IN A pathetic twist of fate, Mark David Chapman appears to have found his place in the world through his murder of John Lennon.
Not as the Catcher in the Rye, as he once imagined, or as the infamous killer of an icon.
Rather it is as Prisoner 81A3860, who for most of the past 10 years has spent 23 hours a day locked in a cell the size of a bathroom at Attica Correctional Facility. It is within that cell -- tucked away inside one of America's most notorious prisons, some 30 miles east of Buffalo -- that Chapman apparently has found a sense of stability that escaped him in the real world.
The man whose personal demons led him to kill Lennon after failing in an attempt to take his own life, whose earlier life was punctuated with depression and doubt, is now described by prison guards as mellow and by friends as stable.
"He seems to be very well-balanced and very well-adjusted -- as well-adjusted as you can be serving a life term," said the Rev. Charles McGowan, Chapman's former pastor, who corresponds with him.
His existence, however, is not happy.
He lives in constant fear for his life. His body is bloated from gorging on candy bars. He is accorded less freedom than almost any inmate at Attica and appears destined to spend the rest of his prison life in the stifling confines of a super-high-security section known as "the Box."
"It's the worst New York State can do to a man," one of Chapman's prison guards said of his surroundings.
Chapman, 35, has tried to keep a low profile in the past decade, granting only a handful of interviews and rejecting a recent request from The Buffalo News. State correctional officials also rejected a request from The News for interviews with employees who deal with Chapman and declined to comment on his status, other than to say that he stays out of trouble and seems to have adapted to prison life.
This story is based on interviews with three of Chapman's longtime friends who correspond with him and five prison employees and support staff who have had recent contact with him. The employees spoke on the condition they would not be identified.
All eight portrayed Chapman in the same light.
The killer, they said, has turned survivor.
"(Lennon) looked right at me and walked by. . . . There was no emotion, no anger, nothing, just dead silence in my brain, dead cold quiet. . . . I heard (a voice) in my head say, 'Do it, do it, do it,' over and over again. I don't remember aiming. I just pulled the trigger steady five times. . . . I remember thinking, 'The bullets are working.' "
-- Chapman, from an interview published in 1987 by People magazine
There has never been a moment that Chapman hasn't owned up to his crime. Not in the shadows of Lennon's apartment, where he waited after the shooting until the police came for him. Not in court, where he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. And not in prison today, where he is matter-of-fact about his deed.
"He's not ashamed of it, from what I know of him, and he's not defensive about it," said one prison guard. "It's just the way it is."
Neither boastful nor repentant, Chapman nevertheless is sometimes sensitive to others' references to Lennon, guards said. One recalled an episode on Oct. 9, the much-publicized date of what would have been Lennon's 50th birthday. Some of the guards were humming Lennon songs -- or so Chapman thought -- and he complained to prison authorities.
Chapman has offered various explanations for his crime over the years -- that demons made him do it, that it was predestined, that he acted as the Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye) of his generation by striking out at someone he considered a phony.
In perhaps his latest pronouncement, in a letter he wrote to author Fenton Bresler two years ago, Chapman said, "The reasons for Mr. Lennon's death are very complex, and I am still trying to sort them out emotionally."
"My memory is fully intact. . . . So is my sanity, but that is debatable in some circles."
-- Chapman, in a letter to a friend quoted in the book "Who Killed John Lennon?"
Though the question of Chapman's sanity at the time of the murder has never been resolved, there is little dispute that he was mentally unstable for long periods both before and after the murder. He rode a mental roller coaster from being a drugged hippie to a Jesus freak, a camp counselor to a wife abuser.
He first spun out of control three years before the murder, when depression and inner turmoil prompted him to attempt suicide. He tried to asphyxiate himself in a car parked on a Hawaiian beach. Taking his failure as a sign from God that he should live, he rebounded for a time.
But Chapman engaged in one bizarre act after another in the months leading up to the murder. He told People magazine he had conversations with the "little people" who lived in his apartment walls, signed out from work as John Lennon, and prayed naked to the devil to give him the strength to kill Lennon, whom he later professed to admire.
His erratic behavior continued after his imprisonment. He cooperated with prosecutors and quarreled with his own defense team before pleading guilty to second-degree murder over the strenuous objections of his attorney. He went berserk at a downstate prison shortly after his sentencing, destroying furnishings, tearing off his clothes and talking to guards in voices, one squeaky, the other snarly, that identified themselves as emissaries of Satan. Once transported to Attica, he was sent to a state mental hospital for brief stays in 1982 and 1983 for what prison officials characterized as a tuneup.
Friends and prison employees say Chapman no longer displays such irrational behavior, and he is not undergoing psychiatric care.
The demons, it seems, have gone away, or at least disappeared from sight.
"He's not a nut by any stretch of the imagination," said one guard. "He handles himself well as an inmate. He knows his place."
One employee described Chapman's former cell as "one of the nicest, neatest cells I've ever seen. A person who was disorganized could not do that. It was not psychotic. It was not of someone who had abandoned life, but one who is trying to adjust to it."
"In our last exchange of letters I got the distinct impression he was doing quite well," said McGowan. "He seems to be very clear-headed and very stable in every respect.
"He's average for a man doing life (in prison), but that's not the same as an average person," one guard said. "If you were sitting in a cell for years on end, you'd be kind of bugs after a while."
"I don't look at the bars as keeping me in. I see them as keeping the world out. . . . People bring me food, and I have protection, and I've never slept better in my life."
-- Chapman, during a March 1981 session with psychologist Richard Bloom
The bars of Chapman's cell keep away not only the outside world, but also the 2,122 murderers, rapists and other hard-core criminals housed at Attica. And for good reason.
Though guards say Chapman gets along well with other inmates in his limited contact with them, his notoriety might serve as a death sentence if he were placed in the prison's general population.
"He's scared to death of being knocked off," one official said.
For protection, Chapman lives in the Box with about 100 inmates, described by one guard as "the worst of the worst." Most of them are there for short periods for disciplinary reasons, living in solitary confinement 23 hours a day. A handful of them, Chapman included, are there so nobody kills them.
Cells in the three-story building are spartan. Crowded within their 6-by-10-foot confines are a bed, toilet, sink, metal desk and stool. There are no windows, only three solid walls and bars in front.
Creature comforts are allowed, and one guard said Chapman's cell is packed with books and other personal effects. He once painted a window on one of his walls depicting a country setting.
Inmates are allowed to listen to music on headphones, and one guard said Chapman passes much of his time this way.
"He sits there and rocks back and forth with his headphones on," one guard said. "He's got a life where he hangs out, listens to his headphones and eats a lot."
Inmates in the Box are afforded few of the liberties accorded those in the general population. They can't participate in classes, religious services and other activities. They are allowed out of their cells for only an hour a day to exercise, shower and see visitors.
Inmates like Chapman who are in the Box for security rather than disciplinary reasons are granted more freedom of movement, although he has forsaken it for most of his time at Attica.
In recent years he has worked as a porter, earning $1.45 a day dishing out meals. But he had the job taken away from him last month for apparently passing contraband along to fellow inmates.
In short, Chapman's prison routine, in the words of one official, "is a fairly drab existence."
"Shooting Lennon was an answer to all my problems, I guess. It was to cancel all my past, to give me a new identity."
-- Chapman, in a 1983 interview with People magazine
Cut off from direct dealings with other people for most of the day, the "new" Mark David Chapman fills much of his time reading.
"He's no dummy. He reads all the time. He's up on the world," one guard said.
Chapman has embarked on a series of ambitious reading projects over the years, reading the works of "Catcher in the Rye" author J.D. Salinger and major literary works in the order they were written. He remains religious, and until recently kept friends supplied with various clippings of articles on Christianity he spotted in the publications he reads.
His mental activity far outpaces his physical activity, however, and one guard said Chapman has gained weight from "pigging out" on candy bars and other junk food.
"His face looks like a pig," one official said. "It's chubby and round and he has eyes that sink into his face."
Chapman still keeps in touch with his remaining friends through letters, inquiring about their lives but saying little about his crime or life in prison. The Rev. Bill Ballou, whose friendship with Chapman dates to their teens, said Chapman is disappointed that many of his friends don't correspond with him.
"He sometimes feels it's a judgment on him," he said.
"The old Mark has not gone away," Ballou said, describing Chapman as a caring person. "(But) he's killed a man, and that has drastically changed who he is."
Chapman remains married to his wife, Gloria, who moved back to Hawaii in 1983 after living near Attica for several months after Chapman was transferred there. She reportedly still travels to Western New York once a year to visit him while she is on vacation.
McGowan said Chapman spoke warmly of his wife in a recent correspondence.
"Evidently they still have a warm relationship, as good a one as he could have in prison," he said.
The same cannot be said of Chapman and other family members. According to several published reports, neither his mother, nor his father, nor his sister has visited him since the murder.
"Mom, I just know I'm going to be great someday, but I don't know whether it's going to be (for doing something) good or bad."
-- Chapman, as recalled by his mother in an interview with People magazine
Chapman has served half of his minimum 20-years-to-life prison sentence.
Chapman's wife maintains hope that he will be freed in another 10 years, at the still relatively young age of 45. McGowan suspects Chapman doesn't share her optimism.
"I get the impression," he said, "he doesn't have any expectation of ever getting out."