McKinstry: Imagine buying the letters from John Lennon's killer

NYPD Police Officer Stephen Spiro, second from left,

NYPD Police Officer Stephen Spiro, second from left, escorts Mark David Chapman, John Lennon's killer, from the 20th Precinct stationhouse in Manhattan. (1980) (Credit: AP)

Gerald McKinstry

Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Gerald McKinstry Gerald McKinstry

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

bio | email | twitter

Like so many retirees, Stephen Spiro is finally letting go. He knows it's time to unload some letters.

Not just any correspondence, mind you, but missives that John Lennon's killer sent him in 1983.

Spiro, 66, was the first New York Police Department officer on the scene at West 72nd Street in Manhattan on Dec. 8, 1980, after Mark DavidĀ Chapman murdered the legendary Beatles frontman. He arrested Chapman, stayed with him while detectives interrogated him for hours and called the killer's wife to let her know what had happened.

Chapman considered Spiro a protector.

I talked to Spiro about the letters earlier this week. "They're 30 years old and just sitting here," he said. "I never did anything with them and figured maybe it's time to get rid of them."

There are four letters in all, and the Rockland County man hopes to get $75,000 for the set. They were put up for sale this week by Moments in Time, a Los Angeles-based seller.

While convicted criminals can't make a profit off their crimes, there's nothing barring cops from cashing in. Some might argue there's something inherently wrong when people profit from others' tragedies, but Spiro waited three decades. He's hardly an opportunist; he plans on paying off medical bills after a battle with cancer and will make a donation to a local shelter for battered women.

The letters were personal and direct, indicating that Chapman wanted to strike up a friendship. He wrote about the two of them being part of something "phenomenal." He even asked Spiro for a picture of his family (Spiro never sent one). And he wrote about "phonies" -- in fact, all of the typed correspondence referenced Chapman's obsession with J.D. Salinger's famous novel.

" Have you read 'The Catcher in the Rye' yet?" Chapman wrote to Spiro in January 1983. "I would like you to read it and tell me what you think of it. As you remember, in the copy that was taken from me I had written 'This is my statement'. I am wondering if you now understand this.

"Write soon. Let me know how you're doing. As I've said before, you're probably still the 'best damn cop in New York City'."

In another note, Chapman asked Spiro if he located the copy of the book that was left at the crime scene. And in his last cryptic note , dated in May 1983, Chapman simply wrote: "Read 'Catcher in the Rye'. Sincerely, Mark David Chapman."

Spiro, whom I first met eight years ago while reporting on the 25th anniversary of Lennon's death, said the real crime wasn't that a songwriter was killed, but that a father was taken away from his children, and a husband from his wife.

But Spiro has no problem selling these cultural artifacts; they show Chapman for who he is, Spiro says.

"I think the public has a right to know," Spiro told me recently. "I hope the letters keep him in jail."

Chapman, 57, was sentenced to 20 years to life for the murder. He was denied parole for the seventh time in August 2012. Much of his time behind bars has been in Attica Correctional Facility just outside of Buffalo, though last year he was transferred to another maximum security prison, Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, N.Y. His next scheduled parole hearing is in August 2014.

Spiro remembers many details from that evening. He and his partner heard what sounded like firecrackers and arrived at the Dakota apartment building around 11 p.m. Spiro saw a bullet hole in a window. A doorman pointed to Chapman and said: "He shot John Lennon." Spiro looked beyond an archway and saw Lennon drowning in his own blood, and Chapman with his hands in the air.

A .38 revolver, a bloody shirt and a copy of the novel lay on the ground.

"He was very lucid and methodical," Spiro recalled earlier this week.

Chapman had met Lennon earlier that day, and the former Beatle autographed an album for the man who would kill him. That album, also auctioned off by Moments in Time, went for $650,000 recently.

Gary Zimet, owner of the auction house, says Chapman's letters show how screwed up he was (though the he was far more colorful in his language).

As for Spiro, he believed Chapman knew exactly what he was doing -- the murder, during the interrogation and with the subsequent letters.

"From day one, he wasn't crazy," Spiro said.

It's hard to imagine.

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.