Almost Got Away With It: The List Family Murders


(Guilt written all over his face. John List. Picture credit: Edition.CNN)

Hope everyone is keeping themselves safe during these difficult times, wearing their masks and taking the proper precautions. 2020 was a difficult year and 2021 is looking like we are not out of the woods yet either. All we can do is keep going and I hope that my posts have been helping during this time to focus your mind elsewhere. I know I cover a lot of dark subjects but sometimes it helps to take a break from all that is going on in our current situation.

So here we are at my 67th case and this week I'm delving into a case from the 1970s and I'm sure the name John List rings a few bells for you. Well, if you know a little bit about him or are not familiar with this story then grab a coffee, get comfortable and prepare to be shocked because this case is a real roller coaster. 

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So, let's begin...

John Emil List was born on the 17th of September 1925, the only child of parents John and Alma in Bay City, Michigan (USA). His parents were religious and took their Lutheran faith very seriously. John Snr was an active member of the church and held Sunday school classes, something which his son would later go on to do. John Jr's childhood was quite a lonely one, his mother encouraged him not to get too close to other children in case he got dirty and picked up germs so he was often on the outside looking in. Despite his social problems, John Jr was quite an intelligent child and very good with numbers.  He later enlisted in the United States Army as a Laboratory Technician before obtaining two bachelor's degrees (one in business administration and the other in accounting) at the University of Michigan.

In November of 1940, John met his first wife, Helen Morris Taylor when he was recalled to active military service. Helen was a single mother of one daughter, Brenda. Helen had recently lost her husband in the war and she and John seemed to just click and the pair married in 1951. John was still in the Army at this point but had been moved over to the Finance Corps due to his accountancy skills which seemed to impress everyone around him. 

In 1952, John focused more on his accountancy career and enjoyed the salary that went with it, not long after that he'd been promoted to audit supervisor at the firm he'd been employed at and the couple went on to have three children, two sons (Frederick and John Jr) and one daughter (Patricia).  In the late 50s all seemed to be going well career wise for John but things were not so rosy at home. For whatever reason, Helen began drinking heavily and her dependence on alcohol put a strain on both the marriage and the household itself. Brenda moved out and got married. 

After Brenda moved out John was offered another job at Xerox in New York so he and the family relocated there where more career success for John continued as he worked his way up to a Director position in the company. The family were living a more luxurious lifestyle and this suited John down to the ground as he was always about appearances and wanted to be the envy of people around him. 

John was always someone who chased after the bigger goal and in 1965 he accepted yet another job offer and this time it was for Vice President Comptroller at a bank. At this point money was no object for John and by now, he and his family at gotten used to the high life, the designer clothes, the expensive Tiffany pieces, the paintings and now a beautiful 19 room Victorian mansion called Breeze Knoll. 

To anyone on the outside, the Lists had it all, spending money like it was going out of fashion, beautiful mansion, always stylishly dressed. They looked like the perfect family, always attending church and well spoken but there was something not quite right about the whole picture. Although they were always polite and pleasant to talk to, the family kept themselves to themselves and John was very much the head of the family. John himself always seemed to be a bit held back, always a mystery about him. A legacy from his childhood days when his mother told him not to get too close to others, he seemed to carry this through to adulthood, even at that point in his 40s. 

Like John, his children were intelligent and each of them did well at school. In the household itself lived both John and his wife, the three children and John's mother Alma who stayed upstairs in the attic which had been converted into a little apartment.

John's father died in 1944 so one wonder's if he later invited his mother to come and live with the family due to her being on her own or if she had suffered ill health but didn't want to go into a care home. Whatever the case, Alma lived with the family but the house was big enough for there to be a decent level of privacy. 

So, everything was perfect or was it? Come the early 70s and John was out of luck. The gravy train had come to an abrupt halt when the Jersey Bank was closed down. John was always someone who landed on his feet no matter the situation but this time, every door seemed to be closed. He tried to get another job but was getting nowhere. He was behind with the mortgage payments and ended up having to steal money out of Alma's accounts to keep the bailiffs at bay. 

(The List Family. Picture credit: Film Daily

Carrying the heavy burden on his back, John never told his family or anyone (not that he was one for opening up about private matters anyway). For him to have told his family what was going on he would have felt like a failure and being such a proud man he would have dreaded people of the community finding out too. So John got up early every day, put his suit on, put his lunch that his wife had made for him in his briefcase and pretended to go to work. 

He passed away the days sitting in the train station reading newspapers and magazines. John had a lot of time on his hands. A lot of time to think and it obviously occurred to him that there was only so much longer that he could keep this performance up. 

Then it came down to a difficult decision for John, either he come clean and tell his family the truth, sell all of their items, say goodbye to Breeze Knoll, the luxurious lifestyle, the respect, the status, move to a small apartment and live on wellfare or in his mind, put an end to everyone's lives. 

Reading this you may have been reminded of another case I covered (Christopher Foster: The Millionaire & The Mansion of Horror) where a man by the name of Christopher Foster came into financial difficulties after using money from his own company to fund his and his family's expensive lifestyle only to end up completely broke with the taxman and bailiff's ready to knock on his door. We remember how that tragic case ended with him being selfish (that's my opinion) and murdering his young daughter, their pets and his wife before taking his own life whilst the mansion and the land around it burnt down as he intended it to. Christopher's mother (who was a bit delusional and couldn't see him do a thing wrong) tried to paint it as Christopher saving his family from the humiliation of having to leave the lifestyle they had become accustomed to. Based on my own research and what others have said about him (his brother being interviewed about the sexual abuse and torment he suffered for years at the hands of Christopher), the affairs with other women and his arrogance. Christopher wasn't the butter wouldn't melt family man that his mother would have liked to believe. This was a case of 'If I can't have you and I can't have this. Then nobody can'. I don't know what your opinion is on that case but go and check it out if you like and see what you think. 

Anyway, back to the current case.... John took the horrific decision to murder his whole family. He even planned to murder Helen's mother by inviting her to stay just in time for him to carry out his sickening acts but she was too ill to make the journey. 

He had it all planned and on the 9th of November 1971, the morning started like any other. Helen was in the kitchen having her morning coffee, Alma was upstairs, the kids had just gone to school and John decided that today was the day that his family were going to meet their end. 

He had two guns, one belonged to his late father and the other was his own. A 9mm Steyr handgun and a .22-Caliber revolver. He just walked up to his wife and shot her in the back of her head before going upstairs and shooting his mother, the bullet entering just above her left eye. He then went back downstairs, did the dishes and had some lunch whilst waiting for two of his children to come home. When Patricia and Frederick came home he shot them both in the back of the head. John then left the house (and had organised for his and Alma's bank accounts to be closed and had sent letters to the Children's schools informing the teachers that the children would be visiting their grandmother for a few weeks. He'd also cancelled the milk delivery, the newspapers and the mail) stopping off at the bank before making his way to his eldest son's (John Jr) school to watch him play soccer before bringing him back home.

(Breeze Knoll. Picture credit: Film Daily)

The way John carried out the murders with such cold, meticulous planning is chilling. He took the lives of his own family but was as cool as a cucumber about the whole thing. He drove his son back to the house of horror and proceeded to shoot the boy but John Jr wasn't going down without a fight. The poor boy was shot so many times by his father in what must have been the most horrific and terrifying ordeal. Eventually John Jr fell to the floor and John Sr placed his body with Helen, Patricia and Frederick on top of sleeping bags in the ballroom. Alma remained upstairs as she was ''too heavy to move''. 

John cleaned up the blood and tidied the house before cutting his face out of family photographs and sitting down to write a five page letter to his pastor. Once he was finished writing, he left the letter on the top of his desk and turned all of the lights on in the house. He adjusted the thermostat, put on the radio and selected a religious channel to play continuously throughout the house.

Then he left. 

John took the money he had withdrawn from the bank accounts, some clothes and drove the family car to John F Kennedy airport where he dumped the car and boarded a train to Michigan and then to Denver where he set up his new life and changed his name to Bob Clark (after a former fellow student from the University of Michigan). He managed to get a job and became a member of the local church. Back in the early 70s it was easy for people to drift from one place to the other undetected, they didn't have CCTV or mobile phones back then. When it came to job references and such, employers were not as thorough as they are now. 

Weeks went by after the murders and the bodies laid in the house. Nobody suspected a thing at first although they did wonder why every light was on in the house, maybe someone was house sitting? But then the neighbours noticed that the lights were on 24 hours a day with no other activity and one by one they started to go out. Nobody knew what to make of it especially as John and his family pretty much kept themselves to themselves anyway. The police were called and came out to do an inspection and felt that there was nothing untoward going on. It was only when Patricia's drama coach contacted the police and begged them to force entry into the house because he felt something was very wrong. The police entered the house and they found the bodies in the ballroom. A search for John List was now underway.

To others it looked like and open and shut case, John was the culprit so find him and arrest him they thought. It wasn't so easy. John had been planning this for a while and did what he could to cover his tracks. It might not have been so easy for him in this day and age but back then in the early 70s he managed to out smart the police, but only for so long.

Nearly EIGHTEEN YEARS John List lived as Bob Clark, right under everyone's noses and nobody knew. hidden in plain sight and if that wasn't bad enough, he had met and married a poor, unsuspecting woman, Dolores Miller who he had met through the church. Dolores had no idea that the loving, kind man she had married was actually a monster who had murdered his family years before. 

Again, John had managed to land on his feet for a good few years but eventually for him the party was over. Dolores and John moved to Virginia towards the end of the 1980s and unfortunately for John, a programme was aired on TV, America's Most Wanted and John was the star of the show. They went into detail about his case and even had an age progressed bust of John's face by forensic artist Frank Bender and it was shockingly accurate. 

Just two weeks after this show, someone blew the whistle on John. A former neighbour contacted authorities and John was taken into custody in 1989, not surprisingly Dolores ran for the hills and divorced him although he pleaded ignorant the whole situation and claimed to be Bob Clark. John went on for months denying that he was in fact THE John List but eventually after the police had shown him the mountains of evidence, his finger prints from his military records matching those found at the crime scene all those years before, John gave up the ghost and confessed.

On the 12th of April 1990, John Emil List was convicted of five counts of first degree murder. He claimed that he murdered his family as a result of post traumatic stress disorder from the years he had spent in the Army. He also said that he killed them so they would go to heaven. He felt that his family had become too materialistic and forgot about the true meaning of life.

He tried to appeal his sentences but they got thrown out.

In 2002 he was interviewed in prison where he repeated the same things he said during his trial, that he murdered his family to save their souls. He was also asked why he didn't take his own life and he explained that he thought he would not get into heaven if he had done. He also said that he was sorry for what he had done. 

John Emil List died on the 21st of March 2008 at the age of 82 from complications of Pneumonia. 

The Breeze Knoll mysteriously burned down just nine month after the murders. To this day, nobody knows who caused the fire. Could John have returned to the house or was it some random act by some unknown person? Perhaps we will never know. A new house was built on the site.

You may also be interested to know that the movie The Stepfather (1987) was based on this case. I have to watch that movie again, it's really good (in my opinion) although they have changed a few details it's worth a watch. There was also another movie based on the case: Judgment Day: The John List Story which you can find online (by the way, I found the movie, you can watch it here). I will include all links for further reading, my sources and documentaries on the case below.

Thank you for checking out this week's case and I hope you join me next Sunday for another one. If you would like to hear my thoughts or get exclusive access to bonus content, check out my links below.

See you in the next post x 

RIP to Helen, Alma, Patricia, Frederick and John Jr.

Further reading & sources:

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  1. The 70's were a much different time from this day and age. It's always blown me away how easily people can change their identity and disappear. I still can't believe he got away with it for so long and managed to basically start a whole new life. Being able to face himself in the mirror everyday knowing he killed his own family is unbelievable. Another amazing true crime story. ❤

    1. It's so shocking, I haven't seen the lifetime movie based on the case but I remember watching The Stepfather as a kid. I'm going to check out the lifetime movie at some point this weekend. Thank you for being so amazingly supportive as always, I really appreciate it x

  2. I can’t wait to watch the movie on his life. I didn’t even know about it until tonight. That’s strange because I’m such a fan of The Stepfather. I knew about the case and most of the time, when a movie is available, I know it !
    Thank you so much ! I’m super excited to watch the movie tonight or tomorrow. I want to compared the movie to the Stepfather as well. I was so much into it when I was reading your case. It was such a nice surprise to read your case tonight but also to discovered that you were writing about John List ! Fabulous work ! When I’m gonna finished the movie, I will give you my point of view with great pleasure. It’s time to revisit the entire Stepfather franchise ! The first movie is such a classic for me. When I was 9-10 years old, I was speechless. Such a tremendous suspenseful classic horror movie.

  3. Thank you so much. I watched the first 2 stepfather's, Terry O'Quinn was fantastic in the role. I couldn't get into the third one again even though I'd seen it years ago. I also watched the lifetime movie based on the case and thought it was ok. Thank you for taking the time to read my post and for commenting x

    1. My pleasure :) The lifetime movie was okay but I hate when they changed some stuff that doesn't make nay sense. The first two Stepfather are amazing. The third one was such a mess. Terry O'Quinn is sorely missing. Thank you again for your amazing work !!!

  4. Thank you so much for the comments and taking time to read the post. I really appreciate it x

  5. John List was my neighbor in Chesterfield VA when he was arrested. Had no clue who he was, came home to street blocked and FBI, Sherriff's, cops, and all kinds of vans outside his house and down the street.

    1. Wow! thank you for sharing, that must have been quite scary to know that sort of person was living in your community x