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A 1982 footage showing victim Paula Prince buying Tylenol pills

A 1982 footage showing victim Paula Prince buying Tylenol pills. Authorities think the killer might be the unidentified man on top right, who bears a striking resemblance to prime suspect James W. Lewis

The Tylenol Killer is a mass murderer and poisoner who killed seven Illinois civilians with cyanide-filled Tylenol pills, from September 29 through October 1, 1982. The case remains unsolved.

Case History

On September 29, 1982, Mary Kellerman, a 12-year-old girl living in Elk Grove Village, complained to her parents of having a runny nose and a sore throat. Her parents decided to give her one Extra-Strength Tylenol capsule to combat the symptoms. A few hours later, during the morning, her parents found her lying on the bathroom floor and immediately took her to the hospital where she was pronounced as dead. Meanwhile, in Arlington Heights, postal worker Adam Janus was taken to the hospital, his breathing labored and his blood pressure alarmingly low. Despite paramedics' best efforts, Adam did not survive in the end. During Adam's funeral, his brother Stanley, along with his wife Theresa, began suffering from headaches induced by their tragic loss. To combat the headaches, they each took a capsule of Adam's Extra-Strength Tylenol. Shortly afterward, they both collapsed on the floor and died at the hospital. Suspicious of the deaths of three family members, all one by one, police began investigating. Meanwhile, two firefighters talked about the deaths of Kellerman and the Januses, and they traced a connection: all four victims had ingested Tylenol before dying. An examination of the Tylenol pills taken by the victims immediately found approximately 65 milligrams of cyanide. McNeil Consumer Products, manufacturer of the Extra-Strength Tylenol, was immediately alerted and a recall of the medicine was initiated. However, it was too late, for three more people were killed by the poisoned Tylenol: Mary Reiner, Paula Prince, and Mary McFarland.

When the seven deaths made national news, widespread fear emerged in the country, especially the whole of the Chicago area. The situation was so serious that some state health departments banned all forms of Tylenol products, not just the Extra-Strength Tylenol brand. Tylenol products were promptly removed from the shelves of stores everywhere. No one had anymore intention of purchasing Tylenol products. The company's reputation was temporarily ruined from the terrible incident. The following month, several more contaminated Tylenol bottles were discovered in stores situated in the Chicago area. A heated manhunt for the perpetrator was initiated, and investigators eventually found their first suspect: James W. Lewis. The search for him started when Lewis sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson, demanding $1 million to end the cyanide poisonings. On December 13, 1982, FBI agents apprehended Lewis, while Lewis's wife LeAnn turned herself in. Simultaneously, a threatening letter stating the writer's intention to blow up the White House and "create more Tylenol deaths" has been sent to the White House; it also stated that the threats will be averted if Ronald Reagan didn't change his tax-based policies. Though Lewis is credited for writing the letters due to the similar handwriting, he had apparently an alibi for the fatal poisonings: he was with his wife in New York City (though he reportedly traveled to the East Coast just as the poisonings began, and due to the nature of product tampering, this isn't enough to completely exonerate him). Lewis wasn't convicted of the Tylenol murders, but he was found guilty of extortion and mail and credit-card fraud. In addition to Lewis, there were two other suspects in the case: Roger Arnold and Laurie Dann. However, both were cleared of any involvement. Serial bomber Ted Kaczynski was also briefly suspected, but soon determined to not have been responsible for the crime. The authorities currently believe the killer could be a man caught by one of the affected drugstores CCTV while observing victim Paula Prince buying the tainted pills. The unidentified individual bears a striking resemblance to James Lewis.

Suspects

James W. Lewis

James W. Lewis.

  • James W. Lewis:
    • Worked as a tax accountant
    • Also known to be a fraudster
    • Handwriting was positively matched to that of two letters sent to Johnson & Johnson and the White House, the Johnson & Johnson letter demanding an end to the poisonings, The White House letter threatening to bomb it and continue the Tylenol poisonings
    • Was at New York City with his wife during the time of the murders, left the Chicago area in the early days of September 1982.
    • Was able to show the authorities how an offender could, hypothetically, tamper Tylenol pills with Cyanide. Claimed he did it for helping out. This is typical of other offenders, such as Ted Bundy
    • An unidentified man seen in a CCTV footage of one of the affected drugstores bears a striking resemblance to him. The man appears to have been watching victim Paula Prince, who is also shown in the footage, buying the tainted pills.
    • Sentenced to 20 years in prison for extortion and letter and credit-card fraud, but served only 13 years of the sentence and was paroled in 1995
  • Roger Arnold:
    • Contracted a nervous breakdown after being suspected of the murders
    • Shot and killed whom he believed to be a bar owner who allegedly turned him in, but in actuality, he mistook a random pedestrian for said bar owner
    • Sentenced to 30 years in prison for second-degree murder, but served only half of the sentence
    • Died in June 2008
  • Laurie Dann:
    • A mentally-ill patient with a history of poisoning attempts
    • Went on a shooting rampage at an elementary school, killing one boy and injuring five other students
    • Committed suicide after taking a family hostage and wounding a man

Modus Operandi

Extra-Strenght Tylenol

1982 Extra-Strenght Tylenol

According to authorities, the Tylenol Killer would pick up bottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol from shelves, fill them with approximately 65 milligrams of toxic cyanide (10,000 times over the average amount to kill a person), and then return the bottles to the shelves.

Profile

John Douglas profiled the Tylenol Killer as being a white male in his late twenties to early thirties, who would be a depressed, nocturnal loner driven by rage. He'd have bouts of severe depression and feelings of despair. He'd feel inadequate, helpless, hopeless, and impotent, being at the same time convinced that society always maligned him in an unfair way. His life would be characterized by a long list of personal failures concerning education, employment, social experiences, and relationship with women of his own age and intelligence level. Some of his feelings of inadequacy could stem from a physical disability or ailment. He would gravitate toward positions of authority or pseudoauthority (such as security guard, ambulance driver, auxiliary firefighter...), and would have trouble keeping his job. He could also have a military background, marked by behavioral problems and psychiatric treatment. The UNSUB fits the assassin type, constantly thinking about killing, but never laying his hands on his intended victim. He committed this type of crime as a result of a precipitating stressor he suffered in mid-September of 1982, such as the loss of a job, wife, girlfriend, or possibly a parent.

His M.O. suggests a not particularly organized or methodical offender, but rather a sloppy and distracted personality. This would be reflected in the car he drives, possibly a police-type large Ford sedan, which would represent strenght and power, both of which he lacks. Though it can't be completely excluded he is a disgruntled employee or former employee of Johnson & Johnson, McNeil Consumer Products or the targeted drugstores, it is more likely that the offender was motivated by general rage and resentment against a society that had wronged or ignored him. Likewise, the choice of Tylenol might or might not be significant. In all probability, he would have written letters concerning his perceived wrongs to people in positions of power (such as President Ronald Reagan or Chicago mayor Jane Byrne). The feeling of having been ignored gave him a reason to escalate. The offender would also keep a scrapbook, diary or journal of some kind detailing his activities, which would reflect his feelings of inferiority.

Postoffense, he would talk with people (also people directly involved in the case, such as police officers or drugstore clerks) about the poisonings, and would probably revisit the stores where he planted the poisoned capsules, along with the victims' graves. He could even go so far as to surveilling their homes. He would also inject himself in the investigation, volunteering for helping police, and participating to night vigils. Contrary to other types of offenders, this one would feel remorseful and emotionally distraught if confronted with the consequences his actions had on the victims he depersonalized.

Douglas added in his book, The Anatomy of Motive, that the Tylenol Killer would be someone like James W. Lewis, who fitted his profile in several aspects and had the right background for an offender of this type.

Known Victims

Tylenol Killer's victims

The fatal victims of the Tylenol Killer.

All the murders took place in the Chicago, Illinois, metropolitan area. Dates refer to when the victims were poisoned.

  • September 29, 1982:
    • Elk Grove Village: Mary Kellerman, 12 (died on September 30)
    • Arlington Heights:
      • Adam Janus, 27 (died the same day)
      • Stanley Janus, 25 (Adam Janus's brother; died the same day)
      • Theresa Janus, 19 (Stanley Janus's wife; died on October 1)
    • Winfield: Mary Reiner, 27 (died on September 30)
    • Elmhurst: Mary McFarland, 35 (died on September 30)
    • Chicago: Paula Prince, 35 (died on October 1)

Copycats

There have been a number of attacks copycatting "The Tylenol Killer". Two notable copycats are:

Stella Nickell

Stella Nickell.

  • Stella Nickell:
    • Lived in Seattle, WA
    • Filled capsules of Excedrin with lethal cyanide
    • Targeted her husband Bruce, poisoning his medicine, before leaving contaminated bottles at stores, hoping to poison others in order to reclassify Bruce's death as accidental so she can receive his insurance money
    • Attacks killed 40-year-old Susan Snow and also poisoned Snow's husband, but he was rescued
    • Failed a polygraph test that she continuously rebuffed
    • Sentenced to 90 years in prison
  • Joseph Meling:
    • Spiked Sudafed decongestants with cyanide
    • Tried to poison his wife with the medicine in order to collect insurance money
    • Two people were killed from the attacks
    • Sentenced to life in prison

On Criminal Minds

Sources

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