America’s Most Wanted: The Disturbing Case of John List

John List seemed to be the ideal son, husband, and father. He worked hard as an accountant at a local bank in order to provide for his family. He bought a mansion and lived there with his mother, wife, and three children. The massive house had 19 rooms, including a ballroom, stunning fireplaces, and a Tiffany skylight.

List family / John List / Newspaper Clipping / John List.
Source: YouTube

John List and his family were the definition of the American Dream in 1965; they seemed to have it all. The devout Lutherans attended church every Sunday, and List taught Sunday school. From the outside, everything looked picture-perfect. But you know what they say about perfection. It doesn’t exist.

Beneath the surface, almost nothing was as it seemed. This is the disturbing story of America’s Most Wanted’s John List.

A Good Christian Boy

On September 17, 1925, John List was welcomed into the world in Bay City, Michigan, to his parents, John Fredrick List and Alma Barbara Florence List. He was the only child of the deeply religious household. His father taught at a Sunday school in Bay City.

A still of John List during an interview.
Source: YouTube

John had a rather normal childhood and didn’t show any signs of psychological troubles. He wasn’t one of those creepy kids who would kill animals for fun. However, he was a loner; he didn’t like social situations and didn’t have many friends in school.

Getting Hitched

John List met Helen Morris Taylor, a young widow of a man who died in the Korean war. She had a little girl from her first marriage, and a few months later, they began dating. Although Helen’s wife was a widow, being a single mother was considered taboo at the time. John hid the relationship from his family… until Helen told him that she was pregnant.

A picture of John List with his family.
Source: YouTube

As a strict Lutheran, List proposed to Helen as soon as she revealed she was having his baby. Not getting married wasn’t even an option for the religious man. They tied the knot in December 1951, only for List to discover that Helen wasn’t even pregnant.

Settling Down

Later, they moved to California and then Detroit, where List found a job as an accountant in a local firm. Eventually, he got a well-paying job with a paper company in Michigan and settled there with his family.

An exterior shot of the List family house in Michigan.
Source: Pinterest

The couple had three children together at that point. Helen’s daughter, from her previous marriage, moved out in 1960 after she got married. By the late 1950s, the family was doing terrific financially, and he got promoted to general supervisor in the company. However, the marriage wasn’t great.

Trouble in Paradise

Helen became an alcoholic, which caused constant arguments – and a lot of resentment from John List. He felt like he was working hard to support his family, and he wasn’t being appreciated. He also felt like he was tricked into the marriage, so naturally, his rage increased. (We’ll get into the dark secrets of his marriage soon.)

A picture of Helen and the kids.
Source: YouTube

Later, List got a lucrative job at Xerox and moved his family to New York for the job. He couldn’t hold down a job for very long until he finally landed the position of vice president at a bank in New Jersey, where he and his family finally settled down. This was the longest job he held, and he invited his mother to come live in his mansion.

He Kept Getting Fired

Later, authorities found out that John kept lying to his family about his jobs. It turned out he was fired from all of them due to his “cold” demeanor and inability to socialize with his co-workers. He was too shy and even appeared disinterested in speaking to his superiors. So, basically, his lack of social skills and unfriendly nature cost him his jobs.

A dated portrait of John List.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

However, he wasn’t going to let his family think he was incompetent, so he lied. He believed that since he was unable to provide for his family, it meant he was a failure as a man. Things only got worse from there.

Spending His Days at the Train Station

In 1971, 46-year-old John List lost his job at the bank. He looked for subsequent jobs, but unfortunately, none of them worked out. He couldn’t bear the thought of telling his family that he was out of a job. They were enjoying their comfortable life, and John didn’t want to disappoint them.

An interior shot of a train at a train station.
Photo by Walter Leporati/Getty Images

So, John spent his days at the train station while pretending he was at work. In reality, he hung out there reading the newspaper and secretly took money from his mother’s bank accounts to pay the mortgage on that unnecessarily luxurious home.

Too Much Pride

Due to his pride, there was no way John would go on welfare. He refused to get any help because it would entail excruciating embarrassment in the community, and it violated the principles of self-sufficiency that he learned from his father.

A picture of John in court.
Source: Tumblr

If he was trying to make dear ol’ dad proud, he probably should have realized murder isn’t the answer. John List would later admit that it seemed like the only option, so he went through with it: he took the lives of his mother, wife, and children. Let’s get into the gruesome details.

That Fateful Day

One day in 1971, John List finally lost it. He shot and killed his wife Helen, his 16-year-old daughter Patricia, his 15-year-old son John, his 13-year-old son Fredrick, and his 85-year-old mother Alma. Not only did he take the lives of five innocent people, but they were his flesh and blood.

An exterior shot of the List family house.
Source: YouTube

They were methodically shot one by one. The first to go was Helen. List saw the children off to school and then shot her in the kitchen as she drank her morning coffee. Then he went up to the third floor and killed his mother in her bed.

They Were Shot One by One

It gets worse. As soon as Patricia got home from school, she was shot. Next was the youngest child, Fredrick. After murdering three of his family members in cold blood, John casually made himself a sandwich – just to give you an idea of his mental state (psychotic).

The victim’s portraits.
Source: Pinterest

List then closed his bank accounts and went to watch his only surviving son play soccer at his high school game. He had no idea that his siblings were dead and that he was about to meet the same tragic fate. As soon as the father-son duo got home, List shot the 15-year-old in the chest.

The Great Escape

After killing his entire family, the heartless father laid the bodies of his victims inside sleeping bags in the ballroom. However, he just left his mother’s lifeless body in her bed on the third floor. He then wrote a note to his pastor, whom he felt would understand.

An image of John’s wanted poster.
Source: Pinterest

In his letter, John List explained that he was scared that his family, confronted with a world full of evil and poverty, would turn away from God. Killing them was the only way to ensure their safe arrival in Heaven. This is some very twisted logic.

A Loooong Vacation

However, John List was not willing to suffer the earthly consequences of his horrendous actions. In an effort to throw off law enforcement, he cleaned up the crime scene. And then he used a pair of scissors to remove his face from every photo of him in the 18-room mansion. This is some horror movie sh*t.

A picture of John List.
Source: YouTube

After that, List canceled all their deliveries and called his children’s school to let their teachers know that they were going on a family vacation to North Carolina, so the kids would be absent for the next few weeks.

He Slept Soundly

He really made sure everything was taken care of, and he got all his affairs in order. Unfortunately, nobody suspected a thing. Then, in true serial killer fashion, he turned on the lights and blasted music, leaving religious melodies playing in the empty rooms of the mansion.

A photo of John, handcuffed outside court.
Source: YouTube

He slept in the house that night while his family members were all lying dead inside. The next morning, he walked out the door, never to be seen again… for 18 years.

Red Flags

An entire month went by before neighbors started wondering about the lights on and empty windows. Finally, they began to suspect that something wasn’t right at the List mansion. On December 7, 1971, police entered the house and heard the organ music playing through the speaker system.

An exterior shot of the List family house.
Source: Pinterest

Although List told everyone they were taking an extended trip to North Carolina, neighbors were concerned when they noticed that the lights in the mansion were slowly burning out… one by one. 16-year-old Patty’s drama teacher was also worried about her long absence.

Finding the Bodies

Despite List’s efforts, it would only be a matter of time before people began noticing red flags. Sadly, it took a while. When authorities saw the bodies of Helen and three children in sleeping bags, lined up side by side, they knew they had a mass murderer on their hands.

The portraits of the three children.
Source: YouTube

Helen and the children were found in the ballroom, but investigators searched the massive house for List’s mother, Alma. They found her body in the attic, the place where she was shot after receiving a kiss from her son. This story continues to feel more and more like a horror movie.

Mercy Killings

They didn’t realize they were walking into a crime scene until they found the five-page note List wrote, explaining that the bloody bodies in the ballroom were his family members, killed out of mercy. He saved the souls of his loved ones. The FBI discovered his car at Kennedy International Airport in New York City, but they couldn’t track him down. Eventually, the trail went cold.

A photograph of John List / A picture of John’s wife and children.
Source: Facebook

According to the letter that contained List’s confession, the reason he didn’t move his mother’s body into the ballroom with the rest of his victims was that her corpse was too heavy to move.

18 Years Later

Now, let’s jump ahead 18 years to 1989. New Jersey prosecutors came up with a plan. Forensic artist Frank Bender made a physical bust of how he imagined John List would have aged. List got a hawk nose, greying eyebrows, and horn-rimmed glasses.

A video still of investigators going through the case.
Source: YouTube

Psychologists believed that List would wear the same glasses he wore when he was younger to remind him of his more successful years. It turned out to be an accurate depiction of John List. On May 21, 1981, America’s Most Wanted aired the story, and 22 million viewers saw Frank Bender’s sculpture. Tips came flooding in.

America’s Most Wanted

One woman from Richmond, VA, called in with a tip claiming her neighbor, Robert Clark, had a striking resemblance to the bust she saw on TV. The tipster also revealed that her neighbor worked as an accountant and went to church. It sounded like a promising lead.

A photo of John’s sculpture / A picture of John.
Source: YouTube

Police headed to Clark’s home and spoke to his wife, whom he had met at a church event. Her story finally brought an 18-year-long mystery to an end. Robert Clark was, in fact, John List.

A Double Life

As it turned out, List changed his identity, moved to Colorado, and took on the name Robert Clark. The alias worked, so List kept the fake name when he moved to Richmond. He was living a double life, and nobody suspected a thing for almost two decades!

A picture of John arriving at court after his arrest.
Source: Pinterest

Bender seriously did an incredible job with the bust. Other than a few extra wrinkles, it looks just like him! On June 1, 1989, just nine days after the case was aired on America’s Most Wanted, police in Virginia finally arrested mass murderer John List. Initially, List denied that he was the man they were looking for. However, fingerprints don’t lie.

His New Wife Had No Idea

It’s really baffling to see how John List felt absolutely no guilt or shame over what he did. He made himself a sandwich after murdering his family, and he didn’t shed a tear. He left them all in the past and moved on, living a brand-new life under a fake name.

A dated newspaper clipping reads “Wonderful Family Of 5 Found Slain.”
Source: Pinterest

The mass murderer was an active member of his local Lutheran church and married his second wife Delores in 1985. The couple later moved to Richmond together, and Delores had no clue her husband wasn’t who he said he was, much less that he killed his whole family.

John List Goes to Trial

During his 1990 trial, his defense lawyers argued that John List suffered from PTSD as a result of his military service in WWII and Korea. Experts and psychologists, on the other hand, believed that List was going through a midlife crisis – and as the prosecution noted, that was no excuse for killing your innocent family.

A video still of John List handcuffed on his way to court.
Source: YouTube

It comes as no surprise that the jury found John List guilty. The judge sentenced him to five life terms in a New Jersey Prison. It’s nice that he’s finally in the slammer – where he belongs. But a lot of things came out in court.

A Straight Ticket to Heaven

As we know, the devoted Lutheran confessed to the murders in a letter he wrote his pastor – explaining that he did it for religious reasons. List elaborated in the five-page letter that his wife Helen had stopped going to church, and his daughter Patty wanted to become an actress. That’s when he realized they were on the wrong path and would end up going to Hell for their sins.

A portrait of John List.
Source: Tumblr

But it’s absolutely insane to think that he thought shooting them dead would be the only way they’d end up in Heaven. His elderly mother Alma didn’t turn away from God, and that’s why List killed her. He explained that the religious Christian woman wouldn’t be able to deal with the shock of the killings. Umm… you don’t need to be religious to be shocked by a mass murderer.

Keeping Secrets

When John List lost his job, the humiliated father found other jobs, but he didn’t last in other positions for very long. He had a massive mortgage over his head and didn’t know what to do. I mean, he could have gotten a smaller house. Eighteen bedrooms is excessive.

A portrait of John List.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

After pretending to work for eight hours a day and taking money from his mother, he saw himself as a failure, and the stress got to him. I can understand not telling acquaintances but hiding something this important from your family is extreme.

The Truth About His Marriage

On top of his financial woes and fearing his family would fall down the path of immortality, there was also some trouble in paradise. List’s marriage wasn’t perfect, and he’d been having problems with his wife of 20 years, Helen.

A picture of Helen List during a party.
Source: Pinterest

Sometimes in war, soldiers sleep with prostitutes, and unfortunately, they often bring home STDs to their wives. Sadly, that’s what happened with Helen. Her first husband gave her syphilis, and she passed the disease to John. Helen kept the sexually transmitted disease a secret from her deeply religious husband. He was heartbroken when he found out about Helen’s STD and her lies.

Thou Shall Not Get Divorced

Since the syphilis was so advanced in her body, it caused Helen to experience several physical and psychological issues. The mother was hospitalized a number of times due to complications from the syphilis. In order to cope, Helen began drinking heavily and abusing drugs.

A picture of John and Helen.
Source: Tumblr

She also got extremely depressed and would stay in bed for extended periods of time. All of this turmoil put a huge strain on their marriage. However, you know what the Bible says about divorce. I guess he missed the part where the Bible says, “Thou shall not kill.”

There Was a Solution to His Financial Woes

After the mansion was destroyed by arson, not much was left behind. But still, in the burnt mess on the property, investigators found the stained-glass skylight which decorated the ceiling of the ballroom. This could have been the solution to List’s financial problems.

An exterior shot of the List family house.
Source: Pinterest

The skylight, which was reportedly Louis Comfort Tiffany stained-glass, was estimated to be worth over $100,000 at the time of the murders. This meant List could have easily solved many of his family problems by selling this expensive fixture. It would have been more than enough money to prevent the home from being foreclosed. If he were smart, he would have sold it before he fled.

A Haunted Town

In 2008, John List died in prison at age 82. Several months after the bodies were found, the New Jersey mansion List and his family lived in was burned down. Police never figured out what exactly caused the fire, but years later, a new home was built on the property.

An image of the house after the fire.
Source: Facebook

The memory of those eerie murders continues to haunt the residents of Westfield today. In a 2008 interview, parents told authorities that children refuse to walk past that property and don’t even want to live on the same street. Can you blame them?

He Finally Lost It

When you look beyond the surface into the dark family secrets, it’s not so hard to put all the pieces together. First of all, he was out of a well-paying job and was no longer able to keep up with his family’s lifestyle, but he didn’t have the guts to tell them. Can you imagine how emotionally draining it must be to keep a secret like that?

A photo of John List during his arrest.
Source: YouTube

List wasn’t happy with his kids becoming teenagers and not always acting in accordance with their conservative upbringings. He also had a lot of bitterness toward his wife. He already had built up anger because she lied to him, and he couldn’t deal with the constant drinking.

See You in Hell

Eventually, he got what he deserved. However, there is something unsettling about the fact that he got away with it and lived as a free man for 18 years. During a 2002 interview with Connie Chung, List explained that the reason he didn’t kill himself after killing his own family was that he feared it would keep him out of Heaven.

A mugshot of John List.
Source: Pinterest

Many people believe that suicide is the biggest sin. All John List wanted was to reunite with his family in the afterlife, where he believed there would be no pain and suffering. Maybe the pastor should tell him that being a mass murderer may be a safe way to prevent him from going to Heaven, but what do I know?

America’s Most Wanted

The only reason John List was found after 18 years was because of America’s Most Wanted, and he wasn’t the only one. The show was created thanks to Fox owner Rupert Murdoch, whose assistant suggested the idea of a true-crime series similar to BBC’s Crimewatch.

The host of America’s Most Wanted speaks during an interview.
Source: YouTube

The British crime show featured reenactments of heinous crimes, and the hosts asked the audience to help them catch the criminals. Crimewatch aired on BBC One once a month in 1984 and wasn’t canceled until 2017. In February 1988, the first episode of America’s Most Wanted premiered.

The First Hit Series on Fox

When America’s Most Wanted debuted, Fox was still a new network – not even two years old yet. Nevertheless, the crime show became Fox’s biggest hit. Originally, it only aired on a handful of channels, but by April, America’s Most Wanted was being broadcast nationwide.

America’s Most Wanted promo shot.
Source: Pinterest

A year later, in 1989, the crime program became the first Fox series to be the most-watched show in its time slot. No one realized how successful it would become. By the time 2010 rolled around, America’s Most Wanted was watched by approximately five million households.

They Caught Their First Suspect Days After the Show Premiered

When AMW debuted on February 7, 1988, the show only aired on several Fox stations across the country. Still, on February 11, four days later, they caught their first suspect – a major win for Fox. A tip from a viewer led them to the arrest of David James Roberts, a convicted rapist and murderer who made a bold escape from prison while being transported to the hospital.

An image of David James Roberts after his arrest.
Source: YouTube

After the episode aired, dozens of calls came to the show’s tip line from people who knew Roberts as Bob Lord, just some guy working at a homeless shelter in Staten Island. The FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted fugitive was profiled on the show and was caught thanks to a viewer.

They Caught 17 of the FBI’s “Most Wanted” Criminals

The FBI is always looking for fugitives; you’d be surprised to know how many criminals are on the run. During its 25 years on air, America’s Most Wanted proved to be a huge help to the FBI. According to the FBI’s official website, “17 of the ’Ten Most Wanted Fugitives’ have been located as a direct result of tips provided by viewers of this program” – starting with David James Roberts in Episode One.

A picture of America’s Most Wanted filming set.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Honestly, the public should always be keeping an eye out! When it comes to these criminals, there is always someone out there who knows something… even if they don’t know it yet. And the show is a clear example of that.

The “Dirty Dozen”

John Walsh, criminal investigator and the creator and host of America’s Most Wanted, maintained his own “most wanted” list. However, Walsh’s list was known as America’s Most Wanted “Dirty Dozen.”

A photo of John Walsh speaking during a Governors's meeting.
Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis/Getty Images

Walsh’s list of notorious criminals would change regularly, but it consisted of fugitives who had been profiled on the show and hadn’t been captured yet. It was similar in function (but not identical) to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives. As a matter of fact, four of the Dirty Dozen were also on the FBI list.

The Hotline Number

In order to expedite the crime-solving process, the last two digits of AMW’s hotlines changed each year (for the first few years) to match the year the episode aired. For example, 1-800-Crime-88 (in 1998) and 1-800-CRIME-89 (in 1989).

A photo of America’s Most Wanted filming set in Los Angeles.
Photo by Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

The show received about 3,000 to 5,000 calls per week, on average. In 1994, the number was changed for the last time to 1-800-CRIME-TV. In June 2014, the number was shut down for good. As for the operators you saw on the show, most of them were just actors. Interestingly, they didn’t really receive prank calls.

Officers Working the Case Were on Hand

Police officers working with the case featured on the show were on hand in the call center so that any promising tips could be easily vetted and followed up on right away. According to The New York Times:

An image of John Walsh and surrounded by officers during a press conference.
Photo by George Rizer

“In the television studio, there are some 30 telephone operators to take the calls. Also on hand are police officers or federal agents directly involved in cases being aired that night. When one of the operators gets a good lead, an officer picks up the phone and asks the caller further questions.”

Turning on Their Inmate

Mark Goodman was at the end of his brief prison stint back in May 1988. He was behind bars because of a burglary conviction in Palm Beach County, Florida but was wanted somewhere else in the country for escaping federal custody following an armed robbery conviction. He and a group of his fellow inmates were watching the show when his face appeared on the screen.

An image of John Walsh giving a speech / A picture of police officers on duty at night.
Photo by Alex Wong, Getty Images / Source: Pinterest

The New York Times noted that he tried to change the channel… but it was too late. The inmates told prison guards that there was an America’s Most Wanted Fugitive in their midst. As he was being transferred to a more secure facility, the mastermind managed to escape custody again. Fortunately, he was detained the following day.