You wake up and your head’s pounding, you’re feverish and your whole body is aching. There’s no doubt in your mind that you’re coming down with the latest bug that’s been working it’s way through your family/friends/co-workers and it’s finally made it’s way to you. You feel pretty miserable, but not quite miserable enough to take a trip to the doctor. So you force yourself out of bed, make your way to the medicine cabinet, and pop a couple of painkillers. It’s a no-brainer. Maybe this is just a passing illness and you’ll feel better later in the day. But if you don’t, you’ll probably take the medicine every 4 hours or so, until you start to feel a little more like yourself again.
The Rise of Tylenol
Tylenol is the trade name in the US for the most common OTC painkiller medicine, acetaminophen. In the UK, acetaminophen is referred to most commonly as paracetamol. Johnson and Johnson is the parent company of McNeil Consumer Products, the manufacturer of Tylenol. McNeil first established the brand Tylenol in 1955.
Up until September 1982, Tylenol sales were booming, taking up 35% of the OTC painkiller market. It was presumed the % market share would only continue to grow for the remainder of the year and into the next.
A Bitter Pill to Swallow
This growth was not to continue, however, as something happened that no one could ever have anticipated. In so many words, it was a disaster - both for consumers and distributors of Tylenol. On September 29th and several days following, 7 people living in and around Chicago died as a result of consuming Tylenol laced with cyanide. On the morning of September 30th, it became known at Johnson and Johnson that something terrible had happened. In the following weeks, the market share of Tylenol nosedived from 35% to 8%.
The first death to occur as a result of the poisonings was that of 12-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, a Chicago suburb. On the morning of September 29th, Mary woke up feeling pretty rough. She was feverish, headachey and had a sore throat. Her parents decided to keep her home from school that day. They gave her an extra strength Tylenol and she went back to bed. By 7am that morning, Mary was dead.
The same day, Adam Janus, a 27-year-old working for the postal service took an extra strength Tylenol. He died later that day in hospital of what was originally thought to be a massive heart attack.
Shocked by the death of his brother, 25-year-old Stanley Janus rushed home, accompanied by his wife, 19-year old Theresa Janus. Comforting distraught family members while trying to hold it together themselves, Stanley and Theresa both got headaches and each took an extra strength Tylenol from the bottle Adam’s came from. Both were rushed to hospital, Stanley dying later that day and Theresa a couple days later. In the space of 48 hours, three people from the Janus family had died unexpectedly. The Janus family and authorities were completely baffled by the unexplainable tragedy.
In the days that followed, 3 more mysterious deaths occurred. These included Mary McFarland, aged 31, of Elmhurst, Illinois, Paula Prince, aged 35, of Chicago, and Mary Reiner, aged 27, of Winfield.
The Early Investigation
The most obvious place to start the investigation was with the 3 members of the Janus family. On speaking with family members about their deaths, investigators found that each had taken an extra strength Tylenol capsule shortly before they died. They then found that 12-year-old Mary Kellerman had done the same.
Different sources give credit to ‘investigators’ in general for discovering that the Tylenol was killing people. I also found sources that claimed it was a nurse, Helen Jensen, who was the first to make this discovery.
Police took the bottles of Tylenol from the Kellerman and Janus households as evidence. On seizing and examining the bottles, investigators collaborated with the Cook County chief medical examiner, Dr Edmund Donoghue, who explained that potassium cyanide had the giveaway odor of almonds. They sniffed the bottles and guess what…they smelled like almonds.
The lot numbers on the 2 Tylenol bottles showed that they had been produced as part of the same batch, however, in different factories in very far away parts of the country. Investigators came to the conclusion that the tampering occurring at the manufacturing level was pretty much impossible. It just wouldn’t work that the pills would be poisoned on opposite sides of the country and still all end up in/around Chicago. Therefore, it was ruled that the tampering occurred once the bottles had arrived on the store shelves. Johnson and Johnson made a statement to consumers that this was the case.
So what happened?
It is believed that the perpetrator made their way around different convenience/grocery stores where Tylenol was sold, selected several bottles and took them from the stores.
They opened the bottles of pills, which had no way of showing whether or not they had been tampered with, and took out several pills. The pills were the typical capsule design. Therefore, they opened them up, dumped out the medicine and replaced it with cyanide. They didn’t go light on the cyanide either; they literally filled the capsules. Victims’ blood test results showed that they had 100-1000x the lethal dose of cyanide in their systems.
Johnson and Johnson’s Response
The response of Johnson and Johnson to the tampering of their product is lauded as one of the best handlings by a business to a disaster of this magnitude. They recalled over 31 million bottles of Tylenol across the country (with a retail value of over $100,000,000) and made announcements to consumers to dispose of bottles they had already purchased and they would be refunded. Hospitals were also told to dump any Tylenol capsules they had on hand. Johnson and Johnson then went on to offer an award of $100,000 for information which would lead to the culprit.
On testing 1.5 million bottles, it was found that 10 bottles contained poisoned pills. Some bottles contained just 3-4 poisoned pills, while other bottles contained 6 or more. Bottles which were thrown away by consumers were not included in testing, so no one ever knew exactly how many bottles had poisoned pills in them.
Who did it? And why? No one knows.
Here I’ll go over the suspects which most commonly cropped up in my research.
Number one: James Lewis, tax accountant
The most popular suspect in this case. Lewis is a really strange guy. He seemed to like to toy with investigators but never quite pulled it off. In the weeks following the poisoning deaths, Johnson and Johnson received a letter from Lewis demanding that they “stop the killing” by wiring $1,000,000 to said-bank-account. He would then supposedly tell them where to find the poisoned pills.
Johnson and Johnson didn’t go for it – they immediately turned the letter into the FBI, who found fingerprints on the letter, which led them to Lewis. Lewis was living in a short-stay hotel in New York at the time. Throughout the interrogations, Lewis maintained his innocence in the poisonings, but was jailed for 20 years for extortion. While in prison, Lewis continued to write investigators about his thoughts regarding the case. He seemed to be reasonably informed in these letters in which he detailed how one might inject cyanide into Tylenol capsules. Lewis was paroled after spending 13 years in prison. Since his release, Lewis has written a novel about people randomly being poisoned in Chicago. Very weird.
Given that the investigation into the Tylenol poisonings is still going on and Lewis remains the prime suspect, in 2009, his Boston apartment was raided by FBI. They took DNA samples and seized his computer, however, they were never able to charge him, as they were never able to place him in the right place at the right time.
Number Two: Ted Kaczynski aka. The Unabomber
There was never a whole lot of real evidence pointing towards Kaczynski in the Tylenol poisonings. The bombings carried out by Kaczynski were an act of domestic terrorism, as were the Tylenol poisonings. In Kaczynski’s manifesto, ‘Industrial Society and It’s Future’, he writes of how technology giants are taking over peoples’ lives and poisoning the environment.
The main reasons that Kaczynski was considered as a suspect in the poisonings were that he was from the Chicago area and his initial bombings were targeted at people in and around Chicago, including employees and students at Northwestern University, a passenger plane flying from Chicago to Washington DC and the President of United Airways, who resided in Lake Forest, Illinois. Kaczynski parents also lived in Lombard, Illinois, a Chicago suburb where Kaczynski sometimes stayed.
In 2011, investigators obtained DNA samples from Kaczynski, but found nothing tying him to the Tylenol poisonings. Throughout, Kaczynski denied he had never owned cyanide. Kaczynski, now 76, is serving 8 consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole for the bombings in which he killed 3 people and injured many others.
Number Three: Roger Arnold
Arnold was an employee at a distribution centre for Jewel supermarkets. Tylenol was sold at Jewel supermarkets, so Roger would have handled it regularly. One night in a bar, Arnold was telling stories about killing people with cyanide. Someone at the bar reported this to the police, who questioned Arnold for 3 days. They found no evidence that he played a role in the Tylenol poisonings, so they let him go. Back at the bar some weeks later, Arnold lost it and fatally shot a man who he believed had reported him to the police (this guy had nothing to do with it and didn’t even know who Arnold was). Arnold was sentenced to 30 years in prison, but was paroled after 15 years. Arnold died in 2008.
As if this person didn’t suck enough, they inspired a whole bunch of other shitty people to follow their example. In the month following the original Tylenol poisonings, there were over 270 reported cases of product tampering. These usually involved an OTC medicine, like Tylenol, being contaminated with something that’s not made for human consumption. Usually it was the person’s spouse who was the victim. In 1986, Stella Nickell of Auburn, Washington, laced Excedrin tablets with cyanide with the motive of poisoning her husband. To cover her tracks, she then put more poisoned Excedrin back on the store shelves, resulting in the death of a stranger, Susan Snow. Nickell was not as savvy as the original Tylenol poisoner, however. She was caught and charged with the 2 deaths, for which she is currently serving a 90 year sentence. This year, 2018, is the first year Nickell is eligible for parole - however I’ve not found any updates on this yet.
New Packaging Regulations
You know how medication nowadays is not actually that easy to physically open? There’s a reason for that: the Chicago Tylenol poisonings!
In direct response to the poisonings, McNeil introduced safety-sealed, tamper-resistant packaging.
Johnson and Johnson later got rid of the capsules as a form of delivery for Tylenol, as they were easily opened and contaminated, as happened in Chicago in 1982. They released the solid ‘gel caplet’ which cannot be opened and put together again as capsules could be.
In 1983, it became a federal crime to tamper with products as Tylenol had been. This is called the ‘Federal Anti-Tampering Bill’ or the ‘Tylenol Bill’.
To this day, the Tylenol murders remain unsolved. There have been several suspects, but none have been convicted of the murders. The case still remains under investigation, but given the murders happened over 36 years ago, leads as to who committed them are now few and far between.
Personally, I’ve never thought particularly hard about bottle seals and having to pop my painkillers out from under foil, nor have I seriously considered the warnings that say ‘do not consume if the foil/plastic/paper is ripped or appears to have been tampered with’. I’ve just grown up always seeing it and therefore never known anything different. Now, it’s really strange to me to think that times were once so innocent that products did not have any of those protections that they do now. I guess it’s actually really sad, because it took an evil person killing a bunch of strangers for us to realise that we need these protections…why can’t people just be nice and not poison each other? But if that’s what it takes to keep people safe, then so be it.