A cold case, but not a forgotten one: How suburban cops continue to hunt the Tylenol killer
In the top drawer of his desk, Elk Grove Village Police Chief Charles Walsh keeps a 40-year-old case file first compiled by his predecessors when he was still in high school.
The file is a constant reminder of the still unsolved 1982 murders of seven people, including an Elk Grove girl, who died after ingesting cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules.
"We call it a cold case, but it's not a forgotten case," said the 32-year police veteran. "We need to get justice for those people and for their families."
Walsh and fellow officers, including Arlington Heights police Sgt. Joe Murphy, persist in their pursuit, determined to catch the killer and secure justice for the victims, including 12-year-old Mary Kellerman. A seventh-grader at Addams Junior High School in Schaumburg, Mary was the first victim.
At 6:15 a.m. Sept, 29, 1982, the Elk Grove Fire Department received a call from Dennis Kellerman reporting that his daughter, who was home sick with a cold, had collapsed on the bathroom floor. Suspecting she may have had a reaction, paramedics collected medicine from the home, including Tylenol.
"She was in dire straits," said Walsh, referencing the initial reports. "About 9:56 a.m. she passed away."
As the day wore on, Elk Grove paramedics learned their Arlington Heights counterparts had taken three family members to the hospital after they collapsed for unknown reasons.
Postal worker Adam Janus of Arlington Heights died that afternoon. Later that day, after taking Tylenol capsules from the same bottle, his brother and sister-in-law, Stanley and Theresa Janus of Lisle, collapsed without explanation. Stanley died that night; Theresa died the next day.
"The medical examiner did toxicology reports, and by early the next day we knew we had ourselves a homicide investigation," Walsh said.
Also killed were Chicago flight attendant Paula Prince; Mary McFarland, a single mom from Elmhurst; and Mary Reiner of Winfield, who had just returned home from the hospital after giving birth to her fourth child.
Their killer has never been charged.
A task force was established in the wake of the murders. Led by the FBI, it was made up of 140 local, state and federal law enforcement officers who pursued tens of thousands of leads to no avail. An FBI representative declined the Daily Herald's request for an interview, citing the bureau's policy of not commenting on open investigations. The Illinois State Police also declined to comment.
In February 2009, federal agents raided the Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of James Lewis, a suspect who shortly after the killings sent a letter to Tylenol maker Johnson & Johnson demanding $1 million "to stop the killings."
Convicted of extortion in 1983, Lewis served more than 12 years in federal prison but has never been charged with the murders and has maintained his innocence, telling ABC 7 in an interview that he believed the "Tylenol murderer is still dancing in the streets."
A second task force was established in 2007 and continued until 2013, when the FBI turned over the investigation to local authorities. Arlington Heights police now serve as the lead agency, but the FBI remains the central repository for evidence and documents, Murphy said.
Murphy is one of three Arlington Heights investigators assigned to the case part time. None of the original investigating officers still work with the department, but Murphy still occasionally reaches out to a former colleague who served on the second FBI task force.
"We do still get tips," said Murphy, adding that he expects an uptick in calls in light of the increased media attention from the 40th anniversary. He encourages anyone with information to call (847) 368-5300 and ask for the investigations division.
Murphy said he also gets occasional calls from victims' family members seeking updates. "It's still raw for them," he said. "It's apparent when you speak with them the pain is still there."
"I'm more than happy to speak with them and let them know the case is still being actively pursued," he said. "Nobody is giving up."
Like Murphy, Walsh remains optimistic they will solve the case. "We're waiting for a break," he said, one he expects may come in the form of a deathbed confession or a technological breakthrough that will link the killer to evidence collected 40 years ago.
"I'm confident the people we suspected early on did it," he said. "They are still on our radar."
Police have asked prosecutors in Cook and DuPage counties to file charges, but prosecutors said they did not have enough evidence to charge and eventually secure a guilty verdict. In a joint statement, Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx and DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin said prosecutors from both counties have spent countless hours working with state, local and federal law enforcement, interviewing witnesses and reviewing documents "to bring the person or persons responsible for the Tylenol murders to justice."
"This case remains an open and active investigation and will continue to be until justice is served," the statement reads.
As for Walsh, he hopes and prays for an answer to who killed the seven victims and why. And on that day, he will call Mary Kellerman's father, Dennis, and say the words he and other loved ones have waited 40 years to hear: We have a suspect in custody.