This may not be a familiar face to you, but it is to me. It’s part of my childhood. It’s part of where I grew up. And even though most of the pieces are now put together, there is still an air of mystery around it all.
This is John List. John List died Friday in prison. He was 82.
When I was 15, John List woke up on the morning of November 9, 1971 and shot his mother, wife and three children, one of whom was a year older than I; a junior at Westfield Senior High, where I was a sophomore. My friend Dickie Hardman told me as we met in the hallway. That night we watched images of our bedroom community on TV as the media swarmed in; downtown Broad Street, The Presbyterian Church, Hillside Avenue, Mindowoskin Park. The big bad world had made inroads into my seemingly peaceful home town. Both The Westfield Leader and the Suburban News, the local weekly papers, ran huge stories about the family. Not two years earlier, I delivered those newspapers and others on Hillside Ave, riding my paper-laden bike up and down day after day, without even a thought that something could be this wrong, that something like this was ever possible.
The Lists lived on Hillside Avenue, an expensive affluent section of Westfield. The house was set back from the road, looking like a Stephen King farmhouse; white clapboard siding with green trim. In the afternoons the sun set behind it giving the property an eerie glow. What is rarely reported in all the coverage is that several months after the murders, in the middle of the night, the List House burned to the ground. The rumor mill ground out story after story: John List had returned to finish the job. Nothing was ever proven.
John List murdered his family, then disappeared. He disappeared with a month’s head start before the bodies were found. He created a new life for himself and went on about is business for 18 years until the story was aired on America’s Most Wanted in May of 1989. I won’t forget that night. It was warm. My sister-in-law had come over for dinner. After eating we all went outside and saw hot air balloons in the sky. We jumped in the car and followed them. As Plainsboro was still mostly farmland at the point we followed them until they landed in a nearby field. We have most of all this on video tape. Then we went home to watch AMW and the List case.
A week later he was in custody, his new wife undoubtedly in a state of disbelief and shock. How could a man who committed such an act lead a seemingly quiet and normal life? How was he never tracked down?
A trail was held, appeals were made, all to no avail.
Now after 18 years in prison, John List is dead. He’ll have a lot to answer for.