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Murder at the Movies: The true story behind “The Stepfather”

“Daddy’s home and he’s not very happy.”

The Stepfather (1987) was one of the first truly chilling horror movies I ever saw. I’ll never forget the opening sequence. Terry O’Quinn calmly wipes the blood off his face, changes his appearance, and walks off into the night, leaving behind his murdered wife and children.

O’Quinn’s stepfather was a man who longed for an idealized version of family life. He’d marry widows with children, seeking perfection, only to murder everyone when they failed to live up to his expectations.

The Stepfather was definitely scary, but the true story is worse. Much, much worse.

On November 9, 1971, a quiet, unassuming accountant in New Jersey committed a horrifying crime. After his three teenage children had left for school, he crept into the kitchen and shot his wife of twenty years in the back of the head. He then climbed the stairs to his mother’s suite, and kissed her before shooting her in the face.

His name was John List.John_List2

Once he’d put his grisly plan into action, List reportedly felt he couldn’t back out. He cleaned the home, moved the body of his wife to the empty ballroom, where he’d laid sleeping bags on the floor, and then began to write. List stopped the family’s milk, mail, and newspaper deliveries. He sent letters to his children’s schools and part-time jobs, explaining that they would be out of town for an undetermined amount of time to deal with a family emergency. He closed both his own and his mother’s bank accounts.

This god-fearing, deeply religious man then wrote a five-page letter to his pastor, explaining the reason behind the murders. Once that was done, he had nothing to do but wait.

And eat lunch.

His sixteen-year-old daughter Patricia was the first to come home from school. As she walked inside the house, she was shot in the back of the head. List did the same to his 13-year-old son, Frederick, and then drove to his eldest son’s school to watch him play a soccer game. When they returned home, List murdered his last remaining child, but unlike the others, John Jr. didn’t go quietly. His body jerked as List emptied a 9 millimeter and a .22 into him. John Jr. was shot multiple times in the chest and face.

“I don’t know whether it was only because he was still jerking that I wanted to make sure that he didn’t suffer, or that it was sort of a way of relieving tension, after having completed what I felt was my assignment for the day,” List said.

After more cleaning (List was nothing if not methodical), it was time for dinner. List said that he ate a peaceful, untroubled meal while his murdered family bled onto the sleeping bags in the ballroom. (His mother was left upstairs with a towel over her face, as her body was too heavy for this mild-mannered monster to move.) What many people find incredible is that List then went to bed and “slept like a baby,” as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

The next day, he turned down the thermostat, switched on all the lights in the house, and turned the radio to his favorite classical music station.

No one saw John List again for eighteen years.

His crimes were discovered a month later, when neighbors noticed the house lights were going out one by one and called the police.

list_busts

List with the bust that helped bring him to justice.

List was finally brought to justice, thanks to the TV series America’s Most Wanted. The show’s producers had commissioned a bust of what List would look like nearly two decades after his terrible crime. Ironically, List was a big fan of the show, and even saw part of the episode that featured him. He was surprised by how much the bust resembled him, but otherwise he wasn’t concerned. He should have been.

His luck was finally about to change. List was arrested at his accounting job in Virginia when a neighbor recognized the so-called “Bob Clark” as the man the FBI were looking for. Even after police confirmed that “Clark’s” fingerprints were a match for List’s, List continued to insist that they had the wrong man. Confronted with evidence from the crime scene and the police’s knowledge of List’s scars and other unique physical characteristics, he eventually confessed.

Chillingly, List had managed to create a completely new life. He was remarried to a divorcee, Delores Miller, and reportedly happy.

Thankfully the couple didn’t have children.

So what would lead a Sunday School teacher to shoot his children, wife, and mother in cold blood?

List apparently had trouble keeping a job. There was something about him that just didn’t fit, and he was fired or laid off again and again. Meanwhile, the bills kept piling up. He had two mortgages on his Victorian house. He’d been stealing money from his mother’s account.

While he claimed in his infamous five-page letter that the 1970s were a “sinful time,” and that he killed his family to save their souls so they could go to heaven, his financial difficulties likely had a lot more to do with it.

His wife had contracted syphilis from her first husband, and the disease was affecting her brain, leading List to resent her and feel he’d been “tricked” into marrying her too young. He also no doubt resented his overbearing, controlling mother, who insisted on living with them.

All these pressures combined made List crack.

Ten months after the murder, the infamous home mysteriously burned to the ground. The ballroom ceiling turned out to be a signed Tiffany & Co. original worth over $100,000…more than enough to have solved the family’s financial issues.

If only they’d known.

 

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38 Comments

  1. Stephanie Faris

    How could we ever really understand the madness a person like that operates under? And I can’t believe he got away with it for all those years. I think it’s a lot harder to disappear now than it was in the 70s… At least I hope it is! There was a man in Massachusetts that murdered his whole family just a couple of years ago…Thomas Mortimer IV. They were having financial troubles. As Dennis Miller said–if you have the urge to kill someone else, do the world a favor and just commit suicide.

    Reply
    • JH

      Exactly! Connie Chung asked List why, if the pressures were so great, he just didn’t kill himself. He explained that he wanted to go to heaven and be reunited with his family after death. Apparently mass murder is a forgivable sin, but suicide is not.

      I hope with smartphones and the Internet it would be more difficult to disappear, but people also don’t pay as much attention to the world around them now. It might be easier.

      Reply
  2. Laura @ My Beloved Newo

    Wow, I had no idea the movie was based after a real story! I seriously can’t get enough of these real life stories.

    Reply
    • JH

      Hi Laura,

      Welcome to my blog and thanks for commenting! I was hoping that a lot of people wouldn’t know the real story.

      I post one of these every week. Some are unsolved mysteries, and others are creepy things that happened to real people. 🙂

      Hope to see you back here!

      Reply
  3. Amber

    People are baffling sometimes. Wow. But Dennis Miller has the best solution to murder that I’ve ever heard.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for commenting, Amber! Welcome to my blog. And yeah, that is a good one. Too bad more people don’t take him up on it.

      It’s like the case of Susan Smith, who drowned her two children in the lake. Why didn’t she just give the kids to their dad, who would have loved to have them? It’s so selfish.

      Reply
  4. Kyla Roma

    Wow, that is so crazy – and then for them to find out that the ceiling in their home was worth so much it would have solved their problems? That is so strange. It’s not often that movies are less sensational than reality. Great find, what a creepy story!

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Kyla! I got my love of true crime from my mom when I was a kid, so when I first saw The Stepfather, I thought, “Hmm…that sounds like the guy who killed his family and got away with it.” I was probably a strange child. 🙂

      There’s a really creepy interview with List on A&E’s American Justice, where List talks about using the sleeping bags because he didn’t want the bodies to be on the hard floor. “Real considerate, wasn’t I?” he says, and laughs. And that laugh is disturbing as all hell.

      Reply
  5. Crystal

    I must say, I’m a little glad I read this as the sun was coming up, otherwise every light would be on in the house.

    What a creepy, strange man. I’m glad they found him!

    I’m also really, REALLY enjoying these real life story posts. You’ve got me hooked!

    Reply
    • JH

      I’m so glad you like them, Crystal! They require a lot more research and work them my old posts, so I’m relieved they’re resonating with people.

      He was indeed creepy and strange. I’m so glad Delores didn’t have children, because they were having financial problems as well. Who knows what he would have done? He died in prison, so there’s no chance he’ll be able to hurt another family.

      Strangely enough, his daughter suspected the worst and told a coach that her father was going to kill her. Sadly, no one believed her. 🙁

      Reply
  6. zaria

    That is crazy I honestly never knew the movie was based on a true story

    Reply
  7. Heather M. Gardner

    Chilling.
    Your own children? I’ll never understand that.

    Heather

    Reply
    • JH

      To say there were some major things wrong with this guy would be the understatement of the year.

      Reply
  8. Lisa S.

    Hello J.H.! I first heard about John List through you. What a cold, calculating sub-human. Sounds like he wanted to push the reset button on his life and instead of just leaving and starting over, felt like he had to go on a killing spree. That Tiffany ceiling ending is so ironic and tragic. Great post.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Lisa. Um…I’m glad I could introduce you to this character?

      It’s really too bad he didn’t leave if he was that unhappy, but of course his ego wouldn’t allow it. He decided his family would choose death over surviving without him.

      Smh.

      Reply
  9. Ryan Carty

    If we ever stopped to think about the amount of trust we (sometimes blindly) put in our significant others, we might never sleep again.

    What a creepy and strange story.

    Reply
    • JH

      So true. I’ve definitely read enough stories like this to give me the creeps.

      I’m sure his poor wife never saw it coming.

      Reply
  10. Henry

    A sad story beautifully written JH. He is a textbook sociopath if you ask me.

    Reply
    • JH

      I agree, Henry. Thanks so much for the kind words.

      Reply
  11. Randee

    This kind of stuff leaves me creeped out and in awe at the same time. The idea that someone could just walk away from this and “start over” — the human brain is really something astounding. Like Stephen King says, “the mind is a monkey.”

    Reply
    • JH

      Not to mention the fact that he got away with it for so many years. He definitely wasn’t a stupid man.

      Reply
  12. Madeline Mora-Summonte

    It makes me wonder how he was able to go on and live “normally” after that – married, happy, etc. He didn’t become a serial killer in the sense he kept killing. Would he have eventually killed his second wife? Maybe not. Maybe he was…done? Creepy all around.

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s what makes The Stepfather movie so terrifying. Imagine if John List’s new family kept disappointing him in the same way his “old” family did.

      Would he exterminate them as well?

      Reply
  13. Samantha Bryant

    I’ve heard this true crime story somewhere before. It’s still mind-blowing. “What darkness lurks in the hearts of men” is a lot less fun to think about when it’s reality.

    @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

    Reply
    • JH

      Have to agree with you there. That’s why, to me, true crime stories are the ultimate horror stories.

      It’s much scarier when it’s real.

      Reply
  14. Denise

    I have seen programs on John List. In a neighboring community this week a man killed his four children and nearly killed his wife before dialing 911 and reporting the crime. If that wasn’t bad enough it turns out he had previously killed his pregnant wife and child and had been imprisoned for it. New wife did not know of his past apparently.

    Reply
    • JH

      Oh no, Denise! That’s horrific! So his current wife survived? I can’t even imagine the pain she must be going through. 🙁

      Reply
  15. C. Lee McKenzie

    That was probably the most chilling story I’ve ever read. Real life can be so much more horrifying than fiction. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      Sad but true. The scariest books I’ve ever read are true crime.

      Reply
  16. Roland Yeomans

    Man is the worst monster, far beyond what fiction can devise. I agree with you: what with everyone’s eyes glued to the screens of their smart phones, murderers may well walk unnoticed among the majority of folks. 🙁

    Reply
    • JH

      Even before smart phones there were many murderers among us, Roland. Sociopaths are masters of disguise.

      Reply
  17. Chrys Fey

    That’s crazy and chilling. And all because of finances? He truly was a monster. The fact he could eat a peaceful meal and sleep like a baby attests to that.

    Reply
    • JH

      I agree, Chrys. I think it had more to do with his unhappiness in the family. He didn’t like how his daughter was turning out, and he felt like his wife had “tricked” him. Who knows how he felt about his mother?

      A monster to be sure.

      Reply
  18. Lexa Cain

    Well that’s just a big bundle of yuck. I bet there are even more men who’ve killed their wives/families due to financial or selfish reasons (instead of just divorcing) than there have been serial killers. In many ways, the family killers are even more psychologically deluded and disturbed than the serial killers. Great post, JH!

    Reply
    • JH

      Oh, by far! I’m not sure if it’s still true, but I heard a few years ago that the most common cause of death among pregnant women in the U.S. is murder…by their significant others.

      Super disturbing.

      Reply
  19. Just Another Face

    Yes, I suppose we are.
    (laughs lightly in a warm, intimate way)

    Reply
    • Brett R

      I always liked this movie before I knew what it was about. Hearing it was about John List was crazy because I know the name… I am originally from the town this happened in. My neighbors mom told me she lived down the block and whenever she would walk home from school there was a disgusting smell from a house. It was the rotting bodies of the family John List killed. I can’t even get imagine what has to happen to a person to go to that place.

      Reply
      • JH

        Hi Brett,

        It was definitely inspired by List’s crimes, though of course it was dramatized.

        That’s a creepy story about your neighbour’s mom. I always thought there was no smell because List had kept the temperature in the house so low, but perhaps that isn’t true.

        Reply

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