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Tylenol Poisonings: 40 Years Later Are We Any Closer to Solving the Mystery?

by Jennifer Geer 2 months ago in investigation
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It was the case that changed the world. The Tylenol murders are why we have tamper-resistant packaging today.

Image by Austin Kirk/Flickr.com/CC 4.0

If you want to take a pill today, you must struggle to open a tamper-resistant medicine bottle by breaking open the plastic around the neck, popping the top, and breaking the foil seal. Then you’re left with removing an annoying stream of cotton until finally, you can reach your pills.

Tamper-proof bottles have become so ordinary it may be hard to imagine there was a time when taking a pill simply meant opening a child-resistant lid, maybe pulling out a cotton wad, and having no thoughts or worries about safety.

There was no plastic, no foil seal, and no way to know if anyone had opened the bottle before you.

The world was more innocent, and nobody believed over-the-counter medicine bought from a store shelf could have been poisoned. But now, all those barriers to getting to our capsules and pills leave us with a sense of safety that nobody has tampered with them.

And it all began in 1982 when seven people in the Chicago area, aged 12 to 35, died from taking Tylenol laced with cyanide. Their deaths shocked the world and caused companies to change the way they packaged products forever.

What were the Chicago Tylenol murders?

Seven people in the Chicago area died within 24 hours after taking over-the-counter painkillers, extra-strength Tylenol capsules, laced with cyanide.

At first, nobody knew why people were dying. There was seemingly no connection between the victims.

The victims were:

  • Adam Janus, 27
  • Adam’s brother, Stanley, 25
  • Adam’s sister-in-law Theresa, 19
  • Mary McFarland, 35
  • Mary Weiner, 27
  • Mary Kellerman, 12
  • Paula Prince, 35

It took a few days for authorities to figure it out. Each of the victims had taken Extra Strength Tylenol laced with cyanide.

How did the poisonings change the way products are packaged today?

Tylenol, although relatively new to the public at the time, was an incredibly popular painkiller. The manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, had waged a wildly successful marketing campaign to convince everyone that Tylenol relieved pain, just like aspirin, but without aspirin’s side effects.

The campaign worked. According to an old Washington Post article, Tylenol’s sales were at $300 million a year when the poisonings took place. And remember, that’s in 1982 money.

You might think this kind of horrible tragedy from taking Tylenol would be the death knell for the product. But it wasn’t. Johnson & Johnson restored the public’s trust by pulling the product from shelves and recalling 31 million bottles. Recalling a product may be a common thing today, but it wasn’t always the case.

Albert Tortorella, a managing director at Burson-Marsteller Inc., the New York public relations firm that advised Johnson & Johnson, told the NY Times, “Before 1982, nobody ever recalled anything.”

Tylenol returned to store shelves two months later, but this time, with tamper-resistant packaging. By the end of the year, the Washington Times reported a turnaround for the drug manufacturer was already in the works, with an article titled, “Tylenol: Signs of a Recovery.”

Is there new hope for solving the case?

To this day authorities do not know who put the cyanide in the capsules. This happened well before surveillance cameras were in every store, and there has been no physical evidence, like DNA, to help authorities locate the culprit. But the case is still open, and authorities are still investigating.

One clue came in the middle of the scare. James Lewis sent a ransom letter to Johnson & Johnson demanding $1 million, or the killings would continue. He was caught and sentenced to federal prison for extortion, but no physical evidence ever linked him to the murders. He has always maintained his innocence.

The Chicago Tribune reported that investigators recently traveled to Boston to interview Lewis, once again. However, no physical evidence has ever linked Lewis to the poisonings, and he wasn’t even living in Chicago at the time. He had moved to New York three weeks before the incident.

Though still on investigator’s lists, not everyone is convinced Lewis was responsible for the poisonings. Mary Reiner’s daughter Michelle Rosen told the Tribune she believes Lewis is not the killer and is critical of authorities for ruling out early on the possibility the tampering occurred during distribution and packaging.

Still unsolved, but “active and ongoing”

The police department in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights told the Tribune the case is still “active and ongoing.” Investigations include DNA testing of decades-old evidence.

“There are multiple agencies working on this case,” Arlington Heights police Sgt. Joseph Murphy told the Tribune. “This is not something that we’ve given up on.”

The tragic poisonings caused families to lose children, and children to lose their parents. The world became a little more of a frightening place and a little less innocent. And though investigators haven’t given up, we may never know who was responsible for the poisonings or their motives.

This story was originally published on Medium.com.

investigation

About the author

Jennifer Geer

Writing my life away. Runner/mama/wife/eternal optimist/coffee enthusiast. Masters degree in Psychology.

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