'The Watcher' Character John Graff is Inspired by Real-Life Family Murderer and Longtime Fugitive John List

John Graff may be a fictional character, but John List was a real-life Westfield, N.J., resident who meticulously planned the murders of his entire family

This story contains spoilers for The Watcher

Netflix's new series The Watcher has thrust Westfield, N.J., into the public eye. But decades before creepy letters began to arrive for the Broaddus family, a horrific crime involving a prominent Westfield family shook the idyllic suburb.

The Watcher is loosely based on the true story of the Brauddus family — who are renamed the Brannocks in the series — and the alarming letters they began to receive after purchasing the home at 657 Boulevard in 2014.

However, the Brannock family are not the only characters in the series who are based on real-life people. The character John Graff, played by Joe Mantello, is loosely based on family murderer and longtime fugitive, John List, who also lived in Westfield.

In the fictionalized series, Graff's creepy character is the former owner of 657 Boulevard, who also receives letters from The Watcher and then kills his entire family.

In real life, List had no connection to 657 Boulevard, but he owned a mansion in Westfield and killed his wife, mother, and his three children before going on the run for nearly 18 years.

John List, Joe Mantello as John Graff in episode 103 of The Watcher
John List, left, and Joe Mantello as John Graff in The Watcher. Getty; Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

On November, 9, 1971, List sent his children to school, then got two old handguns from his garage. He went back inside his 19-room mansion — which was named Breeze Knoll — and shot and killed his wife of nearly 20 years, Helen List, in the kitchen. He then made his way to the third floor where his 84-year-old mother, Alma, lived in a converted apartment, NJ.com reports. After the pair greeted each other, he shot and killed her, too.

List dragged his wife's body to the ballroom of the mansion, then went to the kitchen and mopped the floor. When he was finished, he made himself a sandwich and ate at the kitchen table while waiting for his children to arrive home.

When they did, he killed Patricia, 16, John, 15, and Frederick, 13, one by one. According to NJ.com, the oldest and youngest were killed by a single bullet, but police believe his middle child, who was 5'9" and 170 pounds, put up a fight. He was struck by 10 bullets.

After the killings, he lined his three children's bodies up in the ballroom next to his wife on sleeping bags.

John List family
The List family.

Their bodies were discovered a month later once people began to get suspicious about the family's absence. It took so long for people to notice because List sent letters to the children's school saying they'd be gone for awhile to visit their ailing grandmother out of state.

When officers arrived at the mansion they discovered the bodies of the children and their mother in the ballroom. Then they found letters from List himself — including one written to his pastor in which he confessed to what he had done, NJ.com reports.

In the letter, he explained that he was broke and didn't want to subject his children to poverty, so that's why he killed them. The confession — in addition to other notes left by List — showed how he meticulously planned the murders.

"I'm sure many will say how can anyone do such a horrible thing. My only answer is it isn't easy and was only done after much thought," the confession letter read in part.

He signed off the five-page letter by writing "P.S. mother is in the hallway in the attic – 3rd floor. She was too heavy to move."

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Although detectives had a full confession, List was nowhere to be found — and he had almost a full month head start on detectives thanks to his months-long planning.

Nine months after the murders, List was still not apprehended, and the house was mysteriously destroyed by a fire. The fire was ruled an arson, and the case remains unsolved, NJ.com reports.

The $90,000, Westfield, N.J. 19 room mansion of John List, charged with mass murder of his entire family, stands in ruins after it was destroyed by a mysterious fire. An international search for List, whose trail was lost when his car was found at Kennedy Airport Dec. 10, has unearthed no clues to his disappearance.
The $90,000, Westfield, N.J. 19 room mansion of John List after it was set on fire. Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

It was later discovered that List arrived in Denver, Colo., 10 days after the murders and changed his name to Robert Peter "Bob" Clark. In 1985, List — who was going by a different name and age — married Delores Miller. By 1988, the married couple were living in Virginia and List was working as an accountant, NJ.com reports.

In 1989, an episode of America's Most Wanted aired featuring the story of the List murders in New Jersey. Wanda Flanery — an old friend of Delores — was watching and she recognized the man on TV as someone she knew as Robert Clark. She called the tip line.

FBI agents arrived at the shared home of Delores and Robert Clark on June 1 and knocked on the door. Delores answered, but her husband was at work. One of the officers stayed with her while the other rushed to where he was working. John List was caught.

"He was a strange man, I would say," FBI Agent Kevin August said of List, NJ.com reports. "He was not very animated — that's the best way to put it. He seemed to me as a vessel, with no soul in there."

On April 12, 1990, List was convicted of five counts of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.

During a 2002 interview with Connie Chung, List expressed regret for the killings saying, "I wish I had never done what I did. I've regretted my actions and prayed for forgiveness ever since."

When asked why he killed his family, but not himself, he responded saying if he died by suicide, he didn't think he'd go to heaven.

"It was my belief that if you kill yourself, you won't go to heaven," he said during the interview. "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."

On March 21, 2008, List died at the age of 82 of complications from pneumonia, but the infamous story of the List murders still haunts Westfield.

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