|March 21, 2008: John List, Westfield Murderer, Dead at 82|
|MURDERER...John List murdered his wife, Helen, 46, (right); his mother, Alma, 84, (not shown); and his three children, (left to right), Patty, 16; John, 15; and Fred, 13, on November 9, 1971 in Westfield.|
March 26, 2008:
Murders Stun Westfield In 1971
It was right out of a horror movie – or the type of terrible crime that could only happen elsewhere. But not in Westfield, N.J. Not in 1971.
In mid-December, the people of Westfield - and indeed, the entire metropolitan New York City area - awoke to newspaper headlines of the massacre of an entire family in the affluent, upper-income community.
Well, almost an entire family: The dead included Helen List, her mother-in-law Alma List, and Helen’s three teen-age children, Patty, John Jr., and Frederick. But one person was missing: John List, the head of the household, a tall, no-nonsense, often taciturn and personally foreboding accountant.
Police quickly zeroed in on John List as the killer. He had, it subsequently turned out, left a three-page letter to his minister admitting the crime.
The killings had taken place a month earlier, in November. But List was nowhere to be found. Days, weeks, and then years went by. The Westfield Police Department, however, refused to put the case down. Bernard Tracy, who was later to become the department’s chief, continuously explored every lead he could muster. Still, John List was not caught for 18 years, and only then because of the help of a national TV show – "America’s Most Wanted."
What drove this middle-aged, college educated, churchgoing man to commit such a terrible crime? He was in deep financial trouble. He couldn’t make mortgage payments. His wife , terribly ill, had contacted syphilis from her first husband, who had died in World War II. List wandered the streets because he had lost his job. . And he refused to accept "welfare," even if that meant saving his family.
List was originally from Bay City, Michigan. He moved his family to Westfield in the mid-1960s. John bought an 18-room mansion (complete with a ballroom) on Hillside Avenue. To finance the purchase, John has his mother Alma sell her house in Bay City, and move to Westfield. The house was never fully furnished.
John was a devoted churchgoer, but except for his mother, the rest of his family showed far less interest. His daughter, Patty, was active in local theater. There were rumors she was dabbling in witchcraft, which was somewhat in vogue with young people in the late 1960s and 1970s – a time of psychedelic music and anti-establishment rhetoric by young people.
John lost his job. Proud to a fault, he refused to inform his family. He would tell them he was going to work – and would then stay at the Westfield train station until it was time to "come home." On Nov. 9, 1971, John had the milk delivery and mail stopped. He told the schools he was taking the family on an emergency trip to visit Helen’s "sick mother" in North Carolina. He then shot his wife at the breakfast table, walked up to the third floor and shot his mother. He went back downstairs and dragged his wife into the empty ballroom.
In the afternoon, he picked his daughter up from school. He killed her when they .arrived home. He shot the two boys when they each came home in the afternoon. All were dragged into the ballroom.
John ate dinner and retired to bed.
He disappeared the next morning. It would later be discovered that
he had taken trains to Michigan and then Denver, where he took the
alias "Robert Clark." In Colorado, he married a women he
met at his local church.
The FBI caught up with John in 1989 through an anonymous tip. By then he was living in Virginia. The neighbor had watched an episode of "America’s Most Wanted," which featured a sculptured engraving of what John List probably looked like years after the murders. List, a fan of the show, had missed that episode.
Extradited to New Jersey, List was convicted and is now serving a life sentence at Trenton State Prison.
The List case still baffles criminologists. So many questions remain, from the big ones – "How could he do it?" – to smaller details, such as, "What happened to the family’s dog, Tinkerbelle?" The List house mysteriously burned down sometime after the murders. Along with the fire went perhaps the biggest irony of all: The glass ceiling in the empty ball room was a signed Tiffany original. That alone would likely have paid off all of John List’s debts. - End
Editor's Note: Sadly, the reach of John List's horror seems to have no end. On December 18, 2012: The author of this article, Katherine Halverson, committed Murder and Suicide.
By Ryan Hutchins and Seth Augenstein/The Star-Ledger