Movement in the Tylenol murders: Law enforcement seeks to persuade prosecutors to act on ‘chargeable’ case

cigaretteman

HR King
May 29, 2001
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As the 40th anniversary of the 1982 Tylenol murders approaches, investigators are working with prosecutors on a now-or-maybe-never effort to hold a longtime suspect responsible for the poisonings that killed seven people in the Chicago area, the Tribune has learned.

This summer’s meetings mark the latest effort to pin the unsolved killings on James W. Lewis, a former Chicago resident who was convicted years ago of trying to extort $1 million from Johnson & Johnson amid a worldwide panic that arose after the victims took cyanide-laced capsules.

Investigators traveled to the Boston area this week to try to interview Lewis, multiple sources said. It was unclear Wednesday evening whether any conversations took place.

Members of the Illinois State Police, Cook and DuPage state’s attorney’s offices and suburban law enforcement are involved in the effort. Investigators lack physical evidence directly linking Lewis to the crime but describe their findings as a “chargeable, circumstantial case,” according to documents reviewed by the Tribune.

Charges are not thought to be imminent and may not come at all, according to sources. Lewis has long denied being the killer.

Tribune reporters learned of the ongoing law enforcement discussions while conducting a nine-month investigation into the murders. Their findings will be detailed in an investigative series and companion podcast beginning Thursday.

The first installments recount the chaotic 24-hour period on Sept. 29, 1982, in which seven people ingested Tylenol capsules laced with potassium cyanide. The eight-part podcast, “Unsealed: The Tylenol Murders,” is part of a partnership between the Tribune and At Will Media, in association with audiochuck.


Episodes in the newspaper series and podcast will be released online each Thursday through October, with print versions of the series on Sundays.

Lewis, 76, has admitted to sending a letter to Tylenol’s parent company, Johnson & Johnson, in the early days of the investigation and demanding payment to “stop the killing.” But he has maintained his innocence regarding the poisonings and various other criminal allegations made against him through the decades.

In a brief conversation with the Tribune last month, Lewis again denied being the Tylenol killer and suggested he has been treated unfairly since he inserted himself into the investigation in 1982.

“Have you been harassed over something for 40 years that you didn’t have anything to do with?” he asked.

A Tribune reporter spoke to Lewis while he was walking near his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He gave no direct response to a question about the ongoing investigation.

Lewis, instead, pointed the finger at Johnson & Johnson and questioned why its corporate scientists were allowed to test bottles that were recalled after the murders. Lewis has long maintained that the company was given too powerful a role in an investigation that centered around its own product.

[ [Part 1] The story of a 40-year-old unsolved case begins with a terrifying medical mystery ]

[ [Part 2] Cyanide-laced Tylenol was the murder weapon. But who was the killer? ]

Records and interviews indicate the company burned the capsules following the testing.

“What have you done on that story about J&J’s destruction of all the evidence?” Lewis asked. “They burned several million capsules.”

A Johnson & Johnson spokesperson did not respond to Tribune questions. In an emailed statement, she noted the tragic case led to important industry safety improvements, such as tamper-resistant packaging.

A former company executive told the Tribune that J&J burned recalled capsules only after testing showed they did not contain cyanide. The company’s scientists found one bottle containing poisoned Tylenol and handed it over to investigators, according to records.

The Tribune’s investigation leading up to the crime’s 40th anniversary included more than 150 interviews in multiple states. Reporters also obtained tens of thousands of pages of documents through records requests, including sealed affidavits and court orders that outline some of law enforcement’s best evidence in the unsolved case.

Among other findings, the Tribune has learned authorities exhumed the body of a second Tylenol suspect, Roger Arnold, in June 2010 and extracted DNA from his remains. Arnold, a former Jewel dockhand and home chemist, became a person of interest after police learned he had been acting erratically and talked in a pub about possessing cyanide. He died in 2008.


According to the sealed exhumation petition, investigators discovered nuclear and mitochondrial DNA upon testing three Extra-Strength Tylenol bottles and the capsules years after the murders. Arnold’s DNA did not match any of the genetic material, sources said.

In fact, so far, none of the forensic testing on the tainted bottles and capsules has shown a link between the poisonings and any suspect, records and sources confirmed. Sources told the Tribune several DNA profiles already had been eliminated from suspicion after testing showed they belonged to people who handled the evidence as part of the investigation.

Also, reporters viewed an FBI video from an elaborate 2007-08 undercover sting operation in which Lewis stated it took him three days to write the extortion letter. Thanks to advances in technology, authorities by 2007 had determined the letter had an Oct. 1, 1982, postmark hidden under layers of ink.


So if Lewis’ statement was accurate, it would mean he began writing the letter before the public knew that tainted Tylenol was killing people. After an FBI agent confronted Lewis with a 1982 calendar and counted back three days, Lewis backed off what he said and stated he must have “faulty memory,” the video shows.

The newspaper also has reviewed a nearly 50-page confidential document outlining law enforcement’s current case, including statements and writings attributed to Lewis over the years that they consider to be incriminating, theories about possible motives, and opinions offered by expert witnesses from the University of Virginia and the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.

Among the evidence cited in the document is an old poisoning handbook that authorities say Lewis had in his Kansas City home before he moved to Chicago in 1981. According to the document, experts found fingerprints belonging to Lewis on several pages, including one that explains how much cyanide is needed to kill the average person.

Sources told the Tribune the evidence against Lewis has not changed much since 2010, when investigators as part of a rebooted Tylenol task force obtained fresh samples of his DNA and fingerprints. The FBI also raided his suburban Boston condo and storage locker in early 2009 in the hope of connecting him to the murders.


In summer 2012, at the conclusion of the undercover FBI operation and raid, investigators presented their case against Lewis to Cook and DuPage County prosecutors during a meeting in the FBI’s downtown offices. No charges resulted. Anita Alvarez, the Cook County state’s attorney at the time, left office in late 2016. Robert Berlin is still the state’s attorney in DuPage County.

The police department in Arlington Heights, where three of the victims died, assumed primary responsibility for the Tylenol case in 2013 after the task force dissolved. The department recently told the Tribune the investigation is active and ongoing, with current efforts including DNA testing of decades-old evidence at out-of-state laboratories.

“There are multiple agencies working on this case,” said Arlington Heights police Sgt. Joseph Murphy. “This is not something that we’ve given up on.”


A January 2022 meeting with two of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s top criminal investigators did not result in movement in the case, multiple sources said. One of those investigators has since left the office. Berlin and state police Director Brendan Kelly participated in the most recent discussions this summer, with meetings in July and August.

Besides the ongoing forensic testing and traveling to the Boston area, authorities have been preparing for anticipated legal challenges to evidence that stretches back four decades.

Berlin and Foxx’s representatives both acknowledged the case is active and ongoing but declined further comment. Kelly also declined to comment.

Besides the lack of physical evidence connecting Lewis to the murders, authorities have never been able to place him in the Chicago area during the time frame they believe someone put the tainted bottles on store shelves. Lewis had moved from Chicago to New York about three weeks earlier and was living under an assumed name.




 
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DooBi

HR Heisman
Sep 18, 2006
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And it led to safety seals being put on everything sold in a jar or bottle.
I believe it got rid of capsules that had two pieces that can be pulled apart for a very long time too. They are back now but I think they were gone for a long time.
 

GES4

HR All-American
Nov 14, 2001
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As the 40th anniversary of the 1982 Tylenol murders approaches, investigators are working with prosecutors on a now-or-maybe-never effort to hold a longtime suspect responsible for the poisonings that killed seven people in the Chicago area, the Tribune has learned.

This summer’s meetings mark the latest effort to pin the unsolved killings on James W. Lewis, a former Chicago resident who was convicted years ago of trying to extort $1 million from Johnson & Johnson amid a worldwide panic that arose after the victims took cyanide-laced capsules.

Investigators traveled to the Boston area this week to try to interview Lewis, multiple sources said. It was unclear Wednesday evening whether any conversations took place.

Members of the Illinois State Police, Cook and DuPage state’s attorney’s offices and suburban law enforcement are involved in the effort. Investigators lack physical evidence directly linking Lewis to the crime but describe their findings as a “chargeable, circumstantial case,” according to documents reviewed by the Tribune.

Charges are not thought to be imminent and may not come at all, according to sources. Lewis has long denied being the killer.

Tribune reporters learned of the ongoing law enforcement discussions while conducting a nine-month investigation into the murders. Their findings will be detailed in an investigative series and companion podcast beginning Thursday.

The first installments recount the chaotic 24-hour period on Sept. 29, 1982, in which seven people ingested Tylenol capsules laced with potassium cyanide. The eight-part podcast, “Unsealed: The Tylenol Murders,” is part of a partnership between the Tribune and At Will Media, in association with audiochuck.


Episodes in the newspaper series and podcast will be released online each Thursday through October, with print versions of the series on Sundays.

Lewis, 76, has admitted to sending a letter to Tylenol’s parent company, Johnson & Johnson, in the early days of the investigation and demanding payment to “stop the killing.” But he has maintained his innocence regarding the poisonings and various other criminal allegations made against him through the decades.

In a brief conversation with the Tribune last month, Lewis again denied being the Tylenol killer and suggested he has been treated unfairly since he inserted himself into the investigation in 1982.

“Have you been harassed over something for 40 years that you didn’t have anything to do with?” he asked.

A Tribune reporter spoke to Lewis while he was walking near his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He gave no direct response to a question about the ongoing investigation.

Lewis, instead, pointed the finger at Johnson & Johnson and questioned why its corporate scientists were allowed to test bottles that were recalled after the murders. Lewis has long maintained that the company was given too powerful a role in an investigation that centered around its own product.

[ [Part 1] The story of a 40-year-old unsolved case begins with a terrifying medical mystery ]

[ [Part 2] Cyanide-laced Tylenol was the murder weapon. But who was the killer? ]

Records and interviews indicate the company burned the capsules following the testing.

“What have you done on that story about J&J’s destruction of all the evidence?” Lewis asked. “They burned several million capsules.”

A Johnson & Johnson spokesperson did not respond to Tribune questions. In an emailed statement, she noted the tragic case led to important industry safety improvements, such as tamper-resistant packaging.

A former company executive told the Tribune that J&J burned recalled capsules only after testing showed they did not contain cyanide. The company’s scientists found one bottle containing poisoned Tylenol and handed it over to investigators, according to records.

The Tribune’s investigation leading up to the crime’s 40th anniversary included more than 150 interviews in multiple states. Reporters also obtained tens of thousands of pages of documents through records requests, including sealed affidavits and court orders that outline some of law enforcement’s best evidence in the unsolved case.

Among other findings, the Tribune has learned authorities exhumed the body of a second Tylenol suspect, Roger Arnold, in June 2010 and extracted DNA from his remains. Arnold, a former Jewel dockhand and home chemist, became a person of interest after police learned he had been acting erratically and talked in a pub about possessing cyanide. He died in 2008.


According to the sealed exhumation petition, investigators discovered nuclear and mitochondrial DNA upon testing three Extra-Strength Tylenol bottles and the capsules years after the murders. Arnold’s DNA did not match any of the genetic material, sources said.

In fact, so far, none of the forensic testing on the tainted bottles and capsules has shown a link between the poisonings and any suspect, records and sources confirmed. Sources told the Tribune several DNA profiles already had been eliminated from suspicion after testing showed they belonged to people who handled the evidence as part of the investigation.

Also, reporters viewed an FBI video from an elaborate 2007-08 undercover sting operation in which Lewis stated it took him three days to write the extortion letter. Thanks to advances in technology, authorities by 2007 had determined the letter had an Oct. 1, 1982, postmark hidden under layers of ink.


So if Lewis’ statement was accurate, it would mean he began writing the letter before the public knew that tainted Tylenol was killing people. After an FBI agent confronted Lewis with a 1982 calendar and counted back three days, Lewis backed off what he said and stated he must have “faulty memory,” the video shows.

The newspaper also has reviewed a nearly 50-page confidential document outlining law enforcement’s current case, including statements and writings attributed to Lewis over the years that they consider to be incriminating, theories about possible motives, and opinions offered by expert witnesses from the University of Virginia and the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.

Among the evidence cited in the document is an old poisoning handbook that authorities say Lewis had in his Kansas City home before he moved to Chicago in 1981. According to the document, experts found fingerprints belonging to Lewis on several pages, including one that explains how much cyanide is needed to kill the average person.

Sources told the Tribune the evidence against Lewis has not changed much since 2010, when investigators as part of a rebooted Tylenol task force obtained fresh samples of his DNA and fingerprints. The FBI also raided his suburban Boston condo and storage locker in early 2009 in the hope of connecting him to the murders.


In summer 2012, at the conclusion of the undercover FBI operation and raid, investigators presented their case against Lewis to Cook and DuPage County prosecutors during a meeting in the FBI’s downtown offices. No charges resulted. Anita Alvarez, the Cook County state’s attorney at the time, left office in late 2016. Robert Berlin is still the state’s attorney in DuPage County.

The police department in Arlington Heights, where three of the victims died, assumed primary responsibility for the Tylenol case in 2013 after the task force dissolved. The department recently told the Tribune the investigation is active and ongoing, with current efforts including DNA testing of decades-old evidence at out-of-state laboratories.

“There are multiple agencies working on this case,” said Arlington Heights police Sgt. Joseph Murphy. “This is not something that we’ve given up on.”


A January 2022 meeting with two of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s top criminal investigators did not result in movement in the case, multiple sources said. One of those investigators has since left the office. Berlin and state police Director Brendan Kelly participated in the most recent discussions this summer, with meetings in July and August.

Besides the ongoing forensic testing and traveling to the Boston area, authorities have been preparing for anticipated legal challenges to evidence that stretches back four decades.

Berlin and Foxx’s representatives both acknowledged the case is active and ongoing but declined further comment. Kelly also declined to comment.

Besides the lack of physical evidence connecting Lewis to the murders, authorities have never been able to place him in the Chicago area during the time frame they believe someone put the tainted bottles on store shelves. Lewis had moved from Chicago to New York about three weeks earlier and was living under an assumed name.




This case, John Wayne Gacy and AA Flight 191 was basically the stuff of nightmares for a kid in Chicagoland in the early 80's.
 

tarheelbybirth

HR King
Apr 17, 2003
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I think this is my first memory of a national story. I was 5, but I remember when my mom threw out the Tylenol she had and that everyone was afraid to buy Tylenol.
People were throwing out everything with a Tylenol label including tablets - and J&J spent tens of millions on advertising offering exchanges for capsules. They spent more destroying millions and millions of returned capsules finding a single bottle in all that were turned in that was tainted. Marketing guru's were saying things like "I don't think they can ever sell another product under that name". J&J's response was case-study, letter-perfect and saved the brand.
 

lucas80

HR King
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Jan 30, 2008
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And it led to safety seals being put on everything sold in a jar or bottle.
It's shocking to remember a time without safety seals, and it's still kind of stunning that nobody thought they were a good idea before the Tylenol killings. Or, at least they didn't think they were worth the $.01 per unit they'd cost.
 
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Herky T Hawk

HR Heisman
Feb 5, 2003
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40 years later this was still talked about in my MBA marketing class.

They took this tragedy and figured out how to prop their brand up as the safest one that consumers can trust because they developed and pushed the government for regulations requiring safety sealing, etc. Created a huge amount of goodwill for their brand, at least until the latest recall a few years ago.
 
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Hoosierhawkeye

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Sep 16, 2008
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40 years later this was still talked about in my MBA marketing class.

They took this tragedy and figured out how to prop their brand up as the safest one that consumers can trust because they developed and pushed the government for regulations requiring safety sealing, etc. Created a huge amount of goodwill for their brand, at least until the latest recall a few years ago.

We talked about this in my undergraduate business classes as well.
 
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