Who Was Behind The Infamous Tylenol Murders?

On September 29, 1982, 12-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove, IL, took some Extra Strength Tylenol and mysteriously died. Shortly thereafter, Adam Janus of Arlington Heights, IL, also unexpectedly passed away; he took Extra Strength Tylenol as well. 

These were just the first two deaths of the still unsolved Tylenol murders. Over the course of three days, seven lives were lost in the Chicagoland area. Authorities discovered the pills were laced with potassium cyanide, just like the Flavor Aid in the Jonestown Massacre. While reporters and investigators had their hunches as to who poisoned the over-the-counter pain medication (and how), the murders remain unsolved

  • Seven People Died In A Matter Of Days

    Seven People Died In A Matter Of Days
    Video: YouTube

    In the early morning of September 29, 1982, Mary Kellerman had complained to her parents of a sore throat and runny nose. They gave her an Extra Strength Tylenol, but by 7AM , she had passed. Later that same day, Adam Janus suffered a heart attack that wasn't a heart attack at all, but cyanide poisoning. 

    After the deaths of Mary Kellerman and Adam Janus, several other Illinois citizens fell victim to the poisonings - although they did not know the cause of death at the time. Two of Janus's family members - his brother, Stanley, and his sister-in-law, Theresa - both died hours after mourning the loss of Janus. They had taken Extra Strength Tylenol from the same bottle as him. 

    Around 3:45 pm the same day, Mary McFarland of Elmhurst, IL, took Extra Strength Tylenol. She had just given birth to her fourth child and she felt achey. She collapsed minutes later.

    Paula Prince of Chicago, IL, a flight attendant, bought some Extra Strength Tylenol after landing at O'Hare International airport around 9:30 that evening. She was pronounced dead at 3:15 am on September 30. 

    Mary Reiner of Winfield, IL, was pronounced dead around 9 am on September 30. It was later concluded that all seven victims ingested Extra Strength Tylenol hours before their deaths. 

  • A Nurse Was The First To Make The Connections Between The Deaths

    A nurse named Helen Jensen was called to the hospital when the Janus family arrived. While speaking to Adam Janus’s wife, Theresa, about his activities that day, she casually mentioned he purchased a bottle of Tylenol after feeling ill at work. His brother Stanley and his wife, also named Theresa, took pills out of the same toxic bottle later that day and perished in the same manner. This led Jensen to conclude something must be wrong with the Tylenol.

    Jensen went against protocol and went to the Janus residence. There, she saw a bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol. She counted the pills. In an interview with Patch, Jensen said, "I counted up the pills and saw six capsules missing and there were three people dead. I said right then and there: It's the Tylenol."

    The police were then able to identify that the Tylenol pills had been laced with cyanide. The containers had an almond-like smell, which is a telltale sign of the poison.

  • Johnson & Johnson Received A Letter Saying The Killings Would Continue

    On October 8, 1982, The New York Times reported that a handwritten letter arrived at the headquarters of Johnson & Johnson, the creator of Tylenol. The note detailed how easy and cheap it was to put cyanide in the capsules, and the author insinuated the killings would continue if they were not wired $1 million. 

    Johnson & Johnson immediately notified the authorities, who later found the source of the letter. In October 1983 - roughly a year after the attacks - James Lewis was convicted of extortion and sentenced to 20 years. He still remains a suspect for the murders but has never been charged due to lack of evidence.

  • The Prime Suspect Was (And Still Is) James Lewis

    The Prime Suspect Was (And Still Is) James Lewis
    Video: YouTube

    The main suspect was James Lewis, an accountant from Kansas City, MO, who wrote Johnson & Johnson the extortion note. He denied participation in the poisonings, and police were unsuccessful in their attempts to gather enough evidence to arrest him. He continues to be a person of interest in the case, and his property was searched in 2009 when the investigation was relaunched.

    In 2000, The Chicago Reader did an in-depth profile of Lewis. He maintains that he is a "political prisoner," a "scapegoat," and an "all-purpose monster... fathered by the wild-eyed hyperventilated imaginations of two brutal men, Tyrone Fahner [then-Illinois Attorney General] and Daniel K. Webb [then-United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois]," who "blew" the Tylenol investigation due to their "bureaucratic blundering incompetence."

  • The Unabomber Was Also Suspected

    In the later years of the investigation, even Ted Kaczynski, AKA the Unabomber, was considered a suspect. Kaczynski’s history of killing random citizens, the close proximity of his parent’s home to the poisonings, and a very blurry suspect photo indicated he could be responsible for the crimes.

    A timeline created by cyber-sleuths also shows he was most likely in the area at the time. Kaczynski’s manifesto may have also alluded to his intention to poison the Tylenol, stating, “Imagine a society that subjects people to conditions that make them terribly unhappy, then gives them the drugs to take away their unhappiness."

    Kaczynski has not been eliminated from the list of suspects. In 2011, the FBI requested his DNA sample, as they wanted to test it against trace amounts of DNA left on the poisoned bottles.

  • There Were Copycat Crimes

    There Were Copycat Crimes
    Video: YouTube

    Just days after the initial death of Mary Kellerman on September 29, 1982, the authorities and the media warned the public en masse about the potentially lethal pills. Police officers went door to door collecting bottles of the over-the-counter pain reliever and drove through the streets to warn residents via loudspeaker

    While these efforts helped locally, they also inspired a slew of copycat criminals. In just a month after the initial poisonings, the FDA and the FBI were following up on nearly 270 different cases of product tampering.

    There were copycat crimes even years later. In 1986, Seattle residents Susan Snow and Bruce Nickell died from cyanide-laced Excedrin. Authorities discovered several bottles throughout the area contained cyanide, and another investigation was launched. It was ultimately revealed that Nickell’s wife, Stella, had poisoned the bottles in a bid to collect life insurance money.