THE PURSUIT AND CAPTURE OF JOHN EMIL LIST
Inmate #226472 doesn’t exchange Happy Anniversary cards with his wife. He doesn’t receive Father’s Day cards from his three children, nor does he send Mother’s Day cards to the woman who gave him life.
He celebrates none of these joyous occasions with his family because on the warm Indian Summer day of November 9, 1971, he murdered his three children, his mother, and his wife in an act of righteous carnage to save their eternal souls. Inmate #226472 is John Emil List, the quiet, always proper neighbor, and former Sunday school teacher, and he is spending the remainder of his life in Trenton State Prison.
On April 13, 1990 he was convicted for all five murders. Sentencing by, Judge William L’E. Wertheimer, was at Union County Courthouse in Elizabeth on May 1, in what some say was the second most celebrated and publicized mass murder in state history, 18 years, five months, and 22 days after the fact.
His current accommodations are a far cry from where he had lived between 1966-71 when he took the ultimate step in keeping up with the Jones’ by purchasing Breeze Knoll, the romantic sounding name that millionaire John S.A. Wittke gave his mansion and massive estate on Hillside Avenue in Westfield at the turn of the last century. The seemingly timid accountant couldn’t really afford such a house, because he really couldn’t hold a job. But it was an impressive address and his wife wanted it. Also, he became convinced Westfield was a good Christian town in which to raise his family.
The quintuple murders, his flight and escape for nearly two decades, his capture, and subsequent trial, consumed reams of newsprint and hours of TV footage not only in New Jersey but throughout the world. Only the New Jersey kidnapping and murder of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh’s infant son and the conviction and execution of Bruno Hauptmann in 1936 received more worldwide media coverage.
List’s crime was so unthinkable, heinous, and shocking that during the intervening years while he was living a second life, with a second wife, parents in Westfield and surrounding Union County towns would invoke his name to recalcitrant children: “You be good now, understand? Or John List will come back and get you!” He was indeed New Jersey’s real life boogeyman. If Mr. List could kill his children, some youngsters shuddered in thought, could my daddy do that too?
His family crime spree began about 9 o’clock in the morning. Shortly after sending her three children off to school, Helen List sat in the kitchen of the Westfield mansion drinking a cup of coffee. Her husband came up behind her and put a 9mm German made Steyr automatic pistol to the side of her head and fired once. She died instantly. The bullet smashed into the opposite wall. Warm blood immediately formed a pool on the tabletop around her head and began dripping onto her slippers.
Next he made his way up the squeaky stairs to the third floor where his 85-year old mother, Alma, wearing a housedress, was preparing breakfast in her efficiency kitchen. She was standing near the storage room-pantry that adjoined the kitchen and asked “What was that noise?” Her son didn’t answer. Instead he raised the Steyr and discharged a round that ripped through the side of her scull. Alma List was dead before her body crumpled in a heap on the floor. He closed the storage-pantry room door and left her there.
A neat man, to the point of being compulsive, in the hours that followed, he attempted to clean up the crimson puddles of blood in Alma’s apartment and in the kitchen. He was unable to clean up all traces of it.
At some point he went to the basement and returned to the kitchen with sleeping bags the family used for camping. He put Helen’s limp body on one and dragged it like a sled through the hall, through the parlor, then down the longer hall to the mansion’s cavernous, unfurnished ballroom in the back of the house.
It wasn’t even 10 A.M., and he had murdered his wife and mother in cold blood. But John List had time, a lot of time, to wait until his three children would return home after school.
He went to his study, collected some old photos and documents concerning the mansion’s history and put them in a neat pile on his desk and composed a thank you letter to John Wittke, a descendant of the original owner. He also wrote four other letters to relatives.
The murderer then called Barbara Bader, the woman who had car-pooled his sons John and Fred to Roosevelt Junior High School for the last time that morning, and made an excuse that the whole family was leaving for North Carolina the following morning because Helen’s mother was extremely ill. He promised to let her know when they returned.
Next he called his employer, State Mutual Life Assurance Co. of America, and said he wouldn’t be around for a while because of family illness out of state. He made a few similar calls offering excuses to people and places from which unexplained absences by various family members would raise eyebrows. He remembered to cancel delivery of the local newspaper and asked the Post Office to hold the family’s mail until further notice. Ditto the milkman (NOTE: many people still had their milk house-delivered in the 1970s.)
It was nearing lunch time, and all this letter writing and phone calling apparently made him hungry. After all, he hadn’t taken breakfast, what with dispatching his wife and mother early on, he had been too busy. So John prepared something to eat and sat at the same kitchen table where earlier he had wiped away his wife’s blood.
Then fate stepped in and handed John List a pass card. His daughter Patricia called from school and said she felt ill. She asked if he could come and pick her up. He had been wondering how he would handle things if two of his children, Patricia and John, arrived home at or near the same time. His son Fred had an after school job and not a sudden arrival problem.
He picked up his daughter. Once in the house he shot her in the jaw with a .22 caliber pistol, a much smaller weapon than the 9mm Steyr he used on his wife and mother with. That afternoon he picked up Fred from his job. Even as he was parking his 1963 Chevrolet Impala sedan behind the house, List’s other son, John, who usually walked home, was turning the corner onto Hillside Avenue. These last two murders would be the closest in time reference. As he had done with Patty, John List shot Fred almost as soon as the child was in the house.
Johnny, the murderer’s last victim, was the only family member with multiple gunshot wounds. When the gunplay was finally done, John List repeated the process of dragging the last corpse on a sleeping bag into the ballroom that had now become a morgue.
After another episode of cleaning up, the overly neat and very religious man returned to his desk in the study and wrote the final letter he would ever write from 431 Hillside Avenue.
The five-page letter was to his church pastor. In it he explained to the cleric the reason he had to wipe out his family, to save their souls [After his capture years later, he explained he didn’t kill himself because suicide would not be forgiven by the Almighty and he wouldn’t be able to join his family in heaven]. He taped all five letters onto one of the two filing cabinets in the study. Though intended for the addressed individuals, the letters would be discovered and taken by the police the night the bodies were discovered.
The text of the 1971 letter to his pastor was not revealed to the public until the 1990 trial. And when it was it confirmed what most people had believed those many years. It was a detailed confession, and explanation of what possessed him to murder the five people who loved him, and whom he loved the most: his mother; his three children; and his wife.
This writer covered the trial for an area newspaper and was in the courtroom the day the letter was read aloud to the jury. I will never forget the audible sigh of shock from the jury, and spectators, when the last line of List’s letter was read: P.S.-Mother is in the hallway in the attic-third floor. She was too heavy to move.
It is considered one of the most incredible explanatory confession letters ever written in the annals of criminal justice, and still often quoted when people talk about the murders.
The only place this writer is aware of in which the verbatim text of List’s incredible confession letter to his pastor can now be seen is in the critically acclaimed true-crime book “Righteous Carnage” (ISBN 0595007201) which meticulously details the whole incredible story. The book, no longer on bookstore shelves, can nonetheless be special ordered from Amazon.com or BarnesAndNoble.com.
What thoughts pass through a person’s mind after they’ve murdered five members of their family? What do they do? How do they act, or even function, with the realization of what they have done?
Night comes early in November and it was already dark when John List sat down to dinner about 6 p.m. But this evening his meal would be different from any other he had ever had in the mansion. Instead of sharing mealtime with the five members of his family, he dined alone. When he was finished, he washed the dishes and placed them in the drainer to dry.
Afterward he called Barbara Sheridan, one of the adults who worked with Patricia at the Westfield Recreation Commission’s drama workshop. He explained that his daughter would be missing some play rehearsals, and used the family illness trip ploy for the last time. Mrs. Sheridan thanked him and advised she would inform the workshop director, Edwin Illiano.
His duties and arrangements completed, List feed his children’s pet fish in the 20 gallon tank in the dining room. Then, the man who had spent the day murdering five people in this house, climbed the stairs, went into the bedroom and retired for the night.
Before he left Breeze Knoll and Westfield for good the following morning, the Sunday school teacher turned down the thermostat and turned on a recorder which would play the same classical music on a loop over and over till it was physically turned off. He also turned on all the lights. Each evening thereafter the house was lit up like a Christmas tree. By early December neighbors noticed they had begun going off, one by one.
The bodies wouldn’t be discovered until December 7, 1971, 29 days after the murders, because the drama workshop director Illiano thought the family’s prolonged absence was strange, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong at 431 Hillside Avenue. Patty List confided in him as a surrogate uncle because he encouraged her acting ambition, which she was smitten by, while her own father didn’t. Illiano recalled she once said her father was going to kill the whole family. He had met John List and thought the man strange. Illiano convinced his workshop associate, Barbara Sheridan, to go with him to the house. Their presence in the driveway and walking around the house in the dark caused neighbors William and Shirley Cunnick to call the police. The List family was away, after all. Patrol car Officers George Zhelesnik and Charles Haller were first to arrive.
What happened after the police arrived, and who or how the bodies were discovered, is an American version of the ancient Japanese classic Rashomon. The police, Illiano, Sheridan, and each of the Cunnicks remembered events differently. Only Officer Zhelesnik, who called in the mass-murder crime scene to Westfield Police Headquarters, and Officer Haller told the same version [These amazingly contradictory eye witness accounts, as well as other events, are dealt with fully in the book Righteous Carnage].
For the next 18 years no viable trace of John List could be found. He seemed to have vanished off the face of the earth. But that didn’t mean law enforcement people in Union County had given up on finding him. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s every possible sighting, any new information, was checked out. As the decade was nearing its end the torch had passed to two new cops, Detective Bernard (Barney) Tracy of the Westfield Police Department, and Captain Frank Marranca of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office. Each of them often returned to the cold case file on the still open List murders. From time to time they discussed the case and exchanged information, but for the most part they worked independently within their own departments.
By 1989 the television show America’s Most Wanted was already a sensation. With considerable effort by Marranca and the Prosecutor’s Office, and after initially being rejected, the show agreed to feature the List murders. It would be the oldest cold case they ever attempted to solve.
On Sunday evening, May 21, 1989, the show aired broadcast #66 with a mere eight minute segment about John List. Film crews had been to Westfield and visited relevant sites. As is the show’s style, the events were dramatized with actors portraying the principles. Barney Tracy and another Westfield detective, Kevin Keller, were at America’s Most Wanted’s TV studio in Washington manning the phones with scores of volunteers waiting for the expected tip’ phone calls. After the show ended nearly 250 calls came in, including one that was right on the money!
It was obvious that something had happened that Thursday afternoon, June 1, even to a casual observer driving through Colonial Westfield. It was 12 days since the America’s Most Wanted broadcast, and to many that was old news.’ Yet small groups of neighbors huddled on well-manicured lawns, congregated and clustered on street corners and in front shops in the quaint business district.
“Hey, what happened?” an uninformed passing motorist queried.
“They got HIM!” was the joyful reply.
No further identification or explanation was needed. Everyone in Westfield, nay, in Union County, knew the HIM was Sunday School Teacher John Emil List.