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NEWARK, N.J. — Many people will never forget where they were when they heard that John Lennon had been gunned down by a crazed fan outside his New York apartment on Dec. 8, 1980. But Philip Michael of Hamburg, N.J., took away more than an indelible memory of the tragedy. Arriving outside the Dakota apartments after the shooting, he found a copy of the album “Double Fantasy,” which Lennon had autographed for the shooter, Mark David Chapman, a few hours earlier. The album, which became an important piece of evidence in the murder case, is now at the center of litigation. In a suit filed Sept. 9 in Sussex County, Michael alleges that an online memorabilia auction house in Washingtonville, N.Y., breached a 1998 agreement to sell the album and to give him 95 percent of the proceeds. The Web site of the company, Moments in Time, boasts it sold the album, referred to as “the most important piece of historic rock memorabilia ever,” to an unnamed buyer for $460,000 on Jan. 20, 1999. Michael’s share of the proceeds would have been $437,000 but he never saw a cent, he claims. Michael is suing Moments in Time and its owner, Gary Zimet, for breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation, fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, professional negligence and violation of the Consumer Fraud Act. Superior Court Judge Karen Russell has been assigned to the case, Michael v. Moments in Time, SSX-L-501-03. The album bears Lennon’s autograph, “John Lennon 1980″; a police identification number,”WJT-2″; and the fingerprints of Chapman, who is serving a 20-year-to-life sentence. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder June 22, 1981, but the prosecution would have used the album had the case gone to trial. The story of how the album got onto the auction block begins on the day of the shooting. According to contemporary accounts, Chapman loitered outside the Dakota for much of the day. A widely circulated photograph taken by a fan shows Lennon autographing the album with Chapman looking on. The shooting occurred late that evening, around 11 p.m., as Lennon returned from a recording studio. Witnesses saw Chapman call out to Lennon before firing four shots into his back and shoulder from a .38 caliber revolver, killing him almost instantly. Hordes of Beatle fans and other onlookers, including Michael, swarmed to the scene soon after. He found the signed album in a planter, where Chapman had stashed it. Michael turned over the album to the authorities, as evidenced by a letter of thanks to his New York lawyer, Joan Berk. “By coming forward with the record that Mark Chapman abandoned at the murder site, your client provided us with an important piece of evidence,” wrote Assistant New York County District Attorney Allen Sullivan on Aug. 26, 1981. After Chapman’s plea and sentence, the district attorney returned the album to Michael, who kept it until 1998, when he decided to put it up for auction and contacted Moments in Time. That August, Zimet’s company offered the album for sale at $1.8 million. A company press release described it as containing Chapman’s “forensically enhanced fingerprints” and stated that police reports, fingerprint documentation and letters from the district attorney supported its authenticity. The announcement of the auction drew international media attention, leading to the 1999 sale. Yet, it was almost five years later that Michael came to court claiming he was cheated out of his proceeds. Michael’s lawyer, Paul Hunczak, a partner with Newton, N.J.’s Morris, Downing & Sherred, says he had a hard time at first believing the tale told by his personal injury client, until Michael showed him a People magazine article about the album. Chapman, too, apparently recognized the monetary value of the album. On Dec. 6, 1981, Rich Hampson of The Associated Press reported that Chapman was trying to regain possession of it so he could sell it and donate the proceeds to “a worthy cause such as gun control.” On Aug. 22, 1998, The Associated Press reported that after Michael put the album up for auction, an unnamed lawyer contacted Chapman at Attica Prison to let him know he had a legal right to the album. Chapman reportedly responded, “I have no interest whatsoever in making a claim,” adding that he hoped the money would be used for charity. According to an Aug. 7, 1998, report by Chris Nelson for VH-1, Zimet and Michael likewise agreed to donate an undisclosed percentage of the album proceeds to Handgun Control Inc., to dispel any appearance of profiteering from the tragedy. Zimet did not return calls seeking comment. After the shooting, “Double Fantasy” rose to the top of the Billboard charts and became one of the best-selling albums of 1980. A year ago, the New York State Division of Parole denied Chapman’s application for parole for the second time. The first denial was in October 2000, when he first became eligible for parole. Mary P. Gallagher is a reporter for The New Jersey Law Journal , a Recorder affiliate based in Newark.

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