It was a cold early December morning like we’re having now as I scanned the (pre-merger) Atlanta Constitution before heading to work and saw an AP story that John Lennon had been shot to death outside his NYC residence before midnight.
Wearing thermal underwear, I cranked up my under heated Pinto and drove to 72 Marietta Street to begin my day as a reporter for the separate and competing afternoon Journal, unaware that I would end up that night in Honolulu, in 80 degree temperatures, still wearing the damn long johns.
To this day, some former colleagues call the experience “your Hawaii junket.”
Anne Cowles, who started her Journal shift even earlier than I, had just learned from a printer in the back shop that his son graduated from DeKalb County’s Columbia High School, class of ’73, with Mark David Chapman, Lennon’s assassin now serving life in prison.
For the second time in three years, though I was anything but a pop culture writer, I found myself covering the sudden death of a music idol. I was dispatched to Graceland when Elvis crapped out on his commode at age 42 from over weight, controlled substances and an unhealthy diet.
As other reporters arrived, the Journal staff kicked into high gear. Somebody liberated a copy of Chapman’s high school annual, and we frantically called classmates, neighbors and relatives for the “Mark, we hardly knew ye” story in the Journal final home edition.
We learned from a classmate that he was a “straight arrow” type from a quiet south DeKalb neighborhood early in high school who played lead guitar “extremely well” and went through a stage of long hair and shabby clothes and became “sort of a Jesus freak ” in his last year.
He ran away from home briefly at 14, but had no criminal record, authorities said.
Chapman had moved to Hawaii four years before the killing that brought him infamy where he married Gloria Abe, a young Hawaiian travel agency employee, and worked for a hospital print shop before taking a job as a security guard at a high rise Honolulu condominium.
The Journal story reporting this had passed deadline and we were taking a breather when city editor Joe Dolman and managing editor Eddie Sears approached “reporters row.” Dolman instructed colleague Hyde Post to catch the next flight to New York in order to cover Chapman’s first court appearance.
For the helluva it, not really expecting anything, I spoke up: “Aw Joe, send me to New York. I have a brother there; I know the city.”
“No,” he replied. “I’m sending you to Hawaii!”
I’m sure I was grinning like a fool. “Well, twist my f—— arm!”
And Sears, waving his arms in classic, excited Sears fashion, said: “I want everything about this guy. EEEEverything!”
In little over an hour, I was walking up to the Delta ticket counter, flush with advance expense money, and peeling off nine C notes, plus change, for a round trip ticket to Honolulu. At Hartsfield, as the Atlanta airport was then known, they asked me if I had any baggage. Nope.
“Gee,” the ticket agent said. “We’ve never seen anyone go to Hawaii without luggage.”
Well, you have now.
It was about midnight Atlanta time when I landed in a balmy Honolulu (unless you’re wearing thermal underwear) about 7 local time. For whatever reason, there was no air conditioning in the terminal. I called the Journal to check in and Mike Christensen, who answered the phone, was assigned to the nightside.
As we talked, I kept complaining about the heat until Mike reminded me that back in Atlanta it was 20 degrees : “Will you quit bitching about how hot it is!”
It was after dark there, too. I quickly got a hotel room, surprisingly inexpensive because it was downtown with no view of Waikiki beach or iconic Diamond Head, and started to work. I headed to the 24-story condominium where Chapman had worked maintenance and as a security guard. The entrance was locked, and the few residents entering would not talk.
I grabbed a few hours sleep, breakfast, and was back on the trail, with better results.
I reached Dr.Robert Marvit, the state of Hawaii’s chief forensic psychiatrist, who said Chapman probably had developed a mental delusion that he was John Lennon that compelled him to kill the “impostor.”
“This man Chapman was probably having problems maintaining a mental grip on who he is,” he said. “Certain types of schizophrenics develop delusions that they are someone else, someone who they really are not.”
The psychiatrist found it significant that Lennon had recently been in the news as he cut a new album, “Double Fantasy.”
“This title may have been significant to Chapman ” Marvit added. He added that Chapman had once been hospitalized for a failed suicide attempt, connecting a hose to his car exhaust.
Joe Bustamonte, resident manager of the high rise condominium where the former Beatle’s mentally disturbed killer worked security, showed me the log shift Chapman signed on his final day at work. He had not only signed out as “John Lennon,” he also had written “Lennon” on paper taped to his plastic name tag.
The condo security chief said he tried to persuade the conscientious, dependable Chapman not to quit his job, but “he said he had some problems he needed to work out.”
When I returned to the newsroom after my 60-hour “junket,” with all this under a Honolulu byline and shivering in a loud Hawaiian flower shirt, (I’d ditched the long johns and wanted to see the look on morning editor Herb Steely’s face) I learned the following:
While I was still on a Delta jet to LAX to catch a United Flight to Hawaii, Sears came storming out of his office. “Stop him!” he yelled. “We’re $1.400 over budget!”
The plan was to page me at LAX, have me check into a hotel by the airport and work the story by phone. The official line has it that Sears calmed down and let Plan A proceed.
It is Journal legend, however, that I ignored repeated and urgent airport pages.
I’ll go with that line from a character in that great western, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”:
“When you have to choose between the facts and the legend, print the legend.”
They never printed it, but Steely has repeated the legend for years.