John List lived in a mansion in New Jersey with his wife, three kids and his cranky old mother. He was well known around town as a respected accountant and a very religious man that attended church with his darn near perfect family every week.
Then one day, they all just disappeared.
A nosy neighbor finally called the authorities, because no one had seen a single member of the List family for weeks, which was strange enough, but on this particular day there was a stranger trying to break into the house. When the cops arrived they learned that the ‘burglar’ was actually a school teacher trying to find out about one of his prize pupils that had just up and vanished.
The cops decided to break in through a window and see what was what and were met immediately with a very unpleasant odor. They followed the sound of faint music passing by a large room. Once there, they discovered Mrs. List and her three teenage children. They had each been shot in the back of the head and a cloth had been placed over their faces.
The officers, totally baffled at this point, continued to follow the sound of the music and started up the stairs. Much to their chagrin, another body lay rotting on the floor. Like the others, she too had been murdered, but the elderly woman had taken her death shot face on, the bullet entering just above her left eye. Her head too was covered with a piece of cloth.
Then they found ‘a note’, addressed ‘to the finder.’ The officer opened it. It told where several documents could be found that would give explanation of the scene they had just discovered and they were all written by John List, the man of the house and the only person missing from the murderous scene.
The first document went to his employer and the rest were addressed to other members of their families. In them, he told why he had done what he had done.
His explanation was pretty simple. It was all about money. This man of such great faith couldn’t live being poor. Because he had lost his job he feared that his family would become unhappy! And, if he could not provide enough to keep them all happy, in a certain, obviously privileged lifestyle, then they would have to be dead.
The last letter went to the priest. It assured the man that, although the scene may appear brutal and bloody, all had gone peacefully and that he (John) did his best to make sure his youngest had not suffered long and that he had put him (the child) out of his misery as quickly as he could after the struggle. “I got down and prayed after each one.”
And so the story ended. John List went missing. The case went cold.
That is until 18 years later and America’s Most Wanted TV show brought the John List Massacre mystery into thousands of homes across America. A sculptor was brought in and a clay-mold face of what John List might look like, nearly twenty years after the fact, was shown to the program viewers.
Ironically enough, John List and his ‘wife’ were watching the program. And so were some friends of “Robert Clark’s” in Colorado. When the clay face came out, Robert’s friends thought it a rip and a tear how much their ‘accountant’ friend, the one who had just moved to Virginia along with his wife, looked like the man on the screen. But one friend did not find it all that humorous and he called the show. “Robert” (John List) was arrested eleven days later. He was charged with five murders! He tried the insanity route, but that didn’t fly. He got 5 life sentences.
Thirty years after the fact, John List (76 at the time) finally told his story in full. It came down to the fact that he ‘wanted to spare them (his family) the shame of losing their New Jersey mansion and to make sure they got to heaven.’ In an interview he explained how financial hardships worried him and he feared his family would turn away from their faith. He said these worries ‘forced’ him to make the decision he did.
“I finally decided the only way to save them from that was to kill them,” he said.
So, on November 9th, 1971, with his mind made up, and obviously justified in his head, John saw the three children off to school then politely returned to the house to murder his wife and his mother by shooting them.
He went to the post office to stop the mail, cashed in his mother’s savings bonds and returned home. He made calls to several people stating that the family was going to North Carolina to see his wife’s mother then sat down to eat some lunch. “I was hungry,” he explained in the interview. “That’s just the way it was.”
He murdered each of his children, in the same fashion, as they arrived home from school. Patty, his 16 year old daughter was first, followed by his youngest son, 13-year-old Frederic and finally 15-year-old John Jr. He drug each of the children and his wife into the large ‘ballroom’ and laid them near each other in the center of the floor. He then covered their faces with pieces of cloth. He wrote his letters and then he showered and slept.
For the next eighteen years, he would live under the assumed name of Robert P. Clark in another state. He would marry, join a church, make new friends and become a respected accountant in his community. (You know, kinda get on with the living part of being alive.)
After he was caught, someone asked him why he hadn’t ended his own life after heartlessly murdering the rest of his poor, unsuspecting loved ones.
“It was my belief that if you kill yourself, you won’t go to heaven,” he replied calmly.
This book is available if you would like to read more about the John List Massacre.