The stories that stick with us: Tylenol murders: a big crime story with lasting impact

  • Pete Nenni

    Pete Nenni

  • Tylenol murder victims, from left, Mary Reiner, Mary Kellerman, Theresa Janus, Paula Prince, Stanley Janus, Adam Janus and Mary McFarland.

    Tylenol murder victims, from left, Mary Reiner, Mary Kellerman, Theresa Janus, Paula Prince, Stanley Janus, Adam Janus and Mary McFarland.

 
 
Updated 10/5/2021 1:30 PM

One of the biggest stories of my nearly 43-year newspaper career started with an early morning phone call.

I was one of the first -- if not the first -- reporters in the newsroom on Sept. 30, 1982, and when I picked up the phone, a trusted source from the village of Arlington Heights was on the line.

 

He told me he had something important to discuss and suggested I meet with him at village hall. I grabbed a pen and notebook and walked the few blocks from the Daily Herald's former office at 217 W. Campbell St. in downtown Arlington Heights.

The source outlined the details of what would become one of the biggest crime stories in suburban history -- the Tylenol murders.

I was the lead writer that day, with Metro staffer Joann Van Wye, in our coverage of the suburban residents who died after swallowing cyanide-tainted Extra Strength Tylenol capsules.

The victims were identified as: 12-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village; 27-year-old Adam Janus of Arlington Heights; his 25-year-old brother, Stanley, of Lisle; and Mary Reiner, 27, of Winfield.

Authorities suspected and later confirmed cyanide poisoning in the death of 31-year-old Mary McFarland of Elmhurst.

Stanley Janus' 19-year-old wife, Theresa, also took Tylenol and was in critical condition that day. She would die days later. Officials would later confirm 35-year-old Paula Prince of Chicago also was a victim.

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Police said contaminated capsules that killed the suburban victims were found in two Jewel supermarkets in Arlington Heights and Elk Grove Village, and at Frank's Finer Foods in Winfield.

The story also chronicled the nationwide search for more contaminated pills, and that state public health officials ordered all Tylenol taken off store shelves until further notice.

People were warned to check for bottles bearing the control number MC 2880.

Authorities said the contaminated 500-milligram capsules were pried open and cyanide -- a fast-acting poison that starves the body of oxygen and causes death by asphyxiation -- was added.

Because only some of the capsules were poisoned, and the Kellerman and Janus families did not know each other, authorities suspected the capsules were tampered with sometime after being shipped from the factory but before they were purchased.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

No suspect has been charged or convicted of the poisonings.

It was a chilling crime that led to weeks and years of follow-up coverage about the investigation and copycat poisonings. But it also triggered the consumer protections in place today, including tamper-proof packaging and legislation that made it a federal offense to tamper with consumer products.

• Deputy Managing Editor Pete Nenni retired last month after 41 years with the Daily Herald.

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