Sunday, December 4, 2005

Independent on Sunday: The Day The Music Died

The Broader Picture, by Keith Laidlaw
Photograph by Henry Leutwyler: opens in a new window

This Thursday, 8 December, marks the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's death. He was murdered by Mark Chapman, a paranoid schizophrenic who used this revolver, a Charter Arms Undercover .38 Special, to fire five hollow-point rounds at point-blank range at the former Beatle, four of which hit him in the back, killing him almost instantly.

Since then, the murder weapon that is probably second only to Lee Oswald's rifle in the significance of its impact on popular culture, has been kept in an anonymous storage facility attached to the NYPD Police Laboratory (as portrayed in the CSI: New York television programme). It was only spotted by chance earlier this year by photographer Henry Leutwyler while he was working on another project.

"I was on assignment for a story on the illegal arms flooding the market in New York City," he explains. "The police precinct in Jamaica, Queens, collects and archives all the illegal guns that they manage to seize in the streets across the five boroughs. It's very, very secure - it's all below ground - and it's like going to the museum because every gun is labelled, every gun is displayed. So they showed me around, and I started picking out guns to photograph. And all the way in the back, there was a chair with a newspaper clipping on it from 1980, talking about John Lennon's death. And on top of the paper was a gun."

The staff working at the facility confirmed that it was indeed the gun used to kill Lennon, and said that the facility was also the place where the casings of the five bullets used would be kept, but then couldn't locate them. While it seems astonishing that what will seem to most people to be important historical artefacts could be stored in such a casual, almost careless way, Leutwyler says that the people who worked there didn't appear to consider this single handgun to be anything special.

"They're very jaded," he explains. "They have gold Berettas and they have bazookas and they have hand grenades and, for them, well... it's just another thing that killed someone."