Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Art

The Artist and the Murderer

John List
John List (CORBIS)

When John Emil List closed the door on his New Jersey home in November of 1971, he believed he'd closed the door on that chapter of his life.  Inside, his mother lay dead in her apartment, while his wife and three children bled from their fatal wounds onto sleeping bags in the ballroom.  He'd shot them all that morning and then driven to the airport, abandoning his car and his identity.  Little did he know that nearly two decades later forensic artists would help to bring him to justice.

When authorities discovered the five corpses, there was no doubt who had done it.  List left lengthy notes for his minister about why he had to free the souls of his family.  But where was List?  Because he'd left lights on and music playing, it was a few weeks before neighbors suspected that something was amiss.  By the time police entered the home, List had quite a head start.

Over the years, the trail went cold, although detectives made several attempts to keep the file current.  By the mid-eighties, they needed to update List's photo to indicate what he would look like that many years later.  In 1987, they used a hand-drawn sketch by a police artist, and in 1988, the FBI prepared a more sophisticated computerized photo enhancement.  They published these renditions in nationwide tabloids like World Weekly, certain that somewhere in the country, someone would recognize this man.

In fact, Wanda Flannery, a neighbor of Bob and Delores Clark, spotted the resemblance.  Then she read the article that accompanied the image and realized that her friend Delores might be married to a dangerous man.  Surreptitiously she brought this to Delores' attention, but she dismissed it.  Soon Delores and her husband moved back east, an indication that List believed he was home free.

Then in 1988, the television show America's Most Wanted decided to take on the unsolved case.  They hired forensic sculptor Frank Bender to make a three-dimensional clay bust of the fugitive to display on the show.  Bender had done several such busts of missing persons and of fugitives, so he was acquainted with what needed to be done.  However, updating the appearance of a man by 17 years would require some deep study.  It would take more than adding wrinkles.

Frank Bender with John List's bust
Frank Bender with John List's bust (Mario Ruiz / Timepix)

Bender knew that he'd have to work up an entire psychological profile to be able to accurately depict the way the aging process would show on List's face.  For that, he teamed up with criminal psychologist Richard Walter.  They looked over what was known of List's past habits, what he had written in the murder notes, and what others had to say about the man.  Then they decided which of his traits would remain intact, despite his attempt to take on a new identity.  They figured he'd still wear the same type of glasses, work as an accountant, go to church, and would likely be remarried.  He'd be paunchier, with drooping skin around the jowls, deep worry lines, and a receding hairline.  He'd not have opted for plastic surgery.  Most notably, he had a pronounced scar behind his right ear that would still be there, and he'd probably still have financial difficulties.

They also had to think about what would drive a man who was reportedly so religious and conservative to kill his entire family.  Bender and Walter spent several days pondering the buildup of anger and despair, as well as how List would have planned his escape.

Bender went to work on the bust, carefully crafting the facial appearance that he believed List would now have.  It had its intended effect.  After the show aired in 1989, Wanda Flannery called in to insist that someone check out Bob Clark.  She had his new address.  She felt sure this was the man they were seeking.

FBI agents descended on the office where Bob Clark worked and arrested him.  Although he insisted they'd made a mistake, fingerprints affirmed his identity as John Emil List, and he was convicted of five counts of first-degree murder. 

Thus, three separate methods were used for fugitive identification and one of them ultimately brought a cold-hearted mass murderer to justice.

Let's have a quick look at the various methods known as forensic art, and then see how some of them have applied to criminal cases.

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