helen had their three children. They attended church each Sunday & John taught Sunday school. By 1959, John had been promoted to general supervisor of his company’s accounting department though at home, things had become unstable as Helen was an alcoholic. By 1960 Brenda had married & left the household & John moved the rest of the family to Rochester NY for a position with Xerox. He eventually became the director of accounting services. In 1965 John accepted a position as vice president & comptroller at a bank in Jersey City, NJ & moved the family into a 19 room Victorian mansion at 431 Hillside Ave in Westfield that Helen had her heart set on. Despite John’s major success in work, he had been let go from many jobs as his personality & attitude often rubbed people the wrong way. 

This house was the most expensive one in an already very expensive town. Fearing disappointing Helen, John was forced to ask his mother for a loan. Despite being distant from his dad, John was always close with his mom.  She loaned John the money & was invited to live in the third floor apartment of the mansion.

At age 46, affording a mansion became nearly impossible after John had been fired in 1971, less than a year later from his bank job. John maintained the facade that he was going into work daily, getting up & dressed & taking the train in order to keep Helen from discovering the truth. In a later interview, John said that he felt like a failure for letting his family down, believing he should be providing for them. He spent his days reading the newspaper & napping in the train station until it was time to come home. He eventually found a lower paying job which also didn’t last very long & continued to work from job to job without his family’s knowledge. Because of the worsening financial issues, John began stealing money from his mom & soon he was bankrupt. To make matters worse, the Lutheran church viewed poverty as a sin. He never considered going on welfare; too embarrassed & did not want to violate his principles of self-sufficiency that he learned from his father.

Stress at home began to mount as well. John’s daughter Patricia began to show interest in acting which John viewed as a corrupt profession. She was also said to be experimenting in both Witchcraft & marijuana. John was not happy that his children appeared to be turning towards the sinful culture of the 1970s.

Helen had also been concealing health issues she had been dealing with for years. She was suffering from blackouts & falling as well as vision loss in her right eye. Her alcohol intakes had rapidly increased and she became dependent on tranquilizers. At the end of 1968/beginning of 1969, Helen had been diagnosed with tertiary syphilis which she had contracted from her first husband. Helen had also stopped going to church.

Suicide was briefly considered by John though because of his religious beliefs, this was not an option. He rationalized that if you kill yourself, you won’t go to heaven. He felt that if he killed his family, he hoped they would go to heaven & he might have a chance to later confess his sins to God & get forgiveness.  Whatever happened to one of the ten commandments, “Thou shalt not kill”?? He began to work on his plan with great detail. At this point, he felt there was no going back & described it as D-Day, “you go in, there’s no stopping after you start.” 

John found an old 9mm pistol he had purchased as a souvenir fromWII & a .22 caliber target pistol. He purchased new ammunition & went to the shooting range to practice. 

He even asked his family one night after dinner what should be done with their bodies after they died. “I remember talking about funerals & cremations & burials. I thought I was being very clever.” 

On the morning of November 9, 1971, John saw his three children to school as he would on any normal day. He then took his two handguns out to his car where he loaded them. Helen soon came downstairs for her morning coffee, chatting with John as he walked up behind her with the 9mm automatic pistol & shot Helen once in the side of the head, killing her instantly. He later said, “I approached them all from behind so they wouldn’t realize till the last minute what I was going to do to them.” 

John then headed upstairs. Alma had been fixing her breakfast & John gave her a kiss. Alma questioned the noise she heard from downstairs & John gave her a vague answer. He then placed the gun to the side of her temple & pulled the trigger. Wanting to avoid dragging Alma’s body down to the ballroom with Helen’s, he tossed a towel on her face & left her where she had fallen, saying she was “too heavy” to move. 

John then went back downstairs where he placed Helen’s body on a sleeping bag which he then dragged into the grand ballroom where he laid her beneath the stained-glass ceiling. 

John then began to clean up the blood in the kitchen so his children wouldn’t know what was going on when they returned home from school. He then wrote letters & made phone calls to the children’s teachers, his boss & other family members, explaining that they would be leaving to attend to a sick relative in North Carolina. He headed to the post office to mail the letters & place a hold on the mail service. He stopped their milk & newspaper deliveries & headed to the bank to deposit his mother’s $2k savings bond.

John returned home, made himself a sandwich (killing family members really gets the appetite revved up), sitting at the table where he killed Helen just hours before. In an interview, he said, “I was hungry,” followed by a chuckle, “that’s just the way it was.” Now he waited for his children to arrive home from school. 16 year old Patricia was the first to arrive; she had called her father, telling him she felt ill & needed to leave school early. John picked her up & once inside their home, shot her with the .22 pistol. Like Helen, he dragged Patricia’s body to the ballroom. 

Next home was 13 year old Frederick & sadly he was killed just as the previous three & also laid to rest in the ballroom. 

John Jr, his namesake & favorite happened to have a soccer game after school that day. John Sr drove to the fields to cheer on his son & brought him home after the game. Once inside the kitchen, John Jr was shot in the back of the head. Unlike the previous three, he did not go down instantly & John emptied both guns into his son. He later said, “I don’t know whether it was only because he was still jerking that I wanted to make sure that he didn’t suffer, or that it was a way of relieving tension, after having completed what I felt was my assignment for the day.” List ended up shooting John Jr 9 times before dragging his body to the ballroom, lining him up with the rest of his family. He said a Lutheran prayer over the bodies, later saying, “that was the least I could do.”

John made attempts to clean up the blood & sat down to have dinner.  He then washed his dishes, placed them in the drying rack & headed up to sleep as his 5 family members laid dead in the house. He later admitted that he had slept better than he had in years.

The next morning, he turned the A/C down in attempts to preserve the bodies. He turned every light in the house on & put the radio on to his favorite classical station giving the illusion that the family was home & well. Next John sat down to write a five page confession letter to his pastor, saying, “at least I am certain that all have gone to heaven now. If things had gone on, who knows if that would be the case.” He then went through each family picture in the home, cutting his face out so the police had nothing to use in Wanted posters. He then left the house & locked the door behind him.

His next stop was JFK Airport where he dropped his car off & took a bus to the city. He then hopped on a train headed to Denver. There he began to create a new identity, Robert Peter Clark, starting with applying for a SS card. John then started his new life, getting a job as a short order cook & later at H&R Block as an accountant.  He joined a local Lutheran church and married widow Delores Clark in 1985 & moved to Richmond, VA.

Meanwhile, back at home, the mansion sat still, lights burning out one by one until the house remained dark, classical music still playing. The List family had been a reclusive family so it took nearly a month before people began asking questions. By the first week of December, Patricia’s drama teacher had a nagging feeling that something just wasn’t right. It had turned out that Patricia had confided in him, voicing worries that her father intended to kill the whole family. He had also found John to be a strange man. 

The drama teacher convinced another teacher to go check out the List house to see if all was well.  Neighbors noticed strange people walking around the house & decided to call the police. Officer George Zhelesnik & Charles Haller were the first to the home. 

They looked through the windows & nothing seemed amiss. The neighbors guided them to an unlocked window where the officers entered the home. The house was almost entirely dark, eerie shadows cast from a lone upstairs light. The house was freezing cold & haunting music piped through each room. They followed their flashlight beams room to room until they came to a set of curtains that partitioned off the ballroom. The moment the curtains were parted, the officers quickly identified the smell of human decomposition. 

There, they found, laid out on sleeping bags, faces covered, the bodies of Helen, Patricia, Frederick & John Jr. John’s confession letter had also been discovered along with the guns he had used to kill his family. From the instructions of his letter, they also found the body of John’s mother Alma upstairs. Bloody streak marks led from the kitchen to the ballroom, indicating that the murders had happened there. There were also bags filled with blood soaked paper towel in the kitchen & a bloody mop.

An APB (all points bulletin/broadcast alert to area police departments with instructions to arrest a particular subject or subjects) for List was immediately put out. Soon John’s car was located at JFK airport though there were no records of him taking any flights. The leads ended at the finding of his car. 

The following August, the List mansion caught fire in what was believed to be arson. During the fire investigation, it was discovered that the stained-glass ceiling off the ballroom had been signed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, making it worth over $100,000 which would have solved John’s financial issues with money to spare. 

Over the years, any & all leads were investigated though they only led to a dead end. The police & press tried to keep the story alive, broadcasting on the first, third, fifth & tenth anniversaries of the murders. They also unsuccessfully tried to have the case presented on Unsolved Mysteries. 

By 1989, it had been nearly 18 years since John murdered his family. America’s Most Wanted had been on the air for a little over a year at this  time & was already a hit on the Fox Network. The show initially turned down Captain Frank Marranca’s request to feature the John List case, saying that the case was “too old, too cold.” John Walsh, the host of AMW, became aware of the case, having very strong feelings about John List, referring to him as a “coward”, “child killer,” “son of a bitch.” Walsh felt determined to bring John List to justice but they needed to create an image of what John would potentially look like in 1989, almost 18 years later. 

Walsh called on forensic sculptor Frank Bender to create an age-progressed bust of John using the standard facial reconstruction measurements as well as a detailed psychological profile of List. To do this, Frank Bender reached out to forensic psychologist Richard Walter & pictures of List’s parents were studied to see how they had aged. All the information as well as his own intuition was used & a bust of what John would look like in his 60s was created.  The bust was completed by placing glasses upon the John’s face. Bender chose the pair that someone of John’s personality would choose; conservative with thick black frames. After scouring thrift stores, the perfect pair was selected. The bust was now complete.

AMW aired the case of John List on May 21, 1989 & an estimated 22 million saw the program. Apparently John had caught the tail end of the show with his wife who did not know his past, “I was perspiring like anything,” John recalled though his wife did not seem to recognize him. Former neighbors, however, did; true crime fans Wanda Flanery & her daughter Eva Mitchel from Denver. Even before seeing the bust, they felt their former neighbor, Bob Clark, fit the description; soft spoken, always wore a suit, an accountant, a devout Lutheran. When John’s bust was shown on screen, Wanda & Eva were shocked; it looked just like Bob Clark, right down to the glasses. They called the tip line & 11 days later, the FBI arrived at “Bob Clark’s” home in Richmond, VA. His new wife greeted the officers & informed them that “Bob” was at work, as an accountant. When the officers arrived at the office, they noted it was striking how much the bust look like Bender’s sculpture.  Nailed it!  

They asked him if he was Bob Clark, he said yes. They asked him if he was John List, he denied it & continued to do so even after his fingerprints were a match that had been taken from the prints he provided when obtaining a handgun permit. 

List was arrested & charged with 5 counts of fist degree murder. His trial began April, 2, 1990, 18.5 years after the murders. List had been diagnosed by the court psychiatrists with OCD which his defense said made him guilty of only 2nd degree murder. The psychiatrist had said John showed “no evidence of anything that approached genuine remorse. He is a cold, cold man.” On April 11, 9 hours after deliberation, John was found guilty on all 5 counts of first degree murder & given the maximum sentence allowed at the time; 5 consecutive life terms. The courtroom erupted in cheers when the sentence was read aloud. Sweet justice!

John Walsh was not happy with the sentence & felt List should receive the death penalty. Many people credit the amazing work of Frank Bender’s bust in cracking this case. Sadly, in 2011 Bender passed away from mesothelioma. 

List later tried to appeal his case, claiming he had been suffering from PTSD from his time in combat during WWII though a federal appeals court rejected this. List did eventually voice a degree of remorse for his crimes, “I wish I had never done what I did. I’ve regretted my action & prayed for forgiveness ever since” he told Connie Chung in 2002.

John died of complications of PNA at age 82 on March 21, 2008 while in prison at St Francis Medical Center in Trenton, NJ. On reporting his death, John was referred to as “The Boogeyman of Westfield.” 


  1. All That’s Interesting: John List, The Mass Murderer Who Killed His Family So He’d See Them in Heaven
  2. Wikipedia: John List
  3. DeLani R. Bartlette: John List: He Commited the (Almost) Perfect Murder
  4. ABC News: 1971 Family Killer Breaks Silence

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