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The Chicago Tylenol murders were a series of poisoning deaths resulting from drug tampering in the Chicago metropolitan area in 1982. The victims had all taken Tylenol branded acetaminophen capsules that had been laced with potassium cyanide. James William Lewis was convicted of extortion for sending a letter taking credit for the deaths and demanding $1 million to stop them, and he was also the primary suspect in the killings despite living in New York City at the time. The incidents led to reforms in the packaging of over-the-counter substances and to federal anti-tampering laws.
On the morning of September 29, 1982, twelve-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Illinois, died after taking a capsule of Extra-Strength Tylenol. Adam Janus of Arlington Heights, Illinois, died in the hospital shortly after. Adam's brother Stanley of Lisle, Illinois, and wife Theresa died after gathering to mourn his death, having taken pills from the same bottle. Soon afterward, Mary McFarland of Elmhurst, Illinois, Paula Prince of Chicago, and Mary Reiner of Winfield also died in similar incidents. Investigators soon discovered the Tylenol link. Urgent warnings were broadcast, and police drove through Chicago neighborhoods issuing warnings over loudspeakers.
As the tampered-with bottles came from different factories, and the seven deaths had all occurred in the Chicago area, the possibility of sabotage during production was ruled out. Instead, the culprit was believed to have entered various supermarkets and drug stores over a period of several weeks, grabbed several bottles of Tylenol capsules from the shelves, removed them from the stores and took them to another location. Once there, the poisoner opened the bottles, took the capsules out, added the cyanide, then put the now-laced capsules back in the bottles and returned to the stores to place the bottles back on the shelves. In addition to the five bottles which led to the victims' deaths, three other tampered-with bottles were discovered.
Johnson & Johnson distributed warnings to hospitals and distributors and halted Tylenol production and advertising. On October 5, 1982, it issued a nationwide recall of Tylenol products; an estimated 31 million bottles were in circulation, with a retail value of over US $100 million. The company also advertised in the national media for individuals not to consume any products that contained acetaminophen. When it was determined that only capsules were tampered with, Johnson & Johnson offered to exchange all Tylenol capsules already purchased by the public with solid tablets.
During the initial investigations, a man named James William Lewis sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson demanding $1 million to stop the cyanide-induced murders. Police were unable to link him with the crimes, as he and his wife were living in New York City at the time. He was convicted of extortion, served 13 years of a 20-year sentence, and was released in 1995 on parole. WCVB Channel 5 of Boston reported that court documents, released in early 2009, "show Department of Justice investigators concluded Lewis was responsible for the poisonings, despite the fact that they did not have enough evidence to charge him". Lewis has denied responsibility for the poisonings for several years.
A second man, Roger Arnold, was investigated and cleared of the killings. He had a nervous breakdown due to the media attention, which he blamed on Marty Sinclair, a bar owner. In the summer of 1983, Arnold shot and killed John Stanisha, whom he mistook for Sinclair. Stanisha was an unrelated man who did not know Arnold. Arnold was convicted in January 1984 and served 15 years of a 30-year sentence for second-degree murder. He died in June 2008.
The media gave Johnson & Johnson much positive coverage for its handling of the crisis; for example, an article in The Washington Post said, "Johnson & Johnson has effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster". The article further stated that "this is no Three Mile Island accident in which the company's response did more damage than the original incident", and applauded the company for being honest with the public. In addition to issuing the recall, the company established relations with the Chicago Police Department, the FBI, and the Food and Drug Administration. This way it could have a part in searching for the person who laced the capsules and they could help prevent further tamperings. While at the time of the scare the company's market share collapsed from thirty-five percent to eight percent, it rebounded in less than a year, a move credited to the company's prompt and aggressive reaction. In November, it reintroduced capsules but in a new, triple-sealed package, coupled with heavy price promotions and within several years, Tylenol had become the most popular over-the-counter analgesic in the U.S.
A number of copycat attacks involving Tylenol and other products also took place. In 1986, Excedrin capsules in Washington state were tampered with, resulting in the deaths of Susan Snow and Bruce Nickell from cyanide poisoning and the eventual arrest and conviction of Bruce's wife Stella of crimes connected to both deaths. That same year, Procter & Gamble's Encaprin was recalled after a spiking hoax in Chicago and Detroit that resulted in a precipitous sales drop and a withdrawal of the pain reliever from the market.
The 1982 incident inspired the pharmaceutical, food, and consumer product industries to develop tamper-resistant packaging, such as induction seals and improved quality control methods. Moreover, product tampering was made a federal crime. The new laws resulted in Stella Nickell's conviction in the Excedrin tampering case, to which she was sentenced to ninety years in prison.
Additionally, the tragedy prompted the pharmaceutical industry to move away from capsules, which were easy to contaminate as a foreign substance could be placed inside without obvious signs of tampering. Within the year, the FDA introduced more stringent regulations to avoid product tampering. This led to the eventual replacement of the capsule with the solid "caplet", a tablet made in the shape of a capsule, as a drug delivery form and with the addition of tamper-evident safety-seals to bottles of many sorts.
In early January 2009, Illinois authorities renewed the investigation. Federal agents searched the home of James Lewis in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and seized a number of items. In Chicago, an FBI spokesman declined to comment but said "we'll have something to release later possibly". Law enforcement officials have received a number of tips related to the case coinciding with its anniversary. In a written statement, the FBI explained,
This review was prompted, in part, by the recent 25th anniversary of this crime and the resulting publicity. Further, given the many recent advances in forensic technology, it was only natural that a second look be taken at the case and recovered evidence.
On May 19, 2011, the FBI requested DNA samples from "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski in connection to the Tylenol murders. Kaczynski denied having ever possessed potassium cyanide. The investigation is still underway. The first four Unabomber crimes happened in Chicago and its suburbs from 1978 to 1980, and Kaczynski's parents had a suburban Chicago home in Lombard, Illinois, in 1982, where he stayed occasionally.