Death Sentence by Joe Sharkey. Review by Rose

‘He took us into the kitchen. He sat us down and he said, he flat-out told us we should be prepared to die.’

Acting Teacher:  “He said he would kill you?’

‘That’s exactly what he was saying. There was no doubt about it.’

From this book, the moment Patricia List finally revealed the true extent of her abusive home life is documented by Joe Sharkey. Patricia was crying and hysterical, sat in a car, talking secretly to her acting teacher. He was the only person she trusted when she disclosed the death sentence her father had given all the children at the dinner table, though in this case, the disclosure would prove too late. When her teacher asked why her father would tell the children his plans for murdering them. She had no answer. Possibly, the sudden terrifying type of sadistic insanity that Patricia was describing, meant Ed Illiano, may not have felt it was quite real. Could a father like this exist? Could he be part of this quiet wealthy community? This book reveals one crucial truth about abuse, no one knows what is going on behind a closed door. Despite the regal address or the presence of an educated professional. It is not only deprived families in poor areas that are victims. Who was List? That immaculately neat man in glasses, with a face you might easily forget. The man that played the king alone, in a room with his strategic war games. The image that appears is a man that could not handle the real world or real people. John List seemed to be more comfortable with cardboard and plastic figures he moved to battle. In this room away from people, in his house, he was a success. In society, he had failed. Within the family unit, he dominated all his children. They lived in fear everyday.

This book describes societies taboo crime, a criminal case of familicide, these killers are often called annihilators. This is the killing of multiple family members. Psychological research tells us that they are often in their 30s and 40s, they have no criminal records. They are usually educated, white and live in middle-class areas. They often have marital problems and hide financial problems from partners and family. There is often evidence of domestic and emotional abuse. Some can be motivated by revenge or a feeling of being betrayed. Others may believe they are protecting their family and saving them from problems and the world. They are often as Dr Websdale described in an interview ‘highly repressed individuals.’ This fits the List case perfectly. They are careful at cultivating a mask for those they meet in society. A mask of professionalism. Some may be suffering from psychosis. One of the biggest cases in France was the Dupont de Ligonnès in France. The father killed everyone and all pets, but he, like John List, disappeared into the night. Half of these perpetrators commit suicide, half do not. Though it’s important never to generalise. These cases are exceptionally rare, however, in recent times, familicide cases have risen. Why? One problem often discussed is economic dips, job losses and huge debts accumulated in the modern world. Jack Levin, an American professor and expert on annihilations believes more government funds need to be invested in research of these cases. This is critically important as saving one of these partners and the children from this type of killing is important.

The List case is unusual as the father told the children their fate. This book reveals one motivator for List, total control of the children. Sharkey provides a childhood biography and what emerges is a man barely visible, a child one school classmate described as a person that was ‘part of the scenery, he existed but most were unaware of him. The last man you’d expect to be on the front of every newspaper decades later.

The List murders occurred in 1971 in a luxurious gated community. The picturesque white mansion house stood large and striking, what one might call a magazine dream house. With eighteen rooms it had been purchased past its prime, partly run-down, yet it retained a sophistication and beauty that was far too extravagant for an average company accountant unless he had a large inheritance. This was an upper-class neighbourhood. Inside, a giant tiffany chandelier would glitter and hold the gaze, later this light would be valued at 100,000 dollars demonstrating that financial problems were not the true motivation for this crime. Debts could have been paid off in selling just one feature inside this property. However, this was a family living beyond their means, these were parents that saw themselves as befitting a higher stature than they could afford. This is not unusual in these cases. List hid the fact he’d lost his job, that he was stealing from his mother’s bank account. Patricia guessed and even took a small job to help the family.

The area was refined, quiet, the house at a distance from other properties. No one would hear sounds from inside these walls. That suited List. He didn’t like too many witnesses to his behaviour. All the hopes of the children, most likely concentrated on escape, far away from their father, as they gazed from the wide windows overlooking the pristine lawn, would be stolen. Some children who visited the house to play, recall the slight pent-up man in the stiff dark immaculate suit and black tie, always dressed the same, every time, telling them to be quiet. How he’d appear suddenly. You wouldn’t argue with a man like this, something in his tone unnerved the children as they instantly dropped their ball and lowered their voices. Neighbours reported that List dressed in a suit even when cleaning the yard. No one saw him without that pressed white shirt and black tie. He was fastidious and obsessed with how he presented himself to others, always as a professional. List could appear mild-mannered but underneath, he was seething.

The murders were meticulously planned. One cop on the case described List as ‘a mean, arrogant, selfish, hypocritical piece of shit.’ After being captured after 18 years a psychiatrist examined him declaring him as one of the coldest men he had met. The reason for this evaluation wasn’t simply the horrendous crimes committed, but how John List later described these crimes. Saying that the killings were simply a deadline he had to complete, he laughed at one point, describing how he got hungry and had to stop to eat. That his eighteen years of freedom were just him ‘enjoying his life.’ Dr Simring said, ‘He wanted grace in the hereafter, but he didn’t want arrest yet. There’s a religious belief and there’s religious hypocrisy. I think there’s a fair amount of hypocrisy here.’

List often used religion, he used it to control his children, to offer excuses of killing his entire family. HIs use of religion didn't match the facts. Religion was a manipulative tool to List, one that he could use when it suited him. He liked to present himself as the professional middle-class man who was also affliiated with the church. Someone that fitted in with parts of the community. A man with morals. A man that served God. He liked the neighboured to think 'here is a professional man who is part of the church community'. This image mattered to him. Any cracks in this image, that might be seen by outsiders resulted in anger in the home. Behind that image the real List was something that the children must have been horrified by. They will have seen the mask slip more than outsiders. List, under the mask was the man that the victims saw. Others only saw fragments. Patricia would have looked into that face, the one under the mask. This is the problem with these cases.

It's behind closed doors.

The victims don't speak up out of shame, they are not living a home like their school friends and they are fearful of their parent. There are clues, they often try to avoid talking about their home life. They avoid personal conversations about their parents. They will show evidence of stress at the mention of a parent that is abusing them. They will not be able to mix freely with their friends without hiding it. They will live part of their lives in secret. Meeting friends may be in secret. This will cause the children considerable stress all the time, they may develop anxiety conditions.

We see List was known as a ‘mummies boy’ smothered by an overprotective mother from a young age. He was taught religious thinking and church life became an integral part of his life, almost obsessively so. His mother dictated his life just as he would later dictate the lives of his children.

‘His mother was afraid he would get a cold, or even get his hands dirty. She watched him like a hawk. After a while, as I recall, no one even asked him out to play.’

John List’s father was known to be an extraordinarily cold man, something that List himself would later be described as by people. It appears that List had some of his father’s traits. It's strange that both father and son were described in similar ways towards the end. His mother allowed him no real friends. She didn't like him mixing with children she regarded as 'not good enough.' She made him her constant companion. This was not healthy. Yet, John List was not physically abused. Many children had more difficult upbringings than List. I would say that there are many complex factors that lead these men to become killers.

Though described as a 'weak' man, a mummies boy, List had a dark side he hid from most people. Understanding the ability some human beings have from hiding parts of their personality from others, can be difficult. But it's not unusual for different types of killers to wear many personality masks.

What we do see is personality similarities between the father and son, the overly smothering upbringing of the son affecting how he treated his own children later in life. The cycle repeats, the key difference is that his parents did not commit mulitple murders. But we do see some elements of his own childhood repeated with much more force. To John LIst losing control of his children sent him into a frenzy.

As a child John List was expected to be quiet and obedient in the house. This upbringing would present itself in the way that he treated his children as an adult. He could appear as a weak husband, not strong enough for his wife’s feisty personality. These men often hold a great deal of pent up emotion inside. They take out their resentment at not receiving the right job and pressures in life on the people closest to them.

Why didn’t List drop the children off at social services or with a relative? Why not get a divorce? One answer that is recorded in research in some of these criminal cases is ‘control.’ The killer may want total control. List wanted his children to follow the path he believed they should follow, anything else was unacceptable to him. He wanted to control their future. If they were not going to be what he wanted them to be. They had to die. Sharkey presents a man that saw the children as objects he owned that should follow exactly what he wanted. 

In the beginning, List may have seemed the type of man a mother might recommend a girl marry, perhaps using words like ‘professional’ and ‘dependable.’ He was not exciting but he would provide for a family. Who can forget the black and white image of List, the wholesome middle-class educated normalcy the picture represented that became famous, you’d think he was possibly dull, but professional, someone that fitted the middle-class existence, but you wouldn’t think for a moment that he’d commit one of the worst crimes in American history.

This really is the problem with familicide cases, the killers are able to keep up a mask of normality to others. They do not fit the usual criminal profile.

From the book we can see that John List controlled every aspect of his children’s lives, this is something that often occurs in child abuse cases, insisting they become part of his church, making them read bible entries for hours, picking who they could see and where they could go, to an extreme level. When the children asked about going out for a short time, he would immediately make a scene interrogating them. For years, the children lived like this, silently, afraid to speak up. Only Patricia, when she became a teenager, much later, defied him by studying acting, a subject he viewed with utter hatred. In his mind, there was no way his daughter was going to live as an actress. In List’s mind, he owned them, like a car or a house. Often these types of murders happen when the father loses control or people from outside the house start to interfere with the way he is treating his family.  His wife was seriously ill and possibly had little time left to live, she couldn't hellp the children. She was mostly bedridden. The children only had each other in that house. The grandmother, List's mother who he was stealing money from lived in her own flat in the upper parts of the house. He killed her as well.

They often live in bigger houses and live better lifestyles they cannot afford. They may also be in debt due to overspending. They killers may believe themselves to be more ‘important or ‘talented than their current position in society. They believe they should be in a ‘top’ job, yet cannot fill the personality that is required for such a role. In List’s case, he was a poor manager, he could not work as part of a team, yet he wanted the top executive position. He was better at sitting at a desk and working on his initiative. The problem is, while some people would accept this and work hard at the job suited to their personality, List believed he was entitled to more. He felt angry that life wasn't handing him the cards he deserved.

One person that was part of the case said that towards the end he took the option of killing over getting a job and sorting out his finances.

As an adult father, some Neighbours noticed that even when List was moving a bin or brushing up leaves, he wore a suit and tie and was immaculately dressed. This sign of excessive fastidiousness was a great part of his personality. A man that was always retaining a particular image. He despised the open-mindedness of the sixties and hated J.F. Kennedy. He would dress his little children smartly and order them in line like a small troop of soldiers he governed. At club scouts other fathers noticed he took the fun out of games, talking to the children in an overly aggressive manner with strict tones as if they were at a reform school.

List who had been in the army but hardly served in combat showed an obsessive interest in strategic war games. The art of strategy was his fascination. He would have these games laid out and spend hours with them in a large part of his huge house. This would probably account for the reason he managed to hide from authorities for eighteen years. In this large room, he was a master of strategics, he won every war game with others. In society, he failed to achieve what he believed was owed to him. It was also noted later that more than one person had seen several crime books in this room.

He'd been in that room reading about killings and murder for weeks, possibly months. He’d planned the day of their deaths. He’d also ordered girlie mags in the post. So while his children were not allowed to do anything in life and he ranted at them about reliigion, he was happy to look at his magazines in private and do exactly what he pleased with his own life. After the kilings he removed every photograph with his face from the house, so detectives wouldn’t be able to use them to find him. List was a clever man, A devious man.

At one point in an argument he'd chased his daughter up the stairs where she clung onto her sick mother, who had a serious illness at this point. He screamed in their faces. 'Whores.' while they shook in fear at the top of the stairs. The rage was simmering the whole time, under a mild-mannered face, a face that fit neatly into middle-class society.

Then for eighteen long years, he lived another life. He built a new identity in another state. He did not show remorse during this time. He simply continued living the life he wanted. His problem 'his family' eliminated, he went on to do exactly as he pleased.

If you are on the run from the law, how much about your personality would you be able to change? The truth is, it is not that easy. John LIst managing to escape for so long is difficult to deal with on a criminal justice level. However, he was eventualy captured. Most human beings after a certain age, will follow the same habits, mix with the same people, do similar things. Change is not as easy as one thinks. We are creatures of habit. When the cold case was re-opened years later experts were approached and they predicted that he'd be a member of a church, he'd be working as an accountant, he would keep a low profile. He would not be on his own, he would have found someone to live with. This person was unlikely to have children living with her. He'd still be getting his complex eye glasses made. When his face appeared on television a woman recognised her neighbour and reported him.

He'd possibly imagined he'd escaped all justice by this time, it was almost two decades later, the children would have been in their late thirites if they had lived. They would have had their own families, they would have contributed a great deal to society. Particia wanted to be an actress, she was hard-working and talented, she most likely would have reached her goal. Everything she achived was without parental support, one of the hardest things to cope with in life.

One question often asked in these cases is:

Did these killers have a mental health condition that was undiagnosed their entire life and this became worse over time?

Possibly. Is the answer, this is still being studied as a possibility. The truth is, it's hard to accept that killers like this does not have long term serious mental health issues. We want to place them in a category so that they are different than us. We want that medical label to be given to them. However, it's not that simple. Even people with diagnosed conditions do not ruthlessly plan to kill innocent children in such a brutal manner, their own children. List was examined at the time he was captured, no expert could identify serious mental health conditions except depression. Years later, List wrote a very self-indulgent book where he clamined he may have had PTSD. However, he saw little to no real combat during his year of service, as Sharkey states, this did not fit, and it appeared he tried to, in the end, present an excuse. He also showed no evidence in his life of PTSD symptoms.

It's important that familcide is studied and research is conducted into these crimes, even if it is rare, studying these killers may enable authorities and child services to save a child like Patricia and her brothers in the future.

I have avoided describing the actual killings in this review.

This book contains detailed interviews, it covers the life of List and documents the early life of the Lists, from Germany to America. It gives us an insight into an early case of familicide and we can see similarities with modern cases. The author has spent a great deal of time on research, his research brings to life the family and John List. It's an excellent insight into the man with a face that would not fit a criminal profile.