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Mark Chapman: The Assassination of John Lennon

Crime Files
Mark Chapman: The Assassination of John Lennon

"The day the music died"

Mark David Chapman was born in Fort Worth, Texas on 10th May 1955, the first child of David and Diane Chapman.His father David was a staff sergeant in the Air Force, who left the armed services shortly after his birth to pursue an engineering degree, which took the family to Atlanta, Georgia. A sister, Susan, was born in 1962, when Chapman was seven years old.He was not a popular child growing up and poor at sports. As a result, he developed a rich imagination, to insulate himself against the jibes of his classmates. Chapman claimed that his father was emotionally distant and abused his mother. Consequently he and his sister were terrified of their father. Outwardly, the family were viewed as a happy one, and Chapman appeared a normal, well-adjusted boy, with a passion for The Beatles, and John Lennon in particular. Until his early teens, that is, when Chapman discovered marijuana, graduating to heroin and LSD, and gravitating towards a drug-dominated social set, which fit well with his counter-culture taste in music.

Then, just as suddenly, his rebellious phase ended. At 16 he became an evangelical Christian, and his temperament changed just as abruptly. He acquired a born-again Christian girlfriend, Jessica Blankenship, and a job as a counsellor at a YMCA summer camp, where he was very popular with his young charges.Chapman’s hero-worship of Lennon persisted, until Lennon was quoted in the press as saying “We're more popular than Jesus Christ now,” at which point he renounced his one-time hero. At around the same time, he claims that the reading of Salinger’s novel ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, about a confused teenager, also influenced him deeply.Chapman continued working within the YMCA, serving on its international programme, briefly in Lebanon and then with Vietnamese refugees back in the United States, at Fort Chaffee, where his popularity with the children he supervised continued unabated. By early 1976, after the refugee resettlement programme had run its course, Chapman joined girlfriend, Jessica Blankenship, at college in Tennessee. His studies suffered, however, when he became obsessed with a single infidelity he had committed with another camp worker, and he grew increasingly paranoid and depressed, and considered suicide.He returned to his home town, and found work as a security guard, but the depression continued. Chapman resolved to buy himself a trip of a lifetime, to Hawaii, spend his life savings, and then kill himself. He flew to Honolulu, and spent his savings, but failed to carry through the suicide plan, flew home again, fought with his parents, and then flew back to Hawaii again in May 1977. This time he went as far as trying to gas himself in his car but the plastic hose he attached to the exhaust melted and he survived. Chapman checked himself into a mental facility and continued to volunteer at the hospital after his discharge, which resulted in a full-time maintenance position there, where he remained until April 1978. Having again successfully combated his depression for a time, Chapman planned a six-week trip around the world, which he booked through a Japanese American travel agent named Gloria Abe. The relationship between them developed into a romance and they were eventually married on 2nd June 1979. This happiness was short-lived as Chapman began drinking heavily again, lost his job at the hospital and developed a new obsession with expensive contemporary art.He purchased paintings by Salvador Dali and Norman Rockwell, and amassed debt that his new job, as a security guard, could not hope to support. One obsession led to another and, by March 1980, Chapman became determined to get out of debt, enforcing strict spending limits on himself and Gloria, which resulted in a paying off of the debt by mid-August that year.By this time Chapman was cycling through new obsessions at an increasing rate, alternately ridding himself of possessions and then replacing them, which placed a severe strain on the marriage. He started to read voraciously, returning again to his favourite fictional character, Holden Caulfield, the protagonist in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, even considering changing his name to that of his fictional hero. Chapman seemed to alternate between recognising, and rejecting, that he had a mental illness, retreating more fully into the fantasy world that he had conjured up in his youth. According to Chapman, the book ‘John Lennon: One Day at a Time’, by Anthony Fawcett, proved a conclusive catalyst for the events which transpired before the year’s end.

He was incensed by what he saw as the hypocrisy of his former idol, who preached simplicity, peace and love and yet lived a life of unparalleled luxury in New York. His obsession grew and he decided to go to New York and kill John Lennon. On 23rd October 1980 he resigned from his security guard post, bought a gun (but no bullets) four days later, and flew to New York on 30th October 1980, all financed via a $5000 loan from his father-in-law. He decided to live it up, as he had when he flew to Hawaii on his first suicide mission, and checked in to the exclusive Waldorf Hotel. He spent some time reconnoitring the Dakota Apartments building, the New York home of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, but encountered a major flaw in his assassination plan; the law in New York forbade the purchase of bullets by civilians. He was forced to travel to Atlanta to see a friend, who had become a deputy sheriff, who provided him with the ammunition he required. By 10th November he was back in New York, when Chapman claims that the chance viewing of the film ‘Ordinary People’, in which Timothy Hutton plays a suicidal teenager caught up in the midst of a dysfunctional family, provided a reality check to his obsession. He called his wife, told her that he loved her, that he had defeated his demons, and that he was coming home. This defeat was short-lived however and, after a fortnight of erratic behaviour back in Hawaii, he again left his extremely concerned wife.Chapman returned to New York on 6th December, where he checked into a local YMCA, and began staking out Lennon’s apartment building, also buying a copy of Lennon’s new album, ‘Double Fantasy’. The next day, he moved from the YMCA to the Sheraton Centre Hotel but was again unsuccessful in his quest to spot Lennon.The following day, Monday, however, his luck had improved. Not only did Chapman get to shake hands with Lennon’s five-year-old son, Sean, but in the early afternoon, whilst talking to the Dakota’s doorman, John Lennon and Yoko Ono appeared from inside, en route to a studio appointment, and Lennon graciously autographed the dumb-struck Chapman’s copy of ‘Double Fantasy’. Chapman was so overcome by Lennon’s presence, and evident sincerity, that all thoughts of shooting him were temporarily forgotten.Chapman claims that he spent the rest of that day fighting his demons, praying for help from God to overcome his desire to kill Lennon. The demons won out and, when Ono and Lennon returned to the Dakota at 10.50 pm, on Monday 8th December 1980, Chapman shot Lennon four times in the back, in front of his wife, on the steps to the building’s main entrance. By 11.15 pm Lennon had died of exsanguination, en route to the Roosevelt Hospital. Chapman made no effort to flee and was overpowered by the doorman, with whom he had been chatting earlier in the day.He was apologetic when the police arrived, claiming to be sorry for putting them to so much trouble. When he had been handcuffed and placed in the police car, Yoko Ono came over to look at him, without saying a word. Within minutes of the news announcements of John Lennon’s death, crowds began to assemble at both the Dakota and Roosevelt Hospital.Fearing reprisals from enraged fans, police kept Chapman under close guard during psychiatric evaluations and court appearances, and otherwise kept him at the high security jail on Riker’s Island.


Born - 10th May 1955The Victim: John Lennon - 8th December 1980Arrested - 8th December 1980Charged - 6th January 1981Convicted - 24th August 1981

The Trial

"The nobody who murdered the biggest somebody"

After extensive evaluations psychiatrists concluded that, whilst delusional, Chapman was competent to stand trial. Chapman was charged with second-degree murder, the most serious charge in New York State, for the killing of a civilian who is not a law enforcement officer.Chapman’s defence lawyer, Jonathan Marks, began to prepare the case, but was sidetracked early on by Chapman’s latest obsession. He would promote ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ throughout his trial, by reading it openly in court, and jumping up periodically, exhorting the general public to read it for themselves. Then, in June 1981, following months of trial preparations, Chapman suddenly decided to plead guilty to the murder charge, over the strenuous objections of his lawyer. He claimed that God had persuaded him to plead guilty. He repeated this allegation to Judge Dennis Edwards, on 22nd June 1981, and the judge accepted Chapman’s guilty plea.His sentence was finally handed down on 24th August 1981, a minimum of 20 years to life imprisonment.

Chapman, who had been regarded as ‘legally rational’, that is competent to stand trial, was transferred to Attica State Prison, rather than to a mental institution, and held in solitary confinement for his own safety. He refused any psychiatric assistance whilst there, and claimed that his Christian faith enabled him to overcome his demons, within seven or eight years of his incarceration.Two decades on Chapman is described as a model inmate, although he has been refused parole on three separate occasions in October 2000, October 2002 and October 2004. In 2004 Yoko Ono wrote to his parole board, claiming that Chapman still posed a threat to her family. At the last of these hearings he made no attempt to influence the board’s decision, and he is reported to have said, “Because of the pain and suffering I caused, I deserve exactly what I've gotten right now”.Chapman was due for another parole hearing in October 2006. Given the media attention surrounding him, and unwavering public outrage at the death of Lennon, thousands of fans continue to converge on Strawberry Fields in Central Park on each anniversary of his death, it is unlikely that Chapman will ever be released.A film called ‘Chapter 27’, starring Jared Leto and Lindsay Lohan, about Chapman’s experiences during the weekend of the assassination, was released in 2007. The film met with vociferous objection from Lennon fans, who felt that the film fed into Chapman’s fame fantasy, the reason he gave for killing Lennon in the first place.As is the case with the sudden death of many of the 20th Century’s icons, such as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and John F Kennedy, conspiracy theories abound. The most popular seems to be a CIA-directed plot, by the newly elected, though not yet in office, ultra-right wing government of Ronald Reagan, who feared the anti-war stance of national icons like Lennon, and their ability to galvanise an anti-war, anti-government public uprising. Conspiracy theorists point to Chapman’s time in Lebanon, reputedly a prime CIA training area in the 1970s, and there are claims that he was either a CIA operative, or somehow brainwashed, with ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ being his psychological trigger to kill, a la ‘The Manchurian Candidate’. It is true that he was carrying a copy of the book on the night he assassinated Lennon and his bizarre attempts to promote the book prior to his trial were definitely odd.Others claim his training occurred whilst he was based at Fort Chaffee, during his work with displaced Vietnamese children, and they point to ‘missing periods’ in the late 1970s, when Chapman was supposed to be receiving mental treatment but could have in fact been in military training.Still others claim that Hawaii was the base from which Chapman received his CIA training/brainwashing, and point to his unlimited funds; purchasing works of art, staying at the Waldorf and Sheraton, being in possession of $2000 in cash at the time of his arrest, as proof that he was a CIA agent on a mission.Another theory points to Chapman’s sudden ‘Voice of God’ motivation for changing his plea to guilty, claiming that his controllers, fearful of his deteriorating mental state and what he might reveal during a full trial, somehow programmed him again to plead guilty. Chapman’s ‘unnatural calm’ after his change of plea is cited as evidence of this behavioural programming.It is an established fact that both the FBI and the CIA had Lennon under almost constant surveillance from the time of his first immigration bid to the United States, in the late 1960s, until 1976, and that both agencies amassed Lennon dossiers consisting of hundreds of pages. Given that these inherently right-wing government agencies had been suppressed for most of the latter half of the 1970s, during the Democratic Carter administration, it seems likely that individuals within each organisation would have welcomed the arrival of the Reagan era. Many within the agencies might well have continued to consider Lennon’s absolute anti-war stance subversive and might well have resumed their surveillance of Lennon, had he lived to see Reagan inaugurated.Nevertheless, whilst the various conspiracy theories are certainly food for thought, no concrete proof has ever been provided to back up any of these claims. Conspiracy theorists, in response, cite the abilities of the CIA and other agencies to effectively cover their tracks. In the absence of a Mark Felt/Deep Throat-type confession, from someone within the agencies, the mystery, if that is what it is, seems likely to remain unresolved.

The Key Figures

Mark Chapman: Born - 10th May 1955 John Lennon: Killed - 8th December 1980