originally published January 12, 2013
The year was 1982. Ozzy Osbourne was getting arrested for peeing on the Alamo, Tootsie was making us all fall in love with the idea of cross-dressing, and Bo and Luke Duke were written out of The Dukes of Hazzard and replaced by their cousins, Coy and Vance. It was a difficult time for America.
It was also the year when someone decided to poison America, specifically the part of it in and around the city of Chicago. It all started on the morning of September 29, when 12-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village (adjacent to O’Hare Airport and also the hometown of Billy Corgan, though that’s irrelevant to the story) took an Extra-Strength Tylenol. She died shortly thereafter, and her family was baffled as to the cause.
Then came Adam Janus of Arlington Heights (home of Marlee Matlin – again, irrelevant; I just like to show off that I know how to use Wikipedia). While mourning their lost loved one, Adam’s brother and sister-in-law helped themselves to some Tylenols from the same bottle. Victims #3 and #4.
This wasn’t some slow-working, body-eroding poison at work here. By the time the death toll had reached seven, investigators had pieced together the salient fact that each victim had popped an Extra-Strength Tylenol shortly before they’d checked out. A panic broke out, and urgent warnings were issued through every possible media, which back then meant radio, TV, and waiting until the next day to read about it in the paper. Also, police actually took to the streets, cruising through Chicago area neighborhoods and calling out warnings through loudspeakers.
The killer bottles were rounded up, and discovered to have come from different factories. This meant the police could rule out sabotage at the manufacturing level, and focus on either intervention at the distributor, or maybe a case of on-the-shelf tampering. Someone may have walked in to various supermarkets and drug stores in and around Chicago over the course of several weeks, and messed about with the product.
The Tylenol was purchased (or possibly stolen – who knows?), then taken home and doctored. Specifically, this vile jackass replaced the pills’ contents with a solid cyanide compound. The death-pills were tossed back into the bottle, the bottles were then taken back to the stores and dropped back into circulation.
Are you freaked out yet?
(this baby was so freaked out, he just pooped)
Luckily, Johnson & Johnson, the company who makes Tylenol products, opted to put public safety before profit, and immediately halted production. On October 5, less than a week after the first death, they announced a full nationwide recall of all Tylenol products. Not just the Extra-Strength capsules that were implicated in the murders, but everything. They even told people not to consume anything that contains acetaminophen. We’re talking 31 million bottles of product, and over $100 million they’d be eating.
Johnson & Johnson was honest with the public, and they worked with police and FBI to do whatever they could to capture the idiot responsible, even posting a $100,000 reward for the killer’s capture and conviction. They began to issue their products in super-sealed, tamper-proof packaging. If you’ve ever cursed loudly at the monstrous effort required to open a simple bottle of headache pills, you can thank the Tylenol Killer because that’s when it all got started.
Of course, that doesn’t explain why it has to be so damn hard to get into the packaging around a pair of headphones, a new mouse or printer ink.
Then came the copycat murders. Stella Nickell got 90 years to rot behind bars for killing her husband and a bank manager with cyanide-laced Extra-Strength Excedrin. Someone phoned in a tip that they’d done the same around Chicago with the Proctor & Gamble headache-cure, Encaprin. That one was revealed to be a hoax, but it ended up killing off the brand entirely, which is why you’ve probably never heard of it.
The pharmaceutical industry – who prefers to kill people on their own terms, nice and slow and chock-full of repeat business – moved away from the capsule format for over-the-counter sale. They introduced the caplet: shaped like a capsule, but with all the safety, security, and chalky taste of a tablet.
So who was responsible for all this?
That’s the thing – no one knows. The perpetrator was never uncovered, and Johnson & Johnson’s big cash reward remains unclaimed. Though there is no proof tying him to the killings, the suspect who had the most traction during the investigation was this guy:
That’s James William Lewis. In 1978, Lewis had been arrested and charged with killing and dismembering a guy in Kansas City, but the case was tossed out. Shortly after the Tylenol story broke, Lewis sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson, demanding $1 million from them to ‘stop the killing’.
Problem was, the letter wasn’t a confession, and when Lewis claimed he had just been exploiting the case’s popularity, investigators realized they had no real proof to tie him to the cyanide plot. The letter was, however, evidence enough to send Lewis to prison for thirteen years for extortion.
That handsome face-of-a-killer guy is Roger Arnold. His job gave him access to Tylenol at the distribution level, which could have given him the opportunity, and he’d purchased some cyanide five months prior to the killings, giving him the means. He claimed he was innocent, then had a nervous breakdown from all the media attention. In the summer of 1983 he wound up shooting the man he blamed for bringing the focus onto him, a bar owner named Marty Sinclair. Well… actually he meant to shoot Sinclair, but shot someone else by mistake. Arnold served 15 years for second-degree murder.
Kevin Masterson blamed the distribution center for the break-up of his marriage, after some confrontation between his ex-wife and a security guard. Kind of flimsy, but police were looking for anything at this point.
And the case goes on. In 2009, Department of Justice investigators raided James William Lewis’s residence and insisted on a DNA sample from Lewis and his wife, hoping the new technology might provide some evidence to convict the guy. Nada.
In May of 2011, the FBI grabbed some DNA from Unabomber Ted Kaczynski – he had lived around Chicago at that time. Still nothing.
The killer may still be out there, but the means to pull off an identical slaughter just isn’t around anymore, thanks to child-proof packaging (which often proves to be adult-proof as well – or maybe I’m just a big kid). So pop your pills with care, people. Or better still, have some sex. Natural endorphins are a great headache remedy, and you can’t inject cyanide into endorphins.