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updated: 9/22/2012 5:16 PM

Why cyanide deaths might go unsolved

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This story originally ran Sept. 20, 2002

Jamie Sotonoff

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Daily Herald Staff Writer

Police officers and firefighters drove through neighborhoods using loudspeakers to warn people: "Don't take Tylenol!"

In some places, they went door to door with bags, collecting bottle after bottle of the pain reliever.

"It was in the early hours, before it got out in the media," said Elk Grove Village Deputy Police Chief Larry Hammer, who was just a young patrolman at the time. "People didn't know what was going on."

When the news got out, though, people flooded doctor's offices and hospitals with phone calls, asking questions about cyanide poisoning.

On this day 20 years ago, a series of events that started in Elk Grove Village and Arlington Heights would leave the Chicago suburbs -- and the nation -- gripped by fear. Someone had put deadly doses of cyanide into Extra Strength Tylenol capsules.

The contaminated bottles were randomly placed on retail store shelves around Cook and DuPage counties. The fast-acting poison killed seven people in the Chicago area in three days.

Despite national hysteria, intense media attention and what was initially a 140-member police task force, the killer was never found. Today, the trail is cold, and investigators say they haven't had a new lead in more than a decade.

Someone got away with murder.

No one knew how much, or what kind, of tainted products were out there, and it was unclear whether the Tylenol poisonings were random or targeted at certain people.

The panic mirrored that which followed the recent anthrax cases.

"Today, we might consider it terrorism," said former Arlington Heights Deputy Fire Chief Charles Kramer, who witnessed two of the deaths. "The thought that someone would do that to another human being and not care who it was ... it was subhuman."

Suddenly, every food or medical product seemed vulnerable to tampering. Even trusted products, like aspirin or Halloween candy, were being viewed as potentially deadly.

"No one trusted anything," recalled Arlington Heights police Capt. John Fellmann, who helped investigate the crime. "Halloween has forever changed because of this. The case actually changed a national holiday."

The crime also revolutionized the way nonprescription medicine is packaged. Over-the-counter medicine used to be covered by nothing more than a piece of cotton and a plastic lid. Now, federal law requires three layers of protective, tamper-proof sealing.

The incident also set a new standard for corporate accountability. The makers of Tylenol, Johnson & Johnson, reacted to the crisis by immediately pulling all 22 million bottles of the product off the shelves nationwide, which cost the company more than $100 million. It was one of several decisions the company made that put customers' interests above corporate profits.

As a result, Tylenol -- initially considered doomed to extinction -- quickly regained its title as the country's top-selling pain reliever.

To this day, Johnson & Johnson's handling of the crisis is hailed as the textbook example of good public relations.

The only area in which progress wasn't made was in the search for the killer.

Case open but cold

Federal, state and local police confirmed this week that the Tylenol murder case is ice cold. It's been several years -- possibly more than a decade -- since anyone has worked on the case.

FBI spokesman Ross Rice said no additional work has been done because there's nothing more for investigators to do.

"You reach a point where you've covered every lead, you've interviewed every possible witness, and there's nothing more you can do. Some cases just go unsolved," said Rice, one of the FBI agents who worked on the case in 1982. "This is the Brown's Chicken massacre. This is the Tammy Zywicki killing. Somebody knows who did it, and nothing's going to happen until someone comes forward."

Investigators never had much to go on in the first place. Former federal prosecutor Jeremy Margolis said there were no witnesses or physical evidence to link anyone to the crime, other than a few dozen fingerprints lifted off the tainted bottles and store shelves.

When a computerized, national database of fingerprints was created in the mid-1980s, authorities ran all of the fingerprints collected in the Tylenol case through the system, but nothing matched up. Even if they had, they would have made flimsy evidence, given that so many people handle merchandise in retail stores, Margolis said.

A task force of more than 140 investigators from around the country questioned every suspicious person and disgruntled employee. They chased tens of thousands of leads and examined and re-examined every possible motive, ranging from revenge seekers to stock manipulators.

Even psychics were brought in to help generate new leads, said Fellmann, a former detective with the Arlington Heights police department.

"We went over as many perspectives and angles as you can imagine," he said. "If someone had applied for a patent for a new way to safety-seal a product, we thought, could this person have done it to advance their patent?"

A list of potential suspects was compiled by the task force, but no one was ever charged with the crime.

Officials from the Illinois State Police, who are overseeing the investigation, describe the case as "open but cold."

If a new lead surfaced, they would follow up on it. In the meantime, they are going to focus their attention on other cases, Master Sgt. Lincoln Hampton said.

"There are simply no leads to run anymore," added Margolis, who now is in private practice at Altheimer & Gray in Chicago. "On this particular case, I don't know what you could do that's new."

Families remember

While the investigators might not think about the case every day, the surviving family members do.

Sophia Czyz, the older sister of victims Adam and Stanley Janus and the sister-in-law of victim Theresa Janus, still wonders who committed this crime. She's upset and disappointed that the killer was never caught.

"I don't know who to blame," she said. "It's frustrating and there's nothing we can do. It would be nice to know (the killer's) reasoning. Why did these people need to die?"

Czyz's husband, Marian, used to check in with investigators regularly to see if there were any new developments. Year after year, the answer was always "no," so he eventually stopped calling.

Czyz keeps the memories of her brothers and sister-in-law alive by telling stories about them to her children. Her faith and family help her get through the difficult days, like Christmas.

No one in the family takes Tylenol. Even when Czyz's mother was in the hospital a few years ago, she refused to let the doctors bring Tylenol into her room. She doesn't even like hearing the word, Czyz said.

Though her brothers died 20 years ago, Czyz's heart still aches for them. Whenever she talks about them, she cries.

"I live by the cemetery where they're buried, so when I pass by, I say hello," she said, referring to the Maryhill Cemetery in Niles. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about them. It's like it happened yesterday."

The pain still runs deep in the Kellerman family, too.

Twelve-year-old Mary Ann Kellerman of Elk Grove Village was Dennis and Jeanna Kellerman's only child. She was the first person to die from taking cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules.

"You still think about it. You think, 'She'd be 32 years old now. What would her life be like?' " said Mary Ann's grandmother, Patricia, who still lives in Elk Grove Village. "You never really get over it."

That scary week in '82

Kellerman's sudden death on the morning of Sept. 29, 1982, puzzled doctors and paramedics, but didn't generate any widespread concern. After all, taking Tylenol for a cold, like Kellerman did, was considered routine.

Even after the second death at 3 p.m. that day, when 27-year-old post office supervisor Adam Janus was found dead at his home in Arlington Heights, no one suspected a widespread problem.

It wasn't until paramedics were called back to the Janus house a second time, five hours later, that anyone became suspicious.

Charles Kramer, the fire lieutenant on duty at the time, recalls being intrigued by the second call of a "man down" at that same address, especially since the paramedics had come back from the first call talking about how strange it was that a healthy young man just seemed to drop dead.

Kramer decided to go over to the house. When he pulled into the driveway, he found a scene of chaos. Neighbors were standing in the driveway and lining the nearby sidewalks. Screams could be heard coming from inside the house.

Kramer walked in and saw a team of paramedics working on Adam Janus' brother, Stanley, who had suddenly collapsed.

What happened next will be forever etched in Kramer's memory. As Stanley lay on the living room floor, his pupils fixed and dilated, one of the paramedics looked up at Kramer with fear-filled eyes.

"This is what happened to the first guy. It's the same thing as this morning. We're losing him," he told Kramer.

Seconds later, the tragedy multiplied.

"We heard a groan in the living room and Stanley's wife collapsed right in front of us," Kramer said. "I turned around and I saw her go down. I thought she fainted, you know, maybe from her emotions. But then I saw that her pupils were fixed and dilated, too."

Theresa Janus, 19, became brain-dead almost instantly. She died three days later.

Every paramedic at the scene immediately knew something strange was going on. They just didn't know what.

The mystery was solved quickly and unintentionally by Arlington Heights firefighters and the village nurse.

Firefighter Phillip Capitelli, now deceased, had heard the activity at the Janus house on the police scanner, and called the station to see what was going on.

He spoke to Kramer, who told him three members of one family had died. In interviewing the surviving family members, village nurse Helen Jensen concluded that the only thing they had in common was that they all had taken Tylenol.

It sounded familiar to Capitelli. Earlier that day, he talked to his mother-in-law, who worked with the mother of 12-year-old victim Mary Ann Kellerman. She asked him how a little girl could die so young.

Capitelli asked his friend Richard Keyworth at the Elk Grove Fire Department what happened. He explained that Kellerman had no real health problems. All she did was take a Tylenol.

Could it have been the Tylenol? Kramer and Capitelli thought it was possible. So Kramer called Northwest Community Hospital and told the theory to the doctors. The doctors found it ridiculous, Kramer said, but they checked it out anyway.

By morning, the toxicology reports confirmed that the Tylenol capsules had been contaminated with cyanide.

Within hours, a nationwide recall of Tylenol products was in progress. Many people believe that if these civil servants hadn't immediately made the connection between Tylenol and the sudden deaths, more people would have died. The quick response caught two more bottles of cyanide-laced pills still on store shelves, preventing unsuspecting consumers from taking them.

"It was just a lucky set of circumstances," Kramer said, modestly.

Before the crisis was over, seven people were dead. It was the lead story on the national newscasts, and people panicked every time they found a product that didn't look just right.

A police task force compiled a list of possible suspects. One of them was Roger Arnold, a dock worker at the Jewel warehouse in Melrose Park. He was never charged with the Tylenol murders, but was later convicted of murdering the man who led investigators to him.

Another suspect was James W. Lewis, a tax accountant living in Chicago, who had written a letter to Johnson & Johnson demanding $1 million "to stop the killings." He was convicted of extortion and an unrelated tax fraud charge, and sentenced to 20 years in jail.

After Lewis was released from prison in 1995, he called Margolis -- the attorney who prosecuted him in the extortion case -- and offered to help him solve the Tylenol murders.

Margolis found this to be a strange offer but spent hours talking with him in hopes that he might offer clues, or possibly confess, to the crime. He didn't.

But Lewis hand-wrote countless pages of theories and even drew pictures depicting how someone could have put cyanide in capsules, Margolis said. One of those pictures, "The Drill Board Method Theory," is framed and hanging on the wall of Margolis' office along with mementos from other cases.

Most investigators have strong feelings about who committed this crime but won't share them publicly.

Regardless of who is responsible for the poisonings, everyone wants to see the culprit behind bars.

"I would like to think everything is solvable," said Fellman, who added he still thinks about this case frequently. "One person can keep a secret; two people cannot."

Margolis is also holding out hope.

"Anything is possible," he said.

-- Daily Herald news services contributed to this report.

GRAPHIC: Who did it?

Police connected to the case have varying theories about who might be responsible for the Tylenol killings.

• James W. Lewis. He was convicted of trying to extort money from Johnson & Johnson following the poisonings. Although he's maintained his innocence, he made investigators suspicious by offering to help solve the case.

• Roger Arnold. Questioned by police for three days after reportedly telling several Chicago tavern owners rambling stories about killing people with cyanide. He was released without charges, but later convicted of killing the man he believed directed the police to him.

• An unknown person who committed suicide. Criminal profilers say a psychopath would have continued to kill. Or they could have committed suicide or died of other causes. Since women are statistically more likely to commit suicide by overdosing on pills, one theory is that the Tylenol killer is a woman who took a deadly dose of cyanide herself.

• Terrorists. Biological terrorism existed long before anthrax, and wasn't at the top of people's minds like it is today. Some investigators dismiss this theory, saying terrorist groups usually take responsibility for their actions to call attention to their cause.

Source: Daily Herald interviews, Associated Press

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