How John List Almost Got Away With Murder


On March 21, 2008, John List died in prison. 

It had been a long life for Mr. List. One that saw him fight for his country amid the Korean War as a young man before realizing his skills as an accountant. During his 82 years, List wore many hats – he was a soldier, a husband, a father, an accountant, and a multiple murderer. 

The Background

After getting married to Helen Morris Taylor in 1951, John List soon found himself at the very top of a successful accounting company. 

A mansion in Westfield, New Jersey, became the permanent home of the Lists in 1965. By then, the family empire had grown to include sons Frederick and John Jr. along with a daughter, Patricia. John’s 84-year-old mother, Alma, resided in the converted attic on the upper floors.

Breeze Knoll Mansion, home of the List family (pinterest.com)

On the surface, John List had everything going for him. The beautiful Victorian mansion he owned, known as Breeze Knoll, had nineteen bedrooms and supported a quintessentially suburban American family. 

As was so often the case in John List’s life, however, the apparent tranquility was only surface-level. 

The Motive

By November 1971, List’s financial state was in tatters. 

He had been made redundant from his accounting job and was now faced with the embarrassing task of telling his family that Christmas in the List household was going to a light one. 

The layoff tortured List. Having grown up in a family that preached self-sufficiency over all else, List viewed himself as an abject failure. 

So humiliated he was that instead of telling his family about his unemployment, List bided his time reading newspapers at the local train station until it was time to come home under the illusion that he had been at work. 

He also skimmed money from his mother’s bank account to keep his home from being repossessed. List knew that this facade couldn’t last forever and that he was going to have to face the proverbial music at some point. Making matters worse was the fact that his marriage was failing. 

Helen had become an alcoholic. To John, she was a shell of the vibrant, compassionate woman he had fallen in love with some two decades before. 

The List family, c.1970 (mycentraljersey.com)

The already insecure John was on the receiving end of Helen’s constant negative comparison to him and her previous husband – saying that both his attitude to life and sexual prowess was nothing in comparison to her ex. 

A battle with cerebral atrophy had left Helen perpetually bedridden by late 1971. This, combined with her volatile demeanor, had shattered their marriage along with John’s patience. 

Unemployed, embarrassed, and unhappy, John List formulated a plan:

He would kill his family, send their souls to heaven, and escape with a new life. 

The Murder

On November 9, 1971, John List’s plan got underway. 

As Helen sat at the kitchen table partaking in her morning coffee, her husband fatally shot her in the back of the head. 

He then ascended to the upper floor and did the same to his mother, Alma. 

As the List children returned home from school, they suffered the same fate. After making himself a sandwich, John then drove to watch his youngest son, John Jr., play in a soccer game. 

Despite a brief fightback, he was shot, too. John Sr. then closed both his and Alma’s bank account, placed a sleeping bag over his family’s bodies, wrote a five-page note to his pastor, and then departed into the night. 

An 18-year manhunt was now underway. 

News clipping of the List murders shortly after the fact, 1971. (pinterest.com)

The Escape 

John had done a meticulous job covering his tracks after the slayings. He ceased all mail and milk deliveries to Breeze Knoll, wrote to his children’s schools to say they were to be absent for several weeks, and had left the lights on in his home to give the impression it was occupied. 

After neighbors noticed that the house lights had been on constantly for over a month, they called the police. 

John’s obsessive track-covering meant that the bodies of his family weren’t found until December 7. By this time, List was long gone. He had painstakingly removed himself from every photo in the house meaning that police had no contemporary photos of their prime suspect. 

In a red herring, List had parked his car at John F. Kennedy International Airport to convince investigators he had boarded a flight. After a grueling search, they found no evidence he had done so. 

Whilst the police were busy looking, List had boarded a bus to Denver, Colorado, where his new life began.

The Capture

By 1989, the hunt for John List had gone ice-cold. 

With no useful forensic evidence or modern photographs to go on, it seemed like the murders would never be solved. John List could, as far as investigators were concerned, be anywhere in the world – if he was alive at all. 

With investigators at a loss, they turned to television to help bring new eyeballs to the List case and see if its inclusion on America’s Most Wanted would jog the memories of a select few. There was, however, one major caveat: nobody was sure what a now 64-year-old List would even look like. 

Assistance came in the form of forensic artist Frank Bender. Using old photographs of List, Bender created an age-progressed, clay bust of how a current John List might appear.

Frank Bender’s depiction of a 1989 John List, (filmdaily.co)

The bust featured a receding hairline and sagging jowls as the stress of carrying around such a dark secret for so many years was likely to secretly ravage List on the inside. To help remind him of simpler times, List may have worn glasses that were in fashion in his heyday. 

The bust was featured on America’s Most Wanted. Against all odds, Bender’s hypothetical depiction quickly lead to a breakthrough. 

A family in Richmond, Virginia, who lived next to an account named ‘Bob Clark’ noticed that the bust bore a striking resemblance to their neighbor. 

John ‘Bob Clark’ List, 1989, (pinterest.com)

Like List, Clark was a mild-mannered accountant with a receding hairline, sagging jowls, and most notably, outdated glasses. 

Just two weeks after the program aired, ‘Bob Clark’ was arrested in Richmond. 

The 18-year saga of John List had finally come to a close. 

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