Tracing the Steps of John Lennon's Killer


A few weeks after John Lennon was shot by obsessed fan Mark David Chapman, Newsweek devoted a special report to the singer, painstakingly tracing the steps of his killer and describing the mourning that followed the Dec. 8, 1980 shooting of the beloved Beatle. Read one of the issue stories, published in the Dec. 22, 1980 issue.

Come together, he had once asked them in a song, and now they came, tens of thousands of them, to share their grief and shock at the news. John Lennon, once the cheeky wit and sardonic soul of the Beatles, whose music had touched a generation and enchanted the world, had been slain on his doorstep by a confused, suicidal young man who had apparently idolized him. Along New York's Central Park West and West 72nd Street, in front of the building where Lennon had lived and died, they stood for hours in tearful vigil, looking to each other and his music for comfort. The scene was repeated in Dallas's Lee Park, at San Francisco's Marina Green, on the Boston Common and in countless other gathering places around the country and the world. Young and old, black and white, they lit candles and softly sang his songs. "All you need is love," they chanted in the rain. "Love is all you need."

As the unofficial leader of the Beatles, Lennon had exerted a numinous influence on the popular culture of the 1960s and 1970s. But in recent years he had been something of a recluse, a refugee from the maelstrom of pop superstardom who had abandoned the recording studio and public life in an effort to devote himself to raising his son Sean, now 5. He emerged from his self-imposed retreat just five months ago, on the eve of his 40th birthday, a man finally at peace with himself, the creative juices once again flowing. He and his wife, Yoko Ono, released their first album in eight years and were putting the finishing touches on a second. He was, as he titled his most popular new song, "Starting Over," "[I'm Only] 40," he said cheerfully. "God willing, there are another 40 years of productivity to go." But as he and Yoko returned home from a late-night session at a recording studio early last week, a 25-year-old doppelgänger named Mark David Chapman popped out of the darkness and shot Lennon.

Distraught: The killing stunned the nation – and much of the world – as nothing had since the political assassinations of the 1960s. "At first, I didn't believe he was really dead," said Chris Backus, one of a thousand mourners who assembled the next day at the ABC entertainment complex in Los Angeles to pay tribute to Lennon. "When I realized it was true, then – bang! – part of my childhood was gone forever." As the news spread, radio stations throughout North America and Europe threw away their play lists and began broadcasting nothing but music by Lennon and the Beatles. Even Radio Moscow devoted 90 minutes to his songs. "The phones started ringing right after the news and they didn't stop all day," reported disc jockey Traver Hulse of KATT-FM in Oklahoma City. "It was like losing a President." Distraught fans also descended on record stores, snapping up virtually every Lennon album available. "It was like they had just been robbed of something," said manager Gary Crawford of Strawberries, a downtown Boston record store. "They wanted to replace that something right away."

The question asked over and over again was why – why had Chapman, a moody unemployed amateur guitar player who lived and worked in the South before moving to Hawaii three years ago, killed a man he was said to have admired for fifteen years? There were no simple answers. Police said Chapman told them of hearing "voices," of having "a good side and a bad side," of being annoyed at the way Lennon scrawled his autograph when Chapman first approached him six hours before the shooting. Friends talked of Chapman's obsessive identification with Lennon – how he used to play Beatles songs constantly on his guitar, how he taped the name "John Lennon" over his own on the ID badge he wore as a maintenance man at a Honolulu condominium, how he emulated Lennon by marrying a Japanese woman several years his senior. And psychologists noted that before taking Lennon's life, Chapman had twice tried to take his own. "He had already tried to kill himself and he was unsuccessful, so he decided to kill Lennon," speculated a forensic psychiatrist in Hawaii. "The homicide was simply a suicide turned backward."

Mementos and flowers left by fans lay around the Imagine mosaic in the Strawberry Fields section of Central Park on the 33th anniversary of the death of former Beatle John Lennon, in New York, December 8, 2013. Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

'Normal Dude': Chapman had apparently been planning to shoot Lennon for weeks. Late in October he quit his job as a maintenance man and applied to the Honolulu police for a pistol permit. Since he had no criminal record, the permit was granted – and on Oct. 27, he went to J&S Sales, Ltd., in Honolulu and paid $169 for a five-shot Charter Arms .38 special. "Just a normal dude," says J&S manager Tom Grahovac. At about the same time, Chapman called local art dealer Pat Carlson, who had sold him a number of expensive lithographs. He wanted to sell one, he told her, because he needed to raise some money. He also called the employment counselor who had found him the condominium job. "He said to me that he had something really big he was planning to do," she recalled.

A week or so later, Chapman left Honolulu for Atlanta, Ga., where he had grown up and gone to school. He told acquaintances that he was in town to see his father, but he never did. Instead, he dropped in on an old girlfriend and visited his high-school chorus teacher, Madison Short. Though the girlfriend's parents said he seemed depressed, Short recalled him insisting that "he was happy, content with his lot in life." Chapman said nothing about going to New York or seeking out John Lennon. After a few days he returned home to Honolulu, but on Dec. 5 he was off again. His wife, Gloria, had no idea of his plans. "She knew he was going somewhere," Gloria's lawyer, Brook Hart, said, "but she didn't know precisely where."

Boast: He arrived in New York on Saturday, Dec. 6, and checked into a $16.50-a-night room at a YMCA just nine blocks from the Dakota, the elegant, century-old apartment building where Lennon and his family lived. That afternoon, taxi driver Mark Snyder picked up Chapman in his cab. According to Snyder, Chapman boasted that he was Lennon's sound engineer, that he was in the midst of a recording session with him and that he had just learned that Lennon and his long-estranged songwriting partner Paul McCartney were going to make an album together.

The same day, Chapman was seen for the first time loitering near an entrance to the Dakota. No one took much notice, the building is home to a number of celebrities – among them, conductor Leonard Bernstein, actress Lauren Bacall and comedienne Gilda Radner – and sidewalk gawkers are a common sight. Chapman reappeared outside the Dakota on Sunday as well. He also changed hotels on Sunday, moving from the Y to a more comfortable $82-a-day room at the Sheraton Centre farther downtown.

On Monday evening Chapman's and Lennon's paths finally crossed. Once again Chapman had spent the afternoon on the sidewalk outside the Dakota – this time in the company of Paul Goresh, a Beatles fan and amateur photographer from North Arlington, N.J. Goresh, who was also hoping to catch a glimpse of Lennon, said Chapman struck up a conversation as they waited. "He said he spent the last three days trying to see Lennon and get an autograph," Goresh recalled. At about 5 p.m., Lennon and his wife finally emerged from the bilding on their way to The Record Plant Studios on West 44th Street. Chapman approached Lennon timidly, holding out a copy of John and Yoko's latest album, "Double Fantasy." Lennong took it and scrawled his signature ("John Lennon 1980") across the cover, while Goresh snapped a picture. Chapman was delighted. "John Lennon signed my album," he exulted to Goresh after the Lennons had left. "Nobody in Hawaii is going to believe me."

The two men remained outside the Dakota for another two hours. When Goresh finally decided to go home, Chapman tried to change his mind. Lennon, he said, "should be home soon and you can get your album signed." Goresh replied that he could get Lennon's autograph another day. "I'd wait," Chapman advised somberly. "You never know if you'll see him again."

The Lennons worked at The Record Plant until 10:30 p.m., mixing the sound for a new single, tentatively titled "Walking on Thing Ice." "We had planned to go out to eat after leaving the recording studio," Yoko said later," but we decided to go straight home instead." Their rented limousine delivered them to the Dakota's 72nd Street entrance at about 10:50 p.m. The limousine could have driven into the entranceway, but it stopped at the curb. Yoko got out first, with John trailing a few steps behind. As he passed under the ornate archway leading to the Dakota's interior courtyard, he heard a voice call out from behind. "Mr. Lennon." He turned to see Chapman crouched 5 feet away gripping his .38 special with both hands. Before Lennon had a chance to react, Chapman opened fire, pumping four bullets into his back and left shoulder. "I'm shot!" Lennon gasped. Leaving a trail of blood behind him, he staggered six steps into the doorman's office, where he collapsed.

Susananah Greenwood from Worcester in Massachussets, U.S. lights a candle by the legendary John Lennon's Wall in the historical center of Prague, December 8, 2010, to commemorate his murder outside his Manhattan apartment building in New York 30 years ago. Petr Josek Snr/Reuters

Calm: While Yoko cradled her husband's head in her arm, Chapman dropped his gun, and the doorman kicked it away. "Do you know what you just did?" the doorman asked Chapman dazedly. "I just shot John Lennon," came the calm reply.

Summoned by the doorman, police were on the scene within minutes. Chapman waited for them, thumbing through a copy of J.D. Salinger's classic novel of adolescent rebellion, "The Catcher in the Rye." While two officers frisked and handcuffed him, two others attended to Lennon. "I turned him over," said Patrolman Anthony Palma. "Red is all I saw." Palma turned to a rookie cop, who was on the verge of being sick. "The guy is dying," he said. "Let's get him out of here."

Lennon, semiconscious and bleeding profusely, was placed in the back seat of Officer James Moran's patrol car. "Do you know who you are?" Moran asked him. Lennon couldn't speak. "He moaned and nodded his head as if to say yes," Moran said. While Moran raced Lennon to Roosevelt Hospital fifteen blocks away, Palma followed in his car with Yoko. "Tell me it isn't true, tell me he's all right," she implored him over and over again.

Though doctors pronounced Lennon dead on arrival at Roosevelt, a team of seven surgeons labored desperately to revive him. But his wounds were too severe. There were three holes in his chest, two in his back and two in his left shoulder. "It wasn't possible to resuscitate him by any means," said Dr. Stephen Lynn, the hospital's director of emergency services. "He'd lost 3 to 5 quarts of blood from the gun wounds, about 80 per cent of his blood volume." After working on Lennon for about half an hour, the surgeons gave up, and Lynn went to break the news to Yoko. "Where is my husband?" she asked franctically. "I want to be with my husband. He would want me to be with him. Where is he?" Lynn took a deep breath. "We have very bad news," he told her. "Unfortunately, in spite of our massive efforts, your husband is dead. There was no suffering at the end." Yoko refused to comprehend the message. "Are you saying he is sleeping?" she sobbed.

Accompanied by David Geffen, whose Geffen Records was producing the Lennons' new album, Yoko returned home about midnight. She made three phone calls, to "the three people that John would have wanted to know" – his 17-year-old son by his first marriage, Julian; his aunt, Mimi Smith, who had raised him, and his onetime collaborator, Paul McCartney.

Shrine: As word of the shooting spread throughout the city, a spontaneous vigil began to form outside the Dakota. By 1 a.m., a crowd of nearly a thousand had gathered. They sang Lennon songs, lit candles and turned the building's gate into an impromptu shrine, covering it with flowers and pictures of John and Yoko. Within minutes, news of Lennon's death had been flashed round the world, sparking a public outpouring not seen since John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. President Carter spoke of the irony that Lennon "died by violence, though he had long campaigned for peace"; President-elect Reagan pronounced it "a great tragedy."

In London, a portrait of the Beatles draped with a floral tribute was placed at the entrance to the Tate Gallery. "We usually do this when a British artist whose work is represented in the Tate dies," a spokesman said. "But we thought John Lennon was a special case." In Lennon's hometown of Liverpool, the lord mayor announced plans to hold a memorial service for him at the city's giant cathedral, and local teen-agers placed wreaths at the parking lot that was once the site of the Cavern club, where the Beatles had gotten their start. In New York, hundreds of thousands of mourners planned to gather for a Sunday afternoon memorial in Central Park, not far from the Dakota.

Of the three other former Beatles, only Ringo Starr came to New York to be with Yoko. George Harrison canceled a recording session and reportedly went into seclusion. And McCartney, who called his ex-partner "a great man who will be sadly missed," said he would mourn Lennon in private.

Yoko also stayed out of sight. Two days after the shooting, she released a poignant statement describing how she told Sean of his father's death. "Now Daddy is part of God," she reported Sean as saying. "I guess when you die you become much more bigger because you're part of everything." Yoko also announced there would be no funeral; after Lennon's body was cremated privately, she invited mourners to participate – "from wherever you are at the time" – in a ten-minute silent vigil on Sunday afternoon. "John loved and prayed for the human race," she said. "Please pray the same for him."

Chapman, meanwhile, was charged with second-degree murder (since New York has abandoned the death penalty, first-degree murder is no longer used as a charge) and ordered to undergo 30 days of extensive psychiatric testing. He was first sent, under heavy guard, to a cell at the city's most famous Bellevue Hospital, where he was placed on a 24-hour "suicide watch." But as fears of a Jack Ruby-style revenge killing grew, officials decided to transport him to the more remote jail on Riker's Island.

Chapman's second court-appointed attorney, Jonathan Marks, who was assigned the case after the accused murderer's first lawyer quit, said his client probably would plead not guilty by reason of insanity. "Obviously, Mark Chapman's mental state is a critical issue in this case," Marks told reporters. "In order to convict, the [prosecution] must show criminal intent."

Though Lennon appealed to people of all ages, races and classes, it was the baby-boom generation, now in its 20s and 30s, that was hardest hit by his murder. "We grew up together," said Julie Cohen, a 27-year-old teacher who was among the 2,000 mourners who gathered at San Francisco's Marina Green last week to honor him. "I felt there must be some way it could not be true, that it must be a mistake." Secretary Christy Lyou, 32, who showed up along with 2,500 others in Dallas's Lee Park for a similar memorial, said: "It's the last nail in the coffin of the '60s."

However keen the sense of loss, those closest to Lennon rejected the notion that his death marked the passing of an era. "We had planned so much together," Yoko said the day her husband was cremated. "We had talked about living until we were 80. We even drew up lists of all the things we could do for all those years. Then, it was all over. But that doesn't mean the message should be over. The music will live on." And with it, so will John Lennon.

- By Allan J. Mayer with Susan Agrest and Jacob Young in New York and bureau reports