The Tylenol Poisonings

In September of 1982 a series of random murders in Illinois shocked and horrified the nation. Over the course of two days, seven people in Cook and DuPage counties died after taking Tylenol capsules which had been tampered with and laced with cyanide. The crime led to a massive investigation, one of the largest product recalls in American history and drastic changes to the safety features on medicine bottles and other containers on store shelves across the country.

It is also a case that was never solved. 

The realization that Chicago-area residents were facing a large-scale public health emergency came at around 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday September 29, 1982. Earlier that afternoon, Adam Janus, a 27-year-old postal worker had collapsed and died very suddenly in his home. Doctors at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights had been unable to resuscitate him and were looking at the death as probably some kind of cardiac issue.

The Janus family had left the hospital and returned to their home in Arlington Heights. Adam Janus’ brother, Stanley, had been dealing with an aching back and took a couple of Tylenol capsules. Stanley’s wife, Theresa, also took two from the same bottle. Minutes later, both collapsed. The Arlington Heights Fire Department responded to the emergency call. As they fought to save the lives of the two victims, firefighters noticed that identical symptoms would strike first one patient, and then the other. They were rushed to the hospital and to the same team which had treated Adam Janus.

What had seemed like a case of sudden cardiac arrest now looked like something much more sinister.

At the same time, the Cook County Medical Examiner was reviewing the sudden death of a 12-year-old girl that morning in Elk Grove Village. Mary Kellerman had stayed home sick from school and took a Tylenol. She collapsed and was pronounced dead at Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village just before 10 a.m.

Meanwhile, doctors and nurses at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield were trying to save the life of Mary “Lynn” Reiner, a 27-year-old woman who had given birth just one week earlier. She too had taken a Tylenol capsule that afternoon. While the firefighters were responding to the Janus home for the second time that day, Mary McFarland, 31, died suddenly at the Illinois Bell facility where she worked in Lombard.

Gradually, these pieces of information from different first responders and different hospitals in different towns began to be put together. Police returned to the Janus home to investigate what could have caused such an unusual set of circumstances, while medical examiners in Cook and DuPage counties worked to find out what they could. Helen Jensen, a public health nurse in Arlington Heights noticed the Tylenol bottle with six missing capsules at the Janus home. She brought it into the hospital and turned it over to police, expressing her strong suspicion that it was tied to the deaths.

Meanwhile, Nick Pishos, an investigator for the Cook County Medical Examiner, observed that the Elk Grove Village firefighters who responded to the first call at the Kellerman house had inventoried the scene and made a note about a Tylenol bottle. Late that night, investigators found another connection: both bottles bore the same control number: MC2880. Pishos smelled the contents of the bottle and detected the telltale odor of almonds: a clear indicator of cyanide poison. A short time later, lab results confirmed that finding.

By Thursday morning, September 30, causes of death had been identified, as had the likely source of the poison. At a 10 a.m. press conference, the medical examiner announced that the deaths were related to tainted Tylenol capsules and urged residents to avoid taking them, at least until more was known.

While that was occurring, Arlington Heights police were removing bottles of Tylenol from store shelves throughout the village. That afternoon, Johnson & Johnson, the manufacturer of Tylenol, announced a recall of all bottles with the control number MC2880. By evening, Illinois Attorney General Ty Fahner had convened a task force which included local and state police to investigate the poisonings and determine if there was any further risk to the public.

The front page of the Chicago Tribune on October 1, 1982 - Photo from

The next day Chicago Police conducted a welfare check at the apartment of Paula Prince, 35, a United Airlines flight attendant who had failed to show up for work or answer several phone calls from family. At 9:30 on Thursday evening, she had purchased a bottle of Tylenol at a pharmacy in Chicago (other tainted bottles had come from stores in Arlington Heights, Elk Grove Village, Schaumburg and Winfield). Officers found her on the floor of her apartment, an open Tylenol bottle in her bathroom. Toxicologists determined that she too was a victim of the poisoner.

That night, Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne announced that Tylenol was being pulled off shelves at every store in Chicago. Police went door-to-door collecting bottles of Tylenol, and the city spread word of the danger with flyers printed in multiple languages and with police officers on loudspeakers. The criminal investigation proceeded alongside the expanding product recall. On Monday October 4, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance directing all stores in the city to sell only medications with tamper-resistant packaging. The next day, Johnson & Johnson recalled every bottle of Tylenol in the nation. It is estimated that the recall applied to over 30 million bottles with a value in excess of $100 million.

Federal agents joined the effort, and a nationwide investigation was launched. The pieces of the puzzle which they were able to assemble ruled out contamination at any manufacturing facility, as the tainted bottles had come from different plants. The most likely scenario; according to law enforcement; involved the bottles being tampered with and then placed back on store shelves around the Chicago area. But by whom? Hundreds of leads were followed, including investigations of former Johnson & Johnson employees who might have held a grudge, but nothing seemed to pan out.

Then a letter arrived at Johnson & Johnson’s office on Wednesday October 6.

The letter claimed responsibility for the poisonings, and demanded a $1 million ransom to stop them. Authorities traced the letter back to a New York City man named James Lewis. He was eventually apprehended and interviewed by the FBI and by Chicago detectives, but a conclusive case was never established proving that he was the poisoner. To this day, the case’s lead investigators disagree on whether he was the killer, or just a con man. Fahner said he believed Lewis was involved, then-Chicago Police Superintendent Richard Brzeczek called him “an opportunist.” Lewis was convicted of extortion for the letter, and served more than a dozen years in federal prison, but no concrete proof was ever found tying him to the murders.

Weeks went by with no progress. More tainted bottles of Tylenol were found as they were turned in due to the recall, including one amidst a supply that had been at a pharmacy near the store where Prince purchased her bottle. Store surveillance cameras, less of a presence in 1982 than today, did not produce any evidence of anyone placing the bottles on the shelves. A month after the deaths, the task force was reduced in size, but the case remained open.

Over the years, there was an abundance of theories on the perpetrator: even one speculating on possible involvement by Ted Kaczynski, the Chicago-area native known to history as the Unabomber. Others have speculated that it was someone in the Johnson & Johnson supply chain between the factories and the stores. The FBI still considers the case to be an open investigation. As proof of the investigators’ persistence, an Arlington Heights police sergeant who worked on the investigation task force referred a recent interviewer to the department’s successful 2018 conviction of a suspect in a 1973 murder.

The case also had a deep impact on society as a whole. Fear of a random poisoning of food or drugs led consumers to be wary of over-the-counter medications, and caused some parents to thoroughly inspect their children’s Halloween candy for years afterward. Throughout the 1980s, numerous copycat crimes occurred. The most famous happened in 1988 when a woman in Washington state murdered her husband with poison, then placed pill capsules laced with the same poison on a store shelf, killing a complete stranger in an attempt to cover up her crime. She was convicted of both murders and sentenced to 90 years in prison.

Credit Johnson & Johnson
Johnson & Johnson was widely praised for its response to the crime, an example of crisis-management which is still taught in public relations classes today. After the nationwide recall, Tylenol returned to store shelves in November 1982 in tamper-proof containers. The company had acted quickly to warn consumers of the danger and to pull the entire inventory of product out of stores. Johnson & Johnson pioneered new protective features for pill bottles, including the foil seal over the top of the bottle and a new pill design which made it much harder to open up and tamper with. Today, nearly every ingestible product a consumer buys comes with some kind of protection from tampering.

A year after the Illinois Tylenol murders, Congress passed legislation; known as the “Tylenol bill”; making product tampering a federal crime, and in 1989 the Food and Drug Administration implemented tough guidelines for tamper-proofing consumer products.

The killer remains at large.