Okay, this is one of my favorite true crime stories to learn about. I knew about this story, but the My Favorite Murder episode about it was one of my favorites because it is SO crazy and terrible and fascinating. So strap in and join me in being entirely too fascinated by this unsolved case.
Starting on September 29, 1982, the Chicago Tylenol Murders were a series of poisonings and subsequent deaths resulting in Tylenol being laced with potassium cyanide in Chicago. 7 people died during the original string of poisonings, and several more died in copycat crimes.
The craziest part of the whole thing is that no one was ever caught! The incidents lead to some positives, including reforms in packaging of over-the-counter medications.
On September 19, 1982, 12-year-old Mary Kellerman died after she took a capsule of Extra-Strength Tylenol. She collapsed in her bathroom early in the morning after taking medication to ease some sickness she was feeling that morning.
Later that day, 27-year-old Adam Janus ended up in the hospital after taking Tylenol, where he later died. He was a postal worker. His brother, 25-year-old Stanley, and his sister-in-law, 19-year-old Theresa, died later after both taking Tylenol from the same bottle. They had taken the Tylenol to ease headaches and other physical pains while mourning Adam's death.
Within the next couple of days, 31-year-old Mary McFarland, 35-year-old Paula Prince, and 27-year-old Mary Reiner all died after taking Tylenol. Mary Reiner was home, having just given birth to her 4th child. Mary McFarland was working at a Bell store. Paula was a flight attendant. Once doctors and investigators realized that all of the victims had recently taken Tylenol before dying, tests were carried out and quickly, it was apparent that cyanide was present in the tablets.
Warnings were issued immediately, via the media and patrol cars using loudspeakers in the streets, to warn Chicago residents not to purchase any Tylenol products. (In the MFM episode, Georgia talks about how this would likely not be done today... and I agree. In a world where money is the law, I can't see any situation where this would be done. Loudspeakers in the street which likely lost Johnson & Johnson millions, if not billions, of dollars. It seems like something that, today, would be quietly covered up. Additional deaths be damned.)
Because the deaths happened only within the Chicago area, but didn't all come from a single store, police ruled out any manufacturer tampering, and narrowed their search to someone who lived in the area. The perpetrator was likely someone who lived in or around Chicago who had acquired the bottles from various stores. Because the cyanide was inside of the capsules, they suspected that he took them home to add the poison, and then brought them back on the shelves. In addition to the 5 bottles that took the lives of the 7 victims, 3 other bottles with cyanide were discovered.
To reassure the public, Johnson & Johnson issued warnings to hospitals and distributors that all Tylenol production and advertise had been halted. On October 5, a nationwide recall was issued. Around 31 million bottles were in circulation, with a value of about $265 million in 2019 dollars.
INVESTIGATION AND COPY-CATS
During the original investigation, one James William Lewis sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson, demanding $1 million for the murders to stop. He was identified via fingerprints on the envelope he used. However, he was convicted only of extortion. He served 13 years. He has since denied all responsibility for the poisonings, while others still believe that he was the culprit.
A second man named Roger Arnold was investigated, but cleared. The media attention brought him to a nervous breakdown. Ultimately, he shot and murdered a man the following year in an unrelated crime, but possibly brought on due to the stress of the investigation.
In 1983, with permission from the family, the 12-year-old victim, Mary's, grave location was published, as an FBI criminal analyst believed that the killer might visit the gravesite. The site was kept under 24-hour surveillance, but the killer never surfaced. Surveillance footage of Paula Prince purchasing her fated bottle of cyanide-tampered Tylenol has circulated, and a bearded man seen just feet behind her is suspected of being the killer, but he has never been identified.
The investigation was renewed in 2009, when Lewis' home was searched, but nothing came of it. In 2011, the FBI believed that perhaps Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber" could be connected to the murders, because he was in the area during that time. However, the connection was never made.
Hundreds of copycats have committed similar crimes since the original Tylenol murders, most immediately following the deaths in Chicago. In 1986, a woman died in Yonkers, New York after taking Extra Strength Tylenol laced with cyanide. Susan Snow and Bruce Nickell were killed after taking tampered Excedrin. Bruce's wife, Stella, was ultimately arrested for this crime. A spiking hoax in Procter & Gamble's Encaprin was recalled, as well. Also in 1986, a student at the University of Texas, Kenneth Karies, was found dead of cyanide poisoning, though it was eventually ruled that he had committed suicide.
Johnson & Johnson received extremely positive coverage for their handling of the crisis. They were applauded for their honesty with the public, and their quick response in recalling their products, despite the extreme financial loss. On top of their recall, they created relationships with the Chicago PD, the FBI, and the FDA so they could have a part in finding the person who laced the capsules.
The company's market share dropped from 35 to 8 immediately after the deaths, but rebounded to pre-poisoning levels in less than a year, due to the prompt and aggressive reaction. When the capsules were re-released in November, they were in triple-sealed packages, with heavy price promotions. Tylenol quickly regained the highest market share for over-the-counter analgesic medications in the U.S. (Anecdotally, the response was used in a few of my PR classes to demonstrate a positive response to crisis.)
The incident also spiked industry-wide changes in packaging for food and pharmaceutical products. Tamper-resistant packaging, including induction seals, were implemented on all bottled medications. Additionally, product tampering was made into a federal crime.
The incident also prompted companies to move away from traditional capsules, which were easy to open up and contaminate without obvious signs of tampering. It was replaced with a "caplet", which was a tablet in the shape of a capsule, which in addition to tamper-evident safety seals made medication the safest it had ever been.
The crime even impacted Halloween, which was occurring just about a month after the first death. The Tylenol Murders were the spark that lit the fire for parents and guardians to check children's trick-or-treat candy for any suspicious signs of tampering.
A CONSPIRACY THEORY
There are a few theories in this case. One of the major ones is that Lewis, who sent the letter to Johnson & Johnson, was the culprit. Though no evidence was ever found to actually link him to the murder, and many believe he was likely just a moronic opportunist trying to cash in on tragedy, it does make sense to keep your eyes on the dude who asked for $1 million for the crimes to stop. However, he couldn't actually stop the murders. Unless he remembered which exact bottle he tampered with, and had a way to contact the people who had purchased them, it was empty ransom. Which makes me think it was just a letter of opportunity.
Additionally, a theory some true crime fanatics like is that the Unabomber was the perpetrator. Because he's such a strange enigma, and he was in the area, it makes sense. However, Kaszynski committed his crimes to make a larger point about how the world was negatively changing around him. He didn't just kill to kill, he killed for a bad purpose, but a purpose. The Tylenol murders don't mesh with his beliefs.
So who did it? Well, Scott Bartz, a former Johnson & Johnson employee, believes that it was actually done within the company's production and distribution channels. He even wrote a book on it called The Tylenol Mafia. Though he claims he is not a disgruntled ex-employee, he concedes he was laid off on bad terms. But still, let's see what he has to say!
Bartz alleges that the reason no one was ever caught was because investigators were steered toward an "erroneous madman-in-the-drug-store theory of the crime" when he believes nothing ever occurred in the retail stores. He believes that, somewhere in the supply chain of the medication, a culprit poisoned the capsules. But not their normal distribution system - a distribution system closely guarded Johnson & Johnson that the police never investigated or understood.
"Instead of confiscating and inspecting the Tylenol capsules from Chicago area stores, investigators turned them over to J&J. They treated it like a product recall, not a crime scene," Bartz said when asked what the biggest mistake in the investigation was. In the book, he points out a lot of inconsistencies (a lot that are proven) and a lot of absurdities (a lot that are jumps) in the investigation, but, according to Chicago Reader, seemed mostly credible. He wrote the book after 3.5 years of investigation.
In summary, Bartz believes that the tampering took place in one of the bottling facilities, or somewhere down the production line. Thought the FBI looked into this, according to Bartz, the official production line was investigated, but there were some chain-of-custody issues in the distribution process. He even went so far as to track down the bottles, learning that they certainly could have all come from the same plants, or the same distribution center at the same time.
The question here is... why? And did Johnson & Johnson know? There are 3 further theories if it happened at J&J. First, a murderer worked on the production line and decided to tamper with the product unbeknownst to everyone. J&J wasn't faking when helping find the lone tamper-guy, they had no idea. Secondly, it could have happened at J&J and they did know, and tried to cover it up, but weren't actually involved in the crime.
And thirdly, and most interestingly, a theory could be that J&J not only knew, but sanctioned it. Why? Maybe because they thought that a media-grabbing crisis, an unprecedentedly quick and aggressive response, and positive changes moving forward would get them better coverage and thus, more money? It seems hella risky, but perhaps they believed the risk was worth the reward?
Honestly, I think all 3 of the theories mentioned here are questionable, but the Bartz book has some seriously positive reviews so perhaps I will give it a read and see if I come out the other end with new beliefs. It is as valid a theory as any other one!
Ultimately, 7 people senselessly died, and many other died after terrible people chose to copycat such a horrific crime. My heart breaks for all of the families. A 12-year-old dead. A mother of 4, 1 week after giving birth, dead. 3 members of the same family dead, leaving the mother behind doing the sign of the cross before taking medication now, never taking Tylenol again.
But, there were some positive effects. Tamper-proof packaging, diligence with holidays like Halloween, and in general safer regulations for food and drugs. Like so many laws and regulations, it came out of tragedy, but could have saved so many more from that same tragedy later in life.
I do hope one day this insane case is solved, but until then, we are left to theorize and be fascinated by the 1982 Tylenol Murders, that started 38 years ago today.