The case of John List

Born in 1925 in a conservative Lutheran family, single child John List was a fairly shy, odd and obsessed with military books child from Michigan. His mother, Alma was overprotective and dominating that would forbid him to go outside and play with the other children because he might get sick. His play times were replaced with gatherings around the fire and reading the Bible with his mother. His father was a cold, joyless, the party pooper of the neighbourhood type of individual. His relationship with John was cold, loveless and very religiously strict. During the WWII he worked as a lab technician and at the end of the war, he enrolled at the University of Michigan where he gained a bachelor’s degree in business administration and later on, a master’s degree in accounting.

The Korean war in 1950 called John back to active duty at Fort Eustis in Virginia. There he met Helen Taylor (the window of an infantry officer) and married her in December 1951. John and Helen had three children, Patricia, Frederick and John Jr. Their marriage begun very well but with time, it deteriorated due to Helen’s alcohol problems and mental issues. The family moved to the East Coast where John got a job as the vice president of a bank in a New Jersey. That was the moment where everything started spiralling and led to the downfall of the List family. They bought a Victorian mansion called ‘Breeze Knoll’ and moved in together with John’s aging mother, Alma. The mansion had 19 bedrooms and a ballroom completed by a Tiffany stained glass skylight.

John continued his religious customs and attended church with his family every Sunday where he was a Sunday school teacher as well. On the outside, the family seemed to do so well, living in a beautiful mansion and an opulent life. On the inside, things were slightly different. After a while, John had lost his job at the bank followed by the losing of numerous jobs. This was explained by John’s lack of social skills and rigid personality. Work colleague described him as being an extremely cold individual and just altogether unlikeable. In that moment, John decided to hide his job situation from his family, and he would continue to ‘go to work’ as usual. He would go to the train station where he would spend his time reading and trying to find a solution for the financial hardship him and his family were in.

His wife’s mental health continued deteriorating and the reason behind it was a late-stage syphilis contracted from her first husband. To make things worse, she hid this from her second husband, John. Helen also stopped attending the church, this constitutes another triggering factor for what John was about to do. With an extremely moralistic personality, John wasn’t too pleased with his children’s behaviour either. His daughter, Patricia had an outspoken desire to become and actress John found himself calling her a ‘slut’ multiple times just because she had friends and a social life.

On November 9, 1971, after giving his children a lift to school, John loaded his two guns (a 9 mm Steyr 1912 and a Colt. 22 Revolver) in the car. He then walked back in the house and saw his wife Helen drinking her coffee. He proceeded to shot her in the back of the head.

After that, he went upstairs where he saw the 84 years old Alma (his mother) eating breakfast. He kissed her for one last time and then shot her in the head. An interesting fact was that after killing them two, John went to the post office where he stopped the family’s mail and called the children’s schools to explain that they will be gone for a while to visit Helen’s ill mother in South Carolina. Then, he went back home where he dragged Helens dead body into the ball room, cleaned the blood from the kitchen floor and then made lunch for himself.

***WARNING!  Some of the photos included below are actual crime scene footage and are GRAPHIC. If you do not wish to see these photos, please stop here***

When Patricia (16) and Frederick (13) arrived home from school, John shot them in the head as they entered the house. But things were a bit different when it came to his favourite child, John Jr..  The father went to his son’s school and watched him play a game of soccer and then he drove him home. He then shot John Jr. in the face and chest multiple times until he emptied both of his guns. He moved all the bodies, apart from his mothers in the ballroom (placed on sleeping bags), he wrote a letter to his pastor and then cut himself out of every family photo in the house (to avoid easy identification by police authorities). He then turned down the thermostat, played some classical using the intercom so it would play in the entire house, turned the lights on and then left.

After a while, the church, school and family friends begun to wonder what had happened with the family due to the excuses John gave to them. So, Patricia’s drama teacher along with another teacher got suspicious and went to the house to investigate. When the neighbours saw two women snooping around, called the police. That’s when the bodies were found, 29 days later, on the 7th of December. The police found the decomposing bodies paired with the classical music playing in the house. They later described the scene as one from the horror movies or nightmares.

As psychiatrist Michael Stone presents it, the hypocrisy machinery went in to full gear when John decided to write that letter to his pastor, fact that tipped off the police and started a nationwide manhunt, with no success. In his letter, John explained the reasons for the murders. He claimed that the 1970’s were sinful years and that his children were already succumbing to temptation, especially his daughter’s desire to become an actress which John saw as linked with Satan. John claimed that by killing them before they renounced their faith, he ensured their place in heaven.

After his departure, John changed his name to that of a Robert Clark, a student he once met at University. He then remarried and begun a new life in Virginia.  He married another army widow called Dolores Miller and worked as an accountant. An interesting fact about his new life, is that he made the exact same choices as he did in the ‘previous one’. He lived free until his capture 18 years later. The forensic artist, Frank Bender created a clay bust of what he imagined John List would look at 65 years of age. This image was showed on the tv program America’s Most Wanted. A week later, someone recognised him and called the police. This led to his arrest on the 1st of May 1989. John was convicted on 5 counts of 1st degree murder and imposed a sentence of five terms of life imprisonment served consequently. John then tried to appeal on the grounds that he suffered PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder) from the WWII & the Korean War. His appeal was rejected, and he died of pneumonia at the age of 82 in March 2008.

The mansion was burned to the ground by arsonists in 1972. This destroyed everything, including the Tiffany skylight that was estimated to be worth over $100.00 in 1971 (equivalent to $570.000 now) which would have been more than enough to save the family’s financial problems.

Psychological Profile

If we have a look at the general psych profile of a family annihilators (my previous post), we will see the representative traits that constitutes this kind of individual. Not surprisingly, John List checks almost all the features that represent a family annihilator.

John List was a middle age man (a bit over the age span in the family annihilator’s general profile) and came from a reputable family. He was also educated and had a good job. No previous convictions or stains on his record. He did not break the law, nor had any encounter with the police.  He was also perceived as a hard-working, dedicated father and husband. John had relationship issues with his wife, Helen. He felt betrayed by her hiding the syphilis problem and, most of all, by her stopping the attendance to church. He also had issues with maintaining employment, presented depressive attitudes and narcissistic traits (Karlson et al, 2019). Psychiatrist Michael Stone described John List as an individual (not fully psychopathic) that killed people ‘In the way’. When he realised that the does not have the means to feed 6 mouths, de decided that 5 had to go.

Forensic Psychologist, Dr Clarissa Cole describes John List as a narcissistic individual that was afraid and terrified of being a public disappointment. He saw that as being worse than death itself and not just for him, but for his entire family too. Due to his narcissistic tendencies, he thought that what he felt, they must have felt too. This, along with the unyielding rigid belief system, completed the puzzle and created the perfect family annihilator. Cole stated that Joh List was not only obsessive compulsive, but he suffered of delusional zealotry. He claimed that he killed them in order to save them from the falling away from faith and public embarrassment. He then said that he did not commit suicide after (like most family annihilators do) because that would stop him from going to heaven. This way, he repented after the murders and still had a chance to go to heaven and see his family.

If we look at Yardley, Wilson and Lynes studies, we can place John List in at least two separate categories, or it could be a combination of them. He could be considered to be part of the disappointed killer’s category where he was let down by his family, especially the spouse. When Helen failed to tell him about her syphilis, when she became an alcoholic and stopped going to church, John List viewed her differently.  He was unhappy with the choices that his children made that were not according with his religious customs. As a result, he killed his family in order to keep his and ‘their’ reputation intact.

John list shows traits of the anomic killer’s category as well. His family represented his economic success but with his employment issues and inability to maintain a job, the family stopped serving that function.Another category that could be definitive for this case, is the paranoid killer. John saw public embarrassment and lack of financial status as a threat. Also, he saw his children failing to keep up with the strict religious customs. This was also perceived as an outside threat. Based on his letter for his church pastor, John claimed that he killed them in order to save them.

Either way, John List could have been a combination of all these categories. Along with a rigid system of beliefs, narcissistic tendencies, psychopathic traits and a history of depression John List checked all the traits that made him a family annihilator.

Yet the question remains. Was John List motivated by a genuine care for his family or just a psychopath that wanted to get rid of the people ‘in the way’?

I guess, we will never truly know..



ro_RORomanian en_GBEnglish