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The First Case Solved by America's Most Wanted: John List

Written by: Jenae

Trigger warning: family violence, death of children

Crime scene photos will be hyperlinked, nothing graphic will be shown in the article. Please click at your own risk!


Married with three children, John List seemed to lead the normal American life. He was an accountant, had intelligent children, and the whole family attended Lutheran church services once a week. In 1971, this all changed.

The List Family

John List was born in Michigan in 1925. He was an only child that was raised in a strict Lutheran home. List held onto these values into his adulthood. At the ripe age of 18, List enlisted in the military to fight in WWII. After this, he went on to higher education, completing both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. Shortly after this, List enlisted once again to fight in the Korean War. While on base in Virginia, List met his wife, Helen. They were married in 1951. As time went on, it became clear that Helen was an alcoholic. Over the years, John and Helen had three children, Patricia, John Jr., Frederick.

The List family home

In 1965, the List family moved to Westfield, NJ. John List also moved his mother in with the family. This move was prompted by a job offer given to List where he was offered the position of vice president and comptroller of a bank in New Jersey. Upon moving, List bought a 19-room Victorian mansion. Many of the rooms in this home went unused and even unentered for the six years that List lived in the home.

In 1971, List secretly quit his job and began to spend days at the train station reading the newspaper. No one knew John quit his job and he began stealing money from his 85-year-old mother’s bank account to pay the bills. Although he was not working, he refused to sign up for welfare or any government assistance because he felt this was an embarrassing act and diminished the values his father taught him as a child.

On November 9th, 1971, List shot his whole family. He shot his wife and two of his children in the back of the head. He shot his mother in the eye at close range. Then he made a sandwich, went to his son’s soccer game, brought him home, then shot him in the chest. List then placed all bodies except for his mother’s in a the ballroom of the home, turned on the air conditioning, turned on all lights in the home, cut his face from all photos in the home, and fled. Before fleeing, he wrote a note to his pastor confessing to the murders. The bodies of the List family would not be discovered for over a month. The motive for the crime came from his religious background, he felt his family was straying further from God and saw murder as the solution because this would ensure their space in heaven. Upon finding the bodies, the police also found the confession note. The FBI were able to find List’s car parked at JFK airport but they did not find List with the car and found no trace of where List was headed.

Bust created by Frank Bender

List after his capture

List evaded capture for 18 years, then police got creative. Police enlisted the help of forensic artist Frank Bender to create a bust of John List and what he’d look like in 1989. He was able to do this by analyzing photos of List’s parents. This sculpture was featured on an episode of America’s Most Wanted within its first year on TV. 22 million people watched the episode that included the bust upon its airing. Tips flooded in, but one that was particularly helpful came from a woman in Virginia. This tip stated that her neighbor looked like the bust. Police then went to question the man, Robert Clark. Robert Clark turned out to be John List, using a different name and leading a new life, including a new wife and the same type of job. List was sent to trial in 1990 and was sentenced to life. In interviews, List stated that he didn’t kill himself because that would not be right in the eyes of God. List died in prison in 2008, at the age of 82.

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