The Observer | Who was the real John Graff?

You get two true crimes for the price of one in Netflix’s latest binge-worthy drama The Watcher.

Its central premise, of course, was inspired by a New York magazine article about a couple being stalked by a stalker after moving into their dream house. But for unknown reasons, creator Ryan Murphy also interweaves another real-life mystery unrelated to the show’s already dark narrative.

Yes, unlike many possible suspects on the show, the man believed to be fugitive serial killer John Graff (Joe Mantello) isn’t just a figment of the imagination. Here’s a look at the man who inspired her disturbing story.

Who was John Graff?

Well, John Graff is actually based on John List.

After serving as a lab technician during World War II, List earned a master’s degree in accounting and married widow Helen Morris Taylor. The couple had three children – Patricia, John and Frederick – and in 1965 the family, alongside List’s mother, moved from New York to Jersey City.

They moved into a 19-bedroom Victorian mansion named Breeze Knoll in Westfield, where List worked as a bank vice-president. By this point, Helen was plagued by alcoholism, and by the early 1970s the lists had also encountered major financial difficulties.

What did John List do?

The Observer took many liberties with his mystery of threatening letters, though he largely stuck to the facts when it came to the horrific crimes of John Graff.

On November 9, 1971, List shot and killed his mother Alma and his wife at their Breeze Knoll home. Upon their return from school, Frederick, 13, and Patricia, 16, tragically suffered the same fate.

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As the dramatization shows, List then made himself lunch before heading to 15-year-old Frederick’s high school football game. After bringing his son home, he concluded his massacre by shooting him repeatedly; there was evidence that John had tried to defend himself.

The accountant placed his mother’s body in his attic apartment and the bodies of his wife and children in the ballroom before writing a five-page letter to his pastor revealing he killed his loved ones to save their souls from the evils of the world.

Much like Graff did in The Watcher, List then cut himself out of every family photo — making his identification much harder — and cleaned the house before leaving. Having already told her children’s schools and various workplaces that the family would be out of state to visit her ailing mother-in-law for several weeks, the bodies were not found for a month.

Helen’s mother would have been the sixth victim had she not postponed her trip due to illness.

Indeed, it wasn’t until neighbors became concerned about the house’s constant illumination that the police were called and the gruesome discovery was made.

What happened next ?

house with a mysterious figure stood on the right side

The Observer.

The cops launched a nationwide manhunt with little luck. Although the Lists’ car was discovered parked at JFK airport in New York, there was no evidence the suspect had been stolen anywhere. Bizarrely, just nine months after the homicides, Breeze Knoll burned down in a suspected arson attack that remains unsolved.

That same year, List also became a suspect in the enigmatic case of DB Cooper, the hijacker who secured a $200,000 ransom before parachuting above the untraceable Washington night sky. This puzzling incident took place just two weeks after the List murders. He is no longer considered a suspect.

List managed to evade capture for nearly 18 years until America’s Most Wanted brought his case back into the spotlight in 1989. One particular Denver viewer spotted the similarities between the show’s aging clay model television and his former neighbor and informed officials.

List was later arrested at the workplace of his accounting firm, but continued to insist he was a man named Bob Clark for several months before finally coming forward.

Where was John List hiding?

The FBI later discovered that following the murders, List had moved to New Jersey, Michigan, and Colorado before starting a new life in Denver. After changing his name, he landed a job as an accountant, joined a local Lutheran church and even married a second time, walking down the aisle with Delores Miller in 1985.

What were John List’s motivations?

Schuyler, Nora and Dean discuss the details of the case.  Nora is standing holding some papers, with Nora and Dean seated at a table across from her.  The suspicious council stands behind them

Joe Mantello as John Graff in The Watcher.

During his trial, List revealed that he ran into money troubles after he was fired from his bank job in 1971. Instead of telling his family, the accountant pretended to go working every day for months, occupying his time reading the newspapers at the local train station.

List also stole her mother’s bank account to help pay the mortgage and persuaded her children to get part-time jobs to earn more money – but these were only temporary solutions.

According to a court-appointed psychiatrist, List believed the only way to stop the financial rot was to seek government help or murder his entire family. Tragically, he rejected the first option for fear of being ridiculed.

What happened to John List?

In April 1990, List was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences, one for each first-degree murder conviction. The accountant initially refused to take responsibility for his crimes, arguing that he was not mentally healthy at the time due to PTSD brought on by his military experiences.

He then launched an unsuccessful appeal on these grounds, also claiming that the note he had written to his pastor was “confidential” and should not have been used as evidence.

In 2002, List accepted his guilt, telling Connie Chung in a TV interview, “I knew it was wrong. While I was doing it, I knew it was wrong.” Six years later, he died of pneumonia at the age of 82.

The Watcher is available to stream on Netflix. Check out more of our drama coverage or visit our TV guide to see what’s on tonight.

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