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November 9, 1971, Sunday School Teacher Murders Family, Disappears For 18 Years - Today In Crime History

On this day, November 9, in the year 1971, John Emil List slaughtered his entire family, including his mother, in their Westfield, New Jersey, home and then disappeared.  Though law enforcement quickly identified List as the most likely suspect in the homicides, it took 18 years for them to locate and arrest him.

John Emil List was an often unemployed accountant and devote Lutheran, who often taught Sunday school classes.  Outwardly List seemed like a normal and successful father.  A boy scout troop leader, List was a strict disciplinarian who insisted his children follow extremely rigid rules.

List’s family crime spree began about 9 o'clock in the morning on November 9, 1971.  Soon after sending their three children off to school, Helen List sat in the kitchen of the Westfield mansion drinking a cup of coffee.  Her husband came up behind her and put a pistol to the side of her head and fired once. She died instantly.  Next he made his way upstairs to the third floor where his 85-year old mother, Alma, was preparing breakfast in her efficiency kitchen.  He shot his mother once in her skull.  

List then called the woman who had car-pooled his sons John and Fred to Roosevelt Junior High School for the last time that morning, and made an excuse that the whole family was leaving for North Carolina the following morning because Helen's mother was extremely ill.  He promised to let her know when they returned.  Next he called his current employer, State Mutual Life Assurance Company of America, and said he wouldn't be around for a while because of a family illness out of state.  He made a few similar calls offering excuses to people who might get suspicious by the unexplained absence of his family members.   List even remembered to cancel delivery of the local newspaper and asked the Post Office to hold the family's mail until further notice.

When List’s daughter called that day from school saying she was feeling sick, he drove to school, picked her up and upon arrival at the family home murdered her.  He soon left the house to pick up his son Fred where he was working at an afternoon job.  List shot Fred as soon as he entered the family home.  Shortly after shooting Fred, his other son John entered the residence.  John, the murderer's last victim, was the only family member with multiple gunshot wounds.  The bodies of the family, except List’s mother, where all neatly arranged in a room in the home, appearing like a make shift morgue.  

Through-out the day, List wrote several letters to relatives.  He also wrote a detailed five-page letter to his church pastor explaining how and why he had to kill his family, to save their souls.  This letter is considered one of the most incredible explanatory confession letters ever written in the history of American criminal justice.

When List left the family home, he turned down the thermostat and turned on a recorder which would play the same classical music on a loop over and over till it was physically turned off.  He also turned on all the lights in the residence.  Each evening after List’s departure the house was entirely lit up inside.  By early December neighbors noticed they had begun going off, one by one.

The bodies wouldn't be discovered until December 7, 1971, 29 days after the murders.  For the next 18 years no viable trace of John List could be found by law enforcement investigators.  On May 21, 1989 the television show America's Most Wanted aired a show with a segment about John List.  Twelve days later, after viewing the segment, a citizen in Richmond, Virginia, called detectives saying her neighbor, “Robert Clark”, a local church going accountant looked like John List.  Law enforcement officials went to the home of “Robert Clark” and confronted his stunned wife, whom he had met at a church social.  They arrested John List at his office on June 1, 1989.   Fingerprints confirmed that he was John List, although he had denied it.  As a fugitive, List had lived undetected in Virginia and in the Denver area for eighteen years.

In pretrial motions, List’s criminal defense attorney argued that the letter to his pastor should be kept confidential and not used as evidence in his jury trial.  The trial judge ruled that the letter was admissible as evidence.  The criminal defense lawyer also argued that List’s judgment had been significantly impaired by post-traumatic stress disorder from military service in World War II.   A psychiatrist for the prosecution testified that List had been suffering only from a “midlife crisis” when he murdered his family and that he had enjoyed life in the years afterward.

Ultimately, John List was convicted of five counts of murder and sentenced to five consecutive life terms in prison.  List died at age 82 on March 21, 2008, while in prison custody.  His body was not immediately claimed, though he was later buried next to his mother in Frankenmuth, Michigan.

Sources and more information:

New York Times - “John E. List, 82, Killer of 5 Family Members, Dies”

John Emil List, Murderpedia.org

“Westfield's notorious killer John List is dead” - nj.com

Wikopedia - John List

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