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List’s Chilling Letter to Pastor: I Did It for Their Souls

March 28, 1990 GMT

ELIZABETH, N.J. (AP) _ John E. List killed five members of his family 18 years ago because he could no longer support them and feared they would forsake their religion, according to a confession letter released Wednesday.

″After it was all over I said some prayers for them all - from the hymn book. That was the least that I could do,″ the devout Lutheran and former Sunday school teacher wrote in the 1971 letter to his pastor.

The letter was released after Superior Court Judge William L’E. Wertheimer allowed it as evidence in List’s murder trial.

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List began the five-page letter by telling the Rev. Eugene A. Rehwinkel, ″I am very sorry to add this additional burden to your work. ...

″I leave my-self in the hands of Gods Justice & Mercy,″ List wrote. He wrote that God could have helped him in his time of distress, ″but apparently he saw fit not to answer my prayers.″

″This makes me think that perhaps it was for the best as far as the childrens souls are concerned,″ wrote List. In the letter’s final paragraph, List said he is assured of making peace with God ″because of Christ dying even for me.″

The judge released the letter after denying a defense motion that the document was protected by the priest-penitent privilege. Opening statements are set for Monday.

List argues that he is innocent because of his mental state at the time the slayings occurred.

Handwritten in script on yellow-lined paper, the letter was dated Nov. 9, 1971. It had been the subject of intense interest since police found it Dec. 7, 1971, in a filing cabinet in List’s Westfield mansion. Police read the letter and called Rehwinkel to the house, where they let him read it.

Also in the 18-room mansion were the bullet-ridden bodies of List’s wife, Helen, 45; children Patricia, 16; John Jr., 15; and Frederick, 13; and List’s 84-year-old mother, Alma.

The bodies of Helen List and the children were lined up on sleeping bags on the floor of the sparsely furnished ballroom, and Alma List was found on the third floor.

″I know that many will only look at the additional years that they could have lived but if finally they were no longer Christians what would be gained,″ List wrote.

″Also, I’m sure many will say, ‘How could anyone do such a horrible thing.’ - My only answer is it isn’t easy and was only done after much thought.″

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List wrote that he shot his family members from behind because he ″didn’t want any of them to know even at the last second that I had to do this to them.″ He said he had to kill his mother because the other deaths ″would have been a tremendous shock to her.″

None suffered, but John Jr. ″got hurt more because he seemed to struggle longer,″ List said. Police said John Jr. was shot 10 times. List said he had planned to kill them on All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, ″an appropriate day for them to get to heaven.″ But the day passed, he said, because his travel plans were delayed.

List opened the letter by saying his actions went against all he had been taught and that his account ″will not make it right.″

He then enumerated his reasons.

List, then a 46-year-old accountant who was selling insurance, said he wasn’t earning enough to support the family and was near bankruptcy.

″True we could have gone bankrupt and maybe gone on welfare,″ he said. But he feared the effects of poverty on the children.

He also worried about what Patricia’s aspirations as an actress ″might do to her continuing to be a Christian.″

And he was upset that his wife stopped going to church and said she wanted to leave the church.

″If any one of these had been the condition we might have pulled through but this was just too much. At least I’m certain that all have gone to heaven now.″

List then discussed ″final arrangements,″ asking for cremations and for Rehwinkel to keep funeral costs low.

List asked Rehwinkel to distribute books and other personal things from the house, and suggested the school or church library.

He signed it ″John,″ then added:

″P.S. Mother is in the hallway in the attic-3rd floor. She was too heavy to move.″