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How 'Eyewitness News' producer broke the story of John Lennon's murder

Former "Eyewitness News" producer Alan Weiss  today

Former "Eyewitness News" producer Alan Weiss  today (l) and in 1980.  He is featured on "Eyewitness to the Death of John Lennon." Credit: WABC

The record says it was a cold Monday night on December 8, 1980. Alan Weiss doesn't need to consult the record. Forty years later, he still feels the cold in his bones.

Weiss was on his way to work as producer of WABC/7's 6 p.m. "Eyewitness News" when the motorcycle he was on was broadsided by a cab, sending his body skidding across Central Park West into a curb. Badly hurt, he tried to walk, but couldn't. An ambulance was called.

What happened next is part of TV history, a tragic part, also the subject of "Eyewitness to the Death of John Lennon," streaming on Apple TV+ Friday. (Broadcast TV viewers can watch it Sunday, Dec. 13 at 5 p.m. on Ch. 7).

As Weiss tells the story he has told so many times since, he was taken to Roosevelt Hospital on 59th Street then rolled onto a gurney that would be stationed outside an emergency room. The attending physician "started to ask me what had happened," he said in a recent phone interview, "and as soon as she said that, the doors behind us slammed open and a man comes in shouting, 'we got a gunshot in the chest,' and [she] says 'when,' and he says right now … I was able to crane my neck around and in comes these police officers carrying someone between them into the room that my gurney was outside of.'"

Minutes later, two police officers walk by. "Can you believe it?" Weiss overhears one of them saying. "John Lennon."

The young TV producer then became a character in a Kafka story, or "Twilight Zone" episode. His head throbbing, time itself dilating, he hears a woman's piercing scream. He craned his neck again. She is diminutive, Asian. He recognizes her, or thinks he does. He attempts to get a message to his newsroom but is repeatedly rebuffed, then notices a phone at the nurse's station. He tries to get someone to make a call for him — rebuffed again — then pulls himself off the gurney to make the call himself "leaving behind a trail of dirt and leaves." Security stops him. He tries to discharge himself. Security won't let him leave.

Then, the "sight I will never forget. The door is open and they've taken off all his clothes and he's lying with his feet facing me. The medical staff in a semicircle around him, from his left to right shoulder, and his chest open. They were covered in blood [with] the doctor in the center, his hands in the chest of John Lennon …"

Shortly after 11, Weiss hears Muzak playing the elevator music version of "All My Loving." A woman screams again, "'no … no…'" He looks. This time he is sure. Yoko Ono is there, holding on to David Geffen.

Weiss eventually gets the call out to his newsroom, and it was left to Howard Cosell to break the news to the world with 30 seconds left in a "Monday Night Football" game.

The guilt set in not long after, Weiss recalls. What if the Lennons' child, Sean, was at home, and heard this on TV? He couldn't shake the guilt for years until someone told him Sean had been asleep at the time.

Burned out from reporting on tragedies, Weiss later left local news a few later to become an independent filmmaker. In a bitter irony, he was working on a film for the MTA at the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Also appearing in the WABC special is John Johnson, now an artist living upstate. He was watching the game that night and would shortly become one of "Eyewitness News'" lead reporters on the story. He had an apartment a couple blocks from the Dakota, and would occasionally see Lennon and Ono in Central Park. In a phone interview, he said, "Having lived through the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, what hit me was, why would someone shoot somebody who is about love? Has the world gone insane?

"It was very hard to stay in the role of a journalist [and] it took me a little bit of time … Kill John Lennon? A powerful voice of love and empathy?"

His voice trailing, "Terrible. Terrible."

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