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

June 18, 1989|STRAT DOUTHAT | Associated Press

GOLDEN, Colo. — 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.

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