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Sister-in-law: Accused family-killer dominated by bedridden wife

By FRANCES ANN BURNS

ELIZABETH, N.J. -- Accused family-killer John Emil List was dominated by his wife, who had become a bed-ridden invalid in the years immediately before he shot her, his mother and children, Helen List's sister testified Thursday.

In another glimpse into the family's troubled life, a Lutheran pastor told the jury in Union County Superior Court that he overheard Helen List taunting her husband 10 years before the killings, telling him that he was only 'half the man' her first husband was.

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Betty Jean Syfert testified that during an April 1968 visit to the List family mansion in Westfield, her sister Helen spent most of her time in bed.

List's lawyer, Elijah Miller Jr., is trying to introduce evidence that Helen List, 45, was dying from syphilis, a disease she allegedly contracted from her first husband, a soldier who died during the Korean War.

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Superior Court Judge William L'E. Wertheimer has so far barred any mention of syphilis or of allegations that List's daughter, Patricia, was interested in witchcraft.

List is being tried on charges he slaughtered his wife, mother, Alma, 84, daughter, Patricia, 16, John, 15, and Frederick, 13, in November 1971. Miller, a public defender, argues that List is legally innocent of the killings because the devout Lutheran thought he was saving his family from damnation.

Late Thursday, Miller tried to introduce testimony from the Rev. Eugene Rehwinkel, the family's pastor in Westfield, that Patricia List had given him a book, 'The Treasury of Witchcraft.' But Rehwinkel refused to testify about his conversations with Patricia or her father on the grounds that they were confidential talks.

Wertheimer said Patricia's interest in the book proved nothing by itself.

The case is expected to go to the jury early next week after Miller puts on psychiatrists who examined List after his arrest last year.

As defense witnesses, Syfert and her husband, Gene, who had also testified briefly for the prosecution, described List as a man overwhelmed by family troubles.

When the couple arrived at the home, Helen List was in bed, next to a cluttered nightstand holding medications, peanut butter and peanuts, Syfertsaid.

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'I was concerned about my sister's health,' Syfert said. 'The room was very unkempt, as was she. The bed linen was not exactly what I would call clean. The floor was not clean.'

The 18-room mansion was also in need of repair, she said.

Asked by Miller who was the dominant personality in the relationship, Syfert answered, 'My sister.'

John and Helen List were married in Baltimore in 1951 after Helen List mistakenly believed she was pregnant, but John List did not appear to resent the union, she said.

Joining the parade of Lutheran clergymen who have testified in the trial, the Rev. Edward Saresky, the family's minister at Faith Lutheran Church in the Rochester, N.Y., suburb of Pennfield, testified that he was shocked to overhear Helen List taunting her husband in 1961.

Paraphrasing Helen List, he said, 'If John was half the man that her former husband was they wouldn't have the troubles they were having. John didn't seem to react at all. I think John is an unusually private person.'

The family appeared to be under great stress from 1961 to 1964, when John List worked as an accountant for the Xerox Corp, he said. List then went into business for himself, which was floundering at the time of the killings.

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John List, while well-versed in church doctrine, had a problem translating the message of the gospel into his daily life, Sareskey said. 'John's problem was that he knew doctrine but he did not know faith,' he said.'I think John did not trust God.'

A doctor who examined List in February also told the court that he shows no signs of infectious disease -- implicitly including syphilis -- but did say he suffers from diabetes, which may cause lapses in memory.

List was arrested in Richmond, Va., where he was working as an accountant under the name Robert P. Clark. He had lived in the Denver area for many years as Clark, marrying a woman he met through a Lutheran church group.

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