Death Sentence: The Inside Story of the John List Murders

Death Sentence: The Inside Story of the John List Murders

by Joe Sharkey


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The true account of the man who murdered his family in their New Jersey mansion—and eluded a nationwide manhunt for eighteen years.

Until 1971, life was good for mild-mannered accountant John List. He was vice president of a Jersey City bank and had moved his mother, wife, and three teenage children into a nineteen-room home in Westfield, New Jersey. But all that changed when he lost his job. Raised by his Lutheran father to believe success meant being a good provider, List saw himself as an utter failure. Straining under financial burdens, the stress of hiding his unemployment, as well as the fear that the free-spirited 1970s would corrupt the souls of his children, List came to a shattering conclusion.
“It was my belief that if you kill yourself, you won’t go to heaven,” List told Connie Chung in a television interview. “So eventually I got to the point where I felt that I could kill them. Hopefully they would go to heaven, and then maybe I would have a chance to later confess my sins to God and get forgiveness.”
List methodically shot his entire family in their home, managing to conceal the deaths for weeks with a carefully orchestrated plan of deception. Then he vanished and started over as Robert P. Clark. Chronicling List’s life before and after the grisly crime, Death Sentence exposes the truth about the accountant-turned-killer, including his revealing letter to his pastor, his years as a fugitive with a new name—and a new wife—his eventual arrest, and the details of his high-profile trial.
Revised and updated, this ebook also includes photos.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504049498
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 01/16/2018
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 355,447
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Joe Sharkey was a weekly columnist for the New York Times for nineteen years. Previously, he was an assistant national editor at the Wall Street Journal and a reporter and columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer. The author of four books of nonfiction and one novel, Sharkey is currently an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Arizona. He and his wife live in Tucson.

Read an Excerpt

Death Sentence

The Inside Story of the John List Murders

By Joe Sharkey

Openroad Integrated Media

Copyright © 1990 Joe Sharkey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-4175-1


On two occasions in 1971, John List came to the Westfield, New Jersey, police station — once at the behest of the police, and once on his own initiative. John, you see, was a worried man, and these were worrisome times as the Vietnam War raged and the younger generation rose up to confront its elders over matters such as war and peace, conformity and white middle class social contentment, and sex. And oh yes, there was always the matter of sex when John braced his prim self against the effrontery of these young, and that certainly included his headstrong sixteen-year-old daughter Patricia, a teenage girl who ushered the whole raging concupiscent cyclone of the early 1970s through the door with her every time she came home.

The first time John went to the police station that year was at two-thirty in the morning on a sultry summer day. Patricia, a pretty and vivacious girl who was called Patty by her family and Pat by her friends, had been stopped by a patrol car and brought in to headquarters in the municipal building on the park in Westfield, a comfortable little town of 33,000 so serenely bourgeois that film crews from Manhattan ad agencies often employed it, with its stately Victorian homes and its Norman Rockwell downtown, as a stand-in for Pastoral Small Town America, though it is just twenty-five miles on the train line southwest of New York City.

At the police station, Pat was being held in the company of a girlfriend. The girls' offense had been to be out walking downtown after midnight, smoking cigarettes and giggling while they strolled. In suburban towns such as Westfield, walking the sidewalks after hours was an activity looked upon with suspicion and even alarm, given anxieties about "the younger generation" fueled by the antiwar movement and the much-hyped hippie culture. The shops are closed! What possible legitimate reason could there be for walking around downtown! And so the girls found themselves in custody, in tears, waiting for their fathers to come down in the middle of the night and pick them up.

The father of Pat's friend showed up somewhat annoyed, both at his daughter for slipping out of the house late at night and at the police for taking her into custody rather than simply driving her home and knocking on the front door to say here she is.

Pat's father, on the other hand, showed up in a red-faced, tight-lipped fury directed at his daughter.

"Look at yourself!" he snarled at the red-eyed girl.

"But we were just —"

"Shut your smart mouth!"

But the excessive level of anger directed at a weeping teenage girl isn't what the police found most remarkable about John List four months later, when they had real cause to recall the man under far more dire circumstances. Many fathers would be at least irritated, if not quite so angry, under such circumstances.

No, what they remembered was that John List, who had obviously been asleep when the night sergeant phoned to report that his daughter was being held in the police station, showed up in a suit and tie, smelling faintly of after-shave lotion.

"Who gets up and puts on a suit, with a white shirt and tie, at two-thirty in the morning?" the police chief at the time, James Moran, recalled wondering the next morning when an officer mentioned it to him casually.

"Oh, I know the guy," said another cop, a man who drove a patrol car. "The guy lives in a big house up on Hillside Avenue. I've seen him out there mowing his lawn in a suit and tie."

Four months later, when Chief Moran arrived at the horrific crime scene where the bodies of John List's wife and three teenage children all lay in grisly display on the ballroom floor, with his mother slain on the third floor of the family home on Hillside Avenue, that was what he recalled about the head of the List household. The guy in the suit and tie, he did this.

The memory of the night at the police station would trouble the teenage girl for all of the little time she had left to live. Although Pat seldom mentioned her family life to friends — "We were preoccupied with being hip," one of them, Eileen Livesey, recalled. "It just wasn't hip to talk about your family" But Pat did tell another friend about being brought in by the police and taken home by her father that night.

"She was frightened, not of the cops but of her father," that friend, who had a budding teenage romantic relationship with Pat — though he said she never let it go beyond petting in the back seat of his 1967 Mustang — remarked. "Not just 'Boy, I'm-in-trouble-now' frightened, but really scared of the guy. She believed her father truly hated her."

John didn't speak to his daughter in the old Chevy that night as he drove the mile back to the house on Hillside Avenue in the most affluent section of town. That wasn't unusual, however. John had almost completely stopped speaking to his daughter several months earlier, after he had told her he strongly disapproved of her friends, whom he called hippies; her attitude, which he decided had become rebellious; her tight jeans, which he said made her look like a "cheap slut"; and her aspiration to have a career in the theater, which he considered sinful.

Despite the hour, John slammed the car door when he parked in the drive that curved behind the big old Victorian house. Once inside, he made enough of a commotion to wake the entire household, which, besides John and his daughter, consisted on that night of Helen List, John's forty-six-year-old wife; their two teenage sons, John Jr., fifteen, and Frederick, thirteen; Alma List, John's eighty-four-year-old mother; and Eva Morris, Helen's mother, who was on an extended family visit and would depart for North Carolina by the end of the month, a happenstance that would save her life.

John, a taciturn man who seldom raised his voice, even when severely provoked, began berating his daughter in the center hall that dominated the interior of the nineteen-room house.

"You are out of control!" he shouted at the girl.

"But Daddy, we were only —"

"You are going straight to hell, and there is nothing I can do about it!"

For a second, she told her friend later, she was afraid he would slap her across her face, although John had never raised a hand to his children. Pat held her ground silently, without defiance.

"There is nothing I can do! You leave me with no choie!" John shouted with a note of finality.

On either side of the center hall was a grand staircase that curved up to a landing on the second floor. A large amber chandelier hung from the ceiling high above the hall. On the second floor, the noise had drawn Helen from her bedroom to the railing, where she stood in her nightgown. Down the hall, the boys huddled with their grandmother Eva. Above, on the landing outside her apartment on the third floor, which was accessible by a single staircase behind a door on the right, John's mother also was awake, watching quietly from the shadows.

"I'm sorry, Daddy," Pat was pleading downstairs. As the girl started up the steps, Helen moved into the light to wait for her.

"Slut!" John shouted at Pat, a modest, shy girl who trembled at the insult. In the past, her father had been verbally abusive — "Brat!" was a frequent insult in her adolescent years — but only recently had he begun hurling imprecations based on the girl's budding sexuality. A month earlier, when he caught her going out the door on a hot and humid Saturday afternoon wearing a thin cotton T-shirt bearing a peace symbol and the words "Make Love Not War," he had braced her in the hall and violently ripped the shirt off in spasms of rage, leaving her crying hysterically as she covered her breasts and ran for the stairs, her neck bruised by his forceful tugging at the collar.

Helen, who had been seriously ill, put her arms around Pat as the girl reached the top of the stairs. Hugging, they stood frozen on the landing

"Sluts!" John raged from below, pointing a finger of accusation now at both his daughter and his wife. "Sluts! Dirty, filthy sluts!"

John suddenly turned his back and stormed into a small room at the front of the house that he used as an office. He turned the radio on loudly to the classical music station WQXR-FM and sat at his desk chair, staring downward. A Haydn piano sonata wafted through the space, but his calm was soon shattered by rock music. Upstairs, Pat had put her new Doors album on her turntable, as she called it — record player, as he insisted.

Jim Morrison's baleful lyrics repeated from upstairs in the harmonic two-tone incantation of a police siren while a tinkling electric piano teased the virtuosic arpeggios of the Haydn down below. John pressed his palms against his ears, but "Riders on the Storm" imposed itself impudently till he could stand it no more and fled, his brain squirming with silent protest, to the billiard room a floor below.

John did not sleep upstairs that night. Instead he retired, as he often did in those days, to a room that he insisted on calling the "billiard room," even though it hadn't seen a billiard table for many years before the Lists bought the house six years earlier.

The room, which was just under the ballroom in a wing on the left side of the house, was furnished meagerly, with a cot, a table and lamp, some chairs, and a number of bookshelves on which John stored some of the things that gave him comfort as his troubles reached the point in 1971 when he decided to deal with them decisively.

These comforts included books, the most important of which was the Bible which he read every night, often with his mother in the sancrtuary of her apartment on the third floor. There also was a collection of murder mysteries and books on unsolved crimes. There were some framed photographs: John and the boys in their Cub Scout uniforms; Mother pushing the infant Patty in a stroller in a long-gone happier time; Helen, beautiful and alluring, in the years before she became ill. He also had a large collection of military-strategy board games, low-tech precursors to virtual reality war games, stacked on bookshelves. When he got out of the army after the Korean War, John had developed an avid interest in these complex board games, which demanded progressive degrees of skill and cunning over many hours of play. Many of the games had World War II themes, with names like Third Reich and Russian Front. John, when he played with an opponent, always took the German side in these. Others were based on the Civil War, including one of his favorites, Bull Run, which required tactical skill in recreating the First Battle of Bull Run. In that battle, according to the manufacturer's description of the game, "Both armies had the strange and fascinating task of defending on one flank while attacking on the other."

There was one other item in the room worthy of note, a calendar. John had recently scrawled a thick red circle around a date in November. In the summer of 1971, John had decided, the time had come to augment his ongoing defense against a tormenting world with a surprise attack. He could not yet decide whether that attack would be classified as tactical or strategic in nature.

In games and in life, John liked to think that he played by the rules. This accounts for his second visit to the Westfield police station, less than two months later, in October. He came to be fingerprinted for a firearms registration application, in preparation for buying a handgun in New Jersey. "Home protection" was the reason he gave.

Three weeks after that, John would confront his wife and daughter once again. This time, he would have a gun in his hand. And when it was done, he would take no prisoners. Except for John List himself, there wouldn't be any survivors.


Along with all of the terrible things, Brenda remembered some good ones, such as ice fishing on the Saginaw River with the man she called Daddy.

Like many happy childhood memories, this one undoubtedly benefited from a degree of melancholy hindsight. But it says something about the kind of father John List once had tried to be that the sole child who did not die at his hands — actually, she was a stepdaughter, and she was grown and married by the time of the murders — could summon a loving picture of him from the 1950s, despite what happened in 1971.

John was no fisherman. An occasional stroll down the block or a Saturday trip to the zoo was the closest the man usually got to nature. But he understood the role of father and, in the early years at least, he worked diligently at playing it, even if it meant sitting on a frozen river with a line in his hands, not knowing what he would do if he pulled it up with a fish on the hook. John didn't even like to eat cooked fish. He was quite certain he wouldn't want to touch a living one.

There were regular wintertime family visits with Helen, Brenda, and infant Patty to his widowed mother in Bay City, Michigan, a town beside the frozen river that widens into Saginaw Bay a few miles downstream. He would bundle up Brenda and take her to a place where, for a couple of dollars, they would rent tackle and a couple of folding chairs to sit and fish beside a hole cut through the ice.

Before they left the house, both John and Brenda would be subject to the inspection of John's mother, Alma, a tall, white-haired woman with formal bearing who would make sure their scarves were tucked in and boots were laced up before sending them off with an exasperated admonition delivered in a German-accented voice: "You vill catch your death of cold!"

On these occasions, while John and Brenda were out fishing, Helen, a North Carolina girl who had no love whatsoever for the cold, would stay behind in Alma's house on Wenona Avenue. But the two women wouldn't spend the day together. From the day John first brought his wife back home to meet Mother during Christmas of 1951, Alma had regarded her daughter-in-law with disdain that her frosty manner scarcely concealed.

When John and Brenda would return (without fish) in the late afternoon after a few hours on the river, Alma would usually be bustling in the kitchen, preparing the sort of heavy German dinner that she insisted could ward off winter ills. Patty, whom the grandmother adored, would be amusing herself contentedly nearby in the playpen. Helen would be upstairs in the guest room, reading a book in solitude.

"That woman is on the remake," Alma once said of Helen to a close friend. She meant "rebound." Rolling her eyes, she added, "and with a ten-year-old child from a previous marriage!

"With his education, the intelligence he has, my Chonny," Alma lamented, "could have done so much better."

Helen, a woman always sensitive to a slight, responded to her mother-in-law's disapproval by shutting the old woman out of her life as much as was possible for someone married to a man who was referred to all of his life as a "mama's boy." Within a few years, after the two other children, John and Frederick, were born, Helen would consider herself sufficiently estranged from Alma that she didn't feel compelled to exchange more than a few civil words with the woman when they were together. After a while, Helen simply refused to accompany John, or to let him take the children, on his visits to his mother.

As a result, early in his marriage, John was already finding himself torn between these two women — a protective mother whose approval he had basked in all of his life and a resentful wife whose approval he couldn't seem to get, no matter how he tried to win it — or even buy it.

It was one of the many conflicts that he would ultimately settle, over the course of one long and bloody day, with a stunning finality that would cause those who knew him, or thought they did, to wonder which clues they had missed that might have indicated just how deep and dangerous was the anger that raged below the calm, well-mannered surface of John List.

In fact, there no apparent clues at all.

No one could have guessed, because no one alive really got close enough to see how tightly the spring was coiled.

John Emil List was born in Bay City, Michigan, on September 17, 1925, to John Frederick and Alma Marie List. At sixty-four, John's father was twenty-six years older than Alma, whom he had married one year earlier, after his first wife died of cancer. With his first wife, John Frederick had had a son, William George, who happened to be the same age as Alma. John Frederick had met Alma when he hired her as a live-in registered nurse to care for his terminally ill first wife.


Excerpted from Death Sentence by Joe Sharkey. Copyright © 1990 Joe Sharkey. Excerpted by permission of Openroad Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Death Sentence: The Inside Story of the John List Murders 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Mahuenga More than 1 year ago
The step-by-step story of John List, who murdered his family and evaded capture for about twenty years. (His story was profiled in the early seasons of America’s Most Wanted, which led to his capture). The careful attention to detail made me feel that I was there, walking through his house, and then the aftermath of the crime scene. List’s eventual explanation for the murders was sickening. It is always a pleasure to see someone like that caught, tried and convicted.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is why we read true crime. I can't think of a better work entailing weirdness, sentimentality, poignancy, frustration, and above all, pure terror. Along with dogged detective work, and touching family ties, Mr. Sharkey hits all the right notes in creating one of the best true crime books I ever read. Bravo!