A serial killer who was never caught changes the way Americans consume over-the-counter drugs after sending the nation into a panic with his sickening murder plans.
The 1982 poisonings of seven Chicago residents horrified the nation — and the wider world — because they involved Tylenol, the best-selling nonprescription pain reliever at the time.
The killer opened the capsules and replaced some of the acetaminophen with potassium cyanide then quietly returned them to the shelves.
The only suspect to emerge is James Lewis, who died at home earlier this week aged 76.
At the time, pills only came in a container protected by a cotton ball. But the killings led to public reforms in how over-the-counter drugs are packaged, with the FDA introducing new tamper-proof packaging with foil seals.
The first victim was 12-year-old Mary Kellerman of the suburban village of Elk Grove. His parents gave him an extra strength capsule on September 29 when he complained of a sore throat and a cold. By morning he was dead.
Mary Kellerman, Mary McFarland, Mary ‘Lynn’ Reiner, Paula Prince and Stanley, Adam and Terry Janus died after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol pills. Their killing changed the way Americans consume over-the-counter drugs
Although he always denied being the killer, James Lewis was questioned about the murder as recently as September. He died earlier this week at the age of 76
On the same day, 27-year-old postal worker Adam Janus of Arlington Heights also died mysteriously after taking Tylenol pills. His death was initially ruled a massive heart attack but turned out to be cyanide poisoning.
To mourn her, her brother Stanley, 25, and sister-in-law Theresa, 19, took tablets from the same bottle to manage headaches. In a heartbreaking family tragedy, Stanley died that day and Theresa two days later.
The following week, three more lost their lives – Mary McFarland, 35, of Elmhurst, Paula Prince, 35, of Chicago, and Mary Weiner, 27, of Winfield.
By early October, police realized Tylenol was the common culprit in the strange deaths.
Before the 1982 crisis, Tylenol controlled more than 35 percent of the over-the-counter pain reliever market. Just a few weeks after the murders, that number dropped to under 8 percent.
Since the tampered bottles come from different factories, the possibility of tampering in production is ruled out. Instead, it is believed that someone went to a drug store, opened the bottles and added a lethal potassium cyanide compound, before returning them to the shelves.
Tylenol manufacturer Johnson & Johnson issued a mass alert and recalled more than 31 million bottles of Tylenol in circulation. A few grocery stores in the Chicago area found poisoned capsules and sent them back before anyone else was killed.
Within a year of the assassination, and after an investment of more than $100 million, sales of Tylenol revived, and it had a renaissance as the nation’s favorite over-the-counter pain reliever.
In 1983, the US Congress passed what became known as the ‘Tylenol Bill’, which made it a federal crime to tamper with consumer products.
In 1989, the FDA established federal guidelines for manufacturers to tamper-proof all such products.
Tylenol manufacturer Johnson & Johnson issued a mass warning and recalled more than 31 million bottles of Tylenol in circulation.
The killings caused worldwide consternation and led to reforms in how over-the-counter drugs are packaged, with the FDA introducing new tamper-proof packaging such as foil seals.
Although he always denied it, police believed Lewis was behind the killings and he was questioned as recently as September, as authorities worked to find the man behind the killings 40 years later.
Lewis, a former accountant, was arrested, charged, and convicted of writing extortion letters in which he threatened to continue killing unless $1 million was wired to a bank account.
In a jailhouse interview, he explained a complex scheme the killer ‘used’ to poison pills using a drilled pegboard.
Police said they believe Lewis acted in revenge against Johnson & Johnson after his five-year-old daughter Toni died in 1974. The girl died after using sutures made by a subsidiary of the company to repair a congenital heart defect. They tear up.
Lewis was found dead in his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home on Sunday, ending officials’ hopes of one day finding him guilty of murder.
‘I am saddened to learn of the death of James Lewis. Not because he died, but because he didn’t die in prison,’ said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeremy Margolis, who prosecuted Lewis for extortion.
‘I always hoped justice would be done, and this short circuit did it,’ added retired FBI Special Agent Roy Lane.
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