SERIAL killer John List murdered his entire family and went on the run for 18 years after erasing himself from every photo in the house.
The leafy town of Westfield, New Jersey was rocked to its core on December 7, 1971, when the bodies of three children and two women were discovered in a 19-room mansion.
At the scene, murderer John List left behind a horrifying confession note, but the quiet, reserved accountant was nowhere to be seen.
In fact, he was long gone, as the bodies had lain in the house undiscovered for almost a month, while List had begun a new life under a new identity.
It was the start of an 18-year mystery that wouldn’t be solved until 1989 when the cold case was featured on the TV show America’s Most Wanted.
List’s murders remain one of the most shocking cases of the 1970s, and the legacy of his crimes lives on to this day.
The case was so gruesome, according to attorney Michael Mitzner who was called to the house that night, veteran police officers were shaken up by what they’d seen.
As one of the first officers to see the bodies, Robert Kenny said: “After 28 years as a police officer and 14 as an investigator you see everything, but this was unique.”
Upon entering the enormous 19-room Breeze Knoll mansion, cops were greeted with a scene straight out of a horror film.
The thermostat had been turned down and the house was bitterly cold. Church-type music was playing over the intercom in every room of the house, which was bare and without much furniture.
Inside the mansion’s cavernous ballroom, the bodies of List’s wife Helen, 46, and his three children Patricia, 16, John, 15, and Frederick, 13, were laid out on the floor on sleeping bags.
Upstairs, the body of List’s 84-year-old mother Alma was found. All five victims had been shot.
Mitzner told the new NJ.com true-crime podcast Father Wants Us Dead: “It was the winter and he [List] had turned off all the heat so the bodies were in much better shape than they would normally have been after a month or so, but still there was a strange odour, so much so when I got home I took my clothes off in the hallway I left them there, I didn’t take them into my apartment.”
But what could drive a quiet accountant to murder his family in cold blood and disappear without a trace?
Former neighbours remember future serial killer List as a reserved and cold man, prone to eccentric behaviour.
Dave Devlin, who lived a couple of doors down from the List family, recalled John mowing his lawn in a full suit and tie in an interview with the podcast hosts, award-winning journalists Rebecca Everett and Jessica Remo.
I was always such a kind, gentle man except for that one act
John List, serial killer
John and Helen’s marriage appeared unhappy. Helen had been married before to a war hero who subsequently died, while John was a 26-year-old virgin when they met.
They had money difficulties, as John struggled to provide his family with the upper-class lifestyle he believed they wanted.
On one occasion, the family’s Lutheran pastor overhead Helen telling John: “If you were half the man my first husband was, we wouldn’t be having the troubles we’re having.”
Helen was an invalid and was barely out of bed by the end of her life, thanks to what was later revealed to be late-stage syphilis.
After List was fired from his job at a bank in 1971, he hid the humiliating truth from his family.
Instead, he would dress for work each day and go to his usual train station, reading the newspaper until it was time to come home.
Author Joe Sharkey believes List was a “sexually repressed” man who was “upset about his daughter’s emerging sexuality and independence”.
His wife had become a burden to him, and he wanted an easy way out of his financial and family responsibilities.
List would later write with chilling coldness how he executed his family.
He wrote: “I took a deep breath, walked into the kitchen with my hand on the cold grip of the Steyr, moved up behind my wife, pulled the pistol out and fired into the back of her head for instant effect.
“I stepped back as her disease-ravaged and now dead body slid silently – sort of in slow motion – to the floor.”
Next, he went upstairs to see his mother Alma who was making toast. After greeting him with a kiss, she asked him what the loud noise was.
List replied that he didn’t know, before shooting her in the face.
He then dragged his wife’s body to the ballroom and laid her body on a sleeping bag, before mopping up the blood.
Again, in his memoir, List displayed a sickening detachment as he described his crimes.
He wrote: “I had to mop the floor three or four times, and because we had no mop wringer, I had to wring accumulated blood out of the mop by hand.”
Then, after carrying out these evil deeds, he took the time to make a sandwich because – as he later told a TV interviewer: “I was hungry.”
Writing later, List claimed he “experienced no qualms or feelings of remorse” at the prospect of the murders, and said he felt as if he was on “cruise control”.
One by one, he picked up his children, drove them home, and once they were inside, he shot each of them in the face.
His eldest son John’s killing was the most brutal – with List shooting him 10 times after he fought back.
List described the feeling after carrying out his killings as “something like the empty feeling left after sex”.
Afterwards, List said he prayed before carrying out his most calculating act. He tore himself out of every family photo, burning them along with his passport in his Weber grill, so police couldn’t use it for their manhunt.
He left the lights on and played music over the intercom “to deter burglars”, and wrote a chilling note to his pastor confessing to his crimes and attempting to explain his actions.
Then he left the family home to start a new life under his fresh identity: Robert P Clarke.
The List family murders horrified the wealthy town of Westfield, casting a dark cloud over its residents that still persists to this day.
Despite a huge manhunt, List proved impossible to find.
His Chevy Impala was discovered abandoned at JFK Airport, leading investigators to suspect he had fled the country.
List had family in Germany and spoke German from his time there during the Second World War.
In addition, a worker at the German consulate in New York claimed to have seen a man matching List’s description come in and enquire about a visa.
Later, it was even suspected he was the infamous DB Cooper, who in November 1971 hijacked a passenger aircraft over Washington state, took around $200,000 in cash and parachuted out, never to be seen again.
He had grown a moustache, ditched the suits for casual clothes, and wore a cap, but otherwise made no attempt to disguise his appearance.
In 1978, he met 35-year-old divorcee Delores Miller at a Lutheran singles event, and the pair eventually married eight years later.
He told her his first wife had died of cancer and moved into her apartment in Aurora, Colorado, 10 miles east of Denver.
Speaking from his home in Arizona, he told The Sun Online that it was “easier for List to insert himself” into his new life in a place like Denver, which in the 1970s was experiencing an influx of internal migration from the east coast.
CATCH A KILLER
After 18 years, List may have believed he had truly committed the perfect crime.
He appeared to have let his guard down, losing the moustache and moving to Richmond, Virginia with his second wife, and even practising accounting again.
Mr Sharkey believes that List was also able to hide in plain sight for so long because of police blunders.
“It was quickly apparent, as you look back on the initial crime scene, that the police in this small town screwed up that crime scene, royally,” he said.
“When the bodies were discovered they let local reporters tramp through the through the crime scene.”
His case was one of America’s most notorious unsolved mysteries, but the trail had gone cold.
However, all that would change when List’s case was featured on an episode of the new Fox show America’s Most Wanted.
Some 22 million Americans watched the episode, which not only broadcast List’s photograph across the nation but also featured a realistic bust showing what List was believed to look like now.
A neighbour who remembered him from Denver rang the FBI and 11 days later, agents Kevin August and Randy Neidecker travelled to Richmond to speak to Delores.
The unsuspecting wife showed the agents two photos – one from their wedding day.
The agents were gobsmacked – it was the spitting image of the bust.
They went to List’s workplace and arrested him, where he continued to insist his name was Robert P Clarke.
Speaking of the arrest, August later said: “There was no soul in that body. When you looked into that man’s eyes, there was nothing there.”
As he drove List to the police station, August couldn’t resist asking the killer why he had committed the unconscionable murders.
“What kind of man are you, that you killed your mother, your wife, and your children, and then assume another identity and marry another woman who has no idea who you are?” he asked.
August recalled later that List said nothing, but a single small tear rolled down his right eye.
In prison, Delores confessed his crimes to Delores, crying as he despicably tried to paint himself as a family man.
“I was always such a kind, gentle man except for that one act,” he was overheard sobbing by a prison guard.
For her part, Delores continued to express her disbelief that the man she had married was a mass murderer.
She appeared to struggle to come to terms with what had happened, telling the press: “I love my husband very deeply. I cannot believe this is the same man.”
In court, List claimed he was insane to try and avoid a life sentence.
To the end, he was cold and emotionless when recounting his crimes.
In his closing statements, he told the jury: “I wish to inform the court that I remain truly sorry for the tragedy that happened in 1971. I feel that due to my mental state at the time, I was unaccountable for what happened.
“I ask all those who were affected by this for their forgiveness, your understanding, and your prayers. Thank you.”
Alan Goldstein, who examined List for the defence, said: “It wasn’t as if he didn’t have a conscience. If anything, his conscience was too bright. He felt responsible for saving souls.”
In March 2008, List died aged 82 of pneumonia, ending a long life that he had so cruelly denied his family.
Sharkey believes List’s proclaimed piousness has led to the narrative of his crimes becoming muddied.
List has been described as “a religious fanatic who did this to save his children”.
Mr Sharkey believes that List ultimately was a deeply repressed man who used his Lutheran faith to try and justify his heinous actions.
“I didn’t think he had his side of the story except, look, you murdered your family and, and you ran away,” he said. “I got into it because I was fascinated by what kind of an a*****e he was. I mean, he was truly an a*****e.”