List was born in Bay City, Michigan as an only child to German American parents, John Frederick List and Alma Maria Barbara Florence List. As a devout Lutheran, he was taught Sunday school. He later served in the U.S. Army during World War II as a Second Lieutenant. He got his bachelor's degree in business administration and a master's degree in accounting after graduating the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. List later went on to meet and marry a woman named Helen in 1951, and the two had children shortly after. On November 5, four days before the massacre, List asked his family how they would want their remains handled after death.
Familicide, Capture, and IncarcerationOn November 9, 1971, List left a note for the milkman to cancel delivery. Then he went into the kitchen and shot his wife in the jaw. Without moving her body, List went to his mother's third-floor apartment and shot her in the left eye. Her knees broke as she fell. List put her body onto a carpet runner and into a closet. List went back downstairs and dragged his wife's body into the ballroom, putting her body in a Boy Scout sleeping bag on the floor and tried to clean up the blood. Initially planning on waiting for his kids to come home from school to kill them, he had to pick up his sixteen-year-old daughter, Patricia, after she called from school, saying she was sick. He picked her up and brought her back to the house. As she entered, she was shot in the back of the head by her father, who dragged her into the ballroom and put her in another sleeping bag. List then left the house, doing some banking and mailing some letters. Later, he picked up his thirteen-year-old son, Frederick, from an after-school job. He shot and killed him as they entered the house, and his body was put with his mother and sister. John Jr., fifteen years old, came home from soccer practice early, which List was unprepared for. A struggle ensued, but List gained the upper hand, shooting him ten times. List put John with his mother, sister, and brother, straightened them out, draped towels over their faces, and then knelt down and prayed for them.
After that, he mailed a written letter to his church's pastor. The letter was a detailed confession, but he also put it in an envelope with other documents. List wrote that his life had fallen apart. His wife frequently refused to attend church with him anymore. His professional life was also going to pieces, he was deeply in debt. List called the school, saying they would be gone for a while on a family trip to North Carolina. He ate dinner and slept in the billiards room. The next morning, he turned on all the lights, turned on music throughout a house intercom at a high volume and left. Before the massacre, Patricia had told her drama coach that she was worried about her father. She told the coach if he heard anything about the family going on vacation, it would mean that List had killed her and the rest of the family. On the night of the killings, the coach drove past the house, fell for List's trick when he saw the house lit up, and drove off. The house remained empty, save for the bodies, for nearly a month. On December 7, a neighbor noticed the lights flickering and that the place seemed empty and abandoned. The neighbors called the police, who found the bodies. Because John List was not among them, he was immediately named the prime suspect. But he was nowhere to be found.List had moved to Colorado and had assumed the name of Robert Clark. He remarried and started a new life. He turned to a neighbor for comfort after his second marriage started to deteriorate like his first marriage did. As an avid reader of the tabloids, she saw the story about the family massacre in 1987. She knew it had to be the person she knew as Clark, but didn't report him to the authorities. When America's Most Wanted did a segment of the massacre in 1989, it reminded her of Clark, who had moved to Virginia with his second wife. She called the show and List was shortly arrested. At his trial, he claimed that he sent his family to heaven by killing them. Because suicide is interpreted as an "unforgivable sin" that would sent the person who commits suicide to hell, especially by Catholics, List couldn't commit suicide. On April 12, 1990, List was convicted in a New Jersey court of five counts of first-degree murder. On May 1, he was sentenced to five consecutive terms of life imprisonment. He died of pneumonia on March 21, 2008.
During the family massacre, List shot all of his victims with either his father's 9mm Steyr automatic handgun or his own .22-caliber revolver.
- The November 9, 1971 familicide:
- Helen List, 45 (wife; shot in the jaw)
- Alma List, 84 (mother; shot above the left eye)
- Patricia List, 16 (daughter; shot in the back of the head)
- Frederick List, 13 (son; shot)
- John List, Jr., 15 (son; shot ten times after a struggle)
- Prior to his arrest in 1989, List was considered a suspect for being "D.B. Cooper", a robber who hijacked Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305, receiving $200,000 in ransom and four parachutes before jumping out of the plane's rear exit door, never to be seen again. The hijacking and robbery occurred less than three weeks after List disappeared, with the theory being that he had committed the crime for the money while on the run. List denied being Cooper, who remains unidentified to this day, and there was no direct evidence that implicates him. Subsequently, he has been cleared as a suspect.