Chicago Tylenol murders
The Chicago Tylenol murders were a series of poisoning deaths resulting from drug tampering in the Chicago metropolitan area in 1982. The victims had all taken Tylenol-branded acetaminophen capsules that had been laced with potassium cyanide. A total of seven people died in the original poisonings, with several more deaths in subsequent copycat crimes.
No suspect was ever charged or convicted of the poisonings. New York City resident James William Lewis was convicted of extortion for sending a letter to Johnson & Johnson that took responsibility for the deaths and demanded $1 million to stop them, but evidence tying him to the actual poisoning never emerged.
The incidents led to reforms in the packaging of over-the-counter substances and to federal anti-tampering laws. The actions of Johnson & Johnson to reduce deaths and warn the public of poisoning risks have been widely praised as an exemplary public relations response to such a crisis.
On September 29, 1982, twelve-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Illinois died after taking a capsule of Extra-Strength Tylenol. Adam Janus (27) of Arlington Heights, Illinois, died in the hospital later that day after ingesting Tylenol; his brother Stanley (25) and sister-in-law Theresa (19), of Lisle, Illinois, later also died after taking Tylenol from the same bottle. Within the next few days, Mary McFarland (31) of Elmhurst, Illinois, Paula Prince (35) of Chicago, and Mary Reiner (27) of Winfield all died in similar incidents. Once it was realized that all these people had recently taken Tylenol, tests were quickly carried out, which soon revealed cyanide present in the capsules. Warnings were then issued via the media and patrols using loudspeakers, warning residents throughout the Chicago metropolitan area to discontinue use of Tylenol products.
The tainted capsules were found to have been manufactured at two different locations, Pennsylvania and Texas, suggesting that the capsules were tampered with after the product had been placed on store shelves for sale. The police hypothesis was that someone had taken bottles off shelves in local stores of the Chicago area, placed potassium cyanide in some of the capsules, and then placed the packages back on to the store shelves to be purchased by unknowing customers. In addition to the five bottles that led to the victims' deaths, a few other contaminated bottles were later discovered in the Chicago area.
In an effort to reassure the public, Johnson & Johnson distributed warnings to hospitals and distributors and halted Tylenol production and advertising. After other incidents like strychnine added to Tylenol bottles in California, a nationwide recall of Tylenol products was issued on October 5, 1982; an estimated 31 million bottles were in circulation, with a retail value of over US$100 million (equivalent to $268 million in 2020). The company also advertised in the national media for individuals not to consume any of its products that contained acetaminophen after it was determined that only these capsules had been tampered with. Johnson & Johnson also offered to exchange all Tylenol capsules already purchased by the public for solid tablets.
During the initial investigations, a man named James William Lewis was accused of sending a letter to Johnson & Johnson demanding $1 million to stop the cyanide-induced murders. Lewis was arrested, tried, and convicted of extortion and sentenced to 10 years in prison. During the trial, attorneys for Lewis claimed that he "intended only to focus the attention of the authorities on his wife's former employer." WCVB Channel 5 of Boston reported that court documents released in early 2009 "show Department of Justice investigators concluded Lewis was responsible for the poisonings, despite the fact that they did not have enough evidence to charge him". In January 2010, both Lewis and his wife submitted DNA samples and fingerprints to authorities. Lewis said "if the FBI plays it fair, I have nothing to worry about". Lewis continues to deny all responsibility for the poisonings.
A second man, Roger Arnold, was identified, investigated and cleared of the killings. He had a nervous breakdown due to the media attention, which he blamed on Marty Sinclair, a bar owner. In the summer of 1983, Arnold shot and killed John Stanisha, an unrelated man whom he mistook for Sinclair and who did not know Arnold. Arnold was convicted in January 1984 and served 15 years of a 30-year sentence for second-degree murder. He died in June 2008.
In early 1983, at the FBI's request, Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene published the address and grave location of the first and youngest victim, Mary Kellerman. The story, written with the Kellerman family's consent, was proposed by FBI criminal analyst John Douglas on the theory that the perpetrator might visit the house or gravesite if he were made aware of their locations. Both sites were kept under 24-hour video surveillance for several months, but the killer did not surface.
A surveillance photo of Paula Prince purchasing cyanide-tampered Tylenol at a Walgreens at 1601 North Wells St. was released by the Chicago Police Department. Police believe that a bearded man seen just feet behind Prince may be the killer.
In early January 2009, Illinois authorities renewed the investigation. Federal agents searched the home of Lewis in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and seized a number of items. In Chicago, an FBI spokesman declined to comment but said "we'll have something to release later possibly". Law enforcement officials have received a number of tips related to the case coinciding with its anniversary. In a written statement, the FBI explained,
This review was prompted, in part, by the recent 25th anniversary of this crime and the resulting publicity. Further, given the many recent advances in forensic technology, it was only natural that a second look be taken at the case and recovered evidence.
On May 19, 2011, the FBI requested DNA samples from "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski in connection to the Tylenol murders. Kaczynski denied having ever possessed potassium cyanide. The first four Unabomber crimes happened in Chicago and its suburbs from 1978 to 1980, and Kaczynski's parents had a suburban Chicago home in Lombard, Illinois, in 1982, where he stayed occasionally.
Three more deaths occurred in 1986 from tampered gelatin capsules. A woman died in Yonkers, New York, after ingesting "Extra-Strength Tylenol" capsules laced with cyanide. Excedrin capsules in Washington state were tampered with, resulting in the deaths of Susan Snow and Bruce Nickell from cyanide poisoning and the eventual arrest and conviction of Bruce Nickell's wife, Stella Nickell, for her intentional actions in the crimes connected to both murders. That same year, Procter & Gamble's Encaprin was recalled after a spiking hoax in Chicago and Detroit that resulted in a precipitous sales drop and a withdrawal of the pain reliever from the market.
In 1986 a University of Texas student, Kenneth Faries, was found dead in his apartment after succumbing to cyanide poisoning. Tampered Anacin capsules were determined to be the source of the cyanide found in his body. His death was ruled as a homicide on May 30, 1986. On June 19, 1986 the AP reported that the Travis County Medical Examiner ruled his death a likely suicide. The FDA determined he obtained the poison from a lab in which he worked.
Johnson & Johnson received positive coverage for its handling of the crisis; for example, an article in The Washington Post said, "Johnson & Johnson has effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster". The article further stated that "this is no Three Mile Island accident in which the company's response did more damage than the original incident", and applauded the company for being honest with the public. In addition to issuing the recall, the company established relations with the Chicago Police Department, the FBI, and the Food and Drug Administration. This way it could have a part in searching for the person who laced the capsules and they could help prevent further tampering. While at the time of the scare the company's market share collapsed from 35 percent to 8 percent, it rebounded in less than a year, a move credited to the company's prompt and aggressive reaction. In November, it reintroduced capsules in a new, triple-sealed package, coupled with heavy price promotions and within several years, Tylenol had regained the highest market share for the over-the-counter analgesic in the US.
After the recall, Johnson & Johnson subsidiary McNeil Laboratories submitted a claim to its insurance company, Affiliated FM Insurance, for the cost of carrying out the recall, a claim which was later denied. A lawsuit determined that McNeil Laboratories was ultimately not covered because the parent company Johnson & Johnson elected not to buy more expensive recall insurance. McNeil sued again in court, further contending that the language of its excess liability insurance policy covered the recall and recall-related expenses. The court hearing that case rejected a claim of liability, stating that the recall "was not caused by liability for the seven deaths; it was at best merely related to the seven deaths in that they served as notice to the plaintiff that the Tylenol remaining on the shelves was potentially harmful."
In 1991, Johnson & Johnson agreed to settle, for an undisclosed sum, all lawsuits against it for the original Chicago area deaths. Robert Kniffin, a spokesman for Johnson & Johnson, stated that "though there is no way we could have anticipated a criminal tampering with our product or prevented it, we wanted to do something for the families and finally get this tragic event behind us."
The 1982 incident inspired the pharmaceutical, food, and consumer product industries to develop tamper-resistant packaging, such as induction seals and improved quality control methods. Moreover, product tampering was made a federal crime. The new laws resulted in Stella Nickell's conviction in the Excedrin tampering case, for which she was sentenced to 90 years in prison.
Additionally, the incident prompted the pharmaceutical industry to move away from capsules, which were easy to contaminate as a foreign substance could be placed inside without obvious signs of tampering. Within the year, the FDA introduced more stringent regulations to avoid product tampering. This led to the eventual replacement of the capsule with the solid "caplet", a tablet made in the shape of a capsule, as a drug delivery form and with the addition of tamper-evident safety-seals to bottles of many sorts.
While poisoned candy being given to trick-or-treaters at Halloween is vanishingly rare, the Tylenol incident, which unfolded across October 1982, raised renewed fears of it. Some communities discouraged trick-or-treating for Halloween, and American grocery stores reported that candy sales were down more than 20%.