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‘I just shot John Lennon’: He lived a quiet life in Hawaii until he became a notorious killer

On the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Beatles founder John Lennon, Hawaii News Now examines the life of the Hawaii man who pulled the trigger.
Updated: Dec. 8, 2020 at 8:42 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hours before his death, on Dec. 8, 1980, John Lennon looked his killer in the eyes and saw a pudgy, seemingly unremarkable man who’d shyly asked for an autograph.

Lennon had obliged.

Hours later, the former Beatle would be dead — fatally shot as he returned to his luxury apartment in New York with his wife. It wouldn’t take long for the world to learn his assassin’s name: Mark David Chapman, an out-of-work security guard from Hawaii with a history of mental illness.

Chapman would later say that he’d heard voices in his head that told him to kill Lennon. Rather than pursue an insanity defense, as his lawyers wanted him to, Chapman pleaded guilty to the murder.

He was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison and has been denied parole 11 times.

On the 40th anniversary of Lennon’s death, Hawaii News Now dug into the archives and conducted interviews with those who were there to help tell the Hawaii story of the man who killed one of the world’s biggest stars and understand the woman who has never left his side, his wife Gloria.

[For more special coverage of the 40th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, click here.]

Mark David Chapman, born in 1955, grew up in Georgia in what he’s described as a troubled home.

His father was a sergeant in the Air Force. His mother, a nurse. Chapman has said his father was abusive to him and his mother — so abusive that Chapman sometimes fantasized about killing him.

Chapman also says he experienced bullying at school. In his teen years, he started experimenting with drugs and began to show the first signs of mental illness, including hearing voices.

At 16, Chapman continued to struggle with depression but he seemed to be improving. He became a born-again Christian and started working with the YMCA.

But before long, things started to fall apart.

He tried college several times but dropped out without getting too far. Depressed and suicidal, Chapman came to Oahu in 1977 and was admitted to Castle Memorial Hospital for treatment.

After being released, he started working at the facility as a housekeeper.

A coworker would later remember Chapman as enthusiastic and happy: “He did his job well, faithfully, sometimes even beyond what we asked him to do. He was just a good guy.”

It was that “good guy” that Chapman’s future wife would soon meet.

Gloria Abe was working at a travel agency and met Chapman when he came in to plan an extended trip to Asia. “He came in often to make changes and ask me things,” she would later recall.

“I found him to be kind, generous, sweet, thoughtful and very smart.”

Before Chapman left, he sent her a big teddy bear and roses. She responded by jumping in her car the morning of his departure to see him off. “I’d never done anything like this in my life, but I felt compelled to go to his house ... and give him a lei,” she said. And that’s what she did.

She also knew which hotels he was staying at so she would call them in advance and have little notes waiting for him in his rooms. “They were not love letters,” she said, “just friendly ones.”

He responded by sending postcards of all the places he’d traveled to.

When Chapman returned, Gloria met him at the airport. “We began dating the very next night,” she recalled. It was 1978, and before long, “we felt as if we had known each other for years.”

Gloria, who had grown up Buddhist in the islands, converted to Christianity for Chapman. And the two started going to church together. He proposed to her on the beach in Kailua.

By June 1979, they were married and dreaming of starting a family together.

But their seemingly picture-perfect life wouldn’t last.

Chapman, who had been working as a security guard, got a higher paying job as a printer at a hospital after getting married. He told his wife he wanted to be a better provider.

But he wasn’t there long before he was fired, following an angry run-in with a supervisor.

Chapman was also changing in other ways. He’d started drinking heavily and losing his temper easily. He didn’t want to spend time with his wife or go to parties like they used to.

“On a couple of occasions, he hurt me physically,” Gloria said. “He began to withdraw into himself.”

As he withdrew, Chapman developed several obsessions or expanded old ones, including with Lennon and “The Catcher in the Rye.” A longtime Beatles fan, he now perceived Lennon as a phony — a theme of JD Salinger’s book that now consumed his thoughts — more interested in money than music.

In an interview with Larry King in 1992, Chapman said he wasn’t blaming “The Catcher in the Rye” for driving him to kill Lennon.“I blame myself for crawling inside of the book. It’s my fault,” he said.

“I crawled in and found my pseudo-self within these pages, but that’s fiction and reality was standing in front of the Dakota,” the apartment building where Lennon lived — and where he would die.

In October 1980, Chapman quit his job as a Waikiki security guard and bought a gun. He then flew to New York and, as he later told his wife, had every intention of killing Lennon then but backed out.

When he returned to Hawaii, he told Gloria his plans.

“He said, my love had saved him. And he even had me hold the gun, which was still cold from being in the plane’s cargo. Very cold,” she said, during a talk several years ago.

In early December 1980, Chapman flew again to New York — and lied to his wife about his intentions.

Chapman told her that he needed to make the trip to “grow up as an adult, as a husband, maybe as a father someday,” she said. “He needed time to think about his life. He wanted me to sacrifice a short time of being alone so that we could have a long happy marriage together.”

Brook Hart was Gloria’s attorney.

He said he couldn’t identify any way that she could have prevented what would happen on Dec. 8, 1980 — even knowing what she did about his obsessions. “The power difference in the relationship with her husband was such, you know he did what he wanted to do,” Hart told Hawaii News Now.

“She certainly had no inkling that he was going to do something.”

But she would soon know what he had done.

On Dec. 8, 1980, Gloria came home from work, fixed dinner, sat down on the sofa and turned on “Little House on the Prairie.” A news ticker on the bottom of the screen made her heart stop.

“John Lennon had been shot in New York City,” she said. “I just knew it was Mark.”

News of Lennon’s death sent a shock wave around the world. The former Beatle had been shot four times. His condition was so grave, a police officer drove him to the hospital himself rather than wait for an ambulance. It was still too late. John Lennon was dead, and Mark David Chapman was a killer.

After the shooting, Chapman remained at the scene.

The building’s doorman yelled at him: “Do you know what you just did?” Chapman responded calmly, his face covered with Lennon’s blood, “I just shot John Lennon.”

Chapman would later tell Larry King that it was surreal to have met Lennon earlier in the day. “He knew something subconsciously. He was looking into the eyes of the person that was going to kill him,” Chapman said. “I was ready for this to happen. I ... heard a voice say, ‘do it, do it, do it.’”

HNN Managing Editor Daryl Huff was a cub reporter in 1980. He said local media learned fairly quickly that Lennon’s killer was a man from Hawaii. “It was a big story. It was just full court press,” Huff said.

Reporters interviewed those in the islands who knew Chapman, including former colleagues.

People who worked with him as a security guard in Waikiki recalled a man who was quiet and relatively problem-free. They did note one strange thing, however: On Oct. 23, the day he suddenly quit, Chapman signed out on his employee’s log as “John Lennon.”

The revelation was chilling.

Huff said he was also given a major tip on the story: He learned that Chapman had a history of mental illness and had visited two mental health clinics in Hawaii just before going to New York.

“Both clinics admitted they had basically turned him away,” Huff said. “The other big thing was just the huge national attention that was suddenly shifted on Hawaii and the fact that he had sought mental health treatment here and been turned away was kind of a black eye.”

While reporters retraced Chapman’s footsteps, they also sought to learn more about his wife. The two had lived on the 21st floor of Kukui Plaza. And it was in their small apartment that Gloria mourned the loss of the life she would never know and struggled to come to terms with what her husband had done.

“My life changed, changed dramatically,” she said. “I was now, Mrs. Mark David Chapman, the wife of a murderer, and not just any murderer but one who who’s victim was known and loved by millions.”

Rather than fend off reporters at every turn, Gloria’s attorney — Hart — decided to hold a large news conference with her. Hundreds of journalists showed up to show a killer’s wife to the world.

At that news conference, Gloria appears stunned and in shock.

“I just want to say that I’m just still, again, very concerned about Mark, and I’m just very, very sorry that this had to happen to Yoko Ono, and her family and that her husband had to die,” Gloria said back then, speaking slowly and seemingly with little emotion.

“I think that maybe just somehow some good is going to come out of this,” she said. “I feel I’ve always been a forgiving person and that I cannot recall that I’ve not forgiven Mark for any wrong thing that he has done. I love him very much, and I’m just very sorry that all this had to happen ...

“That John Lennon had to die and that his wife and son going through what they’re going through.”

In his 1992 interview with Larry King, Chapman recalls standing outside Lennon’s apartment building, the Dakota, with his gun in his pocket.

“You knew you were going to shoot him?” King asks Chapman.

“Absolutely,” he responds.

“Tried not to, praying not to, but knowing down deep that it was probably going to come to that.”

On the morning of the killing, Chapman had purchased a copy of “The Catcher in they Rye.” In it, he’d written, “This is my statement.” Later in the day, he missed his first chance of seeing Lennon because he’d been distracted reading the book. He didn’t miss Lennon a second time, stopping him as the musician headed to his taxi that afternoon. “I said, ‘John, will you sign my album?’ He said sure.”

At around 10:50 that night, Lennon and his wife returned from the recording studio.

Here’s Chapman account of what happened next, from that interview with Larry King:

He walked past me, I took five steps toward the street, turned withdrew my 38 and fired. What happened before the shooting, before I pulled the trigger and after were two different scenes in my mind. Before everything was like dead calm and I was ready for this to happen. I even heard of voice, my own, inside of me, say, ‘do it, do it, do it, here we go.’ And then afterwards, it was like, the film strip broke. I fell in upon myself. I went into a state of shock. I stood there with the gun hanging limply down on my right side, and Jose the doorman and came over and he’s crying, and he’s grabbing my arm and he’s shaking my arm and he shook the gun right out of my hand. Which was a very brave thing to do, I just couldn’t wait, Larry, until those police got there. I was just devastated.

New York City Police Officer Steve Spiro arrived at the scene within minutes and arrested Chapman.

“The first thing he said was, ‘I acted alone,’” Spiro said. “I thought it was very strange, and then he said, ‘don’t hurt me, and don’t let anybody else hurt me.’ And I said, no, nobody’s gonna hurt you.”

For decades, Spiro held on to letters that Chapman had written to him from prison.

“One of the first things he asked in the letter that he wrote to me was, ‘do you know where my copy of the Catcher in the Rye is?’” Spiro said. “I wrote back sure ... it was vouchered and it’s in evidence.”

In one letter, Chapman tells Spiro that Lennon was a phony but he wasn’t the only one.

“He said that these people on the hit list, including John Lennon, were phonies,” Spiro said. “They were not taking there money and giving it to the charities that he felt they should be giving it to.”

Chapman told King, speaking in the third person:

“Mark David Chapman at that point was a walking shell who didn’t ever learn how to let out his feelings of anger, of rage, of disappointment. Mark David Chapman was a failure in his own mind. He wanted to become somebody important, Larry. He didn’t know how to handle being a nobody.”

In 2000, Chapman became eligible for parole. Every two years, he can go before a parole board to plead his case. And 11 times so far, a parole board has denied his request to be let out.

The most recent proceeding happened earlier this year.

Through the years behind bars, the parole requests denied and even after moving to a new facility, one thing has remained constant in Chapman’s life — and that’s Gloria’s love.

Speaking to a religious congregation in New York several years ago, Gloria said she did consider divorce back in 1980. She understands why many would question her decision to stay by Chapman’s side. She also doesn’t care; her mind is made up.

“I kept asking God what to do. Stay with Mark? Or leave? Stay with Mark? Or leave? And I searched the Bible to read what God says about divorce,” Gloria said, during a recent talk. “Finally, in the Book of Malachi I read these words, ‘I hate divorce.’ ... That settled it.

“From that moment on it didn’t matter how long Mark was in prison, I would wait for him.”

And she has, traveling to New York for conjugal visits and helping Chapman run a prison ministry.

In several interviews in recent years, Gloria has expressed optimism that her husband will eventually be let out. She says she wants to walk with him again on Kailua beach, where he proposed.

And she claims Chapman is a man reformed.

“Mark has the gift of evangelism and he has the goal of reaching every man at the prison where he is at,” Gloria said. “Just five minutes with Mark, the conversation is quickly going to turn around to Jesus.”

For his part, Chapman has tried to convince the parole board that while he is Lennon’s killer, he is no longer the man who pulled the trigger — the man who allowed an obsession drive him to murder.

“Today I am different. I read the Bible, I pray, and I walk with him, he forgives me. He doesn’t condone what I did. He doesn’t like the pain I caused everybody. Especially John’s widow,” he told Larry King.

More recently, Chapman said he deserves to die in prison for his “creepy, despicable” act.

Whether that happens will be up to a parole board. He’ll appear before the next one in 2022.

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