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The Day John Lennon Was Shot

The killing of the former Beatle left fans around the world in shock and scrambling for answers

Fans, John Lennon, vigil, shot, dead

Fans of John Lennon holding a vigil after he was shot dead by a fan on at his home in New York circa December 8th, 1981.

Hulton Archive/Getty

Man shot, One West Seventy-second” was the call on the police radio just before eleven p.m. Officers Jim Moran and Bill Gamble were in the third blue-and-white that screamed to a halt outside the Dakota apartment building. The man who had been shot couldn’t wait for an ambulance. They stretched him out on the back seat of their car and raced to Roosevelt Hospital, at the corner of Fifty-ninth Street and Ninth Avenue. They lifted the bloody body onto a gurney and wheeled it into the emergency room. There was nothing the doctors could do. They pronounced John Lennon dead at 11:07 p.m.

Howard Cosell picked up a feed from WABC-TV News in New York and announced the shooting on Monday Night Football. The news spread like a prairie fire. Within minutes, the small, brick-walled ambulance courtyard outside the emergency room was filled with at least 200 people who were staring dumbly at the closed double doors. The TV crews, with no visible targets, trained their whiter-than-white lights on a solitary young man kneeling in the courtyard.

“. . . and deliver us from evil. Amen,” he chanted. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus . . . . John, as we all heard, has been shot. I make this public not by will. I am here to pray . . . . I am just a fan of John’s . . . join me.” Even the TV crews got tired of him in a few minutes.

Some of the cabdrivers, who were depositing reporters at the rate of two or three a minute, joined the throng. One of them volunteered loudly that he had it from a good source that John Lennon had been dead on arrival. One young woman stood alone in the middle of Ninth Avenue and wept.

The crowd continued to grow. At about midnight, a woman with a very crisp manner marched out. The black name tag on her white lab coat said that she was A. Burton, the hospital’s director of public relations. The reporters hurled questions at her. “I’d rather have the doctor tell you,” she said. “He will be in the lobby, around the corner, between Ninth and Tenth.” She turned and marched back in.

The press corps took off in a footrace, wheezing and huffing their way around the corner, bursting through the lobby doors and slamming up short against a stairwell, jousting for position. An overweight cameraman was complaining: “I was in bed watching channel four news and I get a call — ‘Channel two says John Lennon’s been shot, get your ass over to Roosevelt.'”

“That’ll teach you to watch four,” a woman said.

“Well, I get bad reception on two.”

A. Burton reappeared at the head of the stairs and ignored the shouted questions. “The doctor is coming,” she announced in measured tones. “He is Stephan Lynn. He is director of the emergency-room service.” She had to spell his name five or six times. A couple of reporters hinted loudly that this might be a diversionary tactic, designed to keep the pesky press away from the emergency room while something important happened, but none of the press corps left.

Dr. Lynn faced the press at about ten minutes after midnight. “A little closer, doc,” a photographer yelled, and Nikon motor-drives started whirring and strobe lights began zinging him like darts. The doctor, in his spotless white lab coat, was nervous. He said, “John Lennon,” and then paused for at least twenty seconds. “John Lennon,” he continued, finally, “was brought to the emergency room of the Roosevelt, the St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, this evening, shortly before eleven p.m. He was dead on arrival.” There were gasps from the press corps. “Extensive resuscitative efforts were made, but in spite of transfusions and many procedures, he could not be resuscitated.”

“Where was he shot, doc, and how many times?” the corps demanded.

“He had multiple gunshot wounds in his chest, in his left arm and in his back,” Lynn answered. “There were seven wounds in his body. I don’t know exactly how many bullets there were. There was a significant injury of the major vessels inside the chest, which caused a massive amount of blood loss, which probably resulted in his death. I’m certain that he was dead at the moment that the first shots hit his body.”

“What about his wife?”

“His wife was with him at the time of the injury and indeed accompanied him to the emergency department.”

“Did you tell Yoko that Mr. Lennon was dead? What did she say?”

“I did tell his wife that he was dead. She was . . . most distraught at the time and found it quite hard to accept. She is no longer at the hospital.”

“Is Mr. Lennon still in the hospital?”

“His body is in the hospital.”

The press corps drifted back out to the emergency-room entrance. The kneeling saint was still going at it: “I have prayed previously in moments of crisis like this to Our Lady of the Rosary. I shall stay until the sun comes up to pray for the soul of our beloved friend and brother in spirit, John Lennon. I shall now pray the rosary and invite everyone to stay as long as they would like and join me.” A few persons did.

A. Burton marched out again and told everybody to clear the hell out. A TV guy tried to argue with her: “Look, lady, if I don’t get two more minutes on the air, I’m out of a job.” She stared him down and said, “Well, you’re certainly going to be out of this courtyard.”

The press corps raced off on the trail of the assassin. A couple of hundred Beatle fans lingered quietly on Ninth Avenue. Most were dry-eyed. If there was a common facial expression, it was bewilderment. Dwayne Thomas, a young black man, stood with his arms folded and just stared at the emergency-room doors. He had been close by when he’d heard the news and felt that he had to do something. He stood there on Ninth Avenue and shook his head slowly. “You just don’t know what to do,” he finally said. “That’s the thing. You just walk and stand and look, you know. You wonder why. Of all people, why did he get it? He’d led such a quiet life these past five years, and now he puts out one album and gets blown away.”

There will be no Jack Ruby here,” a hard-faced cop said almost matter-of-factly as the suspect was whisked into the Twentieth Precinct, on West Eighty-second Street. The alleged assassin was completely surrounded by cops, a pale moonface bobbing in a sea of blue uniforms. He disappeared into the elevator.

The precinct house was overrun by the press corps, who posted lookouts on the sidewalk, grouped around the two pay phones and emptied the cigarette and soda machines, marked FOR POLICE USE ONLY with hand-lettered signs. Others surrounded Lieutenant John Schick at the duty desk. Schick’s silver crew cut was standing at full attention. “He [the alleged assassin] is talking to people upstairs,” Schick said.

“What people?”

“Basically, the officers that brought him in.”

“Did he call a lawyer?”

“He’s entitled to three telephone calls within the city. Any outside the city he has to pay for.”

“Has a lawyer been arranged for?”

“Probably, but that will be at the arraignment.”

“Has he made any calls?”

“I don’t know. Like I say, he’s in a room upstairs with a detective.”

“He’s not talking with anybody else?”

“As far as I know, no.”

“And that’s because he refuses to do so?”

“I guess so.”

There was a brief flurry of activity when arresting officer Peter Cullen strode through refusing to answer any questions.

Microphones were taped to the worn walnut podium in the briefing room where — it was generally assumed — somebody would hold a press conference. A stringer for the Shukan (Japan) Post came back from telephoning his magazine’s offices in Japan; they hadn’t heard about the shooting yet.

At two a.m. Chief of Detectives James T Sullivan walked up to the podium to face the TV lights and the hundred or so members of the press. He was wearing an immaculate blue-serge suit and a pinstripe shirt and dark tie. The gold shield on his chest gleamed in the TV lights. He kept his left hand in his trouser pocket.

“We asked you to come here so we could give you a briefing on what we know at this point in the homicide of John Lennon,” he said, a slight edge of nervousness in his voice. “We have arrested Mark David Chapman of 55 South Kukui —that’s K-u-k-u-i — Street, Hawaii, for the homicide of John Lennon. He is a male Caucasian, tan complexion, five feet eleven, 195 pounds, brown hair, blue eyes, and he’s twenty-five years of age. Born May 10th, 1955, has apparently been in New York City for about a week, was staying briefly at the Y M C A — I’m not sure which one. He is most recently staying at the Sheraton Centre. He, Mr. Chapman, has been about at the Dakota for the last several days. He was able to obtain an autograph on an album from Mr. Lennon as he left for the recording studio. He remained at the Dakota all evening waiting for Mr. Lennon to come back. Some time shortly before eleven o’clock, John Lennon and his wife arrived back at the Dakota in a limousine. They parked the limousine outside the Dakota. There is a driveway into which they might have gone, but on this occasion did not. They got out and walked into the archway area of the Dakota . . . . This individual, Mr. Chapman, came up behind them and called to him, ‘Mr. Lennon!’ Then, in a combat stance, he fired. He emptied the Charter Arms 38-caliber gun that he had with him and shot John Lennon.”

Sullivan, who had developed a solitary bead of sweat on his upper lip, went on to recount the arrest of Chapman, who “behaved very calmly.” Sullivan answered a couple of dozen questions, ranging from “Has Chapman made a full confession?” (“I can’t go into that”) to “What did Mr. Lennon say?” (“He said, ‘I’m shot,’ as he went inside”) to “Was he smoking?” which he didn’t answer.

Sullivan answered the last question at 2:24 a.m.

It was over now, and yet it was just beginning. The death of John Lennon, and the arrest of his murderer, were on the record. The shock had been planted and the reaction was growing.

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