The Fugitive : In 18 Years on the Run, Slaying Suspect’s Life Comes to Resemble His Old One

Associated Press

In the years after the methodical murders of his wife, mother and three children in New Jersey, John Emil List painstakingly created a new identity for himself in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

He dyed his hair and changed his name to establish new credit accounts and a phony Social Security number. He took a new wife, to whom he lied about his age and personal history.

List finally was tripped up after nearly two decades in hiding because his new persona was made in his old image--that of a wimpy, bespectacled accountant whose life centered around the Lutheran Church.

When Fox Broadcasting Co. aired his case last month on its “America’s Most Wanted” television show, more than 200 tipsters called to say they thought they recognized the former “mama’s boy” from Bay City, Mich.

Tips and Prints

Authorities said two of the tips--one from Richmond, Va., another from Denver--led them to a mild-mannered accountant in Midlothian, Va. He was a devout Lutheran layman and his fingerprints matched those of the fugitive John E. List.


The balding bookkeeper, arrested by FBI agents on June 1, claims to be Robert P. Clark, a former resident of Denver who moved to the Richmond area 18 months ago.

The FBI says that Clark is the alias List developed when he fled to Colorado after the Nov. 9, 1971, slayings in Westfield, N.J., an affluent suburb 15 miles west of New York City.

In Denver, Clark’s acquaintances say they find it hard to believe he is List. They remember him as a quiet, kind, intensely private man who worked first as a cook, later as a bookkeeper, for small, obscure companies. They say he spent much of his leisure time in church-related activities.

“He was a man who would never, ever stand out in a crowd,” said Carole Burton, manager of the east Denver apartment complex where Clark lived from September, 1978, until November, 1985.

The Quiet Renter

Flipping through his tenant file, she said: “I’ve never seen anything like this in all the years I’ve been here. The man did absolutely nothing to call attention to himself. There are no complaints in his file, no notices, no record of repairs, no nothing.”

Denver FBI agents say they received no information about the fugitive in their midst for 16 years after the grisly “ballroom murders” in New Jersey were discovered.

Even now a chill runs through James Moran, Westfield’s retired police chief, when he recalls the scene in the sparsely furnished, 18-room mansion List had bought for $50,000 in 1966, using money from an inheritance.

“It was so methodical, so cold-blooded,” Moran said. “We found his mother up in her third-floor apartment. She and his wife were still in their bedclothes. He even had turned the thermostat down to 50 degrees to preserve the bodies.”

Moran said the first two killings occurred sometime in the morning.

Murders Reconstructed

“Then he apparently did some errands while waiting all day long for the children to come home. And when they did, he shot them, one by one. The bodies of the wife and children were on sleeping bags in the ballroom, off the kitchen. They had been laid out in a neat row, head to toe,” Moran said.

The bodies of List’s 85-year-old mother, Alma, his wife, Helen, 45, and their children, Patricia, 16, John Jr., 15, and Frederick, 13, were not discovered until the evening of Dec. 7, 1971. They had been dead nearly a month, and by that time John Emil List was long gone.

Investigators found that List, then a 45-year-old accountant with an annual salary of $12,000, had two mortgages on the house, totaling $40,000. Moran said List had told people that his wife was an alcoholic spendthrift who nagged him constantly.

The investigation also revealed that List for years had been siphoning money from his mother’s $200,000 savings account. “He took out the last $2,000 on the day of the killings,” said Moran, who found the withdrawal slip while searching the house.

Confessed to Pastor

He also found and read a rambling, five-page confession List had written to his pastor in Westfield.

“He wrote of being under a lot of pressure, but I can’t reveal anything else,” Moran said. “The letter will be used as evidence if he goes to trial.” The man who calls himself Robert P. Clark is charged with five counts of first-degree murder.

List had sent word to school that he was taking his children to visit relatives, Moran said. List’s car, a green 1963 Chevy Impala, was found at John F. Kennedy Airport three days after the bodies were discovered.

“I rode in that old car lots of times, going to baseball practice with John Jr.,” Robert Compton, now a Westfield police officer, recalled. “John and I were classmates and were on the same baseball team. . . . His dad used to go to the ball games. When they found him, John Jr. had been shot nine times.”

Authorities are not certain just when List arrived in the Denver area, but one Denver man remembered meeting Robert P. Clark in Golden in early 1973, just over a year after the murders.

At the time, said Robert Wetmore, a 72-year-old retired ranch hand, Clark was working at the Holiday Inn in Golden, just west of Denver.

Fry Cook Days

“Bob was in the kitchen, working as a fry cook,” Wetmore recalled. “He was working the night shift and I cleaned the kitchen. We became friends, you might say.”

Wetmore said Clark then lived in a ramshackle trailer park on the outskirts of Golden.

“Bob didn’t have a car at the time so I helped him move out of the trailer park into an apartment a few blocks east of the motel,” he said. “He didn’t have much stuff then, but later, when I helped him move again, he had begun to acquire more possessions.”

Clark held several cooking jobs in the early ‘70s and moved frequently, Wetmore said. He usually chose large apartment complexes where it was easy to remain anonymous.

“Bob didn’t talk much about his past,” Wetmore said. “Once, when I asked him, he said he was from Michigan.”

That was not a lie. John Emil List was born 63 years ago in Bay City, Mich., the son of a wealthy German immigrant grocer who had married, for the second time, late in life.

A ‘Mama’s Boy’

Laura Werner, who rented an apartment from the family, remembers List as a sweet little mama’s boy.

“He and his mother were very close,” Werner said. “She had married in her 30s, and John was her only child. He was the apple of her eye.”

She said List, who spoke fluent German, attended a Lutheran elementary school and later went to public high school. He joined the Army in World War II and later attended the University of Michigan.

List worked in Detroit and Kalamazoo, Mich., before rejoining the Army during the Korean War. He was stationed at Ft. Eustace, Va., when he met the woman who would become his wife. She had been previously married and had a daughter.

List later worked in Rochester, N.Y., and Jersey City, N.J., before taking his family to Westfield in 1955.

Little of this past did List, as Clark, ever reveal.

Once, when Wetmore asked his friend if he had a family anywhere, it touched a nerve. “He snapped at me, ‘No family!’ ” Wetmore recalled. “That was the only time I ever saw Bob show any anger.”

Claimed to Be Widowed

Gary Morrison, a former chef at the motel, remembered Clark saying he had once been married but his wife had died of cancer.

In 1975, Clark joined St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in downtown Denver.

The pastor, the Rev. Bob West, said Clark became a pillar of the church during the 11 years he attended, and even served on the board.

“I once asked Bob how he happened to choose us, and he said it was because we were on the bus line,” West recalled.

At a church singles party in 1977, Clark met Delores Miller, a 40-year-old divorcee. By then, he owned a 1974 Volkswagen and had gotten an accounting job working for a company that made cardboard boxes.

Clark moved in with Miller in November, 1985. They were married a month later.

“Delores never told me about Bob,” said Wanda Flanery, Miller’s neighbor in Denver. “I didn’t meet him until he moved in.”

She said the newlyweds were a lot alike. Both were quiet, reserved people devoted to the Lutheran faith.

Laid Off From Job

In April, 1986, Clark was laid off. His wife’s salary as a clerk at the Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center was not enough to support them and they began to slip behind in their monthly payments.

For 18 months, Clark kept house and always had dinner waiting for his wife, Flanery recalled. In late 1987, Clark answered an ad from a Virginia employment agency that set up interviews with a Richmond accounting firm.

Clark left Denver in February, 1988, to take the new job, just as the company was getting busy with tax season. Four months later, his wife joined him in Midlothian, a suburb southwest of Richmond.

“Delores had mixed emotions about leaving,” recalled Flanery, who said they had been neighbors and friends for five years. “She said she really didn’t want to leave Denver, but Bob had been out of work since shortly after they were married and he had finally found this job in Virginia.”

Flanery received two letters from Delores Clark after she moved away. Her friend mentioned recurring financial problems and said she might have made a mistake leaving Denver.

To make ends meet, Clark had begun moonlighting for H & R Block, and his wife started working one day a week in a hair salon.

Call From Wife

“Delores called me on this past Mother’s Day,” Flanery said. “That was the last I heard from her before Bob was arrested.”

Clark was picked up 11 days after the “Most Wanted” broadcast dramatized the ballroom murders. The program, one that Clark watched regularly and often recommended to neighbors, featured a plaster bust portraying List as he might look now.

“I said, ‘That’s Bob,’ ” Flanery recalled. “I told my son-in-law to call the FBI and give them Bob and Delores’ address in Virginia.”

After her husband’s arrest, Delores Clark told the FBI she couldn’t believe he was a murderer. At a recent news conference, she described him as a good husband with a deep and abiding faith in God.

Clark had told her that he had been married previously but that his wife had died of cancer before he came to Denver, she said. He had told her he had no children.

Wanda Flanery said Clark’s arrest should not have come as a complete shock to her friend, however.

Face in a Tabloid

“A couple of years ago I bought a supermarket tabloid that contained an article on the List murder case,” she said. “The article had a sketch of how List might look now, and it was a dead ringer for Bob.

“I took the paper next door and showed it to Delores. She turned pale and kept looking at it, saying, ‘Oh, my! Oh, my!’ ”

Flanery recalls asking Delores Clark then if she thought her husband might be John List.

“Finally, Delores shook her head and said, ‘That’s not my husband.’ I then dared her to show it to Bob and ask him, but I don’t think she ever did. She’s not a strong person and I don’t think she felt she could have faced the truth, so she just let it lie.”

Delores Clark acknowledged at her news conference that she had dismissed the magazine article from her mind and had never shown it to her husband.

Does Flanery have any regrets about turning in Clark?

“I did what I thought was best,” she said. “For all I knew, Delores was in danger. If he did it once, he could have done it again, especially since they were having financial problems.”