The unsolved case of the Chicago Tylenol murderer that forced Johnson & Johnson to recall $100 million of product from hospitals and stores.
In 1982, a string of deaths occurred in the Chicago metropolitan area after victims had taken Tylenol-branded acetaminophen capsules, which had been laced with potassium cyanide, a highly toxic compound. These murders earned the still unknown perpetrator the name “The Chicago Tylenol Murderer”.
Seven people in total were poisoned to death by the deadly capsules, one as young as twelve-years-old, but the real problem Johnson & Johnson faced was how many more of their bottles of Tylenol, that were laced with deadly capsules, were already in circulation. J&J had to recall $100 million worth of product from stores, distributors, and hospitals to avoid the risk of more deaths. Furthermore, when police discovered the link between the deaths and the Tylenol capsules, they needed to get word out as soon as possible, so they drove through the Chicago neighborhoods with loud speakers announcing the warnings.
As the tampered-with bottles were tracked back to different factories and the seven deaths had all occurred in the Chicago area, the culprit was believed to have acquired bottles of Tylenol from various stores over several weeks. It is believed that they then added the cyanide to the capsules, returned back to the stores and placed the bottles back on shelves. In addition to the five bottles that led to the deaths, three other bottles were discovered to have been tampered with.
The Tylenol incidents led to a reform in the packaging of over-the-counter substances and federal anti-tampering laws. The actions of Johnson & Johnson to reduce deaths and warn the public of potential poisonings has been widely praised as an exemplary response to the crisis.
Despite exhaustive investigations, no suspect was ever charged or convicted for the murders. James William Lewis, a New York City resident, was considered the prime suspect. He was convicted of extortion, and sentenced to 20 years in prison after he sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson claiming credit for the deaths when he demanded $1 million to stop the killing spree. Lewis served 13 years and was released on parole in 1995. Investigators claim he was linked to the murders, according to a 2009 court document, but there was not enough evidence to convict him. Lewis still refuses responsibility for the murders. He later self-published a novel titled Poison!: The Doctor’s Dilemma, which he went on a talk show to advertise, but denies it has any link to the events of 1982, despite the title. It’s clearly a “stab” at the case, though. The title is available from Amazon.com here.
Another man by the name of Roger Arnold was investigated, but was also cleared of the killings.
It is more than three decades later and the true identity of the Chicago Tylenol murderer remains a mystery. No one was ever charged for any of the murders, nor has there been any indication as to the motives of the killer.