This article begins a new CleverJourneys ongoing series exploring American history from a perspective that burrows deep into criminal profiles, the penal system, victim’s stories, crime prevention, forensic science, law enforcement and our justice system.
My father, Walter Dennis, was a police officer and homicide detective for the San Antonio Police Department from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s. Later he was a U.S. Marshal and worked on the assassination of federal Judge John Woods.
Dad would often take me to the locations of some of his cases. He’d explain what happened, pointing me to the clues, structures and surroundings of the crime scenes.
It’s no wonder I later became the youngest licensed private investigator in Texas in 1976, and worked on many crime cases.
This led to my bucketlist of crime scenes.
🔹Some of the sites I’ve checked out include assassination locations such as Dealey Plaza, Ford Theater, and Ambassador Hotel (JFK, Lincoln and RFK).
🔹Horror houses I’ve visited include Amityville, Sharon Tate (Manson murders), Nicole Brown Simpson (Bundy Drive), Erik and Lyle Melendez (parents murders), Phil Spector (murder of Lana Clarkson), Bugsy Siegel, Phil Hartman, and Dorothy Stratten.
🔹Death locations include Vitello’s Italian Restaurant (Bonnie Lee Baker, Robert Blake), Sam Cooke, Selena, Marvin Gaye, Sal Mineo, Rebecca Schaeffer, and William Frawley.
🔹Historical locations like the OK Corral in Tombstone, Colorado’s Woodland Park RV Park (arrest site of “Texas 7” escapees), Killeen Luby’s (massacre site on October 16, 1991, by George Hennard) and ‘The Butcher of Elmendorf’ Joe Ball site (killed women, fed bodies to his alligators) are just some of a long list I’ve checked off.
🔹More recently, Dodie and I visited the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas and the ambush site of Bonnie and Clyde.
This series will feature a gambit of crime stories, from greed-driven pirates to today’s white-collar and political criminals. We will begin with John List. I examined the FBI bust used to help identify the killer.
Breeze Knoll was a 19 bedroom Victorian style mansion at 431 Hillside Avenue in Westfield, New Jersey.
Beginning in autumn 1971, neighbors began noticing the house had all of its lights on day and night for at least a month. One by one, the lights had slowly been burning out. Police were called and learned the residents of the mansion were the List family, a reclusive and unsocial family.
The List’s had sent out notes to the children’s school saying they were in North Carolina visiting family. But as those lights began to blow, the neighbors became suspicious, and finally, on December 7, the police were called to investigate. What they found was a scene of macabre deliberation and sacrifice.
Later they would discover the owner, John List, murdered his wife, mother and 3 children on November 9, 1971 in his Westfield New Jersey home, then disappeared.
The murders were so meticulously planned that a month passed before anyone suspected the mass murder.
John’s wife, Helen, 46, sat at their kitchen table, drinking her morning coffee in the house that, in all truth, the List’s could not afford. The children had gone off to school, leaving the adults to their daily routine.
John had lost his job (as he usually did) and had been spending his days sitting at the train station, pretending to be going off to work. This day, he did not go to the train station.
He left a note on the front door for the milkman, stopping deliveries to the house. He then walked up behind his wife, pressed a 9mm German made Steyr automatic pistol to the side of her face and shot her in the head.
Leaving her body where it sat at the table, John then went to the upstairs apartment his mother, Alma, 84, lived in. She was standing in her kitchenette making breakfast; when John entered the room she turned to her son and said: “What was that noise?”.
He said nothing. Instead, he shot her just above the left eye. Her knees broke as her already deceased corpse fell to the floor.
John then walked back downstairs, dragging his wife into the ballroom of the mansion and wrapped her body in a boy scout sleeping bag.
John first drove to the bank and closed both his own and his mother’s bank accounts, cashing in her remaining bonds.
He then went to the post office to stop mail before returning home to have lunch at the very table he shot his wife at hours before. He would later chuckle during an interview, “I was hungry, that’s just the way it is.”
When Patricia, 16, and Frederick, 13, came home from school he shot both of them in the back of the head.
He then drove to Westfield High and watched his son, John Jr. play in a soccer game. Then the father drove Junior home. John Jr. struggled as his father attempted to shoot the boy, however, he was overpowered and shot multiple times in the face and chest.
The bodies of the children joined their mother placed carefully in sleeping bags in the ballroom. He cut himself out of every family photo in the home, played religious radio music on a loop over the mansions intercom, turned all the lights on and departed in his Chevrolet Impala.
John List assumed a new I.D., remarried, and, eluded justice for 18 years.
List took the name of his college roommate, Bob Clark, moved to Denver, got a job as an accountant, and ran a car pool for shut-in church members.
He lived a normal life until the “America’s Most Wanted” television show recounted the crime in May 1989.
He was sitting on the couch with his wife, Delores Miller, watching the program as the image of a forensic sculpture of his likeness flashed on the screen. He begins sweating, his heart racing as the sculptor’s interpretation of John List is so accurate. He looks to his wife, but she doesn’t notice what he sees and carries on with her night, unaware of her husband’s past.
Two weeks after the broadcast on Fox TV, John List was arrested after a neighbor recognized the description and called the police.
He stood by his new alias until the prosecution matched finger prints at the crime scene to List’s military records.
In his study, John left a confession note addressed to his pastor, Rev. Eugene A. Rehwinkel.
He wrote in the letter:
“1. I wasn’t earning anywhere near enough to support us. Everything I tried seemed to fall to pieces. True, we could have gone bankrupt and maybe gone on welfare.
2. But that brings me to my next point. Knowing the type of location that one would have to live in, plus the environment for the children, plus the effect on them knowing they were on welfare was just more than I thought they could and should endure.”
The last line of the letter sent a collective gasp through the courtroom during John List’s trials.
“P.S. Mother is in the hallway in the attic – 3rd floor. She was too heavy to move.
An arson attack (still unsolved) saw Breeze Knoll burned to the ground. It was then discovered that the skylight over the ballroom in which John List made his makeshift morgue, was a Tiffany original. The estimated value of the piece being $100,000 ($600,000 in today’s value), more than enough to cover the List family’s debts.
In 1990, John List was convicted of 5 counts of 1st degree murder and sentenced to 5 terms of life imprisonment.
“The Boogeyman of Westfield” died in prison in 2008 at age 82.
Interesting article. I’d never heard of John List. Apparently 1987 film The Stepfather, a really good horror/thriller, was loosely based on List.
And the Tiffany – wow.
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Thanks for your comment and readership. Yes, wow!
Terrific article Jack. I remember reading everything I could find on this case. I just couldn’t wrap my head around a father who could so coldly murder his family. Very interesting to learn about the Tiffany!
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Hi Debbie! Thank you so much for commenting. I miss everyone.
I remember this! What an evil man he was. Thanks for sharing this.
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Thank you for your readership…and commenting.