John Lennon’s Death Lingers for Witnesses
NEW YORK – A television news producer. An emergency room doctor. Two NYPD beat cops. Before that December night 25 years ago, they shared little but this: As children of the ’60s, the soundtrack of their lives came courtesy of the Beatles.
Alan Weiss, a two-time Emmy winner before his 30th birthday, was working at WABC-TV. His teen years were the time of “Revolver” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” In his 20s, Weiss admired John Lennon’s music and politics.
Dr. Stephan Lynn was starting his second year as head of the Roosevelt Hospital emergency room. He remembered the Beatles playing “The Ed Sullivan Show,” although he didn’t quite get the resultant hysteria.
Officer Pete Cullen, with partner Steve Spiro, did the night shift on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They’d occasionally run into Lennon walking through the neighborhood with his son, Sean. “The Beatles were a big part of my life,” Cullen said.
On the night of Dec. 8, 1980, Lynn was in the ER, Weiss was heading home from the newsroom, Cullen and Spiro were on the job √≥ and Mark David Chapman was lurking outside Lennon’s home.
The chubby man with the wire-rimmed glasses stood patiently in the dark outside the Dakota apartment house. He carried a copy of “The Catcher In the Rye,” the J.D. Salinger tale of disaffected youth, and a five-shot Charter Arms .38-caliber revolver.
Lennon, just two months past his 40th birthday, returned from a midtown Manhattan recording studio at 10:50 p.m with wife Yoko Ono. The limousine stopped at the ornate 72nd Street gate; John and Yoko emerged. Chapman’s voice, the same one that had beseeched the ex-Beatle for an autograph hours earlier, rang out: “Mr. Lennon!”
The handgun was leveled at the rock world’s foremost pacifist. Four bullets pierced their famous target.
The voice of a generation was reduced to a final gasp: “I’m shot.”
“Do you know what you just did?” screamed the Dakota’s doorman.
“I just shot John Lennon,” Chapman replied softly.
Back in 1965, while still in the Police Academy, 23-year-old Pete Cullen’s first real assignment was working security outside the Warwick Hotel on West 54th Street. Upstairs, safe from the insanity below, were the Beatles.
Fifteen years later, the officer was staring at a dying John Lennon within minutes after Chapman opened fire. Cullen and Spiro were first to answer the report of shots fired.
Cullen was struck by the lack of movement: the doorman, a building handyman and the killer, all standing as if frozen.
“Somebody just shot John Lennon!” the doorman finally shouted, pointing at Chapman.
“Where’s Lennon?” Cullen asked. The rock star was crumpled inside a nearby vestibule, blood pouring from his chest. There were bullet holes in the glass; Cullen went to Lennon’s side as Spiro cuffed the gunman.
Two other officers lugged Lennon’s limp body to a waiting police car, which sped downtown to Roosevelt Hospital. The cuffed suspect directed Spiro to his copy of “The Catcher in the Rye,” which was lying on the ground nearby with the inscription, “This is my statement.” And then he spoke: “I acted alone,” Chapman said.
“That blew my mind,” said Spiro, who suddenly felt like he was in a movie. The veteran officer later thought about Lennon’s 5-year-old son, Sean, who was sitting a few floors above. Spiro had a boy the same age.
In the midst of the chaos, Cullen spotted Yoko Ono. “Can I go, too?” she asked as her husband disappeared. A ride was quickly arranged. Cullen and Spiro then loaded Chapman into their car for a trip to the 20th Precinct.
“He was apologetic,” Cullen recalled √≥ but not for shooting Lennon. “I remember that he was apologizing for giving us a hard time.”
As the wounded Lennon made the one-mile trip to Roosevelt Hospital, Alan Weiss was already there. The TV news producer’s Honda motorcycle collided with a taxi around 10 p.m., and he was awaiting X-rays.
A sudden buzz filled the room: A gunshot victim was coming in.
The ER doors opened with a crash as a half-dozen police officers burst through, carrying a stretcher with the victim. Doctors and nurses flew into action. Two of the cops paused alongside Weiss’ gurney.
“Jesus, can you believe it?” one asked. “John Lennon.”
Weiss was incredulous. He bribed a hospital worker $20 to call the WABC-TV newsroom with a tip that Lennon was shot. The money disappeared, and the call was never made.
Five minutes passed, and Weiss heard a strangled sound. “I twist around and there is Yoko Ono in a full-length fur coat on the arm of a police officer, and she’s sobbing,” he said. Weiss finally persuaded another cop to let him use a hospital phone, and he reached the WABC-TV assignment editor with his tip around 11 p.m.
The editor confirmed a reported shooting at Lennon’s address. Weiss returned to his gurney, watching in disbelief as the doctors frantically worked on the rock icon. A familiar tune came over the hospital’s Muzak: the Beatles’ “All My Loving.”
It was surreal. And then too real.
“The song ends. And within a minute or two, I hear a scream: `No, oh no, no no no,'” Weiss said. “The door opens, and Yoko comes out crying hysterically.”
Weiss’ tip was confirmed and given to Howard Cosell, who told the nation of Lennon’s death during “Monday Night Football.”
Dr. Stephan Lynn walked to the end of the emergency room hall where Yoko Ono was waiting in an otherwise empty room. It was his job to deliver the word that John Lennon, her soulmate and spouse, was dead.
“She refused to accept or believe that,” Lynn recalled. “For five minutes, she kept repeating, `It’s not true. I don’t believe you. You’re lying.'”
Lynn listened quietly.
His 15 1/2-hour shift had ended at 10:30 p.m., with Lynn returning to his home in Lennon’s neighborhood. His phone was soon ringing; could he come back to help out? A man with a gunshot to the chest was coming to Roosevelt.
Lynn arrived by cab just before his patient did. The victim had no pulse, no blood pressure, no breathing. Lynn, joined by two other doctors, worked frantically. Gradually, they came to realize that they were trying to save the life of one of the world’s most famous men.
Twenty minutes later, they gave up.
Ono left the hospital to tell her son the news, leaving Lynn to inform the media throng that Lennon was gone.
Back in the emergency room, Lynn arranged for the disposal of all medical supplies and equipment used on Lennon √≥ a move to thwart ghoulish collectors.
It was almost 3 a.m. when he began walking home up Columbus Avenue. His wife and two daughters were there; one of them attended the same school as Lennon’s son Sean. Many nights, the Lynns and the Lennons sat in the same restaurant eating sushi. Often, the famous family strolled down 72nd Street.
That world was gone along with Lennon.
“I never again saw Yoko and Sean walking the streets,” the doctor said. “Going out in public? That ceased to take place.”
Yoko Ono never remarried, and still lives in the Dakota. She tends to the Lennon legacy, which includes convincing the state parole board that Chapman should die behind bars. He comes up for parole next year.
The cops from the 20th Precinct hold a reunion every two years. Cullen comes up from his home in Naples, Fla., to hang out with the old gang. They don’t talk about the Lennon shooting.
Weiss, after getting the scoop of his career, wound up leaving the ultra-competitive news business. “The major events of my professional career all had to do with other people’s tragedy,” he said. He now produces a syndicated show with teens reporting the news for teens.
Lynn is still working at Roosevelt Hospital, still the director of the department. As Dec. 8 approaches each year, he gets phone calls from reporters, from fans, from kids born years after Lennon’s murder.
“It’s hard to imagine it’s 25 years,” he said.
John Lennon’s Death Lingers for Witnesses