Six months after FBI raids, still no arrests in Tylenol murders
Six months ago today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the suburban Boston apartment of Tylenol murder suspect James W. Lewis. Saying they had new forensic technology to help their investigation, officers carried boxes and computers out of Lewis' home. It seemed, at the time, there had been a break in the cold, 27-year-old case in which seven Chicago-area people died after taking Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules tainted with poisonous cyanide.
Today, Lewis - who has always been the prime suspect - remains a free man. Some of the items confiscated in the raid have been returned to him, FBI spokesman Ross Rice said. Does it mean the investigation has gone cold again?
FBI spokesman Ed Rossbach warned against drawing that conclusion, saying the length of time that's passed is no indication that the investigation has stalled. Rice added that the task force assigned to the case - which includes investigators from Arlington Heights, Elk Grove, Schaumburg, Lombard and Chicago - is still working on it full time.
"The actual killings remain unsolved, and the investigation is ongoing," Rice said. "Everyone's innocent until proven guilty, so yes, (Lewis is) an innocent man. He's a free man, and he can come and go as he pleases."
The suburban police agencies involved in the investigation represent areas where the victims either lived or died or where evidence of pill tampering was found. Prosecutors in those jurisdictions also are working with their federal counterparts. For example, DuPage County sent at least one prosecutor to Boston several months ago.
In Arlington Heights, where three of the seven deaths occurred and at least one tainted bottle was found on a store shelf, the police department committed two investigators to the task force but will pull one out this month, Cmdr. Ken Galinski said.
Galinski insists it's a manpower issue in Arlington Heights and not a sign that the person isn't needed on the task force. He agreed with the FBI's assertion that six months without an arrest doesn't signal that the investigation is fizzling out.
"It's not like TV where you submit (forensic evidence) one day and get it right back," Galinski said. "We're trying to keep everything low key until we get some of the evidence processed. We're keeping our fingers crossed."
Elk Grove Village Deputy Police Chief Mike Kirkpatrick declined to talk about his department's involvement, other than to say they're "involved and still committed to it."
Lombard Police Chief Ray Byrne has a strong track record of solving cold cases, and led the task force that solved a 1978 double homicide of a Downers Grove couple. Byrne was able to crack a once ironclad alibi after re-interviewing old witnesses decades later.
He believes the Tylenol mystery is solvable.
"I always believe any case is solvable," Byrne said. "You never know when a new witness is going to emerge or if old witnesses who once wouldn't cooperate change their minds. Clearly, technology also has come a long way, as well."
Johnson & Johnson is still offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction.
Meanwhile, the victims' families continue to wait for answers, some frustrated and others resigned to the fact that the killer may never be caught.
Michelle Rosen of Winfield, whose mother, Mary Reiner, was among the victims, said news of the break in the case "turned my world upside down" and raised her hopes of getting answers to lifelong questions about her mother's murder. Her hope has since turned to a mix of disappointment and anger.
"(The investigators) should have never brought it up," she said. "It's irresponsible of them. They shouldn't be treating families like this."
Rosen questioned how there could be new DNA evidence in Lewis' apartment in 2009, and still feels confused about who committed this crime.
"We'll see how this all pans out," she said.
Jack Eliason of Elmhurst, and Bob Tarasewicz of Lisle, who both lost sisters in the Tylenol poisonings, said they had a glimmer of hope in February, but then quickly became pragmatic and wrote it off to "media hype."
"When you wait that many decades, you know things don't change that quickly," Tarasewicz said.
In February, Eliason said the FBI told his mother they'd keep her up-to-date on what's going on, but she hasn't heard from them since.
"I would be frustrated if they had evidence on someone and they weren't doing something, but it doesn't seem they have a whole lot of evidence," he said. "If there's any doubt, and someone's convicted, that's not closure. In my mind, I'd have to be convinced."
Not only is there uncertainty about who committed this crime, there's also speculation as to whether there could have been more victims.
At least two other people died from cyanide poisoning around that time, including one from the Chicago suburbs.
Galen Parriott, a 30-year-old foreman from Skokie, died just a few months after the Tylenol murders, on Dec. 1, 1982, with the cause of death on his death certificate listed as "cyanide poisoning."
Cook County Medical Examiner Nancy Jones said there's no way to definitively know at this point what type of cyanide it was or how it got into Parriott's system.
Another potential victim was in Yonkers, New York. In 1986, 23-year-old Diane Elsroth died after swallowing Tylenol laced with cyanide.
Yonkers Police cold case unit Detective John Geiss described the Elsroth case as "open and active."
When Elsroth died, James Lewis was in jail, serving time for trying to extort $1 million from Johnson & Johnson "to stop the killing."
The FBI's Rice finds it hard to believe that police or medical examiners would overlook any suspicious incidents in such a high-profile national case, but added that "it's certainly possible" there could have been more victims.
All of this provides fodder for www.americanfraud.com, a Web site dedicated to the Tylenol case that is researched and written by ex-Johnson & Johnson sales representative Scott Bartz.
Bartz, a New Jersey resident, has spent years extensively researching the case and believes there's a massive cover-up involved. He's written a book on the topic and is now shopping for a publisher.
Not only does Bartz suspect there were more Tylenol poisoning victims, he also believes police overlooked certain suspects.
"I don't want to accuse anyone of the crime ... but they've embedded in everyone's mind that James Lewis is the Tylenol man, when they don't have a stitch of evidence," Bartz said. "I'm not trying to suggest it's a wide, organized conspiracy. It's where everyone wanted to protect themselves and had their own interests."
• Daily Herald Legal Affairs Writer Christy Gutowski contributed to this report.
Conspiracy theories and suspects
Below is a roundup of some of the suspects and conspiracy theories swirling around the Internet regarding the 1982 Tylenol killings.
• James Lewis. Many investigators remain convinced he's the killer, even though they've so far been unable to prove it and Lewis has maintained his innocence. Lewis' past, strange behavior and extortion letter sent to Johnson & Johnson (which he served prison time for) also work against him.
• Roger Arnold. The former dock worker at the Jewel distribution center in Melrose Park, who died in 2008, bragged to a Chicago tavern owner that he'd killed people with cyanide. He spent the last years of his life in jail for killing the man whom he suspected of ratting him out to police.
• Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber). The former Lombard resident was familiar with the area, and around that time was sending bombs to universities and airlines.
• Bruce Ivins, the suspected anthrax killer. The argument goes that Ivins wanted to randomly kill, was bright and had access to chemicals. He committed suicide in 2008 by overdosing on Tylenol PM.
• Laurie Dann. The mentally ill baby sitter killed a second-grader when she shot up a Winnetka school in 1988. Before that, she had put poison in juice boxes and rice snacks.
• The mafia. This is considered one of the more far-fetched theories, but at the time the mob was involved with pharmacy service providers.
• An unknown person who committed suicide. Criminal profilers say a psychopath would have continued to kill, so the person who did it could have committed suicide or died of other causes.
• Terrorists. Biological terrorism wasn't a top concern in 1982. However, investigators dismiss this theory, saying terrorists tend to take responsibility for their actions to call attention to their cause.
Source: Daily Herald research and interviews