Monday, March 24, 2008
Family killer John List was the subject of a landmark tabloid television re-enactment
Family killer John E. List has died at 82. The former Sunday school teacher murdered his wife, mother and three teenage kids in their home on November 9, 1971. He'd planned the murders meticulously, lined up the bodies, left a classical music LP on autoplay and disappeared into the wind. It was a month before the corpses were found in the 18-room mansion and List himself remained on the run for 17 years until he was caught a few days after his story was shown on America's Most Wanted.
The very creepy Mr. List had moved to Virginia, remarried, and under the name Robert P. Clark was working as an accountant when he was caught. He was convicted of the murders in 1990 and sent off to prison. His name came up again some years later when someone suspected he was the aircraft hijacker DB Cooper.
More significantly, his crime and subsequent travels were the subject of a landmark 1989 filmed re-enactment series on A Current Affair, directed by tabloid television pioneer Rafael Abramovitz (above right and below left).
Abramovitz's cinematic telling of the List saga, playing out over several days like a serialized David Lynch movie, was full of religious symbolism and highlighted by the image of the failed List being dropped off at the train station each morning, only pretending he was off to work in the City. The series cracked open the most creative and innovative era in tabloid television, opened the door to new techniques in television news reporting, and was subsequently appropriated by both television movie producers and network news magazine shows.
Abramovitz, one of many forgotten heroes of tabloid television whose contributions and foibles are documented in the book Tabloid Baby, returned to practicing law, was part of the brief revival of A Current Affair in 2005, is now finishing up a nonfiction book, "After Little Michelle Went Missing."