James Lewis writes the book on POISON! deaths

Updated 1/13/2010 8:27 AM

The man long suspected of putting deadly poison inside Tylenol capsules back in 1982, killing seven metro Chicagoans, has written a book.

James Lewis calls it "a chilling thriller."


What is the story about?

"Neighbors are randomly poisoned. The psychological fantasy of POISON! is twisted and surreal" Lewis stated in an email to me.

Then he quickly added: "POISON! is a novel, totally fictional."

I heard about Lewis' book and contacted him about it. Figured it was a good time to revisit the interview I did with the suspected Tylenol murder about 15 years ago when he was doing time for extortion.

So this weekend he wrote back to me like an old friend.

"Chuck!" he began.

"Chuck is my fictional protagonist's name: Dr. Charles "Chuck" Rivers, a Harvard Medical School alumm(sic)."

I doubt Lewis named the character in his book after me, even though he wrote "your hair is much whiter than I recall. I remember you well."

You think maybe his "fictional protagonist" Charles Rivers is named for the Charles River that runs right by his house?

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"Anyway, back to the book.

"POISON! is set in a modern Midwestern City (sic)" he says. Actually two of them: Joplin, Missouri and Chicago.

"In my novel, shadowy corporate thugs from Chicago pay local farmers to guide them in dropping stainless steel canisters containing cocktails of toxic chemicals down secluded, abandoned lead mine shafts in the Tri-State Lead Mining District, late at night, during the early seventies, to evade the new EPA disposal regulations. Hence, the title: POISON! The Doctor's Dilemma."

Mr. Lewis does not proclaim the book an autobiography, but he no doubt enjoyed the writing experience as yet another exercise in his personal 28-year cat-and-mouse game with law enforcement.

"I am interested only in promoting my novel: POISON! The Doctor's Dilemma," he told me. "At the moment, I can't take you serious. I have seen no evidence that you have personally purchased the paperback version of my novel from Amazon.com. You reveal no evidence that you have read my book."

He had me there. I wasn't about to put $20.00 in Lewis' pocket by ordering the book…or even $11.99 for a Kindle download.

I do hope Mr. Lewis sends a few complimentary copies of the book to DuPage County State's Attorney Joe Birkett and his staff. Unbeknown to the prosecutor and other DuPage County law enforcement officials, they have given Lewis' book quite a boost.


You see, with no fanfare whatsoever, Lewis' book became available on January 1. The website probably would have floated on the internet for weeks or months without any attention whatsoever.

But less than a week after "POISON" came out, Lewis and his wife LeAnn were subpoenaed by a DuPage County grand jury to provide saliva samples, fingerprints and palm prints for investigators who continue to work on linking the couple to the Tylenol case.

There has been extensive news coverage of Lewis' DNA turnover and it was in my research that I learned of the book.

Who needs a book tour and satellite media interviews when you have that kind of timing and a real-life endorsement from people who have been on your tail since Jane Byrne was Chicago's mayor.

Alas, James Lewis is not only a convicted extortionist and suspect mass murderer, he is also a plagiarist.

"The Doctor's Dilemma" is already in use, having been written as a play by George Bernard Shaw in 1906 and later as a book (1908) and a movie (1958.)

The Shaw version of "The Doctor's Dilemma" has the same theme: one man's cure is another man's poison.

Do you sense that poison is a common thread in Lewis' life?

Lewis really didn't have to swipe a title and story line from 100 years ago. He could have written a non-fiction "chiller thriller" just based on his own life.

The humble story would begin in Lewis' teen years when he was checked into a Missouri state psychiatric hospital and diagnosed as schizophrenic. The committal followed a series of attacks on his parents, including once when Lewis chased his mother with an ax, followed by his suicide attempt with three dozen aspirins tablets (apparently he eschewed capsules in 1966.)

Lewis reportedly told authorities that his aberrant behavior was intended to get out of being drafted for Vietnam.

The second chapter of a real-life Lewis book would be set in Kansas City, where he and his wife had moved by the summer of 1978. Lewis was working as a tax preparer. A man named Raymond West was not only one of his best clients but had also become a friend.

One day, 72-year old West just seemed to vanish. West's neighbors called police but officers found his home buttoned up and nothing unusual.

Three weeks passed without a word from Mr. West. This time when police were called, officers forced their way into the house and discovered him dead in the attic. West had been beaten with a baseball bat which had been left next to the body.

But there was something else about the corpse, decaying in 95 degree heat that made this more than just a murder and cover-up.

After West was killed, the murderer then butchered him with a kitchen knife and pruning shears, so the pieces could be hoisted into the attic using a rope and pulley.

Three days later, investigators arrested James Lewis after finding that he had forged a $5000 check from Mr. West's account and tried to cash it.

According to police reports, detectives found some other interesting items in Lewis' car: 20-feet of rope that matched the line used to raise West's remains into the attic; West's personal briefcase and a stack of his checks.

"No doubt in my mind that James Lewis killed Raymond West," former Missouri prosecutor James Bell told the Kansas City Star.

There was a snag though in that open and closed case.

Kansas City police had neglected to read Lewis his Miranda rights. Just before he was to go on trial for murder, the arrest and search were ruled illegal. Prosecutors had no admissible evidence, the charges were dropped and Lewis was let go.

That was late 1979.

Not long after, with their luck running out, the Lewis' left Kansas City and moved to Chicago.

By 1982 they were living in Lincoln Park-under new names.

On September 29 of that year in Elk Grove Village, a 12-year old girl named Mary Kellerman woke up with a sore throat…and took two Tylenol for the pain.

You know the rest of the story.

And prosecutors believe James Lewis does too.

But he told me he won't talk about it.

"If I ever consent to an interview with you, everything connected with Tylenol or Kansas City would be off limits. No exceptions," he said. "On all legal topics, I refer you to my attorney."

• Chuck Goudie, whose column appears each Monday, is the chief investigative reporter at ABC 7 News in Chicago. The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV. He can be reached by e-mail at chuckgoudie@gmail.com and followed at twitter.com/ChuckGoudie