'It's not a closed case': Death of Tylenol killings suspect could open new avenue for investigators
James W. Lewis, long the leading suspect in the 1982 Tylenol killings that brought widespread panic to the suburbs and nationwide reforms in medication product packaging, has died.
The 76-year-old's death - confirmed after authorities found him unresponsive in his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home just after 4 p.m. Sunday - doesn't close the long-running probe into the deaths of seven Chicago-area residents who ingested cyanide-laced capsules, but it could present a new opportunity for investigators to crack a case that's long been cold.
Chuck Walsh, who retired as Elk Grove Village's police chief in March, said Monday that the next focus of the investigation likely will be Lewis' widow, Leann.
"It's not a closed case. It's a cold case," said Walsh, who closely followed the investigation during much of his 32-year career with the police department. "We're just kind of hoping now, and I think the focus in the next week or so will be Leann, to see if she's willing to speak with (police). I'm sure there will be people talking to her: 'Is there anything now you want to let us know that maybe you weren't able to tell us before when James was present?'"
When police went to the Boston area to interview James Lewis again last fall, they found him to be "cagey," Walsh said. But he also provided some information "that only the person that did this would know."
Lewis had a "dominant" personality, so his wife might have been reluctant to share information, said Walsh, who is now director of safety and security in Lake Forest school districts 115 and 67.
"That's why I'm kind of hoping now that maybe there'll be a break in this cold case," he said.
Lewis was convicted of attempting to extort $1 million from Tylenol maker Johnson and Johnson in 1982 - demanding the money to "stop the killings" - and he served more than a dozen years in federal prison. After his release in 1995, he and his wife moved to Massachusetts.
In 2009, federal agents raided his home after renewing their investigation. He gave a DNA sample to the FBI a year later.
But Lewis long maintained his innocence - even creating a website in which he said he was framed - and was never charged with the murders.
Walsh and other members of local law enforcement that make up a multiagency task force asked prosecutors in Cook and DuPage counties last year to file charges against Lewis, whom they believed the evidence, albeit circumstantial, pointed to. But the prosecutors - Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx and DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin - said they didn't have enough proof to charge and eventually secure a guilty verdict.
"Law enforcement folks felt that there was enough and we were willing to go to the mat on it," Walsh said. "And of course we're not attorneys, so we respect what our state's attorney decided to do. It wasn't like, 'Hey you guys don't have enough, we're done.' It was, 'Find some more.' And that's why the investigation continued."
"I hope Leann maybe realizes now is her time to speak up and do the right thing," Walsh added.
Listed numbers for Leann Lewis were not in service.
Police in Cambridge said she was out of town and contacted a neighbor when she could not get a hold of her husband, and the neighbor contacted police. They, along with firefighters and paramedics, responded to the Lewis' condominium for the report of an unresponsive person, and soon after declared James Lewis deceased, according to a statement from Police Superintendent Frederick Cabral.
After an investigation, Lewis' death was determined to be not suspicious, Cabral said.
Officials at the Arlington Heights Police Department, which is now the lead investigative agency, confirmed Monday they are aware of Lewis' death and the investigation into the Tylenol killings is ongoing. But they didn't answer questions about Lewis' role in the probe.
"As this investigation remains active and open, it would not be appropriate to offer comment or analysis on any one individual or suspect's involvement in this case," police Cmdr. Petar Milutinovic wrote in an email. "The Arlington Heights Police Department and its partner law enforcement agencies remain committed to solving these heinous murders."
Mary Kellerman, a 12-year-old from Elk Grove Village who had stayed home sick from school, was the first to die on Sept. 29, 1982, after taking a poisoned Tylenol capsule. She would be followed by Adam Janus of Arlington Heights; his brother and sister-in-law, Stanley and Theresa Janus of Lisle; Paula Prince of Chicago; Mary McFarland of Elmhurst; and Mary Reiner of Winfield, who had just returned home from the hospital after giving birth to her fourth child.
• The Associated Press contributed to this report.