On December 7, 1971, police officers entered Breeze Knoll, a nineteen room, three-story Victorian mansion, and the most expensive house in an upper middle class neighborhood in Westfield, New Jersey. Breeze Knoll was the home of the List family, many of whom had not been seen for several days, and now the cops were responding to a report of strange smells coming from the house.
What they found was like something out of a cheap horror movie. As taped organ music played over the home intercom system, the police officers found bloodstains on the walls in several rooms and large trails of blood led from one room into the next. All the trails led to the ballroom, where stacked up in front of the fireplace were four corpses laid out next to each other on Boy Scout sleeping bags. These were later identified as mother Helen List and her three children. They had all been shot multiple times in different rooms of the house and their bodies dragged into the ballroom to create the grisly scene.
As the organ music continued to play, the cops moved through the house and in the attic they found the body of the children’s grandmother Alma List. Her body had been oddly positioned on her back, knees spread and her calves under her, as if she had fallen to her knees and then gone over backwards. There was an expression of horror on her face, made even more frightening by the gaping gunshot wound over her left eye.
The only body unaccounted for was that of the children’s father, John List
"He said he would rather see his family dead than live another day after this."
John Emil List was born in Bay City, Michigan on September 17, 1925. His parents were Germans and very active members in the German Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. Although they lived in a huge house, John slept in the parlor, and had no privacy or space for his own stuff. His father only referred to him as “the boy” and he was expected to behave, excel at school, and uphold the faith of their church. The family read the Bible together every night. John’s mother Alma feared that he might get sick, so she watched him constantly, keeping him dressed up to stay warm and dry. He was not allowed to go out and play with the other boys.
After graduating high school in 1944, John enlisted in the Army over his mother’s protests. He was sent to the Pacific, but the war was over before he saw much action. He returned from the war with an interest in firearms and a new acquisition, an Austrian Steyr pistol. At his mother’s urging, John attended the University of Michigan and became an accountant, a nice safe position for a young man. John continued to be a member of the Army reserve and was stationed on a base in Virginia during the Korean War.
It was there that he met the newly widowed Helen Taylor and her 9-year-old daughter. Helen and John began dating and she soon told him that she was pregnant. They quickly got married, two months after they had first met. Helen then revealed that she had been lying to him and was never pregnant, although she would later bear him two children. They traveled around the country, living far beyond their means, and John lost job after job because of his complete lack of any social skills. Helen started drinking and had become addicted to tranquilizers. She constantly berated John and told him that she wished she had never married him.
Eventually they settled in New Jersey, where John’s mother Alma gave him the money for the down payment on the massive Breeze Knoll mansion. As part of her giving them the money, Alma came to live with her son and his wife. John lost yet another job, but this time he was facing a huge mortgage and high utility bills, not to mention expenses for a family with children who were becoming teenagers. Unable to tell anyone, he left the house every morning as though he was going to work, but instead sat in the train station all day reading the newspaper or a book. He did this for six full months, paying all the bills from his mother’s bank account.
On November 5, 1971 John gathered his children together after dinner. In the kitchen he told them that they must prepare to die and asked if they preferred to be buried or cremated.
"The way I hear it, he’s some kind of butcher. A pitiless, psycho, fucked-up butcher."
On the morning of November 9th, John sat in his home office and waited for his children to leave the house and go to school. His wife Helen came downstairs and made breakfast for herself. As her back was turned, John came out of the office, gripped in his hand was the 1912 Steyr automatic that he had brought back from the war. John fired a single shot into the side of Helen’s head, killing her instantly. He then went upstairs into his mother’s attic apartment and shot her point blank in the head as she turned around to face him.
After attempting to clean up the blood in the attic, John went back downstairs and dragged his wife’s body into the ballroom. He went into the bathroom, vomited into the toilet and changed out of his blood-spattered clothing into a neat suit and tie. He now had to wait, for the children would not be home for several hours. To pass the time, he went out into his yard, in his suit and tie, and raked leaves. Then he went inside and ate lunch.
John went out and picked up his stepdaughter Patty from high school. Back at home, List hurried to be first into the house. He crouched behind a door, and as Patty entered he shot her at close range in the back of the head. Her body was dragged into the ballroom. John did the pretty much the same thing to his younger son Fred. The boy didn’t even have enough time to take off his coat before he had a bullet in his brain.
The final child, John Jr., came home from school early and his father was unprepared. John Jr. saw his father leveling the gun at him and quickly grabbed his arm, deflecting the shot. The two struggled in the dining room, until John was finally able to hit his son with a shot to the neck. John Jr. fell to the ground and tried to crawl away, but his father pumped nine more bullets into him until the body stopped moving.
John sat down and wrote a full confession to his pastor, feeling that he would be the only person to understand. He asked that the bodies be cremated, as the children had agreed to. His mother had a plot in Michigan and was to be sent there. He also mentioned that he originally had planned the killing for All Saint’s Day, but had been delayed. Then he asked to be dropped from the congregation rolls. He felt sure that God would forgive him, since Christ had died for him along with all other sinners. After finishing the letter, John made himself dinner then slept until the next morning. When he awoke, he turned the thermostat down to 50 degrees and switched the lights on in every room and put the music on the intercom system, turned up loud. John left his house with $2500 in his pocket and some clothes in his suitcase.
"And just like that…he’s gone. Underground. No one has ever seen him again. He becomes a myth, a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night."
John List changed his name to Robert P. Clark and moved to Denver, Colorado, renting a trailer at the foot of the Rockies. Using a fake social security number, he found work as a night-shift cook at a Holiday Inn. He then moved on to another hotel, The Pinery, and became assistant manager and accountant. By 1975, he had joined St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Denver and became a member of the church finance council. The following year, he acquired a driver’s license and bought a car. He used it to drive old and infirm members of his church to the places they needed to go.
John also met a woman named Delores Miller at a singles social. After telling her that his wife had died of cancer, they began a courtship, eventually leading to marriage in 1985. Shortly afterward, List was fired from a job for failing to keep up with company changes, and also was asked to leave his post as a Sunday school teacher because he was too strict and demanding of the students. His attempt to become an independent financial consultant also failed. Much like John’s first wife, Delores said that she regretted ever marrying him and often spoke of getting a divorce. It was all happening again.
John and Delores’ neighbor Wanda Flannery was an avid reader of the Weekly World News, and in February 1987 spotted an article about a man named John List who had murdered his entire family many years earlier and had gotten away. She was struck by how similar the fugitive John List was to her neighbor Robert Clark. She took the paper over to Delores’ house when John had left for a temporary job he had managed to find, and showed it to her. She urged Delores, who was mystified, to show it to Robert and see how he reacted. Delores said she would, but threw the paper away. Shortly afterwards, John and Delores moved to Virginia.
"You think you can catch him? You think a guy like that comes this close to getting fingered and sticks his neck out?"
The investigators never forgot about the brutal slayings at Breeze Knoll and kept the case alive, following new leads on John’s whereabouts whenever they could. As a last-ditch effort, they approached the producers of a new television show called America’s Most Wanted. Wanda Flannery was watching the show on May 21, 1989 when the segment on the List killings aired and called the phone number provided on the show, giving them the Clarks' new address in Virginia.
The FBI quickly arrested Robert Clark, and fingerprints proved that he was in actuality John List. List pleaded not guilty to the killings and his bail was set at $1 million. During the trial, List’s attorneys tried to convince the jury that he was insane at the time of the slayings and thought that killing them was the only way out their situation. When asked why he didn’t kill himself, John said that committing suicide would have barred him from getting into heaven, but he could still have received Jesus’ forgiveness if he killed only his family.
The jury didn’t buy it and on April 12, 1990, John List was found guilty on all counts. He was given five consecutive life terms in federal prison, where he remains to this day.
In an interesting postscript to John List’s story, Christopher McQuarrie
was reading about the killing while writing the film The Usual Suspects
. List’s killing of his family and subsequent disappearance became the biggest inspiration for Keyser Soze