On September 29th, 1982, young Mary Kellerman probably never suspected that it would be her last day here. Adam Janus, of Arlington Heights, also didn’t suspect that the last thing he would do that day was die at a hospital. Both were found dead under mysterious circumstances, thought to be a stroke or a heart attack. As the Janus family mourned their son and brother, the Janus’ other son along with his wife both found relief in a popular over-the-counter product. By the following day they were both pronounced dead.
Investigators began suspecting that these were not natural deaths and ordered toxicology reports to be conducted on all of the victims. Reports revealed that all victims were poisoned by potassium cyanide – A substance that causes breathing problems and eventually leads to cardiac arrest when ingested.
On the other side of town, four more victims were found dead under the same mysterious circumstances. Investigators struggled to find a link, but came up short. The only link found between all the victims is that all had bottles of tylenol, a popular over-the-counter pain reliever, in their possession. All bottles were taken for testing and revealed that the potassium cyanide had, in fact, been placed into the bottles.
In total, seven victims were found to have ingested tylenol from sabotaged bottles. Officials believe that the suspect frequented various grocery and drug stores around the city, opened the bottles, and placed the cyanide in the bottles undetected. Others have theorize that the tampering had actually occurred at the packaging plants and Johnson & Johnson, along with parent company McNeil Laboratories, covered up this evidence in order to avoid scandal and class action lawsuits against them.
Meanwhile, word was spreading around the city about the tainted tylenol. Mass hysteria began to take effect. Emergency rooms filled to the brim with patients claiming to have ingested cyanide, poison control lines were ringing off the hook; and to add to the insanity, police were patrolling the streets and pleading for people not to purchase the popular pain reliever. Calamity turned to chaos and stores began pulling pain reliever products from the shelves, state health officials banned the use of tylenol, and Johnson & Johnson – the makers of the drug – struggled to save face and weather the storm.
Officials were left with no leads until one man, James William Lewis, sent Johnson & Johnson a letter demanding that they send him one million dollars if they wished for the poisonings to stop. Lewis was tracked down at his home in New York, but no one could find enough evidence to convict him of the crimes. Instead Lewis spent thirteen years in prison, charged with extortion.
Over thirty years later, no one has been officially convicted for the tylenol murders. There has been many suspects over the years – including a woman named Laurie Dann, most notable for sending poisoned juice boxes to former employers and shooting several children in an elementary school before killing herself. In addition to Dann, Ted Kaczynski – better known as The Unibomber- is also a prime suspect since he often stayed in the area, and several of his first crimes occurred around the city. Kaczynski has denied the allegations, but some witnesses and video surveillance reveals a bearded man with similar features to Kaczynski milling around the store isles at the same time some of the victims purchased the contaminated product.
After the initial tylenol murders, several other copycat incidents occurred. Drug makers began creating tamper resistant packaging in order to combat any future incidents and packaged food products shortly followed. Every time we consumers peel off a foil cap, struggle with a overly ambitious plastic wrapper, or pop the lid on a bottle of snapple, we can all thank the tylenol terrorist and the hysteria that resulted from their crimes in 1980’s-era Chicago.