Can Tylenol murders still be solved 35 years later?

 
 
Posted9/28/2017 5:30 AM
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  • Cyanide was added to seemingly random Extra Strength Tylenol capsules in 1982.

    Cyanide was added to seemingly random Extra Strength Tylenol capsules in 1982. Daily Herald File Photo

  • Paula Prince of Chicago

    Paula Prince of Chicago

  • Theresa Janus of Lisle

    Theresa Janus of Lisle

  • Mary Anne Kellerman of Elk Grove Village

    Mary Anne Kellerman of Elk Grove Village

  • Stanley Janus of Lisle

    Stanley Janus of Lisle

  • Adam Janus of Arlington Heights

    Adam Janus of Arlington Heights

  • Mary Reiner of Winfield

    Mary Reiner of Winfield

  • Chicago Board of Health chemist John Rasho makes a test for detecting cyanide with a treated paper strip and bottle of Tylenol in 1982.

    Chicago Board of Health chemist John Rasho makes a test for detecting cyanide with a treated paper strip and bottle of Tylenol in 1982. Daily Herald file photo

Time might be running out to solve one of the most notorious murder mysteries in the suburbs -- and the nation.

This weekend marks the 35th anniversary of the Tylenol poisonings, when someone put deadly cyanide in the capsules of random bottles of Tylenol across Chicago and the suburbs, killing seven people.

No one has ever been charged with the crime. Investigators don't like to call it a cold case and insist they're still actively working on it. But time is working against them. Many potential witnesses and suspects -- those who are still alive -- are in their 70s or 80s now.

As the years pass, it becomes less likely that the person or people responsible for the crime will ever be held accountable.

"We're concerned about how long it's been. It's been a concern of the task force, as more time goes by," said Arlington Heights Deputy Chief Mike Hernandez. "But this case is still a high priority. It's not gathering dust."

The FBI handed off the unsolved case to the Arlington Heights police four years ago. Like the FBI, Arlington Heights police won't say much about their recent investigative efforts. The Tylenol task force -- a team from the Illinois State Police, the Cook and DuPage County state's attorney's offices, the FBI, five suburban police departments and a few retired-but-still-interested detectives -- no longer meets regularly to discuss the case, Hernandez said. However, members do get together periodically to review the files or follow up on interesting information that trickles in.

Even after 35 years, it's possible that people with knowledge of the crime could come forward with key information, even if it's on their deathbed, and help police crack the case.

Mary McFarland of Elmhurst
Mary McFarland of Elmhurst

"We have suspects, and we're trying to push through to get the end result here," Hernandez said. "We're just not at that juncture yet."

Seven people were killed by the poisoned Tylenol, starting on Sept. 29, 1982, with Mary Kellerman, of Elk Grove Village, a seventh-grader at Addams Junior High School in Schaumburg. Also killed were 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.

In recent years, new DNA technology has been used to process evidence, including tainted capsules and a fingerprint smudge found on one of the bottles. The results were not enough to make an arrest.

In 2012, there was some high-level buzz that a grand jury might hear evidence in the case related to James Lewis, who was convicted of an extortion attempt in the case. But nothing came of it.

That's caused former investigators and amateur sleuths to come up with their own theories. Among the most popular:

Tylenol poisoning suspect James Lewis is escorted through Boston's Logan Airport in 1995 after being released from the federal prison in Oklahoma. He had been convicted of trying to extort money from Tylenol maker Johnson & Johnson.
Tylenol poisoning suspect James Lewis is escorted through Boston's Logan Airport in 1995 after being released from the federal prison in Oklahoma. He had been convicted of trying to extort money from Tylenol maker Johnson & Johnson. - Associated Press, 1995
James Lewis

Suspected by many investigators to be the killer but seen by others as merely an "opportunist," Lewis was never charged and has always maintained his innocence. In 1978, he was charged with murdering a former client whose remains were found in bags in Lewis' attic. But the charges were dropped after a judge ruled police illegally searched his home. In 1983, Lewis was convicted of trying to extort money from Tylenol maker Johnson & Johnson "to stop the killing" and gave investigators detailed accounts of how someone could add cyanide to capsules.

Attention turned back to him in 2009, after the FBI raided Lewis' Massachusetts apartment and confiscated his computer. They also took a DNA sample from him, but no charges followed. In 2010, Lewis published a novel -- set in Chicago and Missouri -- about people randomly being poisoned.

Ty Fahner, the former Illinois attorney general who led the Tylenol investigation, said this week that Lewis was the only "rational" suspect they came up with.

"We could never put him in those places where the Tylenol was planted ... so we could never tie him to it," Fahner said. "I don't have an answer as to who did it. ... (Lewis) certainly wanted to do it. And he was very knowledgeable for a screwball."

Ted Kaczynski, also known as "The Unabomber," is escorted into the federal courthouse in Helena, Montana, in 1996.
Ted Kaczynski, also known as "The Unabomber," is escorted into the federal courthouse in Helena, Montana, in 1996. - Associated Press
Ted Kaczynski

Kaczynski, also known as "The Unabomber," knew the area because his parents lived in Lombard, and it's possible he was in the area during the time of the crime. Kaczynski also fit the psychological profile of a random killer. His famous "manifesto" vented his anger at corporations and society for poisoning the environment and embracing technology, among other things. In 2011, the FBI collected a DNA sample from him, but he was never charged. He is serving a life sentence for killing three random people and injuring 28 with deadly mail bombs between 1978 and 1995.

Roger Arnold

An employee in Jewel's distribution center in Melrose Park, where boxes of Tylenol passed through, Arnold had recently purchased cyanide and a one-way ticket to Thailand. After he told people rambling stories about killing people with cyanide, police questioned him for three days, but he was never charged. In 1984, Arnold was convicted of fatally shooting a man in a bar who he thought ratted him out to police. Released from jail in 1998, Arnold died in 2008.

"We ran all that down and we seized virtually all the products in the warehouses," Fahner said, adding that he's not convinced the tampering took place in the distribution center.

"Somebody took some bottles off the shelf, put cyanide in them and put them back on the shelves," he said.

Michelle Rosen, daughter of victim Mary Reiner, has extensively researched the case and believes strongly that the tampering took place in the distribution process, perhaps by Arnold.

"All of the evidence points in that direction," she said. "If this theory continues being denied by those running this investigation, I would expect that it be proven false with real evidence, not opinion."

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

Various corporations, including Johnson & Johnson, have been accused of supporting the "lone madman" theory to avoid the business-harming possibility that the cyanide tampering took place in their product distribution channels. That's alleged in the 2012 book "The Tylenol Mafia" and on the website tylenolmurders.com.

Johnson & Johnson said the book's claims have "no merit." Fahner added that Johnson & Johnson "couldn't have been more helpful" with the investigation.

Investigators also looked into whether the crimes were done to manipulate the stock market; were committed by an overseas pill-making company that wanted the public to be afraid of capsules; or were the scheme of a company that manufactured not-yet-used tamper prevention products.

• One person was the target, and the others were cover-ups.

Police considered whether one person was the target of the poisonings and the others were done as decoys, but some investigators say this would have been hard to pull off.

• It was domestic terrorism.

Retired Elk Grove Village firefighter Richard Keyworth told Chicago magazine he believes the person who did this wanted to bring the U.S. to its knees, shutting down the economy. However, terrorists usually have a specific goal or purpose, and no person or group ever publicly claimed responsibility.

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