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posted: 9/23/2012 8:00 AM

Can new technology solve 30-year-old Tylenol murders?

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  • The Daily Herald's front page in 1982, when the Tylenol poisoning story broke.

      The Daily Herald's front page in 1982, when the Tylenol poisoning story broke.

  • Associated PressBottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol are tested fof cyanide at the Illinois Department of Health in October 1982 in Chicago.

      Associated PressBottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol are tested fof cyanide at the Illinois Department of Health in October 1982 in Chicago.

  • Mary Anne Kellerman

      Mary Anne Kellerman

  • Theresa Janus

      Theresa Janus

  • Stanley Janus

      Stanley Janus

  • Mary McFarland

      Mary McFarland

  • Paula Prince

      Paula Prince

  • Adam Janus

      Adam Janus

  • Mary Reiner

      Mary Reiner

  •  

  • News crews surround the entrance to the Illinois State Police office in Des Plaines, the headquarters for the Tylenol killings investigation, on Oct. 8, 1982.

      News crews surround the entrance to the Illinois State Police office in Des Plaines, the headquarters for the Tylenol killings investigation, on Oct. 8, 1982.
    Associated Press

 
 

It was close to midnight on Sept. 29, 1982, when a few police detectives ushered Nick Pishos into a windowless, closet-sized room in Northwest Community Hospital's emergency department.

Pishos, then a deputy investigator with the Cook County medical examiner's office, was handed two bottles of Extra Strength Tylenol capsules and asked if he noticed anything unusual about them.

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They'd been confiscated from homes in Elk Grove Village and Arlington Heights where, earlier that day, three people had mysteriously collapsed and died. A fourth was on life support, about to die in a crime that eventually took seven lives and remains unsolved 30 years later.

Standing in the Arlington Heights hospital, Pishos opened each bottle with gloved hands.

"As soon as I popped it open, I smelled the aroma of bitter almonds. The odor kind of struck me. It was in both bottles," Pishos said. "(The detective) said, 'Do you know what that smell is associated with?' And I said, 'Yeah, that smells like cyanide.'"

The dots were starting to connect, and soon the world would know that someone had filled Tylenol capsules with deadly cyanide poison around the Chicago area, randomly killing four women, two men and one child in Cook and DuPage counties between Sept. 29 and Oct. 1, 1982.

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the crime, and while there have been a few closely-watched suspects and numerous whodunit theories, no one has ever been charged with the murders. It remains the biggest unsolved murder mystery in the suburbs, and perhaps the nation.

Killed by the poisoned pills were: Mary Kellerman, of Elk Grove Village, a seventh-grader at Addams Junior High School in Schaumburg; Arlington Heights postal worker Adam Janus, and later, his grief-stricken brother and sister-in-law, Stanley and Theresa Janus of Lisle; Chicago flight attendant Paula Prince; Mary McFarland of Elmhurst, who worked at Illinois Bell Phone Center in Lombard; and Mary Reiner of Winfield, who had just returned home from the hospital after giving birth to her fourth child.

Thirty years later, an FBI-led task force continues to investigate the case, hoping technology that didn't exist in 1982 can provide the break they need. In recent years, the FBI has been collecting DNA samples from both potential suspects and those who worked on the case. DNA was taken in 2009 from top suspect James Lewis and his wife and in May 2011 from "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, who was born in Evergreen Park and whose parents lived in Lombard at the time of the Tylenol murders. Neither man was charged.

Earlier this year, the FBI also "swabbed" Pishos for his DNA, he said, since he handled the tainted bottles in 1982.

"The FBI reinterviewed me about six to nine months ago. They came to anyone who had access to those bottles, because of the new technology that's out," said Pishos, of Schiller Park, who now runs a Chicago funeral home.

FBI spokeswoman Joan Hyde said new forensics technology is helping the task force re-examine evidence such as fingerprints. She wouldn't discuss what evidence investigators have, but a 2010 Daily Herald story reported that one item is a fingerprint smudge from one of the poisoned bottles.

"DNA is only part of the investigation. There are all different types of evidence. I can't say what's going to be that determining piece of evidence. It might be that one call that comes in with the tip," Hyde said.

There's also a constantly expanding computerized database of electronically scanned fingerprints, which the FBI is using, spokesman Ross Rice said.

"The DNA by itself isn't going to tell you who it belongs to," he said. "Now you can do a scan based on one (finger) print, whereas before you needed whole set of prints."

The Tylenol Task Force once consisted of more than 140 federal, state and local police investigators. It's a fraction of the size today (the FBI won't say how many people are on it, or how often they meet), and includes police officers from Elk Grove Village, Arlington Heights, Lombard, Schaumburg, Chicago and Illinois State Police.

"The departments have had to cut back on the resources they commit to (the task force) ... but it's a full-time, permanent task force, and an ongoing investigation," Rice said.

Over the years, police have chased literally tens of thousands of leads and considered every possible motive -- from revenge to stock market manipulation, or even just a lone madman. They delved into the personal lives of the victims, searched for disgruntled employees, and investigated people who held patents for tamper-resistant lids, which only came into wide use after the Tylenol deaths.

"I can't say no mistakes were made in the hundreds of people putting in tens of thousands of man hours," said Jeremy Margolis, a former assistant U.S. attorney involved with the case, "but I'm confident that nothing was left to chance because every lead was analyzed and re-examined."

The task force did a thorough review of the case when it reorganized in 2007, but the FBI admits the frequency of new leads has diminished and the department has other cases it must focus on.

"It's not fallen off our radar, but as time passes, people pass and memories fade. An anniversary gives it an opportunity to bring it back to the forefront," Hyde said. "Someone afraid to speak out previously, now, with the passage of time, might be willing to come forward and help us with this case."

Looking back

It was horrific crime. Random people were being targeted and suddenly dropping dead. The public was terrified.

If not for some quick-thinking suburban medical experts -- Arlington Heights firefighters Charles Kramer and Phil Cappitelli, Arlington Heights nurse Helen Jensen and Elk Grove Village firefighter Richard Keyworth -- who figured out that Tylenol was the common link in the deaths, it's possible there could have been more victims.

Soon afterward, Tylenol's parent company, Johnson & Johnson, pulled all Tylenol products -- more than 30 million bottles -- from store shelves nationwide.

The crime led to federal laws that changed the way products are packaged and influenced how corporations handle recalls and public relations. It even affected Halloween, as many parents saw that children's candy wasn't tamper-proof.

"People's confidence and sense of personal security was shattered," Margolis said.

Police investigating the case still carry vivid memories of the chaotic first months, the rivalry between agencies to solve the crime, and the national media attention it attracted, which was unprecedented at the time.

"Everyone was trying to out-scoop each other ... and it really took away from the ability to conduct the investigation without all of the distractions," said Richard Brzeczek, the Chicago Police Department superintendent at the time. "They were acting like flash mobs. It was just crazy. People were running from press conference to press conference."

Also intense was the competition among police agencies to solve the crime, which some speculate might have prevented departments from sharing information.

"Everyone wanted to be the one to slap the cuffs on him, not the least of which was the FBI," said Dave Ryan, a retired Chicago police detective who spent a year on the task force and today heads security at Elgin's Grand Victoria riverboat casino.

"You had your normal motivation, that you'd like to put people in jail for committing crimes. But this drove you even harder. You'd leave at midnight and come back at 7 a.m., and there were guys who were back already," he said. "It was strenuous, and there was a lot of pressure on us to make sure no mistakes were made and all the bases were covered."

Today, those who worked on the case have differing theories about the killer. Many still suspect Lewis, the man convicted of trying to extort money from Johnson & Johnson after the murders.

"All of the evidence points to him," Ryan said.

Brzeczek, however, who resigned from the Chicago Police Department in 1983, strongly believes Lewis wasn't involved, saying investigators wasted precious time trying to pin the crime on him. Brzeczek believes one victim -- he suspects someone in the Janus family -- was an intended target and the rest of the poisonings were done to make it look random.

"This case will never be solved," said Brzeczek, who now runs his own consulting firm. "Law enforcement can solve only a very, very small percentage of crimes on their own. What they need are the eyes and ears and mouth of people out there."

Crimes are solved three ways, Brzeczek said: With a smoking gun, a "known but flown" suspect, or most rarely, solving a "whodunit" mystery. The Tylenol case is a complex whodunit.

While most murders involve domestic situations, gangs or drugs, the Tylenol case stands out because of its atypical motive. A random killer who dehumanizes the victims is a unique psychological profile, says Wayne Johnson, a former Chicago homicide detective and Chicago Crime Commission chairman.

"This isn't garden-variety murder. This is terrorism," said Johnson, who now teaches criminal profiling and investigation at Harper College in Palatine.

One thing is certain: Those who worked on the case want the killer to face justice.

The $100,000 reward Johnson & Johnson first offered in 1982 still stands, and the FBI "may or may not be" offering a reward, Rice said.

"Murder cases are never closed," Ryan said. "Sometimes, 'active' (investigations) mean they're moving it from one file cabinet to another file cabinet. But someone, somewhere, is still interested in it."

One of the people still interested is Margolis. He still has the sketch, drawn for him by suspect James Lewis, hanging on the wall of his law office. Lewis drew it to show him how someone could add cyanide to capsules.

"Law enforcement will never let this case go unsolved. Anyone who was involved in this case at its inception, and lived through the horror of what took place ... isn't going to forget it," Margolis said. "Every case is solvable. This one's just pretty tough."

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