The new Netflix documentary, American Murder: The Family Next Door, has returned the Watts family murder to the national spotlight. Once again, people are trying to wrap their head around the idea of family annihilators. The idea of murdering your spouse is difficult to understand. The idea of murdering your children is almost unthinkable. Doing both at the same time seems unimaginable. But as these five cases prove, family annihilators are, sadly, nothing new.
Marty Bergen was a Major League Baseball player for the Boston Beaneaters. He was known for his erratic behavior off the field but was a well-respected player. Jesse Burkett, a left fielder for another team and future Hall of Famer called Bergen a natural. “As a catcher, Martin Bergen was the best the world ever produced,” Jesse said in 1900. “No man acted with more natural grace as a ballplayer. … [H]is movements [were] so quick and accurate in throwing that the speediest base runners … never took chances when Bergen was behind the bat.”
Rumors of Bergen’s bizarre behavior escalated in the summer of 1899. During a road trip during a pennant race, Bergen simply walked off the team bus. He disappeared for the remainder of the trip. He returned but then disappeared the following September, again. This left his team with zero notice or explanation of where he had been.
On January 19, 1900, Bergen was at home and, according to neighbors, in an “usually cheerful” mood. Later that day, he walked up to his wife and two children and began swinging an axe. He struck down his wife and 3-year-old son first, dropping them right next to each other. His 6-year-old daughter got as far as the kitchen before Bergen caught up with her and bludgeoned her. When he finished, Bergen took out a straight razor and sliced through his neck. The medical examiner would later note Bergen had cut himself so deeply, he had nearly decapitated himself.
The media had suppressed news of Bergen’s behavior during the height of his career. Even after the grisly crime, they would only state he had experienced “fits of melancholy” and had “showed signs of insanity” the previous year.
It wasn’t until 2001, over a century after Bergen cut down his entire family, that a clearer picture would form. In an article for Sports Illustrated, Dr. Carl Salzman of Harvard Medical School took a closer look at the Bergen case. “If I had to make a diagnosis, [schizophrenia with manic depression] would be it.”
On November 9, 1971, John List began his day by murdering his wife and mother in the family’s large home in Westfield, New Jersey. List then waited until two of his children arrived home from school. Once they walked through the door, List shot them both with the same gun he had used earlier, a 9mm Steyr 1912 semi-automatic handgun. List made himself lunch and drove to the bank to empty his and his mother’s bank accounts. He drove to the high school and watched his oldest son, John Jr., finish a game of soccer. List drove his son home and shot him as soon as they arrived.
Once everyone was dead, List dragged the bodies into a ballroom and started cleaning the crime scenes. He sent letters describing an extended trip to excuse absences from the children’s schools and the part-time jobs held by his two older children. He canceled milk, mail, and newspaper deliveries and left a five-page letter on the desk in his study.
Between the measures he took and the family’s reclusive lifestyle, it would be a month before the bodies were found. Neighbors reported they had only called the police when they noticed the lights in the house, which had been left on, began burning out one by one.
The police descended on the scene, discovered the bodies, and the letter on the desk in the study. The letter was addressed to his pastor. In it, List claimed he killed his family because he had seen “too much evil in the world.” He said he killed his mother, wife and children to “save their souls”.
Fast forward eighteen years. A television show in its first year of broadcast picks up the story and runs with it. They go so far as to invest in a forensic aged bust to reveal during the broadcast. John Walsh, the show’s host, details List’s crimes for the last half of the show, revealing the bust and urging viewers to call with any tips.
John List would be in custody less than two weeks after the 1989 episode of America’s Most Wanted.
Authorities would later learn John List had moved to Denver, Colorado in 1972, and simply began a new life. Using forged documents, he established himself as Robert “Bob” Clark and landed an accounting job. By 1979, List (aka Bob Clark) was the controller at a paper box company and ran a carpool for church shut-ins. He remarried in 1985 to a woman who had no idea she had been swept off her feet by a family annihilator.
During his trial, List claimed financial problems led to the wholesale slaughter of his family. He lost his job and could not find another. It was his way to avoid a situation he viewed as something marked by ‘shame and humiliation’. Instead of telling his family the truth and dealing with unemployment and welfare, he chose instead to kill them all.
In April of 1990, List was convicted of five counts of first-degree murder. Throughout the investigation, List had done everything in his power to evade responsibility. When he had been identified, he dug in his heels for SIX MONTHS, refusing to even admit he was John List. When it came time for his sentencing, he remained unrepentant. Addressing the court, he pled “I feel that because of my mental state at the time, I was unaccountable for what happened. I ask all affected by this for their forgiveness, understanding, and prayer.”
Judge William Wertheimer was unmoved. “John Emil List is without remorse and without honor,” he said. “After 18 years, five months and 22 days, it is now time for the voices of Helen, Alma, Patricia, Frederick, and John F. List to rise from the grave.” With that, John List was sentenced to the maximum permissible at the time — five life sentences to be served consecutively.
List filed an appeal, claiming post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He claimed his military service had clouded his judgment. The federal appeals court didn’t buy it and List spent the rest of his life in prison. He died at the age of 82 from complications from pneumonia.
Phillip Austin had a bit of a reputation when it came to having a short fuse. He and his wife, Claire, had married in 1993 just after their children were born. By 1999, the family had expanded to Phillip and Claire, their two children Kieren and Jade, along with two poodles, Dandy and Sooty. The tight family of four lived in Northampton, England, and had endured some rough times. Phillip had been to therapy, alone and as a part of couples therapy, in an attempt to curb his temper.
It didn’t work.
On July 10, 2000, Austin left his house in the morning, went to a local shop, and purchased a mallet. He then went home and began beating his wife, Claire, in the head. A struggle ensued. Phillip strangled Claire with her own bra before grabbing some carving knives from the kitchen and stabbing her to death. Using the mallet he bought earlier, he beat the two family dogs to death. Once done, he washed up and changed into clean clothes.
Phillip drove first to his wife’s place of employment. He told them Claire had injured her back and would not be able to come in as scheduled later in the day. From there, he headed to pick up his children from school. On the way home, he stopped and treated the kids to a dinner of fish and chips. Once home, Philip separated his children and strangled each one in their bedroom.
A week later, Claire’s parents, Carol and Harry Quinn, were worried.They had not heard from their daughter in several days. They became suspicious and decided to drive to the Austin family home to check in on her. Once there, they found the place locked up tight with no sign of life.Using a spare key, they let themselves inside.
They soon found the bodies of their daughter and two grandchildren. The bodies of Claire and the children had been trapped in the house in the sweltering heat for over a week.
Phillip Austin was nowhere to be found.
Philip spent the previous week on the run. During that time he was spotted in Blackpool and Scarborough. When police finally located him, he was in the Lake District. He was found having slashed his wrists while sitting in his parked car.
He was taken into custody and charged with the slaying of his wife and two children. When asked what happened that made him attack his wife, Austin essentially shrugged it off. “She started hassling me and arguing and that,” he told investigators. “I just turned on her.” When asked about the slaughter of his children, he responded, “It sort of came to me that I had killed her so I went upstairs and killed my children.”
Phillip Austin eventually plead guilty. On March 22, 2001, he was sentenced to three life sentences. Since the sentences were set to run concurrently, however, Austin will be eligible for parole in 2021.
As he approached 40, William Parente was on the brink of success. He married his wife, Betty, at 28 and had recently begun a private legal practice in New York. Betty and William welcomed their first daughter into the world, then another eight years later. During that time, Parente grew his business, expanding his client base and his areas of interest.
Over the ensuing years, he would eventually find himself handling financial legal matters. After a while, he settled into bridge loans. Parente became known as a financier who could help with loans in one way or another. Records would show he was borrowing from various investments over which he had legal control to fund high-risk investments. This was done without the knowledge of the original investors.
On several occasions, Parente was asked to produce funds from investments from angry clients. In each case, he was unable to produce the money and was also unable to explain why it was not able to do so. William would turn on the charm and smooth things over, often borrowing here and there to cover costs or keep clients happy.
As time went on, Parente’s fragile Ponzi scheme became simply untenable. By 2009, things began to fall apart. William Parente was facing $245,000 in bounced checks and an FBI investigation alleging he had defrauded investors to the tune of $20 million.
William and Betty’s oldest daughter, Stephanie, was attending a university in Maryland. On a whim, William suggested a family visit. His wife and daughters, still completely oblivious to William’s growing problems, agreed to a surprise family trip.
He loaded the car with his wife and youngest daughter and the trio headed off. Once in Maryland, they booked into a Sheraton Hotel. After they were settled, William executed his plan. He quickly smothered his wife, then his youngest daughter. He called Stephanie and asked her to meet the family at the hotel. Once there, William murdered his firstborn daughter.
With his family extinguished, William killed himself, using a knife he bought that day. According to reports, William stabbed himself in the neck and simply bled out.
Once the bodies were found, the investigation into William’s busisness quickly came to light. William’s funeral and burial services were conducted separately from those of his wife and children, his victims.
Three years later, in 2012, a Nassau County judge found that 66 of Parente’s former clients could recoup at least some of the money they lost. Parente’s entire estate — estimated at around $8 million — would only account for half of what his clients had lost in the process. Even with such high financial stakes, those left to pick up the pieces were quick to point out they escaped relatively unscathed. One investor, a lawyer from Queens, commented at the time “All monies involved were private money that can be replaced. What Mr. Parente did to his family is a great tragedy and unforgivable.”
It is impossible to discuss family annihilators who predate Chris Watts without acknowledging Scott Peterson.
Scott and Laci Peterson were known as a happy — and successful — couple awaiting the birth of their first child. Although Laci’s due date was not until February 2003, by the previous Christmas, the couple already knew it was a son they planned to name Connor.
On Christmas Eve of 2002, Scott Peterson headed out for a day of fishing while his wife planned to make some cookies and take the family dog out for a walk to a local park. Scott left early, heading out by 8.30 a.m. Neighbors in the area report seeing the family dog outside of the yard at various points during the morning and returning it to the Peterson yard, which was not an uncommon occurrence.
Scott Peterson would later claim he returned home in the later afternoon and found the house empty. He cleaned up, took a shower, and eventually wondered where his wife was. He called her family who, in turn, alerted the police.
Suspicion almost immediately fell onto Scott Peterson. Some of this, of course, was because he was Lac’s husband. Laci’s parents initially came out in support of Scott, particularly as the story gained national attention in the weeks following Laci’s disappearance. In the end, it would take several revelations — and taped phone calls — for Laci’s family to not only withdraw their support but call for Scott’s prosecution.
In early 2003, less than a month after Laci’s disappearance, stories began to emerge about Scott’s extramarital affair with Amber Frey. In time, Frey revealed she met Scott in November of 2002, at which time he had told her he was single. As time went on and Frey pressed for details, Peterson said he was newly single and that he was facing “the first holiday without” his wife.
In April of 2003, a couple found the remains of a “late-term fetus” near the shore of the San Francisco Bay. The following day, the remains of Laci Paterson were found on another stretch of the San Francisco Bay. By this time, Scott had attended several candlelight vigils and other events in the hopes of “finding” his wife and their unborn child.
Scott was arrested a few days later. At the time of his arrest, he had dyed his naturally dark hair, bleaching it to near blonde. During his arrest, he was in possession of a duffel bag containing:
- $15,000 in cash
- survival and camping gear
- several changes of clothes
- four cell phones
- drivers licenses belonging to himself and his brother
Peterson was convicted of two counts of murder in 2004. He was convicted of first-degree murder for his wife Laci and second-degree murder for the fetus she carried — and they had named — at the time. Peterson was eventually found guilty and sentenced to death. In August of 2020, however, his appeals made their way through the system. In a 7–0 ruling, his conviction was upheld, but his death sentence overturned. As of fall 2020, Scott’s petition to have his conviction overturned is still going through the courts.