The day John Lennon died: NYC reporters and others look back 40 years later

John Lennon in 1966
John Lennon in 1966 Photo credit Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — It was 40 years ago today that news of John Lennon's assassination shook New York and the world.

WCBS Newsradio 880 presents a 30-minute retrospective, hosted by Wayne Cabot, rich with archive audio from that night's coverage as well as interviews with the reporters who covered the story, Mets public address announcer Colin Cosell, whose grandfather broke the news of the senseless murder on Monday Night Football, and more.

At approximately 10:50 p.m. on the night of Dec. 8, 1980, the former Beatle was shot and killed while walking into the 72nd Street entranceway to the Dakota apartment building, where he lived with his wife, Yoko, and son, Sean.

The shooter, Mark David Chapman, had been waiting outside the Upper West Side apartment building, as fans often did in the hopes of getting a photograph or autograph from the famous singer.

Lennon actually autographed an album, "Double Fantasy," which had been released just weeks earlier, for Chapman while on his way to a recording session earlier in the day at the same location.

Chapman would later say Lennon was "very kind" and "patient" during that first encounter. He even shook hands with Lennon's young son.

Hours later, when Lennon was returning home that night with his wife, Chapman — a former security guard and Honolulu resident — pulled out a Charter Arms .38 caliber revolver, which he got from a friend in Georgia, as the couple exited a limo and shot the singer-songwriter five times in the back as he made his way into the Dakota.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Singer and songwriter John Lennon (1940 - 1980) of English rock band the Beatles and his wife Yoko Ono holding acorns during a press conference at Heathrow Airport in London, 1st April 1969. Photo credit Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Lennon stumbled up a few steps into the security guard's office in the building and was heard to utter the words, "I'm shot," before collapsing facedown on the floor.

The then-25-year-old Chapman calmly sat down and waited for police to arrive.

When officers got to the scene, they arrested Chapman and then helped Lennon, who was bleeding heavily.

Officers decided they couldn't wait for an ambulance and rushed Lennon to Roosevelt Hospital in the back of a squad car.

Doctors pronounced Lennon dead on arrival at the hospital. Despite extensive resuscitative efforts, Lennon could not be saved.

That night, veteran reporter Rich Lamb was the first to learn the identity of the killer from an inspector at the NYPD's 20th Precinct. "We broke the news that it was Mark David Chapman who had killed John Lennon," Lamb recalled.

At the time, Lamb reported Chapman had been in New York for a week, stalking Lennon outside his apartment building in the days leading up to his death.

The media later got its first glimpse of Chapman during his arraignment. WCBS Newsradio 880 court reporter Irene Cornell described Chapman as a "pudgy, round-faced man with the look of an overgrown choirboy."

Prosecutors said Chapman admitted to the premeditated execution of Lennon, borrowing several thousand dollars to travel 6,000 miles from Hawaii to New York City to carry out the cold, calculated murder.

The defense lawyer appointed to the case described Chapman's mental state as confused and discombobulated. The attorney revealed Chapman had attempted suicide twice, was institutionalized on many occasions and had been a fan of the Beatles since he was 10 years old.

"Mark David Chapman had been obsessed with two things: the J.D. Salinger novel 'Catcher in the Rye' and John Lennon," Cornell recalled. "Then John Lennon said 'The Beatles were more popular than Jesus' and Chapman, who was a born-again Christian of some type, took offense and said he had a prayer group where he would talk about John Lennon and his blasphemy and they would sing 'Imagine if John Lennon were dead' playing on the Beatles song."

Cornell said Chapman started to fantasize about becoming famous and doing something to really put him in the history books.

"Something that would mark him as an important person. He decided to kill John Lennon," Cornell said.

John Lennon vigil
Fans of John Lennon holding a vigil after he was shot dead by a fan on December 8th at his home in New York. Photo credit Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After Lennon's death, newsman Steve Reed reported there was a non-stop musical tribute streaming through portable radios dispersed through the massive crowd of the young and the old who gathered outside the Dakota to pay their last respects to Lennon.

A solemn Mayor Ed Koch described Lennon as an international figure who made New York City his home - a point of pride for the Big Apple.

At the time of his death, Lennon was in the midst of a sort of musical rebirth, getting back in the studio after a five-year sabbatical.

"I hope the young kids like it as well, but I'm really talking to the people that grew up with me and saying, 'Here I am now. How are you? How's your relationship going? Did you get through it all? Wasn't the 70s a drag? You know? Here we are, well let's try to make the 80s good, you know?' Because it's still up to us to make what we can of it," Lennon said in his last recorded interview with RKO radio host Dave Sholin, just hours before his death.

His music remains a soundtrack for multiple generations.

Lamb recalls the first record he ever purchased was "I Want to Hold Your Hand" by the Beatles.

"These were huge heroes of mine," Lamb said. "Finally when the tension broke and you were done with the story for that moment, it all came crashing home. Tears started flowing down my cheeks. It just suddenly all came crushing in and I just thought, 'This is just horrible.'"

The Beatles
The Beatles on stage at the London Palladium during a performance in front of 2, 000 screaming fans. Photo credit Michael Webb/Getty Images

WCBS 880 traffic reporter Tom Kaminski said it was a night that he'll never forget. He was a freshman at Montclair State University and had Monday Night Football on, but heard the first report on a local break from Channel 7, Eyewitness News.

"I froze in front of the television when I heard this," Kaminski said, remembering he then turned to his radio and flipped through the TV channels to find more information.

When he tuned back into Monday Night Football, he heard Howard Cosell report confirmation of the "unspeakable tragedy."

Cosell's grandson, Colin, said his grandfather and Lennon became friends six years earlier when the sportscaster got a call about two prospective half-time guests in the broadcasting booth: the former Beatle and then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

"My grandfather said, referring to Frank Gifford, he said, 'He'll take the governor, I'll take the Beatle,'" Colin Cosell said. From that moment, his grandfather and Lennon became instant friends and maintained that friendship up until the singer's death in 1980. "They had such a quirky relationship. One was a Beatle, the other was a lawyer-turned-broadcaster and they absolutely clicked."

When the news of Lennon's assassination broke, Howard Cosell took it upon himself to make the announcement, as he mourned, not just as a fan of music, but a friend of Lennon's.

"And I know that it was very, very hard for him," Cosell said. "I think he knew what he was announcing was huge."

People of a certain age, heard the news from his grandfather.

"There was nothing about that particular game that should've been a major draw, other than it was Monday Night Football, but it does seem like everyone happened to be watching that game and got the news that John Lennon had been assassinated and learned it from my grandfather," Cosell said. "It seems every single person in America happened to be watching Monday Night Football that night."

Imagine mosaic
The "Imagine" tile mosaic in the Strawberry Fields section of Central Park, created to honor John Lennon, is seen on October 9, 2014 in New York City. Photo credit Andrew Burton/Getty Images

For reporter Rita Sands, who previously worked at WCBS Newsradio 880 in the 1970s before coming back to anchor afternoons the following decade, the day of Lennon's death was her first day on the job for ABC-TV and her first day doing television.

"I settled in to my new New York City apartment, never imagined that a terrible page in history would be written that night and I would be one of the observers," Sands recalled. "It was as moving and as upsetting to us as just about anybody. Most of the time people don't think that reporters have a heart, but we do, and this was someone we grew up with as well."

Also working that night was WPLJ's Jimmy Fink, who's now at 107.1 The Peak.

"It was a very somber night in New York City, followed by days of radio stations playing nothing but Beatles, all culminating on Sunday of that week when there was 10 minutes of silence," Fink said. "I'll never forget the eerie feeling of sitting in a radio studio and just being completely quiet and broadcasting silence for 10 minutes. We came out of that silence with the John Lennon song 'Love.'"

Andre Gardner of RADIO.COM affiliate WMGK in Philadelphia, who hosts a "Breakfast with the Beatles" show on Sundays, was in Florida and got the news on Monday Night Football. He wanted more information and figured he'd visit his girlfriend, who worked at a radio station.

"We got there, I could see her in the back doorway of the radio station with tears running down her cheeks. I'll never forget it, she looked at me and said, 'He's gone,'" Gardner remembered. "We stayed there all night long while she took phone calls and played John Lennon music all night while we were watching the teletype updates."

Chapman pleaded guilty to the murder. His lawyers wanted him to go to trial with an insanity defense, but he refused.

Cornell recalls his first lawyer summed it all up when he said "this guy is nutty as a fruitcake." Chapman allegedly had a list of people he wanted to murder including Walter Cronkite, David Bowie, and Elizabeth Taylor.

"But then he decided that Lennon would be the easiest to get to, and he wanted to be somebody, he wanted to be a celebrity himself, so this is how he went about it," Cornell said. "He got 20 years to life, and it looks like it's going to be life. No parole board is really interested in setting him free."

Mark David Chapman
Police handout file photo dated 09/12/80 of John Lennon's killer, Mark David Chapman Photo credit PA Images/Sipa USA

Chapman's request for parole has been rejected 11 times, most recently this past year.

Chapman has been an exemplary prisoner at a maximum security prison outside Buffalo, but the board said his good behavior cannot outweigh what he has done.

At the most recent parole board hearing, Chapman said that he accepts his punishment willingly.

His next appearance before the parole board will be in 2022, when he will be 67 years old.