“The Watcher” hit Netflix on October 13, immediately taking audiences by storm! As Deadline details, the seven-episode suspense series, created by Hollywood powerhouses Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, racked up 125 million viewing hours within its first five days. Nearly two weeks later, it is still holding onto the streamer’s Number One spot. Inspired by an almost-too-bizarre-to-be-believed tale, the show is a fictionalized retelling of the experiences of the Broaddus family, who purchased what was to be their dream house, an attractive Dutch Colonial at 657 Boulevard in the affluent bedroom community of Westfield, N.J., in 2014. Instead, they endured an actual nightmare as menacing letters began appearing in their mailbox from an anonymous individual who purported to “have been put in charge of watching” their new home.
Chock full of dramatic twists and turns, the scintillating tale is thrilling enough to stand on its own. But buried within “The Watcher” storyline is yet another narrative based upon a different local case – the harrowing 1971 familicide carried out by disgruntled Westfield patriarch John List. Though “The Watcher” alleges that both nightmare scenarios took place at 657 Boulevard, in truth, List murdered his wife, mother and three children about two miles away at a different stately pad located at 431 Hillside Ave. (Please remember this is a private home. Do not trespass or bother the residents or the property in any way.)
Known as Breeze Knoll, the Lists’ former abode was initially built for J.S.A. Wittke, longtime president of the J.G. Shaw Blank Book Company of New York, and his wife, Phebe A. Cooper, on a 22.5-acre parcel the couple purchased in 1896. Completed sometime before 1906, the three-and-a-half-story Georgian-style residence stood atop what The Courier-News described in 1932 as “one of the highest points in Westfield, being more than 100 feet above the level of the railroad station,” where “on a clear day the bridges leading to Staten Island are easily discernible as well as some of the New York skyscrapers.”
During the Wittkes’ tenure, the dwelling was the site of numerous soirees and charity events, with guests awed by the structure’s 67-foot-long ballroom, 2,000-volume library and vast art gallery, which contained “one of the finest” art collections in all of N.J., according to The Courier-News. J.S.A. continued to live on the premises following Phebe’s passing in 1929 until he, too, passed away in 1936 at the age of 88.
List acquired the 19-room estate 29 years later for $50,000. At the time, it was still managing to awe visitors. Former neighbor Dave Devlin recently recounted to “Father Wants Us Dead,” an investigative podcast covering the case, “What a magnificent house it was! I remember a big giant stairway, you know, like Tara . . . and it went up into a balcony that led to all the big rooms. And it was truly magnificent.” But its glory days were numbered the second List took ownership.
Though John was comfortably employed as the vice president of First Federalist Savings and Loan of Westfield, Breeze Knoll was decidedly out of his price range. So his mother, Alma, pitched in funds for the down payment and the sprawling property’s third level was transformed into an apartment for the elderly woman, complete with a kitchen. Financially strapped, the Lists did not have funding for much else and most of the home was bizarrely left devoid of furnishings throughout their ownership, while needed repairs went largely untended.
The $90,000, 431 Hillside Avenue, Westfield, N.J. 19 room ma
The family’s financial straits became even more dire when John lost his job just a year after moving in. Too embarrassed to tell even his wife of his unemployment, he continued to get up bright and early each day, don his ubiquitous suit and tie and head out the door. But instead of toiling away at the bank, he spent working hours at the Westfield train station perusing want ads and reading books.
While he did find a couple of jobs here and there which helped him stay afloat temporarily, for the most part, John remained unemployed for the next five years, utilizing his mother’s savings to make ends meet. He also mortgaged the house on three separate occasions to the tune of over $40,000. Things finally came to an abrupt head in 1971 when John received notice that Breeze Knoll was facing foreclosure. Revealing the financial distress to his family was not an option, as the devoutly religious List believed the news would lead the children away from the church.
So he came up with what he thought was the only viable solution – to murder them all. He told Connie Chung in a 2002 jailhouse interview, “It was my belief that if you kill yourself, you won’t go to heaven. So eventually I got to the point where I felt that I could kill them. Hopefully, they would go to heaven, and then maybe I would have a chance to later confess my sins to God and get forgiveness.”
As detailed in his 2006 memoir (yes, he wrote a memoir!), List carried out his grisly plan on November 9, 1971, utilizing two guns he had purchased years prior. Much as was depicted in “The Watcher,” John (played by Joe Mantello on the series) first shot his wife, Helen, as she drank her morning coffee at the dining table. He then went upstairs to Alma’s apartment and shot the 84-year-old as she cooked breakfast in her kitchen. Returning downstairs, List dragged Helen’s body to the formerly grand ballroom, now just a vast empty space, and proceeded to mop up her blood. Then, in perhaps one of the most twisted acts of all, he made himself a sandwich and sat down to eat it at the same table where he had killed his wife only moments before.
As he waited for his children to return from school, John took care of logistics. He ran to the bank to cash out Alma’s savings bonds, halted newspaper, mail and milk deliveries, and informed the kids’ teachers that the family was going away for an extended time. He also cut his face out of every family photo on the premises in the hopes of thwarting police from distributing his likeness to newspapers.
List then killed each of his three children one by one as they arrived home, first shooting Patricia, who was 16 at the time, then Frederick, 13, and finally John, 15, before dragging their bodies into the ballroom alongside their mother.
The following morning he turned on all of the lights in the house and left music playing on the central intercom so as to mislead neighbors into believing the family was home, before heading to John F. Kennedy International Airport, where he parked his car as a sort of decoy and hopped a bus that eventually landed him in Colorado.
The $90,000, 431 Hillside Avenue, Westfield, N.J. 19 room ma
It took neighbors nearly a month to realize anything was wrong. The police were finally called on December 8, 28 days after the murders. Music was still playing throughout the house when they arrived. The handwritten five-page note John left behind, addressed to his pastor, left no question as to who was responsible for the horrific scene. Though detectives set out on a manhunt for the murderous patriarch, he had too great a headstart, seemingly vanishing into thin air.
Breeze Knoll subsequently sat empty for almost a year, waiting to be auctioned off, with most newspaper reports describing it as “decaying” due to the Lists’ neglectful upkeep. Then, things took another odd turn when a mysterious fire broke out in the early hours of August 30, 1972, thoroughly gutting the estate. Though arson was suspected, the responsible party was never found. The home’s charred remains were promptly razed and the 1.2-acre vacant plot left behind hit the auction block that December, ultimately selling for $36,100.
A five-bedroom, eight-bath 5,726-square-foot Federalist-style abode (pictured above) was then constructed on the parcel in 1974. The only holdovers from Breeze Knoll incorporated into the build were the positioning of the driveway and the broad stretch of lawn out front.
The sordid tale of John List doesn’t end there, though.
In 1972, Westfield Police Chief James Moran asserted to The Courier-News, “I believe that the way he’s going to be caught is that somebody’s going to see him and remember him. The passing of time doesn’t make it any less probable.” It took almost two decades for that prediction to prove true.
Upon relocating to Colorado, John began living a quiet life under the name Robert P. Clark, initially working as a cook at a hotel until finally securing a job as an accountant. He rejoined the Lutheran church, remarried and eventually moved to Virginia. Then in 1989, an episode of “America’s Most Wanted” recounted the case, broadcasting the story of the horrific murders to households nationwide. John’s former Colorado neighbor happened to be watching and recognized him immediately. She called the tip line, relayed List’s new address and he was arrested a few days later.
Following a trial, he was convicted of five counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to five consecutive life terms. He finally passed away while still incarcerated at the age of 82 in 2008, bizarrely confident in the knowledge that he would be reunited with his family and wholly forgiven in the afterlife. As he previously expressed to Connie Chung, “I feel when we get to heaven, we won’t worry about these earthly things. They’ll either have forgiven me or won’t realize, you know, what happened. I’m sure that if we recognize each other that we’ll like each other’s company just as we did here when times were better.” However, something tells me that his reception into the great beyond wasn’t nearly as warm or welcoming as he had hoped.