I was about ten when my first earth-shattering experience blew its way into my life. My quiet, small town held the secrets of a murder. Looking up general statistics: I grew up in a place that has about a .001% murder rate per 1,000.
Of course, I knew about murder as a concept. I knew it was a real thing that happens. My grandma watches a number of primetime true crime shows, and I was on her lap or at her feet during my many sleepovers. It is a vastly different experience when you’re at the command center of a search and rescue operation.*
While everyone has these moments, as a whole we see the 70s as a great, collective shattering for the United States. Plagues of serial killers, divorce, and general cultural revolution defined a decade and shifted this country. Westfield, New Jersey was not much different from my small town in 1971. Both are relatively affluent, quiet, and neighborly. It was the place people wanted to live. John List shattered the community's conscience by murdering his family and then vanishing.
Produced by NJ.com and covered by Rebecca Everett and Jessica Remo, Father Wants Us Dead is the first deep dive into the story behind the tragedy just over fifty years old. These reporters tread gently into a community still haunted. Everett and Remo contacted over one hundred people for this project and interviewed more than fifty of them. Friends of the family, neighbors, police officials, and more lend their voices to a story everyone has talked about. However, until this podcast, no one has dedicated a full feature to the murders of Helen, Alma, Patricia, Frederick, and John.
Episodes stay around or under the 45-minute mark so far, and the quality is great. The writing is clear, but initially exposition-heavy. Once we get past thorough introductions, Father Wants Us Dead settles into a conversational docu-style narration that is comfortable and familiar. The story progresses easily in the hands of these two reporters. They are deftly giving us hints of what’s to come while respecting a thorough progression of the story, and the sheer volume of information that comes with it.
Remo and Everett approach the subject matter with kindness, revealing what we don’t often hear of these delicate cold calls. Even if it happened fifty years ago, the reporters are placing calls to those who knew and loved the victims. I am grateful for the balance of respect and curiosity as the reporters peel back, layer by layer, why this devout Lutheran man would execute his family and then disappear.
Yes, there’s more to the story than familicide. The List family was murdered, found nearly a month later- and Jon List was nowhere to be found. The first two episodes tactfully hint at a further, twisting story that is sure to be interesting, heartbreaking, and everything else we know comes with a tragedy like this.
In somewhat full disclosure- I now live within an hour of Westfield. I asked my New Jersey people about this case and every single one of them knew exactly what I was talking about with the vaguest of descriptions. I have a deep curiosity for true crime and recognize that there’s always a discomfort with telling these stories. However, I feel like the community might benefit from the delicate handling of this story- and not just for the sake of history and maintaining a record. It’s also about giving a community a designated space to talk about terrible things.
The first three episodes of Father Wants Us Dead are out now, wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you to Alexandra at POD.DRALAND for the early listen, so I could wrap my head around this and get a release day review in!
*I was there at ten because my parents were helping with supplies to feed the search and rescue workers, and all of the people who would have kept me away were either helping with food or the actual search and rescue.