Tylenol Contaminated with Cyanide: The Case of Five Murders in 1982 Reopened

The FBI released a concise statement Wednesday that “recent advances in forensic technology” led to re-examination of evidence in the case of five deaths caused by Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide and replaced in store shelves in 1982. Tips to authorities after news coverage of the crime’s 25th anniversary in 2007 also prompted the FBI and Illinois State Police to launch a “complete review” of the case, the FBI statement said. The Arlington Heights Police Department has also sent an investigator to Boston area

ABC 7 Chicago and FOXNEWS are reporting that authorities have taken 63-year-old James W. Lewis in for questioning and were in the process of updating victims’ family members on their investigation. FBI agents searched his Cambridge, Mass. Lewis is a former accountant and convicted extortionist, who authorities have always considered a prime suspect in the murders. He was never charged with the murders, but spent more than 12 years in prison for sending an extortion letter to Tylenol manufacturers, Johnson & Johnson, in 1982 demanding $1 million to “stop the killing.”

In late September and early October, 1982 the work of a killer or killers (never apprehended) were revealed after consumers swallowed Tylenol capsules contaminated with cyanide that were replaced on shelves in stores (Jewel Foods, 122 N. Vail, Arlington Heights; Jewel Foods, 948 Grove Mall, Elk Grove Village; Osco Drug Store, Woodfield Mall, Schaumburg; Walgreen Drug Store, 1601 N. Wells, Chicago; Frank’s Finer Foods, 0N040 Winfield Rd, Winfield; and one unknown location).

The first cyanide poisoning victim was a 12-year-old girl from Elk Grove who suffered a morning headache, took Tylenol and collapsed. She was followed in death by a 27-year-old postal worker. The postal worker’s brother and his brother’s new wife (grieving from their loss) unknowingly took Tylenol from the the dead brother’s tainted bottle in the postal worker’s bathroom and died instantly in his Arlington Heights home. The woman collapsed right in front of Arlington Heights Fire Department paramedics on the scene, who were already treating her husband for sudden cardiovascular collapse. Three more random and unrelated deaths occurred in the Chicago area.

Cyanide poisoning causes a loss of consciousness with seizures, apnea, cardiac arrest and death in a matter of minutes. At lower doses, loss of consciousness may be preceded by general weakness, giddiness, headaches, vertigo, confusion, and perceived difficulty in breathing. At the first stages of unconsciousness, breathing is often sufficient or even rapid, although the victim’s condition progresses towards a deep coma, sometimes accompanied by pulmonary edema, and finally cardiac arrest. Skin color turns pink from cyanide-hemoglobin complexes. Cyanide binds with hemoglobin, preventing oxygen from binding to hemoglobin and cyanide also blocks metabolism at the subcellular level. Severe lactic acidosis occurs as the body resorts to anaerobic metabolism. Lactic acidosis is the condition that causes discomfort and burning during high intensity workouts, such as a 400 meter sprint or running full speed uphill. the pain causes people to stop exercising or to lower the intensity. A similar pain during collapse is also reported in the case of cyanide victims.

Arlington Heights firefighter Philip Cappittelli and Elk Grove firefighter Richard Keyworth (during a telephone discussion as friends) recognized that the mysterious deaths in Arlington Heights and Elk Grove both involved Tylenol. Cappittelli, off-duty at the time, called in to work to alert on-duty fellow firefighters of the Tylenol coincidence. Tylenol from the scene at the Arlington Heights home of the postal worker was tested immediately and cyanide was detected.

Police and fire vehicles with loud speakers immediately circulated through the streets warning people not to take Tylenol. Millions of bottles and packages of Tylenol were recalled and burned. Investigators eventually recovered eight tainted bottles — five related to the deaths, two turned in by consumers and one pulled from a store shelf. Copycat cases and false alarms followed nationwide. After Tylenol was withdrawn, it was replaced on shelves about two months later with secured packaging (22 million bottles of Tylenol were withdrawn from store shelves nationwide at a cost of more than $100 million). Packaging security in many products has improved as a result of this crime.

The victims of cyanide poisoning were Mary Kellerman, 12, Elk Grove Village; Adam Janus, 27, Arlington Heights; Stanley Janus, 25, Lisle; Theresa Janus, 19, Arlington Heights; Paula Prince, 35, Chicago; Mary Reiner, 27, Winfield; and Mary McFarland, 31, Elmhurst.

Anyone who may have information helpful to the case of the 1982 Tylenol Murders is encouraged to call the Chicago FBI office at 312-421-6700.