A Man of Faith and Hubris: John Emil List

John List when he was arrested in 1989, the List home in Westfield New Jersey, circa 1970, bodies of Helen, Patty, John, and Fred List in home ballroom November 1971, The List family portrait 1971, John’s mother Alma List circa 1970, Helen List and her children, circa 1968. Photos originally appeared in Murderpedia.

This is the first of two articles about John List who murdered his wife, his mother, and three of his four children, then disappeared for nearly 18 years until he was finally identified after his case was featured on the television series “America’s Most Wanted.The second article will be based on a self-serving book, Collateral Damage: The John List Story which was ghost-written by Austin Goodrich and published in 2006 by John List.

In 1971 John List looked exactly like what he was: A conservative religious  certified public accountant who wore heavy-framed eyeglasses and lived with his wife and three children not far from Manhattan in Westfield, New Jersey. Many of those who knew him agreed that he had his peculiarities: He mowed his lawn regardless of the season in a suit and tie and when he encountered neighbors, he avoided eye contact and pretended he did not see them. Despite a Master’s degree in business administration and certification as a public accountant and outstanding work habits, he could not hold a job. Even when he was employed briefly as a bank vice president, List never earned more than about $25,000 a year and was able to support his family only with the assistance of his widowed mother Alma.

He was an only child raised in Bay City Michigan in a second-generation strict German household, and was known throughout his life as his mother’s pride and joy, a “Mama’s boy.” Family members and acquaintances reported that his father had focused on operating his general store and left child-rearing to his wife. John’s classmates and neighbors described him as an eager-to-please child whose personality did not stand out, but rather blended into the background.

After serving undistinguished stints in the army during War II and Korea, he attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration subsidized by the GI bill and became certified as a public accountant. He dated a few women for brief periods but no one seriously.

In October 1951 John and a few of his army buddies stationed in southern Virginia went bowling. At the bowling alley he met Jean Syfert and her 26-year-old sister Helen Taylor who had, the previous day, buried her husband Marvin. He had been a soldier killed in action in Korea six months before but transporting his remains back to the U.S. had been delayed. Jean hoped that a night out would distract Helen from her terrible grief. A pretty woman with an attractive figure, Helen was not only widowed, but also the mother of a 9-year-old daughter Brenda. She and Marvin had married young; her life so far had consisted of living at home with her parents, then as an army wife and mother. She did not know how she would live the rest of her life.

Jean’s first impression of her future brother-in-law was positive. He was courteous, well-groomed, carefully dressed, and was a man with a profession. She could see he was immediately attracted to Helen and she warned him that her sister was recently widowed and had a young child. Secretly she was also concerned that John did not seem to be a “take charge” man; Helen was careless with money and Jean feared he would not be able to control his wife’s reckless ways. He was not dissuaded by Jean’s caution and by the time they parted company that night he had asked Helen for a date.

Soon he was completely enchanted with her and despite his conservative religious beliefs, they began a sexual relationship. Helen told him with some trepidation shortly thereafter that she was pregnant. While John had not wanted to begin married life that way, he was deeply in love and they married immediately in a small Lutheran church in Baltimore with her sister Jean and her husband Gene as witnesses. After the wedding Helen reported that she had been mistaken and was not pregnant. For the rest of his life John suspected he had been duped and Helen had manipulated him into marriage with a false pregnancy story. Although he knew the truth, he went forward with their wedding plans despite serious reservations about whether their marriage could last. After their honeymoon, John and Helen returned to her mother’s home in Virginia where they picked  upBrenda and began their married life as a cozy family of three.  All of his life everything John List did followed a rigid path from which he did not–or could not–deviate.

John’s father had died years earlier at the end of John’s service in World War II and Alma was so attached to her only son that while he was in college she took the bus once a month to Ann Arbor to spend the weekend with him. When John brought his new wife to Bay City to meet Alma, things did not go well. Alma told friends she believed that Helen was a desperate widow with a child and had “trapped” her son into marriage. She said her son “Chonny” could have done much better and did not try to hide her feelings. It was not long before Helen and Alma exchanged only conversation that was absolutely necessary. Even when they were together alone in the same house they maintained as much physical distance as possible.

By 1955, the Lists had moved to Inkster, a suburb of Detroit and in January their first child, Patricia Marie was born. She was the light of her parents’ life and adored by Helen’s mother and even Alma whose chilly persona melted at the sight of her first grandchild. She even kissed Helen, something she had never done before. Their second child, John Frederick, was born in October 1956 and that year John accepted a management position at Sutherland Paper Company in Kalamazoo Michigan. Helen liked the city and was a member of three book clubs there. Her sister Jean noted that Helen loved to read, sometimes as many as two books a day. John was less impressed with the way his wife spent her time; when he came home from work she was frequently reading on the sofa sipping scotch with child care, housework, and food preparation left for her husband to manage. He met what he saw as his responsibilities but was not a happy married man. Their last son, Frederick Michael, was born in August of 1958.

When the family moved to Kalamazoo, John immediately enrolled them at a Lutheran church affiliated with the conservative Missouri Synod, the church in which he had been raised. After Frederick was born Helen decided that the Sunday struggle of preparing her family, three small children and  teenaged Brenda, was too much for her each week and she began to send John with the children to church alone while she slept late and fixed them a bountiful breakfast upon their return. She was a talented and eager gourmet cook. She had suffered from postpartum depression and, as was par for the day, took several prescription medications, saw a psychiatrist weekly, and added insult to injury by drinking heavily. When Brenda finished high school, she moved out of the house and began her own life, but the household was still a large one to manage. John’s solution to his deteriorating marriage was to buy Helen expensive gifts and jewelry. They did not improve the situation and placed a further strain on their precarious financial situation.

If he couldn’t control expenses, John tried to increase his income. He accepted a position with the new Xerox Company in Rochester New York in 1961. He worked hard, produced well, and earned a substantial salary for the time, but by 1965 his constant requests for advancement were wearing on his boss. He was advised to seek employment elsewhere and given outstanding references; Xerox wanted to make John somebody else’s problem. He applied for positions all over the country and was rewarded by an offer comparable to his Xerox salary, but with the added sheen of an impressive title, Vice President and Comptroller, First National Bank of Jersey City, New Jersey. His office was located in Westfield New Jersey.

The Lists began their new life in Westfield with great enthusiasm. John’s job went well at first, their daughter Patty was thrilled to be a member of her school’s theater group, and Helen was thrilled with the house of her dreams, a 19-room mansion on the highest hill in town that sported a ballroom with a Tiffany stained glass skylight and a billiards room (minus the table) where John stored his books and the many military strategy games he enjoyed playing. Neighbors and coworkers who initially enjoyed playing these challenging games with John soon came to regret it. They were not games to John, but battles of wit and cunning and he played to win, always on the German Nazi side of the World War II versions. John had not really been able to afford the house, but with a contribution from his mother and a corresponding obligation to make a home for her with his family, they were able to manage. Helen told her husband that the presence of her mother-in-law had destroyed her pleasure in living there. Regardless of what he did, John could not seem to please his wife.

Before long, it became clear to John that his position, not reflected by the title, was essentially a marketing job. The bank wanted him to expand their business customer base and that was not the sort of task that John performed easily. He was most comfortable with data, and visibly uncomfortable around people. He made excuses to turn down his colleagues’ invitations to join them for lunch. Instead, among his other eccentricities, he carried a brown- bagged sandwich to work daily and ate it alone in his car with the windows rolled up with classical music playing loudly on the radio to entertain him.

By the end of his first year the bank ended John’s employment for the same reasons his other employers had. His work habits were old-fashioned and inflexible and he was unsociable. He could not bear to tell his family. Growing more desperate by the day, he unsuccessfully applied for job after job. He was mortally ashamed to have failed at the only task he grew up believing was important for a man to accomplish, supporting his family. Surreptitiously he borrowed money from his mother to pay his bills. Every day he dressed in his suit, packed his lunch, and drove to the train station where he sat all day reading until it was time to go home.

Finally, after six months of job charade, John was offered a vice-president/comptroller position for American Photographic Company in New York City. It paid only half of the salary he had earned at the bank and within a year the company relocated, but John wanted to stay in the house in Westfield so he was out of work again. Next he accepted a position selling mutual funds from his office at home and while he was not able to equal his salary at the bank, his income stabilized.

Helen, however, did not adjust her lifestyle in the least. She continued to buy expensive clothing and to demand that he buy expensive items for the children. John never argued. Helen’s days in bed increased. She was hospitalized and her health declined rapidly. She was diagnosed with a fatal neurological condition that resulted from syphilis she had unknowingly contracted from her first husband. Helen’s sister Jean told John she thought he should consider having her institutionalized but he adamantly refused.

In the bigger picture of the world outside of the List household, the 1960s was a decade where John List never belonged. He hated the politics and loose social mores of the era, particularly with regard to his children. None of them got into any real trouble, but Patty was subtly defiant and her emerging teenaged figure and devil-may-care attitude made him perpetually angry. Patty’s last act of defiance occurred on a summer night when she sneaked out of the house and met her girlfriend after 2 a.m. They decided to take a stroll downtown with no clear objective in mind. In the small community of 33,000 residents, it did not take long for a patrol car to notice the two girls out alone with no excuse to be there. He picked them up, drove them to the police station, and called their parents. Patty’s friend’s father was angry and annoyed at their immature but harmless behavior. John, however, was furious. He did not speak to her on the car ride home. Once there, he banged around until the entire family was awake and shouted at his daughter “You are out of control!” He raged on:  She was going to hell and there was nothing he could do to prevent it. “Slut! You leave me no choice,” he ended mysteriously.

Beginning in late October 1971 he had concluded that it was impossible for him to save his daughter’s soul from succumbing to–in his mind– her evil ways. He could not afford to make mortgage payments or otherwise support his family in the way they had learned to live, and going on welfare would have been an unbearable embarrassment for them. John frequently slept on a cot he had installed in the Billiards Room, removed from his family.

By November he had brooded and thought and prayed and finally decided how to solve his problems. He concluded that the only viable solution was to kill his family. He felt sure they could not get along without him if he left them. Suicide would have risked his immoral soul, his religious upbringing had taught him. He was God’s child and would ultimately be forgiven, and his family would someday be joyfully reunited in heaven. He was not sure whether his wife and children would remember that he had killed them, but if they did, he knew they would understand and forgive him.

John had tried unsuccessfully to purchase a revolver in Westfield, so he located two aged revolvers in his home, one inherited from his father and the second purchased as a souvenir of his participation in World War II. He bought the necessary ammunition and set the execution date for November 9th.

That morning John fixed his children breakfast, then saw them off to school. Shortly after, his wife Helen descended from her room and poured a cup of coffee which she drank at the kitchen table while she read the newspaper and munched on toast. He retrieved his guns from the garage where he had stashed them in a military jacket pocket, then returned to the kitchen and shot his wife in the back of the head, killing her instantly. Next he mounted the stairs to his mother’s third floor apartment where he kissed her good morning and, in response to her question about a loud noise she had heard, asked her to look out one window while he checked a second one. As she walked to the window, he shot her in the head, also killing her immediately. At Alma’s age, he reasoned, the shock of knowing her daughter-in-law and grandchildren were dead would have been too stressful for her.

Never a man to leave a job half done, he retrieved two sleeping bags from the basement and lying one on the kitchen floor, used it to drag Helen’s body into the ballroom. His mother’s body had been too heavy for him to lift and so, he later told police, he left it upstairs in the third floor hallway. Then he mopped the floors to clean up the blood and brain matter at each murder site. By this time he was hungry, so he fixed himself a sandwich and ate it at the table where his wife had sat when he shot her.

By early afternoon he got to work preparing for the next stage of his plan, escape. He stopped the mail and milk delivery by explaining his wife’s mother was gravely ill and he had put his wife and children on a plane to North Carolina where he would drive to meet them. He called the children’s schools and Pat’s drama class to report that they would be absent for some weeks. Finally he drove to the bank where he withdrew his mother’s cash reserves and cashed in some bonds she had. He netted two thousand dollars in traveling money.

Patty had an after-school job, but felt ill and called him that day to pick her up immediately after school. John and Patty entered the house through the laundry room; he killed her there as they walked toward the kitchen. Fred also worked after school and after driving him home, John disposed of his son as he had his daughter. He drove to his middle son John’s soccer game and brought him home to the same fate to which his brother and sister had succumbed. While his other victims had died quickly, he told detectives that John’s body continued to move and twitch so John shot him several more times, requiring him to switch guns and probably reload. He did not regret or feel guilty for murdering his family. John said once his set his plan in motion, he felt as if everything was an “automatic pilot.”

During the late afternoon and evening he cleaned up as much blood as he could, moved his children’s bodies to the ballroom beside their mother, scissored out his face in all the family photos he found around the house, and tuned the house-wide stereo system to a classical music station. Downstairs in the billiards room he composed a 10-page confession and addressed it to his minister whom he thought would be best able to understand what he had done. He turned the heat down to 50 degrees to retard corpse decomposition and turned on lights throughout the house to suggest that the family was home. He fixed and ate dinner, washed his dishes, and retired for the evening.

Once the deed was done, he put all thoughts of it out of his mind and looked toward the future. By dawn he was awake, refreshed, and pulled out of the driveway toward Kennedy airport where he parked in a long-term lot. From there he took public transportation to Grand Central Station where he began his journey west, headed for the part of America known for new beginnings and abandoned pasts.

Although neighbors and acquaintances wondered where the List family had gone and thought it odd that they left their home for many days blazing with lights, there was no reason to suspect foul play. Ed Illiano had been Pat List’s drama coach and she had confided in him recently that she was afraid of her father. While kids in town dared one another to walk up on the porch and often did, Ed was the only adult who was sufficiently concerned to watch the List house regularly. Several times he parked his car on the street near the house to see if there was any activity there. Finally, On December 7th he and his colleague Barbara Sheridan told their drama group that they were going to the house to find out what was going on. When they arrived at 431 Hillside Avenue and began to look around, they attracted the attention of the List’s next door neighbors, William and Shirley Cunnick who called 911 to report an intruder. Just as Ed was preparing to enter the house, police arrived. He and Barbara introduced themselves and explained the situation. Patrolman George Zhelisnik and Ed agreed to enter the house through an unlocked dining room window. Classical music was playing loudly and they immediately detected a musty odor that seemed to be coming from the ballroom located off the center hallway. Zhelisnik shone his flashlight into the dark room, revealing the bodies of John List’s wife and three children. Ed flipped the light switch to the hallway chandelier, then opened the front door to Patrolman Charles Haller, Barbara, and William Cunnick who was a physician. He bent to examine the bodies. The children were dressed in their coats and school clothes. All of the bodies were bloated and swarming with maggots, clearly having been there for a long time. By this time the chief of police and several other officers had arrived. When Ed realized that John’s mother was unaccounted for, officers ran upstairs to the third floor and found Alma’s body, her son’s fifth and final victim.

The city and county police forces began an exhaustive investigation. On December 9th they were joined by the FBI; John List had been charged with interstate flight. Media coverage was national and the FBI prepared “Wanted” posters which were distributed throughout their country-wide network. List’s confession letter was reviewed carefully for clues to his whereabouts. Everyone who knew or recognized John from Westfield and the other places he had lived or worked was interviewed. Every tip was run down. John List seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth. It would be eighteen years before he would resurface.

*****

Meanwhile, John List had been a very careful man. He planned and followed his mental map cautiously, aiming to move to Colorado. He secured a social security card in the name of Robert P. “Bob” Clark, a man whom John List became, immediately casting off the man he had been. Initially he lived from his modest bank roll and looked for entry level jobs. While he had excellent credentials as an accountant, initially he did not attempt to get a position in his field. When he reached Denver, he found a place in an inexpensive rooming house, then bought a cheap trailer and accepted a night cook’s position at a Holiday Inn across the street. While he had no formal training in culinary arts, he had cooked at home and was creative, observant, and sufficiently dependable to rise through the ranks. Beginning as the night cook, he eventually was offered a sous chef position–the second in command–at that restaurant and subsequently at a country club, a job move he made with his boss Gary Morrison. By 1977, however, Bob Clark began to talk increasingly to Gary about his interest in returning to his original career as an accountant. Gary was disappointed but not surprised. Culinary hours were long, difficult, and inconvenient, and turnover was frequent. He worked briefly

His livelihood was not the only change in “Bob’s” life. That same year at a Lutheran social gathering he met Delores H. Miller, an attractive recently divorced woman with whom he soon fell in love. She was not interested in getting married again right away, but they dated seriously. Bob had formed his own lackluster tax consulting business, then invested in a direct mail operation where he lost money. His previous spotty job history continued even after he had become Bob Clark. Eventually he accepted an accounting position for a small firm, All Packaging, where he was later promoted to controller.

In 1981 the couple bought a two-bedroom condominium together in the Montebello neighborhood of Denver. Delores initially moved in alone.  Bob had proposed marriage repeatedly to Delores but she demurred until the summer of 1985. They married in Maryland near her mother’s home the following November.

At first, their marriage was a happy one. Bob was satisfied with his accounting position and Delores was working too. Delores became friends with her next door neighbor, Wanda Flanery. The latter was a lively woman who paid perhaps too close attention to her neighbors and was fond of reading sensational tabloids. In 1987 Wanda bought a copy of The Weekly World News in the supermarket that contained an article about the 1971 murder of the List family and a photo of John List, whom she immediately thought resembled her next door neighbor, Bob Clark. She brought the article to Delores when Bob was not at home and suggested that she show it to her husband. Delores thought the idea ludicrous and discarded the paper.

Five months after their marriage, however, Bob again lost his job. He tried diligently but not successfully to locate another. Delores was increasingly disappointed in Bob’s failure to play his part in supporting them and was not tactful about her feelings. If Bob didn’t find a new job soon, she told Wanda, she would leave him. Fortunately, in November Bob received a job offer from an accounting firm located in Richmond Virginia and needed to report to work right after the first of the year. Bob and Delores decided he would go ahead to Virginia and she would follow when their condo had been sold. Her family lived in Maryland and Delores looked forward to being close to them again. They bought a small condominium in the Richmond suburban subdivision of Brandermill.

The series America’s Most Wanted launched on television in 1988 and was an instant success. Hosted by John Walsh whose 6-year-old son Adam was kidnapped and murdered in July 1981, the program dramatized unsolved crimes and invited the public to offer information they might have that would help to bring criminals to justice. On Sunday evening May 21, 1989 the program featured the List murders. There were no recent photos of John, but the program’s executive director had arranged for a Philadelphia sculptor, Frank Bender, to produce a clay bust of John as he might now appear. Using a psychological profile, a photo of List, and his intuition, Bender produced an amazing likeness of the man who was now known as Bob Clark. Twenty two million viewers saw the program and they included Westfield investigators, Helen’s sister Jean, John himself, and Wanda Flanery, who was already convinced that Bob was actually John List. She had kept in touch with her friend Delores Clark and convinced her son-in-law to call the America’s Most Wanted and report that List was now living in Richmond as Bob Clark. He provided the return address from a letter Delores had sent to Wanda.

The show forwarded that tip along with others they had received to the FBI who routed it to their Richmond Virginia office. Agent Kevin August, assigned to fugitive cases, followed up by interviewing Delores at her home. She had not seen the t.v. episode, but reacted immediately when August showed her a photo of John List. “Could this be your husband?” he had asked. She recognized the resemblance right away but denied that it could be her husband. “He’s the nicest man in the world,” she said. Nonetheless, evidence was mounting against him with every question Delores answered. Yes, he grew up in Michigan. He was an accountant. He had a scar behind his right ear that matching the mastoidectomy scar John List had.

August felt he had enough evidence to make an arrest and after obtaining Bob’s work address from his wife, he drove there where he was met by two FBI colleagues. They took the man into custody who repeatedly insisted–even after investigators matched his fingerprints to those of John List– that he was Bob Clark. He was eventually extradited to New Jersey where he was tried and convicted of five counts of first degree murder. Since there was no death sentence in New Jersey in 1971, the maximum jail term was imposed: Five consecutive life terms, guaranteeing that he would never be eligible for parole.

John List was content in prison. He prayed many times each day, read, wrote letters, and used the mail to play the war games he so relished with friends. In 2006 he self-published a book about his life and the murders, ironically entitled Collateral Damage. The book was ghost-written by Austin Goodrich, a journalist who befriended John in prison. My next post will be a supplement to this one, looking at John’s view of himself and his crimes as he represented them in his book.

 He died of a heart attack in 2008. In a book about the case (Death Sentence: The Inside Story of the John List Murders) written by Joe Sharkey, the author quoted the stand-up comedian Moms Mabley who said about someone she despised, “They say you shouldn’t say nothin’ about the dead unless it’s good. He’s dead. Good!” Sharkey ends his book this way: “John List died in prison on March 21, 2008. Nobody came forward to claim the body. Good.”

In preparing this article I read Death Sentence by Joe Sharkey and Collateral Damage by John List with Austin Goodrich and articles about the case that appeared in Wikipedia, Murderpedia, and The New York Times.

About Sue Keefe

I am a freelance writer whose particular topics of interest include true crime and the experience of deafness. I am currently co-writing a book about the triple homicide of a wife and her 4- and 7-year-old daughters with Charlie Wells, the now-retired 23-year veteran sheriff of Manatee County, Florida. I have three adult sons, two daughters-in-law, and four grandchildren. My husband Bob Volpe and I divide our time between a lake cottage in Battersea, Ontario, Canada and our condominium in Sarasota, Florida.

Thank you for your interest in my blog. Your comments --positive or critical--are always welcome. Harassment, though, is not!

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