On 8 December 1980 at 10:50 P.M. John Lennon, forty-year-old former member and creative intellect of the Liverpool pop group the Beatles, was murdered. Lennon was returning to his apartment in New York’s Dakota building, One West 72nd Street, where Mark David Chapman, aged twenty-five, had been waiting to kill him. A plethora of complex conspiracy theories surround the death of Lennon. Recent books such as Jon Wiener’s Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI File and others due for publication may shed further light on the events surrounding the death, although, as with the other major assassinations of contemporary conspiracy lore, this is probably overly optimistic.
The major conspiracy theory is that Chapman was a CIA-trained assassin. According to this theory, the musician and cultural hero was seen to be a threat to U.S. security due to his supposed radical views. Labeled an “undesirable alien” by the Nixon administration due to a drug conviction in England in 1968, Lennon had since been living with the threat of deportation, but with the birth of his son Sean he received his green card. Lennon was one of the most photographed and sought-after celebrities of the twentieth century up to this point and, it has been conjectured, he had the power to gather 2 million people in support of his own political campaigns. Such popularity, some surmised, posed a significant threat and necessitated his death. Since Sean’s birth in 1976 on 9 October, Lennon had been living as a virtual recluse in the Dakota building, possibly in fear for his life. In 1980 he took steps to resume a public life again, releasing his Double Fantasy album, a critical and commercial success.
Mark Chapman, living in Honolulu, had read of Lennon’s return to music. On 23 October Chapman resigned from his security job, signing out for the last time as John Lennon. Four days later he purchased a five-shot, short-barrel .38-caliber Charter Arms Special from a man named Ono, and then on 30 October boarded a plane bound for New York. From New York, finding it difficult to purchase bullets, Chapman flew to Atlanta, Georgia, to visit Dana Reeves, a friend and sheriff’s deputy, collected bullets, and was back in New York by 10 November. However, he had a change of mind at this point and decided to go back to Honolulu. Chapman then apparently began to hear voices in his head telling him to kill John Lennon and by 6 December he was back in New York.
On Monday, 8 December, Chapman wrote the word “Lennon” after “John” at the beginning of the Gospel of John in the hotel Bible, then left his room at the New York Sheraton. This and similar acts have led psychiatrists to theorize that the shooting was a form of suicide, with Chapman having completely identified himself with Lennon. Chapman had been a born-again Christian, and thus it may be argued that this was part of a Christian mission to rid the world of evil, based on the fundamentalist Christian belief that the world is fallen from God’s grace and some are chosen to redeem it. Chapman then purchased the J. D. Salinger novel The Catcher in the Rye, arrived at the Dakota building, spoke with doorman Patrick O’Loughlin among others, read his book, and finally got an autograph from Lennon as he left the Dakota building. Lennon returned home and, following Yoko Ono into the Dakota, was shot four times in the body and once in the arm.
Chapman maintains he did not remember aiming the gun, just pulling the trigger, calmly. Lennon tried to escape, but the final two bullets stopped him. Jose Perdomo, a doorman at the time, was in the vicinity. Chapman removed his coat, to indicate to police he was not hiding a gun, and once the police arrived he stated that he had acted alone. Chapman, despite or perhaps because of his mental illness, does appear to have behaved oddly, tranquilly reading his book after the murder and peacefully giving himself up. There are many anomalies in the events, with the premeditated and thorough nature of the assassination raising suspicions over how he carried out and financed his airplane trips around the United States with a gun, as well as his stays in New York. Upon initial questioning he claimed to have had no strong feelings about John Lennon either way.
In his book Who Killed John Lennon? attorney Fenton Bresler presents extensive research from over a ten-year period and argues that Chapman was programmed by the CIA or FBI. The text reveals how the FBI had experimented in using mentally ill people as assassins and had been engaged in the surveillance of Lennon. Lennon himself had called the police a number of times due to threatening phone calls concerning the abduction of his son Sean and harming of his wife Yoko Ono. Bresler argues that Lennon’s killer was one of a long line of trained assassins, and some of Chapman’s history appears to concur with this theory. Chapman had spent the summer of 1975 in Beirut, Lebanon, as a youth trainer for the YMCA, and was certainly proficient at using a weapon, but this perhaps came from his training as a security guard in Hawaii. Bresler explains how the YMCA was one of a number of international organizations the CIA utilized to plant agents worldwide.
According to Lennon’s personal diaries, analyzed with as much fiction as fact by Robert Rosen in his book Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon, Lennon foresaw his martyr’s death and was himself a great believer in conspiracy theories. He was a compulsive National Enquirer reader, believed in phenomena such as UFOs, and was utterly paranoid. Retrospectively, one might add that his paranoia was not entirely misplaced. Rosen was friends with Fred Seaman, a Lennon employee who stole the John Lennon diaries and used them as the basis for his book, The Last Days of John Lennon: A Personal Memoir. Yoko Ono condemned this work as pure fabrication.
Another more populist racist and sexist conspiracy theory points to Lennon’s wife, much maligned by the British press for supposedly instigating the breakup of the Beatles. Once Lennon died Yoko Ono had a number-one hit record and benefited from the added interest in Lennon’s work and life. The U.S. tabloid Daily News accused her of being a CIA employee, which links to the far-fetched theory that Lennon himself was a CIA agent whose services were now no longer required or who was about to renege. According to other theories Chapman was a New World Order stooge and John Lennon himself was part of the New World Order under Yoko’s influence. However, these were usually concocted by aggrieved employees looking for financial benefit after Lennon or Ono had terminated their employment after a break of trust, such as Seaman’s theft of Lennon’s diaries.
Albert Goldman in his biography of Lennon maintains John Lennon was a violent, unstable personality who beat former band member Stu Sutcliffe so badly that he died of a blood clot in the brain. Some have seen such attacks as part of a conspiracy to denigrate Lennon and his legacy. Goldman insists that Lennon had a homosexual relationship with manager Brian Epstein and had a personal hand in his inexplicable “suicide.” As with the conspiracy theory that Lennon was a CIA or New World Order agent, this theory suggests he brought his death upon himself.
In an interview with Playboy magazine in September 1980 (one of a number of interviews Lennon gave in this period and the first in five years), Lennon himself referred to global conspiracies. Further links to prove a wider conspiracy have been made to another assassination, the attempt on President Ronald Reagan’s life. Three months after Lennon was murdered Reagan was shot and nearly killed by John Hinckley, in New York City. Hinckley’s father was a close personal friend of George Bush, Sr., and his sons, convicted criminal Neil, Jeb, and George. For several weeks prior to the assassination attempt, Hinckley imitated the movements of Mark David Chapman. Both were carrying a paperback copy of the J. D. Salinger novel The Catcher in the Rye. (Interestingly, given his current recluse status, according to this conspiracy theory J. D. Salinger had ties to the U.S. intelligence community, in particular the CIA, and his book was intended to be a mind-control programming tool.) Conspiracy theorists maintain that Hink-ley could not have known Reagan’s exact whereabouts unless he had received inside information, from presumably the head of the CIA at the time and future president, George Bush, Sr.
As his trial commenced on 22 June 1981, Chapman changed his plea to guilty (on the personal advice, he claimed, of God), thus reducing his sentence from at least twenty-five years to twenty. With the bargaining now conducted away from the media frenzy there was an immediate cry of a cover-up and conspiracy. His initial defense psychiatrists had claimed he was schizophrenic, that “the little people,” the voices inside his head, had ordered him to do it. Dr. Naomi Goldstein, the only doctor not to have a vested interest in the case and the first to assess Chapman, recommended he be charged with second-degree murder. In her report she wrote he was not insane, but had “grandiose visions of himself’ (Jones, 96).
Chapman, defending himself against accusations of being a publicity seeker, claimed to have become one with The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield, the central character, is on a mission to uncover phoniness in the world. “I understood that it had been necessary for a man to die. A phony man had to die. But what a beautiful foundation was laid by his death. I became that book” (Jones, 268). To allay his guilt, it may be concluded, Chapman had to construct a conspiracy theory around the novel and Lennon, one that many since have believed. The continuing high-profile and money-making status of the Beatles and Lennon legacy (witness the new Lennon clothes rage for children) means interest in Lennon and his shooting has not waned. After two decades these conspiracy theories continually work to simultaneously obfuscate and perhaps reveal the truth concerning the death of one of the most influential songwriters of all time.