Wednesday, August 03, 2011

D.B. Cooper and John Emil List, and Flights of Fancy

[Left: John Emil List ... Right: FBI sketch of D.B. Cooper]

Oh geez, another "ABC News Exclusive." That's a phrase I've learned to approach with great skepticism. ABC News is somewhat notorious in the trade for "exclusives" that, as we say, remain forever exclusive.

This one, being breathlessly flogged here in the dog days of summer when everybody desperately needs a distraction from depressing political news, is about D.B. Cooper, the infamous fugitive who disappeared in November 1971 after hijacking a plane, pocketing $200,000 in ransom, and spectacularly parachuting out the aft airstair of a 727 at 10,000 feet, somewhere over the Lewis River in mountainous southwest Washington state.

The ABC News exclusive aside (whatever in the world it's trying to suggest, as I'm not sure), I happen to be an expert on a famous criminal fugitive who spectacularly disappeared, seemingly without a trace, in November 1971.

So kindly allow me to add my two cents here to one very tangential "connection" to the D.B. Cooper saga, and to elaborate on one of my own.

The famous fugitive I refer in this instance is middle-aged, bespectacled, soft-spoken John Emil List, the deeply religious, deeply politically conservative Westfield, N.J., father and war veteran who abruptly murdered his wife, three children and aged mother on November 9, 1971, left the bodies in a creepy display on the ballroom floor of the decrepit List mansion in Westfield, and disappeared into thin air -- until he was finally apprehended in 1989. Before killing his family, List had embezzled $200,000 from his mother's bank account.

Fifteen days after List killed his family and abandoned his car at Kennedy airport in New York, a middle-aged, bespectacled, soft-spoken man known as D.B. Cooper hijacked a Northwest Airlines 727 and parachuted into infamy with a bag of money. The sum: $200,000.

Given the striking physical resemblance between John List and FBI sketches of D.B. Cooper, and the equally striking coincidence of List's fleeing followed by the D.B. Cooper escapade a mere 15 days later, speculation understandably arose: Was the mysterious John List one and the same person as the mysterious D.B. Cooper?

Actually, the John List who finally was returned to face trial in New Jersey was a sad-sack of a fellow, though behind those eyeglasses you could certainly see the steely stare of an prissy, arrogant killer who had been capable of shooting to death, in cold blood, one after the other, in the course of a horrific, meticulously planned morning of horror in his home, his wife, aged 45, his three children, aged 16, 15 and 13, and his mother, aged 84.

List, who died in prison three years ago, always maintained (and had left a whiny crime-scene note to this effect) that he killed his family as an act of religious mercy, in that he had become financially unable to provide for them and wanted them sent to their heavenly father before the cruel world further corrupted their souls.

The media and the remarkably dumb cops in Westfield, N.J., bought into this pious baloney, then and forever afterward.

In 1989, I set out to write my book on the List murders ("Death Sentence," 1990), which critics called a "true-crime masterpiece." Alas, my book -- poorly agented and indifferently published -- sank because a couple of cheap competitors were rushed into print by more savvy publishers, while at the same time the late Helen List's sister and brother-in-law suddenly emerged working with Hollywood development barracudas. In such muddied waters a quality book drowns. Them's the breaks in true-crime writing, I learned.

Anyway, while researching the book I quickly uncovered instance after instance of how the List "investigation" had been botched, allowing the fugitive to escape and enjoy, to the extent that John List could be said to "enjoy" anything, his freedom for 17 additional years.

One thing I have never understood to this day is how the police and the media ignored some shocking discrepancies that I discovered in the official version of the List crimes. For one thing, though there was never any doubt about who had committed the murders, the crime scene itself had been hopelessly corrupted. First, the Westfield cops barreled in clumsily, local reporters panting in tow, and violated nearly every principle of forensic prudence.

But most weird was how the local cops had actually learned of the massacre in the first place, because the bodies were not discovered in that house till 28 days after List committed the horrors and fled.

This was in 1971, a time of great generational conflict. List, who had been spoiled by his doting and also obsessively religious mother throughout childhood, had an array of motives for the crimes, among them a selfish desire to wipe clean his slate and start anew, without the financial and emotional encumbrances of a family.

But there was another motive that really stood out to me. List was clearly deeply repressed. In my opinion, his rage was both sexual and political in nature -- primarily directed at his only-slightly-rebellious 16-year-old, Patty, and to a lesser but still significant extent at his wife, Helen, who was suffering through the tertiary stage of syphilis, which she had innocently contracted decades previously, during a very brief first marriage to a ne'er-do-well soldier. The elderly mother and two sons were essentially collateral damage in List's rampage against his wife and teenaged daughter.

I'm now planning on updating and re-issuing "Death Sentence," incidentally.

Besides List himself, and of course the D.B. Cooper coincidence, the very weirdest part of the story, as I described it in the book, involved Patty's friends. Much to List's alarm, Patty had become involved in her high school theater club, led by their "drama coach," a charismatic, energetic, emotionally high-strung middle-aged frustrated community-theater actor named Edwin Illiano. The close-knit theater-club group became a major part of the girl's life in 1970 and 1971.

Here's where the story gets extremely strange. Patty, who had expressed fears about her father to her friends, suddenly drops out of sight after November 9, 1971. Her friends are alarmed. Weeks pass, and the friends and their adult mentor quietly visit the big old house, where they see the bodies laid out in the pattern of a cross on the cold ballroom floor. They flee in terror. Only later, prodded by the group, do the police come to the house evidently to look for signs of a burglary. Only then, 28 days after the murders, do the police enter the house and discover the grisly scene.

This bizarre story, and the shocking corruption of the crime scene, were conveniently ignored during the trial almost 19 years later, when of course prosecutors had an obviously guilty man on the stand and, clearly, saw no need to complicate matters. Off List went to prison, and everyone was glad of it.

I did note at the time, as the cops were high-fiving each other for their brilliance in capturing the killer, that thanks to incompetence, the murderer had enjoyed almost 18 years of freedom before he was finally caught.

This of course did not make me a popular figure among the busy assemblers of the certified narrative -- which was further corrupted by the abrupt appearance of a fat "fictionalized recreation" of the List murders by a low-rank New Jersey pulp-fabulist called Mary Ryzuk, which was rushed out before my book was published. That was then followed by a competing nonfiction account compiled locally by two small-town journalists working in close cooperation with the Westfield cops -- who of course were taking credit for List's capture more than 17 years after their predecessors on the force had botched the investigation while the killer escaped and crafted a new life out West.

How was List actually caught?

He was turned in by a former neighbor in Denver, where he lived for at least 15 years after fleeing New Jersey. The neighbor, Wanda Flannery, told me that she liked and pitied List's timid replacement-wife in Denver (who was unaware of her husband's previous life), but disliked him. She thought he was a "creep."

When I visited her in Denver in 1989, shortly after List had been captured, Mrs. Flannery told me that she had for some time suspected the man next door -- who she knew as Bob Clark -- was actually John List. In 1987, Wanda said, she recognized him from an old photo of List that had run atop a retrospective story on the unsolved murders that she read in a supermarket tabloid, the Weekly World News (which ceased print publication in 2007).

Incidentally, the media narrative on this, on List's capture, is inaccurate. The media accounts, thanks to hype from a television program, "America's Most Wanted," abetted by the local cops in New Jersey who participated in the program, always claim that Mrs. Flannery called the police after recognizing Bob Clark as John List from a sculpted bust that had been commissioned by the TV show. To this day, "America's Most Wanted" crows that it captured John List.

However, the "America's Most Wanted" segment on List came long after the story had appeared in the Weekly World News -- and some months after "Bob Clark" and his hapless wife Delores had moved away from Denver to Virginia, where the unemployed List had found a new accounting job.

The TV show's breathlessly publicized sculptor's bust of how List presumably looked 17 years after the crime bore a slight resemblance (obviously, it had been modeled on photos of List) to the neighbor Wanda Flannery knew and already believed to be John List.

But it was not a fully persuasive likeness to Mrs. Flannery who, of course, knew the real man.

In 1989, when I went to her home in Denver to talk to her, Mrs. Flannery was an elderly, anxious woman who lived alone in the modest condominium complex where the Clarks had been her next-door neighbors.

When she read the story on John list in the Weekly World News in 1987, she happened to glance out her back window to see "Bob Clark" in his yard. The connection was immediate. Waiting till Bob Clark had left on an errand, an alarmed Mrs. Flannery took the Weekly World News story to over her neighbor, Delores Clark. Delores "turned pale" but firmly rebuffed her, dismissing the notion that her husband could be this fugitive John List. But Mrs. Flannery said she saw the fear in her friend's face.

Embarrassed, and afraid that Delores might have alerted her husband to her suspicions, Wanda retreated and kept silent. She didn't know what else to do, or who to talk to. "I'm certainly not going to go to the police, me, an old lady carrying some crazy story ripped out of a supermarket paper," she confided to me. Still, she warily kept her distance from Bob Clark from that point forward.

In 1989, months after the Clarks had moved away to Virginia, Wanda saw the America's Most Wanted program featuring John List. "America's Most Wanted" producers told me in 1989 that they reluctantly compiled that particular program after being approached on several occasions by members of the Westfield, N.J., police department -- who had also seen the Weekly World News story, and wanted the TV show to help them pry open the cold case.

Back in Denver, when she watched the "America's Most Wanted" program, however, Mrs. Flannery became more embarrassed and confused than ever. She told me that was because she thought the bust did not look much like Bob Clark -- though she was nevertheless nearly certain that Bob Clark was John List, thanks to the Weekly World News story and photo.

However, "America's Most Wanted" provide Mrs. Flannery with one option she hadn't had before. The TV show gave out phone number for viewers to call with any information. Mrs. Flannery, who had Delores's and Bob's new address in Midlothian, Va., fretfully decided to make the call, thinking there might be a reward.

Police arrested John List in Virginia 11 days later. The TV program and forensic sculptor (Frank Bender, who died last week, still getting credit) -- took bows, and the media bought into the narrative.

[Here's an interesting link to a follow-up in the Weekly World News in 1989 on Wanda Flannery and her actual role in the List capture.)

But I digress. Back to D.B. Cooper.

At the time List was apprehended, there was a lot of speculation about his possibly being one and the same person as D.B. Cooper.

For example, this is from the Los Angeles Times, in a story after List was arrested in Virginia:

"Although the man known as Clark denies he is List, authorities said fingerprints and a scar prove Clark and List are the same person.

Clark, 63, was arrested June 1 at the Richmond accounting firm where he had worked for 1 1/2 years. FBI agents had been tipped off by a viewer of the national television program, "America's Most Wanted," which 11 days earlier had run a segment focusing on the List murders.

Authorities said List fled to Colorado and then Virginia and had built a new life without changing his appearance or profession.

An FBI spokesman in Seattle said Thursday that List is considered a suspect in the November, 1971, hijacking of a plane by a man known as D. B. Cooper.

'John List is one of any number of people suspected in the D. B. Cooper case,' FBI spokesman John Eyer said. 'He will be investigated until he is eliminated.'"

The speculation about List and D.B. Cooper soon died out, though of course it lives online, where nothing dies.

I never thought there was any possibility that John List and D.B. Cooper were the same man. However, however unlikely the possibility was, the idea was awfully entrancing for someone like me, writing a book about John List.

List died in prison in 2008, aged 82, without ever adding any insight into the mysteries of his crimes other than an astonishingly dishonest 130-page book, ghost-written by a childhood acquaintance and published by a vanity publisher, that he compiled in prison called "Collateral Damage: The John List Story." In this final brazen act of jaw-droppingly arrogant evil, List and his pitiful amanuensis argued that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, stemming from his limited combat experience in World War II -- and that he, no less than the family he so brutally murdered, was to be pitied as a victim. He died two years later, and good riddance to that.

During his trial in 1990, I did manage to ask List whether he was D.B. Cooper amid the courtroom tumult in Elizabeth, N.J. In reply, he just blinked those cold killer's eyes, seeming not to comprehend the question. Then the guards nudged him away. Years later, in prison, he explicitly denied being D.B. Cooper.

As I said, I never bought into the remote possibility. Though he was depicted as a criminal mastermind who had cleverly planned the murders and the escape, List managed to avoid arrest for 17 years mostly through the incompetence of law enforcement. He planned the murders, did them, drove to the airport, abandoned his car and traveled (by bus, not plane) to Michigan, where he had grown up. He then made his way to Denver, took a new name, got a series of low-paid jobs, and insinuated himself into a Denver branch of the same church he had belonged to in New Jersey, a Lutheran evangelical congregation, the likes of which should have been the first place the police and FBI looked for him.

List had been an expert marksman in World War II and Korea, but he was not athletic at all, and I think the bewildered look I got from him when I asked him about D.B. Cooper was partly a reply that said, "Do I look like a guy brave enough to parachute from an airliner?" Most serious investigators, those not looking to cook up a new movie and book deal, believe that "D.B. Cooper," whoever he was, probably died right away, during the daredevil nighttime parachute escape at high altitude, plunging into the dark abyss through a raging storm over rugged terrain.

Besides, even the people who were hijacked in 1971 liked D.B. Cooper, who hurt no one.

Nobody liked John Emil List.



paleolith said...

Excitement. Belief. Desire for certainty. Aren't these the primary explanation for the bungling, in this and many other cases? Cops are subject to the same emotions the rest of us are, perhaps even more to the desire for certainty.

ChefNick said...

My God, you're working on a *book* about John List . . . talk about post-traumatic stress syndrome. If I were you I'd drink 8 double scotches, tear up the manuscript and forget you ever heard of a man name John List. He's right up there with BTK but with a truly horrific demon riding his shoulders . . . I'd have nightmares if I ever had to do so much as to actually hear his voice in person.

DB Cooper was a lunatic, a desperate one at that, but obviously one with a deluded idea that he'd somehow invented the perfect crime. I just can't fathom how he was allowed to go as far as he did. Those were innocent times. He didn't survive and he most certainly wasn't John List. . . . who is rotting as we speak in the unimaginable Hell that he feared so much yet designed for himself so meticulously.

Paul R said...

Mr. Sharkey,
You never cease to amaze me. First the flight over this.
I ordered the book today.
Paul R

Carrie Williamson said...

Fascinating, Joe. Good luck with the rerelease of your book.

Anonymous said...


Your book Death Sentence is the definative story of the John List Murders. I've read all three booksand your's is by far the best. The only thing you omitted is the part about the stained-glass skylight in tha ballroom being a signed Tiffany window (worth over $100,000 in 1971). JEL was broke that's the irony of the story.