October 23, 2000 12:00 PM

Last July, three months before his first parole hearing, Mark David Chapman told a reporter why he thought he should be set free 20 years after pumping four bullets into John Lennon’s back: “I think [Lennon] would be liberal. I think he would care. I think he would probably want to see me released.”

Not so Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono. Releasing Chapman, she said in an audiotaped message to his parole board, “will bring back the nightmare [of Lennon’s shooting] once again. Myself and John’s two sons [Julian, 37, and Sean, 25] would not feel safe for the rest of our lives.” And, she said, citing “strongly distressed” fans, “it will not be safe for the ‘subject’ himself.”

The board, which met Oct. 3 at New York’s Attica state prison, where Chapman, 45, has reportedly been a model prisoner, gave him 50 minutes to make his plea. Four hours later it rendered its decision: Parole denied. Ono’s influence aside, “he probably won’t ever get it,” says Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York. “When someone commits as notorious a crime as this, there’s just no way.”

Chapman was soon back in the Box, a high-security unit for prisoners who have received death threats. In his 6-ft.-by-8-ft. cell, Chapman has taped pictures of Jesus to the walls. Vance Hunter, 47, his best friend at Columbia High School in Decatur, Ga., says Chapman first became seriously interested in Christianity when, as a teen, he popped two LSD tablets. “He told me he saw Jesus during that trip,” says Hunter. Since then, Chapman has been an on-again, off-again born-again Christian.

Chapman, a kitchen worker at Attica, is certified as a law clerk and helps other inmates with legal questions. An avid reader, he says he is no longer interested in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which he once cited as an explanation for why he shot Lennon. The novel’s hero, Holden Caulfield, “had a violent thought of shooting someone…that had done him wrong,” Chapman told CNN’s Larry King in 1992, but “he probably would not have killed anybody as I did.” Chapman said he later wrote Salinger an apology.

According to Chapman biographer Jack Jones (Let Me Take You Down), the only reporter with whom he will talk, Chapman is permitted to mingle a few hours each day with the other Box inmates. “They play stickball, chess, do some work together,” says Jones.

Two or three times a year, he is visited by Gloria Abe Chapman, 49, the petite Hawaiian whom he wed in 1979. Gloria, still employed at the hospital near Honolulu where she used to work with Chapman, “has been very faithful and supportive,” says Jones. Though her friends remember Chapman as a domineering husband, today, says Jones, “their relationship is very good. They talk about what the other is up to.”

Chapman’s other visitors are mostly church workers. “His mother visited him once in the first 12 years,” says Jones, “but their relationship has improved and she sees him regularly.” In 1997, his father, David, a former Air Force sergeant who, Vance Hunter recalls, used to yell at his son in front of his friends, paid a single visit. “Mark said they hugged and cried and made amends,” says Jones. “A year later his father was ashes. He died.”

As for the “little people”—his imaginary friends, whom several defense experts cited as evidence of psychosis—Chapman says he hasn’t heard from them since arriving at Attica. “I’ve been mentally well for 12,13 years,” he told Jones.

Chapman, who rejected an insanity defense and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, “always said it was his destiny to die in prison,” says Jones. “But in July, for the first time, he said he would like to be free.” Said Chapman: “I could have a positive impact. I could travel to different places and tell people how their answer, as well as mine, is in Jesus.”

His message will have to wait. Chapman won’t be eligible for parole again until 2002. And that suits his old school chum Vance Hunter just fine. “He don’t need to be out yet,” says Hunter. “That boy ain’t right. That’s what we say out here.”

Jill Smolowe

Bob Meadows in Attica and Siobhan Morrissey in Decatur

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