“The Watcher”‘s John Graff Is Loosely Based on Real-Life Murderer John List

“The Watcher”‘s John Graff Is Loosely Based on Real-Life Murderer John List

The Watcher. Joe Mantello as John Graff in episode 103 of The Watcher. Cr. Eric Liebowitz/Netflix © 2022

Image Source: Netflix

Netflix’s “The Watcher” tells the eerie story of the Brannock family who move into a sweeping mansion only to discover that the home and its surrounding properties are crawling with bone-chilling secrets. The show stars Bobby Cannavale as the father, Dean; Naomi Watts as the mother, Nora; Isabel Gravitt as the daughter, Ellie; and Luke David Blumm as the son, Carter. Amid constant break-ins and threatening messages in their mailbox, it isn’t long before Dean and Nora begin to suspect everyone in town — including their neighbors Mitch (Richard Kind) and Mo (Margo Martindale) and their real-estate agent Karen Calhoun (Jennifer Coolidge) — of being in on a massive conspiracy to run them out of town.

At the heart of the show is a persistent sense of anticipation that seeps into the greater plot line about the mysterious letters from The Watcher and the show’s subplots. As Dean attempts to find the source behind the inexplicable break-ins and attacks on his family’s home, he learns that a former inhabitant of the house, John Graff, might play a larger role in his family’s current predicament than he initially thought.

In the same way that the show is loosely based on the true story of the Broaddus family, Graff’s character and the circumstances surrounding his family’s death are strikingly similar to those of real-life murderer John List, who killed his entire family and then vanished for almost 20 years.

Who Was John Graff?

In episode three of “The Watcher,” “Götterdämmerung,” Dean is confronted by a man in his home who identifies himself as John (Joe Mantello), a building inspector who supposedly stopped by to assess the ongoing renovations on the house. During an unsettling conversation in the family kitchen, John brings up Dean’s 16-year-old daughter, Ellie (Isabel Gravitt), and her secret relationship with 19-year-old security entrepreneur Dakota (Henry Hunter Hall). After mentioning that his own daughter was sexually active at a young age, John tells Dean, “We fixed the problem, but it was traumatic for the whole family.” When Dean asks him to elaborate, John vaguely adds, “Suffice it say, she never wore another low-cut shirt again.”

Perplexed, Dean continues to search for clues about the author behind the Watcher letters. Later in the episode, he meets up with the private investigator, Theodora Birch (Noma Dumezweni), he hired to find out more about the house and its former inhabitants. While the information is off the record, Theodora tells Dean that she did uncover some interesting information about a former resident of the home. “The father, John Graff, was about as normal a guy as you could find. He loved two things: his family and his church,” Theodora says.

“There was no trace of him after that. He just disappeared.”

She adds that Graff was an Army veteran who became an accountant and went to a Lutheran church every Sunday. After working late one night, John was mugged on his way home, so — with the financial help of his mother — he decided to buy a house in the suburbs for himself and his family, which included his son, Dale (Aidan Pierce Brennan), an athlete and straight-A student; his “boy-crazy” 17-year-old daughter, Pat (Samantha Blaire Cutler); his alcohol-dependent wife, Helen; and his mother.

Shortly after the move, John was fired from his job. Rather than tell his family the bad news, he pretended to go to work every day and began stealing money from his mother’s accounts to keep them afloat. On Halloween, he caught his daughter dancing with her teacher at a party and lost his temper, telling her, “You dress like a wh*re.” Fueled by his anger and the humiliation he felt over being unable to support his family, John later decided — with encouragement from The Watcher — to kill his entire family and send them to a “better place.”

In 1995, John called the principal of his kids’ school and told them the family was going out of town for a few months to visit a relative who had been ill. Next, he cut his face out of every family photograph so people wouldn’t be able to identify him after the crime. Calmly, John carried out the plan, shooting his wife in the living room and killing his mother in the exact same manner upstairs. When Pat arrived home from school, he cornered her in the bathroom and shot her, too.

“Then he goes downstairs and makes himself a sandwich,” Theodora says. “And then he heads to his son’s basketball game.” When the game was over, John drove Dale home and shot him in the doorway as soon as they were inside. Once his entire family was dead, John turned on all the lights and played Richard Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” (“Twilight of the Gods”) over the house’s intercom to make it seem as though people were home before fleeing.

Two weeks went by before Jasper (Terry Kinney) eventually checked in and found the whole family laying head to head in a circle on the floor, their bodies nearly mummified “like they’d been drained.” “On the floor in the basement, there were empty milk jugs. They had been filled with blood, now they were empty,” Theodora tells Dean, implying that John drained the bodies after they were dead and drank the blood.

Three days after the initial murders, police also discovered the teacher from Pat’s Halloween party dead in his car with a gunshot wound to his head, the bullets different from those found at the Graff family murder scene. “There was no trace of him after that. He just disappeared,” Theodora says before Dean realizes that John was the same man making a sandwich in his kitchen.

Insurance executive John List was sought by police on suspicion of murder after the bodies of his wife, mother, and three teenaged children were found shot dead in his Westfield, New Jersey, home.

Image Source: Getty / Bettmann Collection

John List True Story

John Emil List was a devout Lutheran and a Sunday school teacher. Fresh out of high school in 1943, he enrolled in the US Army and served as a lab technician during World War II. After he was discharged in 1946, he earned a BA in business administration and a master’s degree in accounting. In 1951, he married Helen Morris Taylor, and the pair later had three children, according to 1991’s “Righteous Carnage: The List Murders.” Following a second tour in the Army and several work-related moves, List accepted a job as vice president and comptroller at a bank in Jersey City, NJ. He moved his wife, children, and mother into a 19-room Victorian mansion known as Breeze Knoll at 431 Hillside Avenue in Westfield, NJ, where violent crime was reportedly rare.

The List family’s bodies were not found until nearly a month later on Dec. 7.

On Nov. 9, 1971, List killed his family using a 9 mm Steyr 1912 semi-automatic handgun and his father’s Colt .22 caliber revolver. While the kids were at school, List shot his wife, Helen, 46, in the back of the head before shooting his mother, Alma, 84, above the left eye. When his daughter, Patricia, 16, and his son Frederick, 13, returned home from school, List shot them in the back of the head. Next, List ate lunch and went to the bank to close his and his mother’s accounts. Then, he went to Westfield High School to watch his eldest son, 15-year-old John Frederick, play in a soccer game. After the game, List drove John Frederick home and shot him several times as the teen attempted to defend himself.

List placed the bodies of his wife and children on sleeping bags in the ballroom and left his mother’s body in her apartment in the attic. Like John Graff in “The Watcher,” he then cleaned the crime scene, removed his pictures from the family photos, turned the radio up, left the lights on, and vanished. Once he was gone, List continued to send notes to the children’s schools, claiming that they were out of town visiting an ill relative.

Unlike Graff, List left a five-page letter to his pastor confessing to the murders, stating that he had killed his family to save their souls, according to The New York Times. The List family’s bodies were not found until nearly a month later on Dec. 7, 1971, when the lightbulbs began to burn out from constant use and neighbors called the police, who entered through an unlocked window near the basement and discovered the bodies, per Tru TV.

According to House-Crazy archives, Breeze Knoll burned down in August 1972, nine months after the murders, and a new house was built on the property in 1974.

How Was John List Caught?

Even though List’s letter to his pastor served as a full confession, the murderer managed to evade police for nearly 18 years, during which time he remarried under the name Robert Peter “Bob” Clark and was proposed as a suspect in the DB Cooper case.

In May 1989, “America’s Most Wanted” aired a special about the List murders. Two weeks later, on June 1, 1989, List was arrested after a neighbor in Denver recognized him from the show and called the police. After months on trial, List confessed his true identity on Feb. 16, 1990. During the trial, List, like Graff, admitted that he’d been laid off from his job in 1971 and pretended to go to work every day to avoid telling his family the truth. Per Go Leader archives, he also stole money from his mother’s accounts to pay the mortgage but claimed that he reached his threshold when the family’s financial problems and his wife’s alcohol dependency became too much to handle.

On April 12, 1990, List was convicted of five counts of first-degree murder and received the maximum sentence at the time of five consecutive terms of life imprisonment, according to the LA Times.

How Did John List Die?

According to The New York Times, on March 21, 2008, List died of pneumonia while imprisoned at age 82 at the St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton, NJ.