The following is a chapter from the book “Murderers In New Jersey – The Horrific True Stories of the Garden State Killers”
One night in the fall of 1971, in the upscale community of Westfield, New Jersey, John List gathered his family together for a meeting.
John List was a Lutheran, but was scrupulously observant. He insisted that his entire family be as obsessed with Lutheranism as he was. He was convinced they wouldn’t go to heaven unless they were as devout as he was.
At the family meeting, List reviewed his rules and regulations and stressed that they be more attentive to them. John Jr., Patricia, Frederick, Helen, their mother, and Alma List, John’s mother, all listened intently. They all went to church weekly whether they wanted to or not. They sang the hymns, although they found the melodies difficult. Their religiosity, however, was reserved for Sundays.
List’s daughter wore trendy clothes, but he considered them too seductive. His wife, Helen, became exasperated with his domineering manner and turned to alcohol. Like all boys, his sons competed with their peer group for acceptance. Thus, they, too, engaged in the trendiest clothing and pop music. At home, List only permitted classical music on the radio, a source of aggravation and many complaints by his children.
On the night of the fateful meeting, List announced he was going to murder his family—all of them—except himself! He would do so, he said, to “save their souls.” All except Patricia didn’t believe him. List made threats all the time, especially the threat that they would go to hell if they didn’t shape up. John Jr. wasn’t surprised and neither were Helen, Alma, or Frederick. ‘Now, he’s finally flipped his cork,’ John Jr thought.
They’d heard that warning before—over and over again.
List was not only a devout Lutheran, but a scrupulous one. He felt that his family was inattentive during the sermons at church. John Jr. was an avid soccer player, but was disinterested in studying the Bible. With all the appeals of secularism in the culture, List was extremely concerned they would succumb to the temptations of the devil and be condemned to hell.
While List’s frequent threats were mostly ignored by the family, sixteen-year-old Patricia, was afraid—deathly afraid. In the fall of 1971, she went to her drama coach, Edwin Illiano whom she trusted, and told him the story. When Patricia started sobbing uncontrollably, Edwin became very concerned. Patricia wasn’t given to such outbursts. Then he persuaded her that they should report this to the police.
They told the story to Officer John Moran of the Westfield Police Department. He was very open to listening to her complaint, but frankly had a hard time believing it. Moran also explained to them that the police couldn’t take action on the basis of verbal threats unless some action accompanied them. Even an often-repeated threat wouldn’t be sufficient to get a warrant or justify questioning List.
Then Illiano went to List’s Lutheran pastor, Reverend Eugene Rehwinkel. Rehwinkel listened compassionately. The pastor knew List was extreme in his religious practice, but was convinced that List wouldn’t commit the mortal sin of murder.
It was November 9, 1971. A cold crisp chill was in the air. John List had deliberately stayed home from work. He had an important task to accomplish. Full of anticipation, List went upstairs quietly. There was his wife, Helen, walking into their bedroom with a drink in her hand. She imbibed much too much, and—despite his prayers and his pleading—she wouldn’t stop. She did tell him she was trying to cut back, but it never happened that way.
Without hesitation, he pulled his Colt .22 revolver out of his pocket, pointed it directly at the back of her head and squeezed the trigger. It was loud—louder than he thought it would be. She fell backward toward him. That surprised John and he leaped aside.
He dragged her into the room they called the “Ballroom.” The room had originally been intended as such because the house used to be a beautiful mansion. The floor in that room was hardwood with a high polish to it, and a magnificent Tiffany-glass ceiling. Like all fashionable homes in the exclusive area of Westfield, New Jersey, the home had its own name: “Breezy Knoll.” There was a wrought-iron gate that gave it the sinister look of a gothic novel. List glanced out the window then turned on the radio to a religious music station and turned the volume up high.
His mother, Alma, was upstairs in her attic room. She was hard-of-hearing, so she had no idea he was in the house. List had planned this out with military precision. One step at a time… he hadn’t written his process out; he had it memorized. Perhaps she did hear something, because the elderly woman met him face-forward at the top of the stairs.
When she saw List’s gun, she opened her mouth very, very wide and screamed. He shot her right above her left eye. Only a little bit of blood gushed out. The bullet went tearing toward the back of her head. This time, his victim did fall backward. Eerily, her mouth stayed wide open. She looked like fear itself.
Maybe she’d just gone shopping, as a bag was propped up next to her. It read, “O’Connor’s”—a meat market. ‘Typical,’ sneered List… ‘eating again.’
Patricia, who had poured her heart out to her drama coach, and thirteen-year-old Frederick, were still at school, but would be arriving home soon. John Jr, fifteen, was scheduled to play a soccer game after school. Clothes were strewn all over the house as his wife never stopped drinking long enough to do laundry.
Apparently, the children were just as negligent. List had always reminded them to keep a tidy house. They didn’t care, and now, neither did he.
List never deviated from his daily routine. It was time for lunch, so he made himself a tuna fish sandwich, sat down at the disheveled kitchen table, and ate.
It was time to start the cover-up of his murderous scheme. Loose ends to take care of: cancelled the newspaper, cancelled the milk delivery. It was the 1970s and everyone had milk delivered to the door. Afterward, he rummaged through Mama Alma’s papers and found her savings bonds. Then he grabbed the family checkbook and their bank statement. He knew the balance was a paltry amount… List was nearly bankrupt.
List was an accountant who was upwardly mobile like many skilled men his age. After a stint with the Xerox company in Rochester, he sought out a higher-paying position. He worked in the position of comptroller for a bank in Jersey City.
That’s how the family was able to move to Westfield, a classy community. The taxes were high in Westfield, but he craved the prestige. It was expensive paying for the family in that community and he had to be very careful about his expenses. “It’s a great life, if you don’t weaken.” But List did weaken. He couldn’t afford to maintain his family there but was too embarrassed to say anything.
He went to the bank, cashed in the bonds and closed the family bank account. Next, he went to the post office. He put in an order for them to hold his mail, explaining that he and his family were moving to North Carolina and didn’t have a permanent address there yet. He’d let them know… but had no intention of doing so.
Murders of the Children
List heard the front door open and then Patricia came bouncing in. ‘That foolish girl,’ he thought to himself smirking. ‘She imagines she’s going to become an actress. She’ll go to hell if I don’t stop her.’ Patricia walked into the kitchen, dropped her books on the kitchen table, but List was right there waiting for her. His gun was drawn. Her eyes went wide.
‘Dad’s announcement was coming true!’
List then swung her around. He wasn’t going to mar Patricia’s pretty face with a hideous gunshot wound. He calmly shot her in the back of her head. Catching her fall, he gently lowered her to the floor then dragged her by the feet into the ballroom. A trail of blood marked her path, so he wiped it up.
The door flew open again, and Frederick came stomping in. He threw down his backpack and walked toward the kitchen. His father was waiting for him. List stood still like a statue, pointing the gun at his son.
Frederick was startled. “BLAM!” The gun went off, and the boy crumbled to the floor.
List also dragged him into the ballroom and lined him up with his sister and mother. They were drenched in blood, so List grabbed a rag and wiped some of it up. When the wooden floor was cleaned off, he threw the rag in a garbage can.
He checked his watch. His eldest son, John Jr. was at Westfield High School playing in a soccer game. List drove over and sat through the entire game. He stared at the players, but wasn’t really watching. His mind was moving a mile an hour.
Finally, John Jr. left the field and went to the locker room.
‘Almost time,’ List thought. ‘Just a little longer and this will be over.’
Upon arriving home, John Jr. heard the church music blaring from the ballroom. He tensed up. Somehow things didn’t seem right. The atmosphere was heavy. It felt like Halloween somehow. No one seemed to be home. Mom was usually at the refrigerator or stove, and grandma would be at the kitchen table drinking tea.
Dad had left a few scrunched-up napkins on the table, and there weren’t any signs that supper was going to be made anytime soon.
“Where’s everybody?” asked John Jr., turning to look at his father.
List pulled out his gun and took two steps toward young John. An emotional alarm squealed in John’s mind, and he rushed toward his father, grabbing the gun. He hollered and the two of them struggled for possession of the gun. It went off a few times and John felt bullets sear through his thigh and arm.
Blood shot out, spattering on List and the wall behind him. They rolled around on the kitchen floor until List was able to wrench John Jr.’s head around. List then shot him in the back of his head. The hollering stopped. List watched, letting the image of his dead son embed itself into his conscious mind. His bloodied body lay twisted near the kitchen table.
It was over. The deed was done.
“Where were those sleeping bags?” List asked himself. ‘Let’s tidy up here.’
Then he remembered where they were and headed for the garage. He pulled them down from a shelf and shuffled back to the ballroom. One by one he placed the bodies of his wife and children into a sleeping bag. He covered each face with a dish towel. List realized with sadness that he couldn’t bring his elderly mother downstairs to be with the family because she was too heavy.
Kneeling by the bodies, he prayed that God would forgive them all their transgressions during life. ‘Surely now that they face their heavenly Father in judgement, they will see where they went wrong and repent, so they could enjoy paradise with God in heaven,’ List imagined.
He paraded around the house and cut his face out of every photograph he could find. The cops must not find out anything about him, and he was determined to avoid that. His presence in the family hadn’t helped at all.
He’d failed in his marriage; he’d failed to mold them into God-fearing people; he failed to support his family. They couldn’t possibly afford to pay all the utilities and he couldn’t afford to keep them clothed and have all the necessities of an upper middle-class life.
Next, he went to the schools his children attended and explained that the family was going to North Carolina to visit his wife’s ailing mother. He would be in touch with the school prior to their return. List then went home quickly to double-check everything. All seemed to be in order—the order he wanted. Then he put all the lights on, went to the garage, drove to Kennedy International Airport and parked. He didn’t take an airplane, though. That would throw the police off course.
Many men who kill, shoot themselves in the end, and List knew that. However, suicide was a sin and it deprived its sinner of heaven. It was the “unforgiveable sin,” as the bible taught. List knew he would go to heaven, because he did this thing to save his family from being corrupted by the sinful world. He knew God would forgive him, and he would repent. Moreover, he still had time to start a new family—a family holy in the sight of God—and begin anew. The next time, he would do it right and that would make up for it.
A Long Month
The Lists weren’t very social in the neighborhood, but they did have some connections in the community. Patricia List, who aspired to become an actress, missed the town rehearsal of the Tennessee Williams’ play, “Streetcar.” She had never missed a rehearsal. Her schoolmates, however, said she was away in North
Carolina visiting their sick grandmother for a week, so no one was shocked. The only oversight they noted was the fact that Patricia didn’t tell her classmates. They thought that was strange.
When a week passed and then another, the neighbors began to wonder. They had also noticed that the lights were on day and night at the List house. That seemed out of the ordinary because John List was very frugal. If he was going to be away, why hadn’t he used timers?
Patricia’s drama coach was extremely concerned. When he called her, there was never any answer, and he toyed with the idea of approaching the house to ask for her. Would she still be visiting in North Carolina? Why hadn’t she called?
Then the neighbors began to notice that the lights on in the house were going out at an uneven pace. They were simply burning out. The neighbors went to the police one after the other to report the odd phenomenon.
December 7, 1971
A month later, Officer Robert J. Bell went to the old mansion with the drama coach, Illiano, and another cop to investigate. They found the kitchen window ajar and entered. Then they gasped when they caught the stench. It was the hideous odor of death. Coughing and covering their faces, they surveyed the scene.
The place was disheveled, but there were notes scribbled on ripped-up pieces of lined paper taped everywhere. A file cabinet had instructions for their accountant. The cops sent Illiano home and called upon retired police officer, George Zhelesnick, and his partner, Charles Haller to investigate further.
Then they found the bodies—inside sleeping bags—loaded with caked-up blood. They removed the cloths from the victims’ faces. There were expressions of horror on each face. One officer went downstairs and found the body of the family dog—Tinkerbell—he had starved to death.
There was a letter placed on the old desk in the study. It was addressed to his pastor and rambled on for five pages. Much of it was replete with guilt for what he had done, but made excuses for his evil behavior, and almost implied that God was required to forgive him.
In part, it said he was especially concerned about his daughter, saying:“She was so determined to get into acting that I was fearful as to what they might do to her continuing to be Christian. I’m sure they wouldn’t have helped.”
List also admitted he wasn’t going to be able to continue to support his family, like a good Christian man when he wrote: “I wasn’t earning anywhere near enough to support us. True, we could have gone bankrupt and gone on welfare, but that brings me to my next point. Knowing the type of location what one would have to live in if they were poor, plus a bad environment for the children, plus the effect on them knowing they were on welfare was just more than I thought they could and should endure.”
Then the last line pathetically read: “P.S. Mother is in the attic—third floor. She was too heavy to move.” Upon reading that, an officer ran upstairs, and viewed Alma’s body with its grotesquely open mouth. There were pieces of rotted flesh and dried blood all over her frightening face.
That was the epithet List left for his own mother—the woman who gave birth to him, the woman who raised and cared for him: “She was too heavy to move.”
After he left New Jersey, List took a train to Michigan from Kennedy Airport. Then he moved to Colorado. In Denver, he assumed an alias, “Robert Clarke,” who was once a college roommate of his. There he took a job as a comptroller. That’s where he met his second wife, Delores Miller.
Word has it that he has children by that marriage. The family then moved back to Michigan and then to Virginia. In Virginia, he rejoined the Lutheran Church, attended services regularly, and served in various charitable capacities in the congregation. His fellow Lutherans admired him.
List was successfully able to hide his identity from authorities for eighteen years. In 1989, his grisly crimes and mysterious disappearance was discussed on the crime show, America’s Most Wanted. The producers hired a forensic artist to predict his age-progressed appearance as it might appear then.
All of New Jersey knew of the nefarious crime, and never forgot it. After his age-progressed bust appeared in the newspapers, he was recognized. The police in Richmond, Virginia, arrested him at home, while his new wife stood aside dumbfounded.
List’s identity was confirmed through fingerprints. He was then extradited to New Jersey.
List initially denied having been wanted murderer, but in February of 1990, List finally confessed to the heinous crimes. After that confession he added that he had a post-traumatic stress disorder. He indicated he wasn’t responsible for the murders because of his psychological limitations.
“I feel that because of my mental state at the time, I was unaccountable for what happened,” he told the judge.
The court had no sympathy for him. In fact, at the sentencing, the judge said, “John Emil List is without remorse and without honor.”
His new wife, Dolores, claimed she had no inkling about his evil past and was horrified. “That was not the man I knew,” she told the court. She is now in the Witness Protection Program.
List was sentenced to five consecutive life terms and died in prison in March of 2008. He was a man without remorse and no one had remorse for him.