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The man who shot John Lennon

How did a troubled Southern boy end up murdering one of the world's most beloved musicians and icons?
Mark David Chapman, the convicted killer of John Lennon, recorded his thoughts while in prison.
Mark David Chapman, the convicted killer of John Lennon, recorded his thoughts while in prison.

Mark David Chapman was 25 years old when he murdered a pop culture icon and wounded a generation.

October 9th would have been John Lennon’s 65th birthday. All over the world, people gathered to celebrate his music, remember his life, and sing the pop hits of a songwriting team that changed history. Even after 25 years, the loss of John Lennon is still staggering.  We can only imagine what might have been.

Elizabeth Partridge, author, "John Lennon: All I Want Is The Truth": There’s no way of knowing what he would have done if he hadn’t been shot, but it would have been interesting. And it would have been really intense and beautiful.

The former Beatle from Liverpool had found peace in New York. In Central Park, he felt free to stroll with his wife Yoko Ono and his son Sean.

Bob Gruen, rock n' roll photographer, Lennon friend: You know, he was very proud to be a New Yorker. So I wanted to show that in my photographs.

On a Manhattan rooftop, friend and photographer Bob Gruen, captured Lennon’s love of the city. Gruen took the photo of the famous pose of Lennon, on a rooftop, wearing a New York City t-shirt.

Gruen: I tend to think of New York City as the place where John lived, and not just the place he died. He died at home.

In the bowels of Attica prison in upstate New York, 350 miles from the scene of the crime, Mark Chapman describes on audio tape the frenzied nights leading up to murder’s door—

How did a troubled Southern boy, raised on the Bible and the Beatles locked in on his prey  seeking warped salvation, revenge, and fame?

On the night of December 8th, 1980, Chapman stood in front of his childhood idol’s home, waiting.

It was dark, it was cold, and it was the last moment before everything would change—

It was a shot heard round the world.

Doug Brinkley: Just boom, boom, boom, right in front of where you live with your wife holding your head bleeding, similar to Jackie Kennedy in Dallas holding her husband—Jon Wiener, historian who published Lennon’s FBI files public:  Martin Luther King was killed, Bobby Kennedy was killed, and John Lennon was killed. Why is it always the good ones who get killed? It’s a scary thing about America. 

From that night on, for 25 years, we wondered: Why did Chapman do it?

Kim Hogrefe,  Manhattan district attorney’s office, ADA on case: The defendant in this case was narcissistic—self centered and—very much involved in doing that which he thought was necessary to bring attention upon himself. Dr. Richard Bloom, psychologist who interviewed Chapman in prison: I diagnosed him as paranoid schizophrenic.

But the case never went to trial. Chapman pleaded guilty. There would be no definitive, public account of what led him to murder.

But a decade after that fateful night, Chapman invited one newspaper reporter he trusted into his world.

Jack Jones, crime journalist who interviewed Chapman: He handed me a note saying: “I’m sorry I killed John Lennon.” And I said, “Mark, if you’re serious about trying to figure out figuring and explain why you murdered John Lennon, we should sit down and talk about it.”

The result was over 100 hours of recorded conversation.

These conversations were the basis of a book written by that newspaper reporter, Jack Jones. But now, for the first time, the extensive and unsettling collection of tapes is being heard on broadcast television, obtained by Dateline NBC.

Jones: It was unique in my experience to have anyone, particularly someone convicted of a horrible crime to go into that sort of detail.

But is the devil really in the details? Does the truth finally come out in the spill of information? Or is this just a carefully scripted one-man act performed by a braggart who has always craved center stage?

I felt that perhaps, my identity would be found in the killing of John Lennon.

Make up your own mind—as the killer tells in his own words and his story—and the story of the murder of a legend named John Lennon.

Mark Chapman forced his way into history alongside John Lennon.

They were two men with difficult childhoods: Lennon worked his way through the pain to become the voice of a generation. Chapman wallowed in his misery and left only a trail of destruction.

Elizabeth Partridge, Lennon biographer: John had some very searing experiences of abandonment as a child.

Abandoned by his father, John Lennon was sent off to live with his Aunt Mimi. Later, his mother Julia was hit by a car and killed. Years before there was Lennon the legend, there was a little boy who was hurting and angry. Music was his salvation.

Partridge: He became absolutely fixated on rock n' roll the minute he heard it. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis. After he heard Elvis, he said nothing was ever the same for me again.

Lennon said Rock and Roll was the “only thing that could get through to me when I was fifteen.”  It was 1955, the same year Mark David Chapman was born.

Like any doting mother, Diane Chapman would tell her son he was special, destined to be a somebody. Young Mark believed her.

Vance Hunter, Chapman childhood friend: He knew that he was destined to be famous, that he was going to do something that he would be known for.

In the '50s, Ike was in the White House and for a burgeoning middle class, the American Dream was alive and well—a  dream that included a couple of kids, a steady job, and a house in the suburbs.

Mark Chapman’s father worked for an oil company. His mom was a nurse. Little sister Susan rounded out the family. From the outside looking in, the Chapmans of Decatur Georgia were living the dream.

Doug Hall, Chapman childhood friend: It was a comfortable place to grow up. There was a real innocence back in that point in time.

But Mark Chapman says there was a dark side to his childhood that his friends didn’t see.

Hoda Kotb, Dateline correspondent: What did you learn about his childhood from him directly?Richard Bloom, psychologist who evaluated Chapman while Chapman was waiting to stand trial: His anger at his father, which he could do nothing about. He was observing his father—abusing his mother, physically striking mother and also hitting Mark as well.Jessica Blankenship, Chapman friend, former girlfriend: He told me that when his mom would get really upset, that he would sit on the floor, and sort of rub her leg and try and make her feel better.

To make himself feel better, Chapman says he would retreat into a make-believe world that he called the “little people.”

Miles McManus, Chapman friend: Mark told me that  he had invisible, little people in his head that would talk to him.

In audio tapes recorded years later in prison, Chapman described how the "little people" brought him peace.

Dr. Bloom: When people grow up in an abusive household, they often retreat into their imaginations.Kotb: He had a tough life, but it wasn’t that tough. How does a guy who grew up in a middle class kind of decent environment snap?

Dr. Bloom: Each of us is unique and different. We have different make-ups.  We have different genes.Kotb: React to things differently?Dr. Bloom: Yeah.

Chapman describes himself as someone who simply couldn’t cope with the day-to-day challenges that are part of growing up. Decades later, he still gripes about playground pranks and teasing that other kids seemed to take in stride. It is a portrait filled with self-pity.

In Chapman’s imaginary world, he was the one in control. He would beam signals to his Little People. He’d reward them. Command them.  And if they made him mad, he’d blow them to kingdom come.

No adults, real or imagined, were allowed into this strange and secret world, until 8-year-old Mark Chapman invited four young men from Liverpool named John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

The Beatles invaded America in February, 1964, the month they released their single, “Twist and Shout.”

On their first full day in America, they were taken to New York’s Central Park to meet the press.  It was 23-year-old John Lennon’s introduction to a park he would come to love.

The Beatles were an instant and phenomenal success, turning out number one hits at a pace that’s never been equaled: “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and “She Loves You.”

There hadn’t been anything like it before— there hasn’t been anything like it since.

They called it Beatlemania and it bowled over 9-year-old Mark Chapman right from the start. He got their LP, “Meet the Beatles.”

Sometimes Chapman would change the lyrics during one of his concerts. “Little child” became “little people.”  Some lyrics must have seemed like they were written just for him.

There were no other concerts put on for these little people, just the Beatles. I memorized every word of every song. I just loved them.

According to historian Doug Brinkley, people were identifying personally, viscerally, emotionally, subconsciously to various Beatles. "That was part of their magic carpet ride," he says.

For Mark Chapman, it was all about John. He noticed John was called the leader of the group. Chapman could identify with that, he was the leader of the Little People.

With each new song, he learned to define himself with John Lennon’s words: “I’m a Loser,” “Help,” “Nowhere Man.”

Jon Wiener, historian and author of two Lennon biographies: Lennon’s kind of putting his whole life into his music. That established a kind of intimacy between Lennon and his fans.

Mark Chapman felt that closeness, but not like some ordinary fan. It was all-consuming. John Lennon was now the star player in Chapman’s bizarre fantasy world. It was the beginning of an obsession, a long and winding road that would end in tragedy.

I remember thinking “Wow.” You know, “Wouldn’t it be great to be one of these guys?” What would it be like to be a Beatle? But that memory of course would play into perhaps part of the reason why John Lennon was killed, 15 years later. God forgive me for it.

The '60s were in full swing and a young Mark Chapman wrapped himself in The Beatles. He started playing guitar. Maybe he’d grow up to be just like a Beatle. In John Lennon, he found a voice, a hero, and a role model.

Vance Hunter, Chapman childhood friend: He would try to dress like John, try to have the same glasses John Lennon would have. Whenever we would talk about the Beatles it was John Lennon has done this, or John Lennon has done that.

John Lennon was the controversial Beatle— quick-witted and opinionated. 

Jon Wiener, historian and author of two Lennon biographies: The Beatles were sort of sweet and loveable.  but, within a year or two, the Beatles came to represent youth rebellion.

Of all the Beatles, it was John Lennon who symbolized that rebellion.

Elizabeth Partridge, Lennon biographer: There was no filter on his mouth.  If he thought of it, he’d say it.  Just ‘blah’! And it could get him into trouble.”

While Lennon would speak his mind, everyone else was trying to read it, searching for hidden meanings in every Beatles song.

Vance Hunter, Chapman childhood friend: Mark would discover these clues and show ‘em to me. He would go digging for the smaller intricate things about the Beatles.  And share them. And we’d go, “Wow, that’s neat.”

When Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in 1967, the message seemed pretty clear: the Beatles had fully embraced the '60s drug culture. To fans, “Lucy in The Sky with Diamonds” was a song about LSD.

In just a few years, The Beatles had done something profound to the culture, and to a lost suburban kid from Georgia looking for an identity.

He was barely a teenager, but Chapman’s plan was to tune in, turn on, and drop out.

Vance Hunter, Chapman childhood friend: It was just up at his house one day and he said, “Wow, I've got some grass here. You want to go try to smoke it?”  And I said, “Well, yeah, sure, you know, why not? I’m curious.”

According to Hunter, this escalated. Chapman became a changed person after that.

All he ever wanted was to fit in — to be a somebody. He thought drugs would be the ticket. But Mark Chapman could never find a middle ground, he warped every experience into something extreme. He was only in the 9th grade, but Chapman says he became a hippie. A freak.

According to Chapman, things escalated quickly. He smoked pot, dropped acid, and even experimented with heroin. He says it triggered violent urges he’d never felt before.

Mark Chapman had become counter-culture just like his hero, but it was a hollow imitation. He had achieved nothing.

John Lennon had become a legend... one of the most famous and influential men on the planet. When he married Yoko Ono in 1969, his private life, his music, and his activism, were cemented together. It was the “Ballad of John and Yoko.”

Wiener: He wants to do something. He wants to use his power as a celebrity to try to help stop the war in Vietnam. He wants to do good. Lennon would later say the ‘60s weren’t the answer to the world’s problems, but they showed us the possibilities of what might be.

Chapman’s trip into the 60’s counter-culture turned out to be nothing but a dead end.

Mark Chapman, the hippie, was still a nobody. He would have to look somewhere else for salvation.

The Beatles had broken up. By 1970, John Lennon had released his first non-Beatles album and the song, “Instant Karma,” which he performed on British television.

It would be a constant refrain in Lennon’s music: Focus on what’s important in your life and be accountable for your actions. Lennon, who had experimented with different religions and philosophies, gained personal insight through intense therapy.

Mark Chapman was also hurting. But in 1970, his new-found identity would signify the first violent disapproval of his childhood idol.

By the time 15–year-old Chapman finished his sophomore year at Columbia High, in Decatur Georgia, there was no more fantasy life that experimenting with drugs promised and Chapman recalls feeling useless.

On tapes he later made in prison, Chapman depicts himself as a hyper-sensitive young man, with a warped sense of reality. Everything is extreme. When strangers rifle through his wallet and steal his money, he is sent into a personal crisis...crying out in doubt and despair.

From "Lucy in the Sky" to the "Man in the Sky," 16-year-old Mark Chapman found his latest salvation in a spiritual awakening.

Miles McManus, Chapman friend:  Whenever Mark did something, he did it to extreme.

Like his drug induced magical-mystery-tour, Chapman was once again taking to extremes what was going on around him: swept up in a religious revival spreading among Bible belt teens in the wake of the '60s.

McManus: Mark did change into what we called at the time a “Jesus freak,” passing out religious pamphlets.  Rev. Charles McGowan, the pastor of Chapman’s old church: He was very vocal about his new found faith and his love for Christ.

Chapman’s pastor met the young man in Bible study and in youth groups dedicated to Christ.

Jessica Blankenship, Chapman friend, former girlfriend: That was the whole—focus of the camp. And I remember at that time I thought of myself as a Jesus freak.

In these weekend camps Chapman found Jesus, a new identity, and a friend— a girl who would keep track of his ups-and-downs almost right up to the murder: Jessica Blankenship.

Kotb: What was it about Mark Chapman that you liked?Blankenship: I really admired people that were into music, and so I really liked that. And he just seemed very—gentle...

They first met in 2nd grade. In high school, he was her first kiss. 

Blankenship: I thought, “Oh, he really likes me,” you know.Kotb: Was he big on the Beatles back then?Blankenship: I think the Beatles were the favorite band of a whole lot of people.

But the religious conversion marked the end of Chapman’s admiration of Lennon. The self-described Jesus-freak would grow intolerant of what he perceived as Lennon’s sacrilegious message.

Kotb: Did he ever mention John Lennon?  Blakenship: Well, yeah. When John Lennon made a statement that, they were “more popular than Jesus Christ.” and he was real upset by it, you know.

Several years earlier, in 1966, Lennon had caused an uproar when he claimed during an interview that Christianity was dying and the Beatles were, quote, “more popular than Jesus.”

Charles McGowan, pastor of Chapman’s former church: I remember that comment vividly. People generally saw it as a very blasphemous comment—very arrogant, very blasphemous.Partridge, Lennon author: People all over the United States, particularly in the Bible belt, went crazy over this. They had bonfires where they burned Beatle records. They burned John’s books. 

Lennon tried to explain, though many considered his apology not good enough.

McManus: Mark told me that the comment made by John Lennon that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ really, really made him angry.

It would be one of  Lennon’s most quoted and most listened to songs, “Imagine” that infuriated Chapman. He interpreted the lyrics as an atheistic message.

Douglas Brinkley, historian: “Imagine there’s no heaven,” that’s something he would take great exception to.McManus: Mark felt that the song really had communist overtones. And he was not happy with that.  And he changed the words to the song to say, “Imagine if John were dead.”

For the first time those thoughts were put together: John Lennon... dead. In 16-year-old Chapman’s mind, everything his childhood idol did now was a slight, a heresy. A betrayal all the more stinging, because Chapman thought he and Lennon had a bond once.

McManus: At that point, he destroyed all of his Beatles albums and to my knowledge, never listened to them again.

The murder of John Lennon was a decade away.

The early '70s were a time of great turmoil. The Vietnam War was raging abroad and another  war was raging back home.

But in the summer of 1971, 16-year-old Mark Chapman finally thought he was on to something—something that would make him a somebody.

He started working with the local YMCA as a counselor at a summer camp. To the children, he was the greatest.

Miles McManus, childhood friend: They all liked him, and he would play with them like he was a kid, but they certainly looked up to him. And the parents of the children really liked him, also.

Long gone was hippie Mark. Fast-fading was Jesus Mark. Chapman was morphing into his new personaMark, the adored camp counselor. 

It was around this time when Chapman was introduced to the great American novel that would come to define his life: J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” Chapman felt an immediate bond with the story’s hero, Holden Caulfield, a teenager railing against the phony world of adults. The book would become Chapman’s new Bible.

  McManus: Mark happened to notice a copy of "Catcher in the Rye" on our bookshelf and he ran over and grabbed the book  and he said, “You have to read this book—it’s really great. And I asked him what it was about. He said, “Oh, you’ll see. It’s really a book about growing up.”

No one knows it yet, but Chapman’s fascination with "The Catcher in the Rye" would later turn into an obsession— a twisted excuse to murder.

It was the early '70s. John Lennon was shedding his former image. No longer a Beatle, he moved to the cultural and musical mecca of New York City.

He loved that after years of being hounded and hunted as a Beatle,  he could walk the streets of New York and  feel almostlike a regular guy.

Vin Scelsa, radio host: The people of New York accept celebrities. And are not blown away by them. With John, it was like a friend. You’d see John walking down the street, you know you’d go “Hey, John.” And John would say hey back to you. And that would be it.

At first, John and Yoko lived like Bohemians in Greenwich Village, but then they moved uptown to the swank Dakota, overlooking New York’s Central Park. Still, they were social activists.  

Lennon’s song, “Give Peace a Chance” became a rallying cry for the anti-war movement.

Scelsa: To have someone of the stature of JohnLennon say the things that he said about the war and about the leaders of government legitimized  what the rest of us were feeling and thinking.

But the Nixon administration started feeling and thinking John Lennon wasa threat. They dredged up an old marijuana bust in England as the official reason to deport him.

Back in suburban Atlanta, Mark Chapman had gone from worshipping Lennon, to hating Lennon, to forgetting about him altogether. He was busy working with children and for a brief time, his life seemed right on course. No one could have imagined that murderwould be in his future.

Doug Hall, childhood friend: I think he was proud of what he was doing. I distinctly remember thinking; “God, he really turned out great,” you know. What a nice guy.

In 1975, a promising new chapter began for Mark in the wake of the Vietnam War. The YMCA recruited him to work at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas with Vietnamese refugees. 

Jessica Blankenship, former girlfriend: I think that was the high point of his life. Later on, he always, referred back to the time when he was out there. 

It was one of the only times in his life that Mark Chapman was exhilarated. Jessica, a high school sweetheart, saw first hand how happy he was working with kids when she visited him at the camp.

  Blankenship: I fell in love with him and I think he fell in love with me, too.

Jessica began imagining a possible future as Mrs. Mark Chapman.

Blankenship: I thought, wow, he really has a gift. I thought you know, if he treats children like that, then this is looking good, you know?Kotb: So you thought he’d be a pretty good dad.Blankenship: Yeah, I did.Kotb: When you closed your eyes and thought about your life with Mark Chapman, what did you see?Blankenship: I think I just saw a happy suburbanite couple.Kotb: So you thought it’d be you and Mark.Blankenship: And the kids.Kotb: Living happily ever after? Blankenship: Yes.

Back in New York, John Lennon was living happily ever after—holding the joy of his life in his arms. Yoko and John’s son, Sean, was born on John’s 35th birthday.

Photographer and friend Bob Gruen includes many of these images in his book, “John Lennon: The New York Years.”

Kotb: When I was looking through all your pictures, there was one series where John Lennon has a smile that is as big as Dallas.  And that’s when he’s with his son, Sean.Gruen: Yeah. That was about the happiest day I ever saw him. He was so happy and so proud.

It was 1975 and things were looking up for John Lennon. Even his struggles with immigration were over. The courts overturned his deportation order and he was allowed to stay.

In 1975, 20-year-old Mark Chapman was soon off to college and talking marriage with his girlfriend. For a fleeting moment, he was experiencing his best chance for a normal, happy life. It would not last long.

In five years, the gentle do-gooder, the children’s favorite, would gun down John Lennon in cold-blood.

Things were changing in the second half of the 1970s:  The war was over, Nixon was over, and John Lennon’s days as a radical peace protestor were coming to an end.

Meanwhile, Mark Chapman’s life seemed full of new beginnings. He was engaged to his high-school sweetheart and enrolled at Covenant College, a Bible-based school in Northern Georgia.

Rev. Charles McGowan, the pastor of Chapman’s old church: I thought that covenant would be a good place for him, that it would give him an opportunity to get further grounded, to get a broader view of the world and the Christian faith and the church.

The murder of John Lennon was a distant five years away. But the clouds were gathering...

Jessica Blankenship, former girlfriend: The sign I had was that he would cry quite a bit. 

Chapman’s fiancee Jessica saw him tumble into what she thought was a sudden and severe depression.

Blankenship: I mean, people cry every once in a while. But he seemed to be crying over things that to me, didn’t seem to be that big of a deal. Blankenship: He would talk about maybe—he didn’t fit in and that sort of thing.  And I would say, you know, “You just need to give it time.”  He just seemed lost, like he didn’t know what to do with himself. 

In the throes of yet another identity crisis, 21-year-old Chapman dropped out of college and took a dead end job working 12-hour shifts as a security guard, slowly coming undone.

Blankenship: I was recognizing that he was emotionally unstable and I wanted to get out of the relationship, but I was afraid that he was gonna kill himself.

Jessica became even more alarmed when her fiance, the peace-loving Christian, started hanging around a firing range, getting thrills from shooting guns. 

Kotb: Did you notice a change in Mark Chapman?Blankenship: Oh yeah. He—it was sort of a dark side, I guess. And I  just really didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

They broke up.  She has no idea how dark Chapman’s life would become. Years later, after the murder of John Lennon, she would grieve for the man she almost married.

Blankenship: I felt like a friend had died. And really worse than that, I felt like a friend of mine had thrown his life away. (crying)

In 1976, John Lennon made a drastic change—his immigration battles over, the superstar decided to bow out of public life.  He put music on hold and became a stay-at-home dad, retreating behind the walls of the Dakota to take care of his son, Sean.

Bob Gruen: He really hung up his guitar. He cancelled his subscriptions to the trade magazines. He didn’t listen to the radio unless it was the light music, easy listening. He really became a committed father.

In Georgia, Mark Chapman’s life slowed to a creep. During the long, empty nights working security, he was looking for the next identity that fit.  Student Mark was a failure. What would he try next?

In the spring of 1977, Chapman emptied his bank accounts and arrived in Honolulu. But he wasn’t escaping to Hawaii for sun and fun—he was planning to land in paradise and commit suicide.

Thousands of miles away in New York, friends say that John Lennon was consumed with thoughts of his own mortality.

Jack Douglas, Lennon friend, producer: He would say things like, "Elvis blew it." "When I die, I’m going to be more famous than him." He was obsessed with his own death. He talked about it quite often in very strange ways. 

In Hawaii, Chapman made elaborate plans for his suicide, but in the end, it was just another failure.

George Kaliope, Chapman psychiatrist: He had gone out to one of the north shore beaches and he had a rent-a-car and a hose and hooked up the hose to his exhaust pipe. He ran the hose in through the window, started the engine and said “This is it.” And apparently it didn’t work.

Chapman survived.  No one knows it yet, but his life is now set on a collision course with the rock legend living half a world away.  In Honolulu, Chapman was briefly treated at a psychiatric hospital and then decided make Hawaii his home. In 1979, at age 24, he even got married. Just like John Lennon, his bride Gloria Abe was Japanese-American and several years his senior.

His new identity: stable Mark. But not for long. As with all the different personas he’d tried on before: druggie, Jesus freak, counselor Mark, and student Mark, underneath Chapman says he still felt like a nobody.

In search of reality he turned once more to fiction. He spent most days meandering among the book shelves of the Honolulu Public Library.

Years before, "The Catcher in the Rye" had defined Chapman’s youth. Now, as a grown-up, it re-emerged as an obsession. The novel, and its teenage hero who despises phony adults, became his new reality.

And then, he says, they came back. The imaginary “little people” of his childhood...

As 1980 began, the murder of John Lennon was less than one year away, and Chapman was frantically searching. But for what? Who was Mark Chapman now? He had no idea.

And then, there it was. An image that would set the clock ticking, right up to December 8th.

It is the beginning of 1980 and John Lennon is finally writing music again. His new lyrics tell the story of what he’s been up to for the past four years: Watching the wheels go round.

At home in his kitchen, Lennon records a demo tape and sends it to his friend and record producer Jack Douglas. 

Jack Douglas, record producer, friend: He belittled himself on the tape about how he couldn’t write anymore. He couldn’t sing anymore. He couldn’t play anymore.  He just didn’t have it in him. Every song he said, “I’m just gonna give it to Ringo.” 

While Lennon is transcending his self-doubt, Mark Chapman is drowning in self pity.

Within one year, their lives will collide.

But in early 1980, Chapman isn’t thinking about the about the rock star at all.  He’s consumed with “The Catcher in the Rye” and it’s fictional hero Holden Caulfield, a teenager adrift in a world full of phony adults.

The murder is just months away, and still, no thoughts of John Lennon.

Until, wandering aimlessly in the Honolulu public library, Chapman finds this a biography about Lennon’s New York years.

Dr. Richard Bloom, psychologist: The trigger seems to have been him seeing a photograph.Dr. Bloom: He was now rich and famous and therefore a phony adult.

Spring 1980. John Lennon spends hours in the studio working on “Double Fantasy.”  It is a personal album about his domestic life inside the Dakota. In “Beautiful Boy” he wonders about all the years to come. No one has any idea that this will be the very last album Lennon releases in his lifetime.

While Lennon is moving forward in New York, Chapman in Hawaii is traveling back in time.  Already obsessed with “The Catcher in the Rye,” he now devours the music of his youth:  The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper—  over and over again.

Chapman feels betrayed...

Sept. 22, 1980
Chapman opens the New York Times and it’s as though Lennon is talking to him from the pages. Lennon reflecting on his days as a protestor for peace, says “That radicalism was phony, really... I’d always felt guilty that I’d made money.”

  Richard Bloom, psychologist: He was a symbol. He wasn’t John Lennon.  It was what John Lennon represented in Mark’s mind.

Lennon, the hero, Lennon the activist, and then, a twisted new vision: Lennon, the target.

Imagine... John Lennon dead.

Chapman the nobody has found a way to finally become somebody...

Chapman asks his mental entourage— the "little people."  They say “don’t do it.”

Usually people will tell you that little people told them to kill somebody, or told them to burn that person or hurt that person. My little people didn’t want me to do any harm to anybody.

But instead of heeding their advice, Chapman blows his little people away...

October 1980
Lennon turns 40 and releases the first single from "Double Fantasy".  It’s a hit. 

Jon Wiener, Lennon biographer: The whole thing is Lennon is back.  Lennon is making music. Lennon is ready to step out.

The same week that Lennon’s single hits, Chapman works a shift as a security guard at this Honolulu apartment complex.  No one notices at the time, but in the employee log book, as he signs out, it’s not as Mark Chapman.  It’s not Holden Caulfield.  It’s as John Lennon.  Just like starting over.

Douglas Brinkley,  historian:  You’re seeing both the love and the hate relationship of a stalker towards their subject..

Chapman begins closing in... the murder is 6 weeks away.

He borrows money from relatives and on October 27th, he buys a brand new .38 Charter Arms Special.

Two days later, he flies from Honolulu to Lennon’s city—New York.

5,000 miles of distance reduced to just a few city blocks.  He drinks in Manhattan, a place he knows from “The Catcher in the Rye.”

Brinkley: “Catcher in the Rye” is a book about alienation in New York. So he was taking the “Catcher in the Rye” and superimposing it on John Lennon’s New York.

In his mind, he is now Holden. And Lennon is the ultimate phony adult.

Chapman is closer than ever to the man has come here to kill.  He approaches Lennon’s home —The Dakota.

Clyde Haberman, New York Times columnist: In those days it had decades of grime on it, and it was gloomy, it was spooky.

Before the Lennon murder, most people probably knew it from “Rosemary’s Baby.” It loomed very large in New York lore. 

Chapman has arrived in New York with a gun, but no bullets.

A hitch in the plan.  So on Nov 5th, Chapman boards a plane bound for Georgia, his home. There, he picks up deadly hollow point bullets from an old friend he knew at the firing range.

Kim Hogrefe, former New York City prosecutor: He actually practiced shooting his gun in the woods near Atlanta.

Before leaving, Chapman pays one last visit to Jessica, his former fiancee. He appears calm, collected.

Blankenship: He came in and sat down for a couple hours I guess, and finally he got up and left. And that was the last time I saw him.

November 9thChapman returns to New York with a gun and ammunition.

But on the ground, instead of heading to the Dakota, Chapman goes to the movies. “Ordinary People” is playing.

For whatever reason, the film about a suicidal teen and his family gets under Chapman’s skin. On November 12th, Chapman goes from cold New York to warm Hawaii. For the moment, he has decided not to kill John Lennon. But the murder is just 26 days away.

Mid-November 1980
John and Yoko’s new album, "Double Fantasy" is released, and quickly climbs the charts.   Lennon is ecstatic.  But Lennon has only three more weeks to live.

Halfway around the world, fantasies of another sort disturb Mark Chapman.  He seemed to have given up his murderous desires to kill his childhood hero John Lennon.  But the thoughts are back.

But who or what is in control?  The little people are gone.  Chapman the adult says he’s now under the influence of a child like he once was, and that child is demanding that Lennon be killed. 


Saturday, December 6thFor the second— and final time— Mark Chapman arrives in New York, the same city as his prey. Although his decision to return may seem rash,  everything he does from now on is calculated and methodical, down to his decision to take a room at the YMCA.  It’s cheap, and it’s only ten blocks from Lennon’s home at the Dakota.


It will be less than 72 hours before John Lennon is dead.

Chapman heads immediately to the famous apartment building across from Central Park, where he becomes part of the usual “scene” at the Dakota. He meets two hard-core groupies: Jeri Moll and Jude Stein.  They had been there so many times before, Lennon posed with them for pictures.

Jude Stein, Lennon fan: People would often say to me, “Oh, my goodness, you actually talk to him.”  Yeah.  He was very approachable.  He was so down to earth.Steve Spiro (ret.) NYPD: There were always three or four, five people hanging around, looking to get an autograph or a picture.

The Dakota was on Officer Steve Spiro’s beat.

Spiro: It was a friendly atmosphere all the time.Sometimes I’d be working west 72nd and john would walk the streets with Sean on his back on a little knapsack type of thing, and nobody would bother him. And that’s why he loved New York.

The relaxed atmosphere allows Chapman to blend easily into the crowd.

Stein: He was a man but he had a boyishness about him. He seemed very sort of, you know, down-South boy.Hoda Kotb, Dateline correspondent: Clean cut.Stein: Very.  Polite, very polite.  You know, big outing in the big city and here I am, and it’s great to be in New York.

The two ask Chapman if he already bought a copy of the new album “Double Fantasy”, suggesting that if Lennon comes outside, he might sign it. Around lunchtime, the women leave.

Jeri Moll, Lennon fan: We had our lunch, we came back, and there was Mark Chapman, waiving the album—in the air, really ecstatic to have it. 

The December afternoon is sunny but bitterly cold. Jude and Jeri decide to go see a movie to get warm. 

Stein: And he said, “Oh, if you’re around later or something, you know, maybe we can go have dinner.”  But we just brushed that off. 

5 p.m. 
It’s already dark.  No sign of Lennon. Jude and Jeri haven’t returned either. Chapman gives up his vigil, not knowing that just minutes after he leaves, Lennon returns home.  Miserable and deflated, Chapman goes back to his room at the “Y”.  He tries to sleep, but is agitated by noise seeping through the walls.

Sunday, Dec 7thChapman abruptly decides that if he must wait awhile for his encounter with the former Beatle he may as well do it in style. He moves to an upscale hotel.  But that fails to boost his spirits.  The day is spent at the Dakota  without any sighting of his target. 

A redacted police photograph of the belongings Mark David Chapman left behind in a New York hotel room.
A redacted police photograph of the belongings Mark David Chapman left behind in a New York hotel room.Manhattan District Attorney's Of

8 p.m.
Chapman returns to hisroom. Lonely. 

He remembers that his hero from "The Catcher in the Rye," Holden Caulfield, called a prostitute the night he was in a New York hotel.  So Chapman gets on the phone. To his great surprise, he says the call girl who shows up is wearing a green dress, just like the one in the book. Fiction is converging with reality.  

3:30 a.m.
Chapman falls asleep. In less than 20 hours his dark dream will come true.  He will finally become a somebody one way he can: by murdering somebody else — somebody very famous, and beloved.

Monday, December 8,  11 a.m.
Mark Chapman wakes up and quickly prepares for what he expects will be his last day waiting for John Lennon.   It is just 12 hours until the murder. 

He wants to guarantee that he gets all the credit for what’s about to happen.   Certain that he won’t return to the hotel, he methodically lays out several personal items  for the police to find, including one special item.

  Kim Hogrefe, Manhattan district attorney’s office, ADA on case: He was intent not only to kill someone  who was famous, but by that act to try to bring some portion—steal some portion of that fame onto himself. Doug Brinkley, historian: The Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame cliché was in full gear in 1980. and you could become a sensation over night if you just did one outrageous act.

Satisfied with his make-shift shrine, Chapman, loads his gun, and practices his aim in the mirror.  Then, with his copy of Lennon’s new album, "Double Fantasy" in hand, he leaves for the 20 block along walk along Central Park to the Dakota.

He makes one stop, to buy a new copy of the book. This one gets a special inscription.

This photo supplied by the Magazine Publishers Assn and American Society of Magazine Editors shows the Rolling Stone magazine cover from Jan. 22, 1981, depicting John Lennon and Yoko Ono, which was voted the number one cover from the last 40 years, as decided by judges in a contest by the American Society of Magazine Editors, the group announced Monday, Oct. 17, 2005. (AP Photo/Magazine Publishers Assn and American Society of Magazine Editors)MAGAZINE PUBLISHERS ASSN AND AMERICAN SOCIETY OF MAGAZINE EDITOR

That same morning, December 8th, John Lennon is busy too.  He listens to a new song which Yoko is recording, goes out for a haircut, then joins Yoko for what would be an extraordinary photo session. There is John, naked, cuddled like an infant around Yoko. The picture will appear on the cover of Rolling Stone— in memoriam.   John Lennon has only 10 more hours to live.

1:00. p.m. 
He and Yoko meet in their apartment with radio deejay Dave Sholin to talk for three hours about their new album, family life, and their optimism about the future.  It is Lennon’s last interview. 

Dave Sholin, former radio host: He couldn’t have been any more upbeat, any more excited about the future, about what was to come and what he wanted to do. And he said so in this interview. 

As the interview continues inside, Chapman is waiting outside, on Lennon’s very doorstep. He isn’t alone. Jude Stein, one of the women he’d met earlier that weekend is there. 

Hoda Kotb, correspondent: Did he seem edgy, nervous, out of sorts?Jude Stein, Lennon fan: Absolutely calm, control, friendly, polite.

Although Lennon remains inside, there is some excitement outside when 5-year-old Sean Lennon returns to the Dakota with his nanny. Jude Stein recognizes the nanny and walks over to greet her and Sean.  Chapman follows close behind.

Stein: He said, “Oh, isn’t he a cute, sweet little boy.”  And he leaned over and put his hand out and Sean actually extended his hand and shook hands with him.

Years later, even Chapman would wonder about his audacious act.

Later, she and Chapman go to a restaurant.  Chapman says he blurted out that he wanted to take Stein out that evening. Recalling the encounter years later, Chapman questioned whether he was trying to derail his own, cold-blooded plot…

But Stein says nothing of the sort ever happened.

Stein: No way in a million years. That whole statement had to be fabricated in his mind. Never. First I’m hearing of it. 

Stein does recall one thing Chapman did say, as she parted company with him that night.

Stein: He said to me, “I plan to stay as long as it takes.” We thought, you know, he was referring to getting his autograph, not referring to what he was down there intending to do.

Chapman returns to the Dakota dejected. As dusk settles, the shadows and spooky images surrounding the building mirror his own darkening mood.  The man who had once been so devoted to God, says he is now under the influence of the devil.

Stein: And I’d be leaning against a railing where the gargoyles are and I guess I was, in a sense, a living gargoyle.Rev. Charles McGowan, Chapman's former pastor: I think spiritual forces of darknessdistorted his whole world view—almost whispering to him that this was God’s ordained plan for him to take this evil out of the world. And I attribute that to the devil himself quite frankly.

4 p.m.
John and Yoko are wrapping up their radio interview.  Part of their discussion with deejay Dave Sholin is about their relationship with the public.

5 p.m.
The couple heads out for an evening recording session. Lennon greets the people on the sidewalk, including Mark Chapman. Finally, killer and victim are face-to-face. Chapman steps forward, and blocks Lennon’s path. But instead of pulling out his gun, he pulls out his pen.  Incredibly, an amateur photographer captures the moment.

The star and his stalker actually speak briefly.  Lennon asks Chapman if he wants anything more than the autograph.

And he asked me twice and I said “Yeah, Thanks.” and “That’s all,” or something like that

For John, it is just one more autograph. He doesn’t even mention it as he, Yoko, and Sholin drive away.  Only 6 hours remain.

Sholin: We had a great conversation. He was singing like some of the oldies. Little Richard and you know it was great.

In the cold and dark, Chapman stands alone. The man who has never accomplished anything, wallows in the problems he believes have plagued him all his life—lack of identity, spiritual emptiness, paranoia.

One last struggle between the nobody adult he’d become and that Somebody he’d always yearned to be.


8:00 p.m.
It is less than three hours until the murder.

Monday, December 8,  6 p.m. 
John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and their producer Jack Douglas, are putting the finishing touches on Yoko’s new song called “Walking on Thin Ice.”  The couple has only five more hours together.

Jack Douglas, producer of "Double Fantasy": We were all very excited about this particular piece of music.

As John and Yoko prepare to leave for home, he and Douglas discuss the work they have scheduled for the next day. It is less than one hour until the murder. 

Douglas: He stood in the elevator and he had an enormous smile on his face. And we said see you tomorrow at 9 a.m. and the doors closed and that was the last I ever saw him.

10 p.m.
John and Yoko head out into the night. The couple talks about stopping for a late dinner at a nearby Deli, but Lennon is eager to get home to see their son.

Lennon doesn’t know that the killer has been waiting at his front door nearly all day. Now bored, Chapman strikes up a conversation with Jose Perdomo, the doorman.

10:50 p.m.
Yoko Ono gets out of the car first. John follows, about 30 feet behind her, carrying the tapes from the recording session.  One last minute.

Four hollow point bullets slam into John Lennon’s back and shoulder, tearing through his body. One shot misses.

I remember hearing a scream from the security area, a horrendous scream, not very long scream but a very guttural scream. “John’s been shot. John’s been shot”

Jose, the building’s doorman confronts Chapman, and begins yelling at him.

Chapman does not flee. Instead, he calmly pulls out “The Catcher in the Rye” and begins to read. 

The police photograph of the Dakota, the night Lennon was shot.
The police photograph of the Dakota, the night Lennon was shot.Manhattan District Attorney's Of

As the police officer races to the scene, Chapman prepares for his close-up.  

Spiro: And I’m starting to handcuff him and José yells out, “He shot John Lennon!”  And my reaction was, “You what?”Dr. Stephen Lynn, emergency room doctor who attended to Lennon: We walked into the trauma room. And we had a patient with no blood pressure, no pulse, no breathing; pale.James Moran, police officer responding to the crime: John was in the emergency room. We took Yoko and put her into a room in the back. And I was trying to comfort her as much as I could. 

But there is nothing the doctor can do. John Lennon is dead. Dr. Lynn walks down the hall to tell Yoko Ono. 

Dr. Lynn: She was lying on the floor pounding her head against the floor. She yelled, “No, it can’t be. You’re lying. You’re not telling me the truth. He’s not dead. He was just alive. We were in the car 20 minutes ago.” Finally she said, my son Sean is at home. I think he’s watching TV. I know he’s waiting for us to get there. I don’t want my son sitting and staring at a TV screen to find out that that’s how his father died.

Dr. Lynn delays the hospital’s announcement until a friend can help Yoko Ono home to the Dakota to be by her son’s side. She will tell him of the murder the next morning.

Spiro: One of the things that really disturbed me the most was that this kid was going to grow up without a father. And that’ll break your heart every time. 

That night, after Yoko Ono was home with Sean, Dr. Lynn addressed Lennon’s second family—his fans.

It seemed unfathomable. Unacceptable.

In New York, many Lennon fans first heard the news from Vin Scelsa, a popular DJ at WNEW-FM .

Vin Scelsa, New York DJ: I knew right away, that this was truly a significant moment in our cultural history.  My voice was shaking. I was crying. And when I finally played music, I played, ‘Let it Be.”

And then the outpouring began. One by one, in groups, bewildered fans started heading towards the Dakota. The crowds would surround Lennon’s home for days. Across the nation, and around the universe, millions of mourners huddled together in vigils and memorials.

For those looking to make sense of the tragedy, there would be little satisfaction. Seven months after the murder Mark David Chapman decided to plead guilty to second degree murder. There’d be no trial, no public accounting of the crime. He was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.

Renowned photographer Harry Bensen went to Attica to take pictures of Chapman in 1992. The prisoner did apologize for the killing, but Bensen says he didn’t find any remorse in his behavior.

Harry Benson, photographer: Strutting around the room, putting a hand to the head and I mean, it’s going through his things. He’s a celebrity killer. I mean, that’s why he became a celebrity killer. To show off.

Chapman has already served his minimum, 20 years. Since then, he’s been denied parole three times. Many of Lennon’s family, friends, and fans say the killer deserves no sympathy, no attention, not even a second thought.

Elliot Mintz, in a previous interview, Yoko Ono’s spokesperson: At his various parole board hearings even the parole board acknowledged that he was still seeking some kind of notoriety. My legitimate question I think is, why should we give it to him? Is it really necessary?

According to reporter Jack Jones, Chapman is concerned about notoriety too, but for a very different reason... he’s now worried that broadcasting the audio tapes he recorded in prison will hurt his chances before a parole board. Chapman’s next parole hearing is scheduled for 2006.

On Sunday, December 14, 1980, six days after the murder, 100,000 mourners crowded Central Park to play John Lennon’s music and sing his songs.  They remembered a man who said “All you need it love.”

There was no funeral for John Lennon. Instead, on this day, at Yoko Ono’s request, the crowd observed 10 minutes of silence. 

Bob Gruen, photographer & Lennon friend: I don’t think John knew how much he was respected, and how much the world, you know, was inspired by him. Jane Pauley, Today anchor: We were possessive. John Lennon was uniquely “our generation,” we felt this thing together, “we” being anybody that was 14 give or take seven years when the Beatles arrived in America. We traveled through history with John Lennon.  Paul McCartney: I wrote all the songs with him, so, and when we were kids, I mean we slept together. Top and tail in bed, and hitchhiking and stuff, I mean we were just totally mates. We actually spent a lot of time together laughing. And for me, that’s what I remember.

We remember him as a Beatle who rocked the music world.

Elizabeth Partridge, author, “John Lennon: All I Want is the Truth”: It was this just tremendous possibility of freedom that was just right around the corner, that you could feel when you listened to the Beatles.Paul Shaffer, musician: His voice means a lot more to me now. I have realized that he is one of the greatest voices of rock and roll.

We remember Lennon as a visionary who understood the power of one voice, a voice silenced by a killer.

Vin Scelsa, radio host: He was a catalyst for a lot of change—  political change, social awareness, spiritual awareness, sexual change.  You know john was right there at the forefront of all of this stuff.

We remember him as an artist who stood up to convention.

Max Weinberg, drummer: He was different. He was an iconoclast. He didn’t fit the mold and in so many ways, he broke the mold

It’s impossible to forget the horror of his death, but after so many years, he is best remembered for the way he lived.

Jack Douglas, producer and Lennon friend: You know, I want to be feeling like that when I go—just right on top of my game. And it’s like, the lifeline that most of us live this one. And he kind of lived this one.

Lennon footage, from an old Sholin interview: I still believe in love, peace.  I still believe in positive thinking. We’re trying to imagine there’s no wars, to live that love and peace rather than sing about it only.