True Crime and Justice: Joe Sharkey

 

DEATH SENTENCE, written by Joe Sharkey, is one of the best true crime books I have ever read, and I have read hundreds. He began his writing career as a journalist with the Wall Street Journal and was a columnist for 19 years at the New York Times. He does not consider himself a true crime writer despite having written three nonfiction books about crime. In the three cases he has written about, his interest has been in justice and how law enforcement succeeds or fails to carry it to the courts. I believe he is an investigative journalist in his soul, and sometimes a righteously angry one.

In addition to three nonfiction crime books, he has written BEDLAM (St. Martin’s Press,1994), about changes in the mental health delivery system made in the 1990s with tragic results, and is currently finishing WRECKAGE, which examines–through the perspective of one case– the Catholic Church’s coverup of priests’ child molestations. Sharkey co-authored the detective novel LADY GOLD (St. Martin’s Press, 1999) with Angela Amato. He is also in the final stages of writing a screen play about the John List family murder case. Retired now and living in Arizona, Sharkey taught journalism there for several years. He graciously allowed me to interview him in June.

SK:    Hi Joe! Thanks so much for speaking with me today. DEATH SENTENCE (Penguin, 1990) is one of my favorite true crime books; my son gave it to me for my birthday a few years ago and I’ve read it several times. When and why did you first become interested in writing about crime?

JS:     I don’t really think of myself as a true crime writer. I haven’t read much of it, and the three cases when I wrote about it each appealed to me for different reasons. At the time John List [DEATH SENTENCE] murdered his whole family in 1971 in New Jersey, I lived in New Jersey not far from Westfield where the crimes took place.

List was supposedly quite religious and perceived as a “buttoned down” type until–without warning– he murdered his wife, his three teenaged children, and his mother in one brutal spree. Then he high tailed it out of town and created a new life for himself. He lived and remarried in relative obscurity for 18 years until he was finally caught. The case just fascinated me: How did he get away with it for so long? He had left the bodies in the ballroom of his home, and they were not discovered for nearly a month. This was probably one of the last moments in America when you could get away with something like that.

SK:    How DID he manage it?

JS:     He was smart enough to do all the basic things you need to do to start a new life. He fled cross country to Denver immediately after committing the crime. He changed his name to Robert P. Clark and got a new social security number. Then he very carefully kept his head down, avoided attracting attention, and constructed a new life based on the true but misleading narrative that he was a widower.

SK:    Were there other things about the case that drew you in?

JS:     Absolutely. I was horrified by the very act and felt that the only way to tell the story was to plunge in and travel his path to see how this guy built his life and eventually got caught. Other reporters focused on the murders without offering much in the way of context.

John List had a 16-year-old daughter, Patty, whom he considered a rebel. You and I wouldn’t have thought of her that way. She was a typical 1971 kid, maybe a little mouthy sometimes but her main “flaw” was that she didn’t fit List’s idea of what a proper young religious girl ought to be. She probably smoked a little pot and she had friends who were in amateur theater with her. She was the one I think who drove him to this horrible act, although there were other circumstances that accounted for it. Whenever this kid came in the door, she brought the ‘60s with her, a national period of social change and rebellion that he just could not tolerate.

SK:    His wife was not actively involved with her family toward the end, was she?

JS:     No, she was ambulatory but sickly and spent much of her time in bed, and Patty picked up the slack with running the household. Helen List had been formerly married to a Korean War veteran who died. Unknowingly he had given her syphilis, and she was in the final stages of that disease. When List found out, he was enraged but refused to leave Helen.

SK:    Who were you able to interview while you were researching the book?

JS:     I interviewed most of the people involved who were still alive, including Helen’s sister and brother-in-law and many of the friends he made in Denver who had no idea of what he had done at the time. I interviewed the kids in Westfield who knew Patty through the drama club, and her mentor, Ed Illiano, who directed the group. He said Patty had told him her father said he was going to kill her. Illiano told her, “Yeah but all parents say that at some point. They don’t really mean it.” It turned out that List had been quite serious.

Those people—the kids, Illiano, and another teacher Barbara Sheridan, were key to discovering the bodies in that decrepit mansion, almost a month after the murders.

SK:    Did you interview his second wife, Delores Miller Clark?

JS:     As a reporter you have to knock on doors and talk to people as sensitively as possible. I went to Delores’s house. List—now Robert P. Clark– had met this woman at church, and she was totally innocent and knew nothing about John’s life before he arrived in the west. Her world collapsed when he was arrested. She wouldn’t talk to me. I had a sense of a very stricken woman. She was one of the victims in this awful case.

SK:    I read that you are working on a screenplay about the case. True?

JS:     Yeah. True crime has become a really difficult subject to write about thoughtfully today because there is so much quickly written, inadequately researched stuff out there. I find it almost impossible to work in that genre these days. The List case fascinated me because of the kids and the connection with the ‘60s and ‘70s era. The conflict is between two eras: John was a politically and socially conservative World War II veteran. His children, on the other hand, were products of the looser social mores of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the music of the Beatles, the Vietnam War, and so on. I want to get the conflict exactly right in this screenplay.

SK:    List himself wrote a pathetic attempt to exonerate himself, an unedited self-serving book COLLATERAL DAMAGE, with another peculiar man, Austin Goodrich.  List self-published the book. Have you read it?

JS:     No. Austin Goodrich had his own interesting story. He was a C.I.A. spy posing as a journalist during World War II. You know, of course, that murderers develop “fans.” It is not uncommon for people to become pals with murderers. Goodrich visited List in prison. They developed a relationship based on commonalities. They both grew up in Michigan, served in the army at the same time, and went to the same college. Goodrich convinced List that the murders were the result of PTSD. I looked into his military record and his service was a kind of mop-up operation at the end of the world. His claim of PTSD was utterly ridiculous.

The police chief in Westfield said when he got to the scene, he was completely baffled about why John List felt he had to kill his family. He could have just left. They wouldn’t have starved. Things might have been hard, but they’d still be alive.

SK:    I feel as if there are more of these whole-family murder cases in recent decades. There are so many that sadly, there’s a name for them now, “Family Annihilation.” Green Beret surgeon Jeff MacDonald killed his pregnant wife and two daughters in North Carolina in 1970. In 2002 Scott Peterson killed his pregnant wife in California. Chris Watts killed his wife and two daughters in Colorado in 2018, and the next year, 2019, Tony Todt killed his wife, three children, and the family dog in Celebration Florida, a Disney-designed community. If any of the perpetrators had given their victims a choice—I’ll leave or you die—I can’t imagine that any would have chosen death.

JR:    How absurd is that? There is no way you can understand that kind of insanity. It makes me furious. In a new epilogue I wrote for DEATH SENTENCE, I ended with a quote from the famous African American comedian Moms Mabley: “They say you shouldn’t say nothin’ about the dead unless it’s good. He’s dead. Good.” And I meant it.

SK:    Readers will have to buy DEATH SENTENCE to get the rest of the story, because now we are moving on to DEADLY GREED: THE RIVETING STORY OF THE STUART MURDER CASE (Prentice, 1991), your book about the murder of Carol Stuart and her unborn child. What grabbed you about that case?

JS:     That case was a perfect example of how media can affect crime outcomes.

In 1989 Charles Stuart was a successful manager of a fur shop on toney Newbury Street in Boston, and his wife Carol was a tax attorney. They were young, not yet 30, living in an upscale suburban home. He was interested in opening a restaurant, but Carol wanted to start a family. She got pregnant and insisted she wanted to have the baby. Chuck was upset at first, but gradually seemed to warm to the idea. On the night of October 23rd, the couple had just begun to drive home from a childbirth preparation class at Brigham-Women’s Hospital in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston when, Chuck later told police, a young black man forced his way into their car at a light, robbed them, shot his wife, and tried to kill him. Carol died almost immediately, and baby Christopher survived only 17 days in intensive care. Chuck required two surgeries and was hospitalized for many weeks.

The Roxbury neighborhood had been in the news recently and characterized as a crime-ridden black neighborhood. Chuck had cynically seized on that fact to blame the murder on a local black assailant and the police investigated the case accordingly. I hate to pound on the media, but my take was that the press and Boston cops set up an environment of racial hysteria. There was a theme: Boston was a dangerous place because of black crime. Media immediately framed the situation as “Young white suburban couple ambushed in dangerous city.” I got clobbered by the Boston media for saying that, but so be it.

You didn’t have to be a genius to figure out something was fishy. The neighborhood people, the police, and the hospital staff all knew that most street crime was black-on-black, and there were not a lot of white suburban couples wandering around Roxbury late at night.

It is common knowledge that when a wife is killed, the husband is nearly always investigated first. In this case Charles Stuart was lionized, made to sound like a hero. That really stuck in my craw. Charles’s brother Matthew had become unwittingly involved in getting rid of the murder weapon and other evidence, and he eventually turned his brother in to the police. Chuck jumped off a bridge and committed suicide to avoid being convicted of murder and sent to prison.

SK:    Your identification of a racial component in that story was prescient. Now in a world of Black Lives Murder and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, do you think the press would have handled the reporting differently?

JS:     Oh yeah. No question. Boston was an anomaly at the time Carol Stuart was killed. The Boston Globe, the established newspaper, and the Boston Herald, a scrappy tabloid, were fierce competitors. Everyone was scrambling to pound on that same racist narrative. The guy the cops initially arrested certainly wasn’t an angel, but he did not do that murder. Today’s Boston media is much different. They would have covered the case more carefully and in greater depth.

SK:    The setting for ABOVE SUSPICION (Open Road Integrated Media, 2017) was entirely different, set in eastern Kentucky. Did you spend much time there while you were writing the book?

JS:     I spent a lot of time there then, and again later during the filming of the Phillip Noyce movie based on the book.

To expand on your question, I spent enough time there to get a real feel for the atmosphere and to begin to know the people. The folks who live in these rural townships have had their natural resources exploited by outsiders for a hundred-plus years. As a result, they have become independent and fiercely individualistic, and they are delightful people when you get to know them. Their land is the site of the Hatfield-McCoy feud which set up that kind of violence-prone hillbilly stereotype. “If you need shootin’ they’ll shoot you.” I’m just kidding, but they would have said it that way.

SK:   So along comes Mark Putnam, a shiny new FBI agent, with his first assignment to take charge of the Pikeville, Kentucky coal town FBI office. How did that work out?

JS:     He was gung-ho, right out of the academy, a tightly wound boy scout, but unsupervised there and raw. The local police loved him. They saw he was willing to get his hands dirty and thought he was a great cop. His wife was Kathy Ponticelli Putnam who was an utterly honest, remarkable woman. She supported Mark every way she knew how.

His new assignment was to organize and manage this small-town rural office that primarily investigated bank robbery and fraud cases, or in collaboration with the Drug Enforcement Agency, big multistate drug operations. His job-specific training was all on the job.  He soon met Susan Smith, a local drug addict with an unsuccessful history with men and a willingness to serve as Mark’s paid informant, and she quickly became dependent on him. Not only was he her handler in the FBI, but he also became her lover. Kathy Putnam, unaware that Susan was her husband’s mistress, got to know her and they became quite close friends too.

One day Susan asked Mark to go for a drive. When they parked, she announced that she was pregnant with his child and would not agree to an abortion. Mark offered to raise the child with his wife. Susan refused and wanted Mark to leave his wife and marry her. She threatened to reveal their relationship to his wife and the FBI, destroying his career. The situation rapidly spun out of control, and he strangled her in the car. He had been the only man who ever treated her with respect—until he killed her.

SK:    Did he cover his tracks to avoid detection?

JS:     Not well. After he killed her, things got really weird. He stripped the body and put her in the trunk of his car. The next day he had meetings in Lexington, 120 miles away, and he kept her in the trunk until afterwards when he got back to Pikeville. He dumped her body into a remote ravine about 9 miles out of town. Coincidently, soon after, a strip mine bulldozer dumped a load of dirt over the spot where he had covered Susan. He thought  that the body would be found immediately, and his world would end. At first, nothing happened.

Pikeville is one of those places where somebody’s always around to watch the kids. Susan had two at the time, and a friend was taking care of them, and it wasn’t unheard of for her to leave town for a week or so. At first nobody thought much about her disappearance. In the meantime, Mark’s conscience was bothering him: Do you confess or keep your mouth shut and live with your horrible actions, not only saving your life but protecting your family?

He finally told Kathy. She became a woman whose life had just been blown up. “Look,” she said. “Right now, it’s just a missing person report. Without the body, they don’t have a case. We can live with this. You don’t have to confess.” But his conscience would not rest, and he did–to his FBI superiors and the police, and was tried and convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

SK:    Do you think he was motivated to kill Susan by fear of discovery, or anger, or both?

JS:     In his confession he said he was horrified and terrified about Susan’s threat to expose him. He killed her in a fight. Susan was a fighter. He put his hands around her neck, he said just to control her, and somehow, she ended up dead. All I have is his story and that’s as good a story as we’re gonna get.

SK:    Did you stay in touch with Kathy after the trial?

JS:     Yes, I did. I spent a lot of time with her in person and on the phone where we had hours-long conversations. She loved the book. Mark liked it too. He thought it was fair.

SK:    I read somewhere that she had a serious drinking problem. Did you see signs of that?

JS:     It wasn’t clear to me at the time that she was drinking as heavily as she was. Her family notified me when she died at age 38, and I was stunned. If I have any regret, it is that we lost track of each other, and I was not there to be a better friend when she needed one.

SK:    I saw the movie recently and thought it was good. The scenery was so beautiful and the acting terrific. If I had one criticism, it would be that there was a lot of emphasis on the poor, rural, druggy character of the town. Would you have changed anything?

JS:     First I want to say how pleased I am with the film. I was fortunate to be invited to be a consultant on the movie. Director Phillip Noyce is well known for being meticulous about conveying a sense of place, and he spent a lot of time in Kentucky before and while the movie was being made. He got it exactly right. Chris Gerolmo wrote the screenplay, and that’s a tough job. You have 120 pages, triple-spaced, with wide margins to tell a complicated story. If everything I thought should have been in the film was in, the movie would have been nine hours long! You have two hours. Chris got all the important stuff said. Finally, the actors were amazing. Emilia Clark brought Susan Smith from the page to life. I only wish there had been more time to fill out the story of the friendship between Kathy Putnam, a middle-class girl from Connecticut, and Susan Smith, a poor coal miner’s daughter. COVID messed up our schedule, but the movie was finally out in limited released in May. It has basically become an Amazon Prime movie.

SK:    If you had another chance to work on a film, would you do it?

JS:     Definitely. I wish I had gotten involved in filmmaking when I was 35. On a movie shoot, you are surround by filmmaking masters who participate in a collaborative process. Not just directors and writers, but grips, photographers, boom operators, production assistants and a hundred more experts in their fields. The drawback to my doing much screenwriting is that there is a strong screenwriter’s guild, the union for screenwriters, and it’s hard to get in. In an old Steve Martin movie he says about Hollywood, “Out here they can smell 50.” I’m well past 50 and I know what he meant!

SK:    Let’s move backward a little to your book BEDLEM: GREED, PROFITEERING, AND FRAUD IN A MENTAL HEALTH SYSTEM GONE CRAZY (St. Martin’s Press, 1994). Why did you write it?

JS:     I had a personal interest because my father-in-law was a psychiatrist, a really good one. It was an investigative work. Nobody read it. In the 1980s asylums were closing. The idea was to transition to a community-based care system. Instead, personal community-oriented care was melted into hospital-based care. A for-profit, rapacious form of psychiatric care took over. Their marketing strategy roped in women and children to 30-day in-patient treatment that insurance plans paid for. Then the patients were dumped without follow-up support.

SK:    That sounds too much like the current system. Let me change directions here and ask you about the only novel you have written. You collaborated with Angela Amato to write LADY GOLD (St. Martin’s Press, 1999). How did that happen, and how did it go?

JS:     My friend Angela was a New York City detective, a real go-getter, a fireplug. In the late 1990s there was a move to bring the mafia down. For a year Angela was assigned to play the girlfriend to a player in the Gambino family. She did her part, but it went haywire. The witness protection status they were counting on didn’t come through. After that she quit the force. There were too many complications to write the case as a true crime. It was largely true but had to be fictionalized to make it publishable.

SK:    Would you collaborate again?

JS:     No. Angela was a gem, but I know enough about collaborations to know how often they go wrong. I was lucky with her and wouldn’t risk a less satisfying relationship with another writer.

SK:    Are you finishing WRECKAGE now? It looks like you are centered on one particular victim.

JS:     Yeah. I’m still working on it. The book centers on the Catholic Church’s child molestation scandal. I have a friend here in Arizona who works on death penalty investigations and worked on this one kid’s case. He was a battered 11-year-old boy in Boston whose aunt connected him as an alter boy with a priest there, Father Gagin, later known to have abused that child and many other boys. Immediately after those encounters the nephew sprang into a life of crime, including attempted murder. Sentenced to prison, he told the warden “You can put me with anybody in a cell, but if you put me with a child molester, I’ll kill him.” They did and he did. Two years later, the pattern repeated itself. My friend eventually got his client’s sentence reduced from death row to life in prison without a parole option.

The problem is how do you build a book about a character like that? I’m an old Catholic school boy from Philadelphia. “Wreckage” is an appropriate description of what is still happening. Nothing has been settled. Jimmy Breslin said, “Nobody leaves the Catholic Church.” You don’t ever get out.

SK:    I went to Catholic schools from first grade through twelfth, then I entered the convent and stayed for a week. I know what you mean! Now, changing subjects again, I know you taught journalism for some years in Arizona. How was that?

JS:     I enjoyed teaching journalism a lot. In recent years, though, I’ve begun to wonder if I was teaching 1986 skills that were no longer useful. Some of my friends here in Arizona worked for the New York Times and Boston Globe and the Washington Post. We often talk about those days, and it was great fun. We had a good run and rode the wave from the late ‘60s through the 1990s.

The kids now are bright, but they don’t read the newspaper.

SK:    I don’t like to hear that. Thank you so much for spending this time with me, Joe. I look forward to reading WRECKAGE [he laughs and murmurs ‘So do I’] and watching DEATH SENTENCE on the big screen.

Collateral Damage: John List Part 2

Part 2 of a 2-part series about John Emil List who murdered his family in Westfield, New Jersey in 1971.

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SEXUAL MATERIAL AND VIOLENCE THAT MAY NOT BE SUITABLE FOR ALL READERS.

While others have written the story of John List’s murders, he wanted the world to hear the story from his own point of view. Journalist Austin “Red” Goodrich, himself quite a character (During the Cold War he spied for for the CIA posing as a journalist), first met List when he visited him in the New Jersey State Prison in 1990. Like John List, he had grown up in Michigan, attended the University of Michigan, and served in the same platoon as John during World War II. With so much in common, they quickly became friends and decided to collaborate on a self-published book about John’s crimes from which he hoped the proceeds could financially help his struggling second wife. They apparently failed to vet the project legally, as it is against federal law for a convicted criminal or his family to benefit from any enterprise that involves the crime. Red Goodrich became the sole beneficiary of the proceeds.

I have read the 115-page account and will save you the trouble: It is an awful book, deplorable literature, and rife with uncorrected proofreading errors. In the introduction List explains his reasons for writing the book: “It may be helpful to psychiatrists and moralists (Christians and others) and I hope will ease the pain caused by my actions to the friends and relatives of my victims.” In light of what he says after that, it is hard to believe it could ease anyone’s pain. Helen’s mother and sister Jean were alive at the time, as were Patty’s coach Ed Illiano, and Alma List’s relatives.

He describes an idyllic childhood, although he admits his mother was overly protective and a close relationship with his father, although neighbors and relatives describe the elderly John Frederick List as a cold, distant man who concentrated on his small business and paid scant attention to his family. His family’s history is summarized in considerable detail, and he seems to be proud to claim a distant relative, German Army General Wilhelm List who reportedly had a regiment named for him and was promoted to Field Marshall, serving in World War II under Adolf Hitler.

John quotes a military associate who hypothesized that John’s desire to move up the ranks of the U.S. army had a genetic basis. In point of fact, List never rose beyond the level of an enlisted man in the infantry, served only five months in Europe, and saw very little combat. Perhaps his lifelong love of complex military games where he always controlled Hitler’s army was also genetic! He devotes nearly a quarter of the book to discussing a somewhat exciting military career of which he was much more impressed than his commanding officers or fellow soldiers. While he wrote detailed letters to his mother during his deployment and named many soldier friends and colleagues, few of them noticed him at all.

He goes to considerable lengths to fairly portray his first wife Helen and to describe a relatively happy marriage. As seemed to be his habit, he could not keep up a narrative for long that did not center on him and his needs. In a few sentences he casually manages to destroy his wife’s reputation. He implies that as the proverbial hot-blooded widow she seduced him, then faked a pregnancy to get him to marry her. Years later she wanted a divorce, an event that would have been a first in the List family (and in Helen’s too, he adds as an afterthought). She spent lavishly, had contracted syphilis from her first husband and hid the fact from John for some time, was an alcoholic, and they had an unsatisfactory sex life. Then he started in on Helen’s daughter from her first marriage, Brenda. Apropos of nothing, he says that Brenda became pregnant when she was 16 and married the baby’s father from whom she was frequently separated. John visited her to “keep her spirits up” but without Helen, who he claims was too upset to see her daughter. The piece de resistance was a remark he attributed to his daughter Patty when she was three or four years old:

Our Patty commented that Brenda had certainly messed up her life. I wonder [said John] if Patty would have acted the same way at that age. Sadly, she died before she reached Brenda’s age. Patty was 16 years and 10 months old at the time of her death. (Italics added for emphasis.)

He accomplished two goals by repeating–or more likely inventing–this scene. First, he raises the question of whether Patty’s life would have been ruined by immorality had she lived longer and second, he totally abdicates responsibility for her death. “Sadly she died,” he says, not “I killed her.” Finally, no four-year-old ponders whether her stepsister has “messed up her life.”

His unsuccessful accounting career is attributed obliquely to his wife’s excessive social drinking, or to company politics or changes in business venue. List is silent on the subject of his inability to earn more than $25,000 a year, even when his position was briefly Vice President and Comptroller of the First National Bank of Jersey City, New Jersey. His lack of job success resulted from his inadequate social skills, his rigidity on the job and failure to keep up with the times as accounting began to rely more on computers, and his insistence that he deserved promotion. John List rarely saw himself as others saw him. While some people described him as kind, generous, and mannerly, others saw him as peculiar, cold, and self-centered.

His self-serving narrative goes on to describe teenage children whose behavior was out of control. The evidence? — He discovered Patty playing with a Ouija Board with her friends, and all the children were in the kitchen with him when he discovered a small snake on the drainboard. They knew he was afraid of snakes and Patty was the ringleader behind this prank, he charged.

Now as to the murders. He says he wishes he had not killed his family and prays daily for forgiveness. He explains his long decision-making process, the perceived infutility of leaving his family helpless without him, and his fear that committing suicide would severe his connection with God and prevent him from being reconciled with his family in heaven. His ability to weigh the moral equivalence of suicide compared with the murder of five people is astonishing. Reverend Alfred Scheips was John’s college Lutheran chaplain and he was called as a witness at the List trial. He was asked to compare his church’s relative views on suicide compared with murder. Finally, he was asked whether he believed there was a greatest sin, one for which there could be no forgiveness. He thought for an instant, then replied with a quote from Christian apologist and author C.S. Lewis: “Pride is the greatest sin.” Bingo.

Regarding the acts themselves, he recalls them in horrifying detail and explains that he killed all of his victims from behind so as not to cause them undue fear, and that his bullets killed each of them painlessly and quickly. All, that is, except for possibly John:

“…After I shot my namesake, his body twitched with convulsions. Seeing this, which had not occurred with any of my other victims, I must have panicked because I emptied the Styre and some of the .22 bullets into John. …I am sure that John was killed by the first shot and that his body movements were only muscular reflexes operating in some automatic manner. In any case, the tragedy was finished.”

He reproduces his five-page confession letter he left for his minister, Pastor Rehwinkel. It ends with this: “p.s. Mother is in the hallway in the attic–3rd floor. She was too heavy to move.” John List was a cold, cold man. Among his final chapters, one is titled “Fast Forward Into a New Life,” an apt description for what John did after he cleaned up the blood, ate his dinner, got a good night’s sleep, and headed off for Colorado. Unfazed by what he had done, John recorded his activities every day between November 9, 1971, which he describes as “the killings,” through November 20th when he arrived in Denver, in his Perpetual Calendar.

There he was “born again” (his words) as Robert P. Clark, a man who found work, a new church, and a loving wife “out West where it’s best.”[my words]. In his narrative he slips in a few paragraphs about the handwriting analysis ordered by his friend and co-author, Red Goodrich. Mark Hopper of the Handwriting Research Corp., apparently concluded that List’s handwriting revealed a writer who was “very intelligent, analytical, disciplined, curious, careful, conscientious and cautious.” On the other hand, Hopper also found a person who could not sustain employment, had poor social skills and “a low capacity for social tolerance along with high levels of anger, aggression, and instability.” He concluded that this was the handwriting of a person who needed psychiatric intervention. Hmmm.

His final chapters describe his arrest and conviction and life in prison which, for the most part, sounds pretty compatible with John List’s love of routine, order, solitude, and lots of rules. He divides one chapter into sections for “Bad Stuff” and “Good Stuff.” While you would not be surprised to hear what he considers “bad,” you would perhaps be caught off guard to hear what he considers “good.” It is, he says, human kindness. I wonder if he ever thinks about human kindness in the context of his actions. Is everything finally forgivable? John List died of heart disease complicated by pneumonia in 2008. Now I believe he knows the answer to that question.

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.