On December 8, 1980, Mark David Chapman would become forever infamous as the man who shot John Lennon. Here's why he pulled the trigger.
John Lennon’s sudden, violent death on December 8, 1980, at the hands of Mark David Chapman was a sobering postscript to the legendary musical output of Lennon and his former bandmates in The Beatles.
Soon after The Beatles dissolved in 1969, John Lennon abandoned his native England and took up permanent residence in New York City, a new home where he would release multiple albums as a solo artist.
As one of the most prominent figures to protest the Vietnam War, Lennon was rewarded for his outspoken idealism with continued FBI surveillance and an attempted deportation by then-President Richard Nixon.
In 1973, Lennon and his wife, avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, took up residence in The Dakota, a historic apartment building on Central Park West and 72nd Street that has served as a haven for the rich and powerful since 1884.
As a resident of New York in the 1970s, Lennon relished that he had escaped the crazed mob scenes that constantly plagued him in England at the height of Beatlemania. “People come and ask for autographs, or say ‘Hi,’ but they don’t bug you,” Lennon told the BBC.
But Lennon’s respite from the hazards of celebrity was shattered on Dec. 8, 1980. Shortly before 11 p.m., as John was returning home to The Dakota after an evening spent remixing music at Record Plant Studio, gunman Mark David Chapman appeared and fired four hollow-point bullets into Lennon’s back.
Years after Lennon’s death, in an interview for a 1993 New Yorker article, Ono discussed spending time with John in a stretch of Central Park that would eventually become a memorial to the musician and his legacy.
“About a week before John’s death, we did this filming for a music video we were making, and we filmed ourselves there. We said to each other, ‘This is such a sorry spot’ — it was so desolate, and nobody was caring for it. I said, ‘Well, shall we donate some grass, or something?’ John said, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea.’ Of course, I didn’t know it was going to be like this at the time.”
In 1985, this desolate Central Park space just down the street from The Dakota was converted into a 2.5-acre site called “Strawberry Fields.” Every year since its inception, on the anniversaries of Lennon’s birth and death, fans have gathered there to sing his songs and pay their respects.
In celebrating Lennon’s life, the question of who his killer is and what motivated him still abides on the periphery of Lennon’s legacy, an unwelcome presence as patient and silent as Chapman himself as he waited in the dark for Lennon’s arrival nearly 40 years ago, a small, dark pistol gripped in his sweaty hand.
What compelled John Lennon’s killer to assassinate a symbol of peace?
How Mark David Chapman Became John Lennon’s Killer
Mark David Chapman was born on May 10, 1955 in Fort Worth, Texas. His father, U.S. Air Force staff sergeant David Chapman, was physically abusive to his mother, who worked as a nurse.
In an interview with journalist James R. Gaines, Chapman explained:
“He would beat her up. I’d wake up hearing my mother screaming my name, and it just scared the fire out of me, and I’d run in there and put up my fists and make him go away. Sometimes I think actually I pushed him away. [The next morning] she had black eyes and bruises on her head and no telling what else.”
In the months before shooting Lennon, Chapman had contemplated murdering other celebrities, including fellow former Beatle Paul McCartney, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Carson, George C. Scott, and then-President Ronald Reagan. Another person he had considered killing was his father. As Chapman put it:
“I was going to fly to Atlanta and break into the house and go into [my father’s] room and put the gun up to him and tell him what I thought about him. And he was going to pay for what he was doing to my mother… I was going to blow his head off.”
As a 14-year-old, Chapman had used drugs and regularly skipped school. He later claimed it was the bullying he experienced that motivated his absences — including a two-week stretch where he lived on the streets of Atlanta.
After becoming a born-again Presbyterian in 1971 and working as a summer camp counselor in Georgia, Chapman read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. He felt particularly drawn to the novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield.
“I really identified with him,” Chapman told Gaines during a visit to Attica Correctional Facility three years after the murder. “His plight, his loneliness, his alienation from society.”
Oddly enough, Chapman had always been a Beatles fan — and even told a friend after a prolonged LSD trip that he believed he had become Lennon.
“I always wanted to be a Beatle,” he said. “I’d always think, man, what would it be like to be a Beatle?”
But a 1966 interview with the London Evening Standard, in which Lennon proclaimed his group had become “more popular than Jesus,” soured Chapman’s adoration of Lennon. High school friend Miles McManus recalled Chapman changing the words of “Imagine” to “Imagine if John were dead.”
In 1977, Chapman moved to Hawaii and eventually slipped into a deep depression. This would lead to a failed suicide attempt before Chapman met Gloria Abe, a travel agent who he married two years later.
Gaines claimed that after Chapman read Anthony Fawcett’s John Lennon: One Day at a Time in 1980, Chapman’s “10-year obsession with The Beatles congealed into a hatred of John Lennon in particular.”
Chapman believed that Lennon was “a poser” who “espoused virtues and ideals that he didn’t practice.” By October, Chapman quit his job as a security guard, signing out as John Lennon on his final day, and flew to New York City.
The Night Of John Lennon’s Death
Chapman left his hotel on Dec. 8, 1980 and bought a copy of Salinger’s book, in which he wrote, “This is my statement.” He signed it “Holden Caulfield” before heading to The Dakota and waiting at its entrance all day. At 5 p.m., Lennon and Ono walked out, and Chapman asked for an autograph.
“He was very kind to me,” said Chapman. “Ironically, very kind and was very patient with me. The limousine was waiting… and he took his time with me and he got the pen going and he signed my album. He asked me if I needed anything else. I said, ‘No. No sir.’ And he walked away. Very cordial and decent man.”
When the couple returned around 10:50 p.m., Dakota doorman Jose Perdomo saw Chapman standing near the archway in the shadows.
“When the car pulled up and Yoko got out, something in the back of my mind was going ‘Do it, do it, do it,'” he said. “I stepped off the curb, walked, turned, I took the gun and just boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.”
Chapman fired five shots from his Charter Arms .38 Special revolver, with one missing and hitting a window. The rest hit Lennon in the back and shoulder, with both his subclavian artery and lung being punctured. Lennon staggered to the reception area in shock, screaming, “I’m shot! I’m shot!”
“I was frozen, standing there frozen and the gun was hanging at my side, still in my hand,” Chapman said, until Perdomo made a move. “He shook the gun out of my hand and he kicked the gun across the pavement. He shook me out of my shock.”
Though aware of what he’d done, Chapman peacefully waited at the scene until officers arrested him. His lawyers immediately planned on an insanity defense, and transferred him to Bellevue Hospital to be examined by psychiatrists from both sides of the upcoming trial.
Inside The Mind Of The Man Who Killed John Lennon
The prosecution would claim that Chapman had “committed a deliberate, premeditated execution of John Lennon and acted in a cool, calm and calculated manner.”
Though the defense maintained that John Lennon’s killer was “delusional and psychotic,” the 26-year-old himself said he rejected this — and didn’t commit the murder “by reason of mental disease or defect.”
When asked why he had used hollow-point bullets in the crime, he simply said, “To ensure Lennon’s death.”
Chapman told Allen F. Sullivan of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office that he heard voices telling him to kill Lennon — and that it was both his and God’s will.
Though experts concluded in the months preceding trial that Chapman was either psychotic, a paranoid schizophrenic, or both, he was deemed competent to stand trial. In the end, Chapman overruled his own attorneys and decided to plead guilty and forego the insanity plea.
He was sentenced to 20 years to life on Aug. 24, 1981. It was behind bars that the John Lennon killer eventually reassessed his horrific crime.
Mark David Chapman Today
Chapman’s 11th parole hearing is scheduled for August 2020. For every hearing, Yoko Ono has sent a personal letter urging the board to keep Chapman behind bars.
His first attempt in 2000 was denied partly because the board believed Chapman had a continued interest in “maintaining [his] notoriety.”
It was during his eighth hearing that Mark David Chapman told the board, “I am sorry for being such an idiot and choosing the wrong way for glory,” and that Jesus “has forgiven me.” Unmoved, the board maintained that Chapman wouldn’t be able to “remain at liberty without again violating the law.”
He’s since described his actions as “premeditated, selfish, and evil.”
“I was too far in,” recalled Chapman during his 2018 parole hearing. “I do remember having the thought of, hey, you have got the album now, look at this, he signed it, just go home, but there was no way I was going to go home.”
In the years immediately following Lennon’s shooting, Ono turned her attention to perfectly curating the space of Strawberry Fields in Central Park:
“I decided to ask all the countries of the world to donate trees or shrubs or stones to this place, so that it would be an international garden. I put that message, that plea, in the newspapers, and right away we got all these replies saying, ‘Yes, we will.’ So many seeds that we planted I’m seeing grow, which is really a reward. I wish I could share that with John, but I’m sure John knows it, somewhere. Somewhere, I’m sure, John is seeing it all happen.”
After learning about Mark David Chapman, the man who killed John Lennon, read these 21 surprising John Lennon facts. Then, learn the full story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.