Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Fathers Who Kill

Cleaning the Slate

In November 1971, John Emil List drove to the nearest airport, left his car in the parking lot, and boarded a plane with a one-way ticket. He intended never to return. Back in his mansion in Westfield, N.J., a phonograph played church music over and over for those he'd left behind. John List had just murdered his entire family.

Map: Russellville, Arkansas
John Emil List

The List case has been described in many sources, from America's Most Wanted to Time magazine to books like Thou Shalt Not Kill and Death Sentence. While Simmons killed many more, List is more well-known, in part because of the unusual incident that led to his apprehension.

When his crime was discovered, his wife and three children lay bleeding on sleeping bags in the massive ballroom, while his mother was dead on the floor of her upstairs apartment. All had been shot at close range, although apparently List's older son had tried to run. List shot him several times.

A month went by before the authorities found the corpses, but they had no doubt about the killer's identity, because List had left behind several notes explaining why he'd had to "free" his family's souls. Apparently he believed he had done them a favor. Perhaps it was because he had lost his job and was getting deeper into debt, or perhaps it was because his children were getting more rebellious and his wife had stopped attending church. In any event, clearly he was gone, a fugitive who would elude law enforcement for 18 years. There was no evidence that he had killed himself in remorse.

As time passed, detectives attempted to keep the file current. In the mid-1980s, they updated List's photo to show what he would look like 16 years later and published it in nationwide tabloids. That drew no real leads.

Then America's Most Wanted decided to air the case, so they asked a Philadelphia-based forensic sculptor, Frank Bender, to create a clay bust. They thought this would offer a good visual.

When the bust was finished, it was taken to the television studio. The show was broadcast in 1989 and the sculpture had its intended effect. A former neighbor of a man named Bob Clark called in. She recognized John List in the man she knew and felt they should check him out.

Ten days after the call, FBI agents arrested "Bob Clark" at his office. He protested that he was not the man they wanted, as did his current wife, but his fingerprints gave him away.

It turned out that he had gone to Colorado, where he had eventually found work at his former occupation as an accountant. He had remarried and was living as if he really were a new man.

List was eventually convicted of five counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. When he was interviewed a decade later, he appeared to have little remorse about what he had done.

Numerous men have reached the end of their ropes and eliminated their families, but they don't all have the same reasons.

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