Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mark David Chapman: The Man Who Killed John Lennon

A Troubled Youth

Mark David Chapman was born May 10, 1955, near Fort Worth, Tex., the first child of David and Diane Chapman. His father was a staff sergeant in the Air Force, his mother a nurse.

Shortly after Mark's birth, his father was discharged and enrolled at Purdue University, where he used the GI Bill to get a degree in engineering. He moved to Decatur, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, and took a job in the credit department of American Oil Co. When Mark was seven, his sister Susan was born.

His childhood, as he described it to psychiatrists, was unhappy. He was the kind of boy other kids picked on. He was not a good athlete. Other boys called him "Pussy."

He fell back on imaginary friends. He told Jack Jones, his biographer: "I used to fantasize that I was a king, and I had all these Little People around me and that they lived in the walls. … And that I was their hero and was in the paper every day and I was on TV every day, their TV, and that I was important. … They all kind of worshipped me, you know. It was like I could do no wrong."

When he wanted to entertain his subjects, he would give concerts for them, playing records. His favorite, and theirs, was the Beatles.

He wasn't always in a good mood: "And sometimes when I'd get mad I'd blow some of them up. I'd have this push-button thing, part of the [sofa], and I'd like get mad and blow out part of the wall and a lot of them would die. But the people would still forgive me for that, and, you know, everything got back to normal. That's a fantasy I had for many years."

Adults considered him a normal boy. His IQ was 121, well above average. He had the interests of other boys his age – rockets, UFOs and, of course, the Beatles, whose records he played endlessly. He looked forward to the annual showing of "The Wizard of Oz" on TV.

But inwardly, he told psychiatrists, he lived in dread of his father, who he said beat his mother. He told Gaines, "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 make him go away. Sometimes I think I actually pushed him away." He fantasized about getting a gun and blowing his father away.

He told psychologist Lee Salk his father never gave him the love or emotional support he needed: "I don't think I ever hugged my father. He never told me he loved me. And he never said he was sorry – one of those guys."

Mark Chapman as a young man
Mark Chapman as a young man

This wasn't the impression others had. They noted David Chapman was a Boy Scout leader. He taught guitar at the YMCA and taught his son to play. "I'd say it was a very happy family," YMCA director Adams told reporters. "And Mark was a happy, well-adjusted boy."

Even Diane Chapman stood up for her husband, though she admitted he sometimes hit her. She told Gaines that a neighbor commented about the time David spent playing in the yard with Mark. "The fact is that Dave kept a darn good roof over our heads for all those years, and I would say he was a better parent to Mark than I was," she said. "It was true Dave didn't show his emotions, but he'd do anything for Mark."

When he was 14 and a freshman at Columbia High School in Decatur, Mark suddenly changed. He started using marijuana and heroin, let his hair grow, defied his parents, skipped school and stayed out late at night with his new drug-using friends. Once he was picked up by police while freaked out on LSD.

When his mother locked him in his room, he took the door off its hinges and walked out, spending the next week at a friend's house. Later he ran off to Miami for two weeks, living on the street until a man who had taken him in bought him a bus ticket back to Decatur.

His rebel period ended as suddenly as it had started. When he was 16, a California evangelist came to town. Mark went to one of his meetings and had a moving religious experience.

His friend Newton Hendrix couldn't believe the change. The old Mark had "long hair, old army jackets, green draft coat and stuff like that. Now he was a lot calmer, softer spoken, his hair was short. He was still wearing the large coat and some of that stuff – but now he always wore a large wooden cross around his neck."

Soon Mark was passing out religious tracts. He found his first girlfriend, another born-again Christian named Jessica Blankenship. His schoolwork improved. And he devoted himself to the South De Kalb County YMCA. He was a counselor at the Y's summer camp.

"Mark was a Pied Piper with the kids," Adams would say eight years later. Adams remembered Mark as "a guy down on one knee helping out a little kid or with kids just hanging around his neck and following him everywhere he went."

The kids called him "Nemo," apparently after the Jules Verne character. When Chapman was presented with the award for outstanding counselor in the camp, the kids were on their feet, chanting "Ne-mo, Ne-mo, Ne-mo!"

Two other events influenced the born-again Mark. When John Lennon was quoted as saying, "We're more popular than Jesus Christ now," he turned violently against his one-time hero. Chapman and his Christian friends sang Lennon's "Imagine" with new lyrics: "Imagine John Lennon is dead." Chapman adopted Todd Rundgren as his new musical hero.

Also, his friend Michael McFarland recommended a book to him: J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye. It's the story of a mixed-up teenager who, distraught at his discovery that the world seems to be made up of phonies, runs away to wander around New York.

The confused youth dreams of a different world, one where he could fit in:

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean, if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye.

Mark Chapman had met Holden Caulfield.

Or was it the other way around?

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