John List: The Perfect Family Man Who Killed His Perfect Family

by | Jun 19, 2024 | Crime Writing | 0 comments

June 1, 2024. I read the headline published on March 21, 2019, by The Lineup Staff once and twice, then set my coffee mug on the dining room table and pulled the article close. There was something disturbingly familiar about the John List story. His front-page photo wasn’t the typical mugshot of a wild-eyed, handcuffed psychopath who’d just gunned down his wife and kids. Instead, the magazine snapshot was of a man who projected quiet intelligence, a kind demeanor, and educated competence. He could easily have been mistaken for a Wall Street attorney about to give the closing argument to a packed courthouse.

The appearances didn’t match the truth. Nothing was as it seemed. Sunday school teachers and model community leaders don’t wake up one day and slaughter their family to spare them the humiliation of losing their home.

But that’s exactly what happened.

November 9, 1971, shortly after his three kids had gone to school, he shot his wife, Helen, in the jaw while she was drinking coffee. Next, he shot his 84-year-old mother. Then he fixed himself lunch before waiting for his 16-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son to come home from school and shot them. Next, he drove to his 15-year-old son’s school to watch a soccer match. I guessed what was going to happen to poor John Jr. when he returned home from his soccer match, but couldn’t read more without stopping to think about my own boys.   

I thought about all the afternoons I’d driven my son’s home from a Little League game, and all the chatter-box conversations we’d have about this play, and that catch, and the latest dugout gossip. My stomach turned into a tight ball of fear. Just a few minutes ago I thought light-hearted banter between a mother and her kids about nothing more consequential than a baseball game was normal discourse between people who respected and cared about each other.

Until one of the conversationists pulls out a gun.   

John List shot his son in the chest and face then called the school to let them know his kids would be “away for a while.” He stuffed his wife’s and children’s bodies in sleeping bags, deposited the bodies on the ballroom floor and left his mother’s body in the upstairs apartment. Then – to rip the mask off the person his community called the “perfect man” – this monster slept in the ballroom of his magnificent eighteen-room mansion where the family played, danced and entertained and spent his last night next to his dead family.

I can’t look at the family portrait of this “perfect family man” and “perfect family” and not think about the reason he gave for killing his family was to “spare them the humiliation of losing their home,” and he hoped “they would go to heaven.” Psychiatrists said he never showed remorse for the “cold-blooded murder of his family.”

During an interview with reporter Connie Chung, when she questioned why he never considered committing suicide, he told her that would “forbid his entrance into heaven, where he hoped to reunite with his family.”

I put the article down with one thought. How can anyone know for certain what demons live in the persons they love? What are the signs? Looking into the barrel of a gun will be too late.