Bodies discovered – time: 6:58-7:36
Cast of Characters:
John List – Patriarch of the List family
Helen – Matriarch of the List family
Alma – John’s Mother
Patti – The eldest List child
John, Jr. – The eldest son of the List family, named after John
Frederick – The youngest List child
Ed Illiano – Patti’s theater teacher
Zhelesnik – The lead detective on the List case
Pastor Rehwinkel – Pastor of John’s church
Episode Notes (and Spoilers) After This Point
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The List Family
431 Hillside Avenue
Westfield, NJ 07091
In November 1971, those who knew the Lists would have this address scribbled in their address books and on their Christmas Card list. The house that John and Helen owned was more of a mansion, with 19 rooms spanning three floors. (Quick sidenote, no one needs 19 rooms in their one-family home, not even the Duggars.)
The couple had three children, Patricia (16,) John Jr. (15,) and Frederick (13.) They also cared for John’s elderly mother Alma, who lived in her own apartment on the third floor of Breeze Knoll, the name of their post-Victorian era, excessive house.
It was an exorbitant home for a family of six. Besides the entire nineteen rooms (curious minds want to know how many of these include toilets,) the fanciest-schmanciest part of this ridiculous home was their grand ballroom that had a stained Louis Robert Tiffany-designed glass ceiling allegedly valued at $100,000.
One of the household features that I always envied as a child were household PAs, and guess what? The Lists had one. I’m not sure when these started becoming more popular (his is hardly the most notable home feature, but it does become an incredibly eerie part of the story of the Lists, so take note for later!)
Yeah, the house was #fancy. But the truth was that it was scantily decorated and in a state of disrepair. This decay reflected the inner turmoil of its patriarch, John. He recently lost his prestigious job at a local bank, and secretly found smaller accounting jobs that he could not keep. His financial issues were mounting.
Instead of working on himself to transcend his financial turmoil, he spent his time napping and reading at the train station. Conveniently, he was able to skim his mother’s bank accounts to lead his family to believe things were status quo.
He was rapidly descending through the levels of financial inferno, and was horrified as he faced foreclosure on Breeze Knoll. It was less about losing shelter for his family, and more like WHAT WILL PEOPLE THINK OF US?
Looking good mattered more to John than anything. He was also losing control of his family, especially his daughter Patti, who had dreams of becoming an actress. As a religious zealot, John felt this was a quick path to H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks.
Things just weren’t going spoiled John’s way. He needed to get his life sorted out and he had to do in the way that he felt made him look the very best.
A Gruesome Discovery
Breeze Knoll had been described by some as the nicest home in its neighborhood, though it’s occupants were somewhat of a mystery to their neighbors. John was shy, and the family largely kept to themselves when they were under his thumb. Patti, John Jr., and Frederick were all involved in school activities, and Lists were active members of their place of worship, Redeemer Lutheran Church.
John taught Sunday School there, in fact. Makes you think twice about creepy Sunday school teachers, you know? The school and the church were the extent of their ties to their community in New Jersey.
They weren’t close with their neighbors, and honestly the neighbors probably didn’t care to know more about them since the block gossip was that John was a total weirdo. If the Nextdoor app (app link) had been popular back then, people would be snapping pics of this square mowing his lawn in his shirt and tie.
The comings and goings at Breeze Knoll were always quiet and unremarkable, but in the latter half of the month of November, it became a literal beacon of light. Every light in the house was on, and it was understood that this must be a way to keep burglars away since there were rumors that the Lists had gone out of town. However, weeks passed with lights shining day and night.
Slowly, one by one, the lights burned out. Neighborhood interest was finally piqued.
When suspicion started to mount that something might not be right at Breeze Knoll, it amassed quickly. In millennial speak, we might say “that escalated quickly.”
On December 7th, a neighbor noticed that the List’s car had not been in the driveway since November 9th. Another neighbor, a doctor, expressed his concern to the police because he knew List’s elderly mother (Alma) lived on the third floor and relied on the Lists for her care. Late that afternoon, a call was placed to the local police department and by 7:30 PM the police had arrived at 431 Hillside Avenue.
It’s hard to say what exactly happened between the arrival of the police and Westfield Police Department’s entrance to the home. Court documents would later show that there was some conflict as to who entered the home first. Patty’s classmate and drama club colleague Edwin Illiano claimed that he had been the first to arrive, and that he had climbed through an unlocked window.
I always like to imagine the subtext when I read court excerpts like this one. The author of the document spends more time than necessary debunking Illiano’s claim, adding that MULTIPLE WITNESSES say that it was NOT Edwin who entered the home first.
Other evidence, including Edwin’s own original statement to the police, contradicts his testimony in court 18 years later that he was the first to enter the house. Still, this little jab at the end of the paragraph about how INCORRECT Edwin Illiano was made me laugh: “Perhaps Illiano’s penchant for drama has innocently intruded on his memory over the years.”
I’ve sorted through as many articles and court documents as I could find and most corroborate that it was not THEATRICAL ED who was the first to enter Breeze Knoll, and unfortunately, it was a police officer with an even more difficult-to-pronouce surname than Illiano’s: Zhelesnik.
Zeeheeleesnik entered through an unlocked window, and Theatrical Ed* followed. By this time, the lights had burned out and a flashlight was used to explore the empty home.
*some other sundries (read: people) were there too but their names are not as memorable
Weather reports for this day indicate that the temperature never rose above 52* F, and Zhellspnik and Theatrical Ed noticed that the home thermostat had been adjusted to match.
One might expect that a vacant house would be silent, but the sounds were bone-chilling. Blaring through the house’s central PA system were the sounds of an organ like a dirge. They crept quietly through the house. A familiar stench hit Zhlelznisk’s nose as the caravan approached the ballroom. What they found in the ballroom would be shocking for anyone, but I imagine that Theatrical Ed’s stomach probably fell through his butt onto the herringbone wood floor.
Helen, Patricia, John Jr., and Frederick were lined up next to each other neatly, their bodies arranged on Boy Scout sleeping bags. A note discovered at the scene was signed, “P.S., Mother is on the third floor. She was too heavy to carry.” Breeze Knoll was no longer just a mansion, it was a makeshift funeral home, and problematic John List was nowhere to be found.
His whereabouts after he slaughtered his family would become a mystery for almost 20 years.
John is Gone
The murders of the Lists were easy to solve but impossible to prosecute. John List left a full confession in the form of several letters to family members, and one tell-all note to the Reverend at his church. “Dear Pastor Rehwinkel,” John wrote. “I’m very sorry to add this additional burden to your work.” He explains his motive, saying that he felt his family could not bear the emotional burden of having to be on welfare. He was concerned about the wayward paths his family seemed to be choosing, and felt that killing them before they strayed too far would secure their place in heaven.
John goes on to write the following about why he decided this was the only way:
“I don’t doubt that He” (God) is able to help us, but apparently He saw fit not to answer my prayers the way that I hoped they would be answered. This makes me think that perhaps it was for the best as far as the children’s souls are concerned. I know that many will only look at the additional years that they could have lived, but if finally they were no longer Christians what would be gained.”
John left everything as clear as possible. He left burial arrangement plans for his family. He left the guns. He suggested that their few belongings be donated. He admitted that he had been planning to commit the crime on November 1st, All Saints’ Day since that would have been a lovely day for his family to arrive in heaven. Alas, pesky TRAVEL PLAN DELAYS (presumably for his own escape) caused him to choose the date of November 9th.
He wrote letters to the children’s schools to tell them that they would be out of town. He put a stop to his mail, newspaper, and milk deliveries. He cut his face out of every picture in his home so the police would have a harder time finding him. Then, he slipped into the night and traveled to an airport in New York where he abandoned his car on November 10th.
This quote from a New York TImes article that was published a year after the murders really captured the hunger of the police to catch this man who had left five bodies and almost no other clues in his wake:
“The man had a one month head start and left not much in the way of a trail, but I am convinced he is alive somewhere and that some day we will have him.” – Chief Moran
Moran carries a copy of the wanted flier in his jacket pocket. He has carried a flier steadily since the day the first one was available. From time to time, he replaces it with a fresh one as each becomes tattered and smudged from travel.
A Crime Show, a Sculpture, and The End
19 years after the deaths at Breeze Knoll, America’s Most Wanted ( <———— you might be interested in this episode that also involved America’s Most Wanted) took notice of the case and decided to air an episode covering fugitive John List. Since this case was the oldest that they had covered to date, they were unable to follow the show’s typical pattern of showing a picture of the criminal. They enlisted the help of forensic sculptor Frank Bender who use old pictures of John, pictures of his parents, and psychological profiles of John to make this freaking accurate looking sculpture.
They caught a break when someone from Denver, CO recognized the sculpture as their old neighbor Bob Parker. Aside from the similarities in appearances, Colorado Bob was also:
a volunteer in his local Lutheran church.
a quiet, be-spec-tac-led man.
a freaking ACCOUNTANT.
He basically had the SAME EXACT LIFE HE HAD IN NEW JERSEY BEFORE KILLING HIS FAMILY!
The police had their guy. He was arrested, extradited, tried, and convicted for the murders of his family. For each life he took, he received a life sentence.
It’s hard to know how to wrap up a story like this that is so sad and has no real redemption in the end. John died in prison in 2008 due to complications arising from a bout of pneumonia. Breeze Knoll burned to the ground in August 1972, and a new house was built in its place. In two years, we’ll reach the 50th anniversary of the List murders. Crime shows and podcasts pick up the story every once in awhile and bring it to light. Most peg this as a religiously motivated killing, but I see something else. Something that is just as relevant today as it was when this family died almost 5 decades go.
I see a man with an incredible ego, who cares about appearances more than he will ever care about truth. I see a man willing to stand behind hateful ideology to commit crimes that are prompted as a result of his own fear. If I can leave you with one positive thing to do and one action that you can take on behalf of Alma, Helen, Patti, John Jr., and Freddie: stop them. When you see them in the dark, shine a light on them. When you see their family pressed under their oppressive thumbs, reach out. When they are up for election, vote against them.
We have more resources now than we did in 1971. Let’s send the message that they can run and they can even try to hide, but they can’t hide forever.
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Public Court Records