September 29, 1982
September 29, 1982, twelve-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Illinois died after taking a capsule of Extra-Strength Tylenol. Adam Janus (27) of Arlington Heights, Illinois, died in the hospital later that day after ingesting Tylenol; his brother Stanley (25) and sister-in-law Theresa (19), of Lisle, Illinois, later also died after taking Tylenol from the same bottle. Within the next few days, Mary McFarland (31) of Elmhurst, Illinois, Paula Prince (35) of Chicago, and Mary Reiner (27) of Winfield all died in similar incidents. Once it was realized that all these people had recently taken Tylenol, tests were quickly carried out, which soon revealed cyanide present in the capsules. Warnings were then issued via the media and patrols using loudspeakers, warning residents throughout the Chicago metropolitan area to discontinue use of Tylenol products.
Police, knowing that various sources of Tylenol were tampered with, ruled out manufacturers, as the tampered-with bottles came from different pharmaceutical companies—and the seven deaths had all occurred in the Chicago area, so sabotage during production was ruled out. Instead, police concluded that they were likely looking for a culprit who was believed to have acquired bottles of Tylenol from various retail outlets. Furthermore, they concluded the source was most likely supermarkets and drug stores, over a period of several weeks, with the culprit likely adding the cyanide to the capsules, then methodically returning to the stores to place the bottles back on the shelves. In addition to the five bottles that led to the victims’ deaths, a few other contaminated bottles were later discovered in the Chicago area.
In a concerted effort to reassure the public, Johnson & Johnson distributed warnings to hospitals and distributors and halted Tylenol production and advertising. On October 5, 1982, it issued a nationwide recall of Tylenol products; an estimated 31 million bottles were in circulation, with a retail value of over US$100 million (equivalent to $265 million in 2019). The company also advertised in the national media for individuals not to consume any of its products that contained acetaminophen after it was determined that only these capsules had been tampered with. Johnson & Johnson also offered to exchange all Tylenol capsules already purchased by the public for solid tablets.
During the initial investigations, a man named James William Lewis sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson demanding $1 million to stop the cyanide-induced murders. Identified via fingerprints and the envelope used, police were unable to link him with the crimes, as he and his wife were living in New York City at the time. He was, however, convicted of extortion, and later served 13 years of a 20-year sentence, and was paroled in 1995. WCVB Channel 5 of Boston reported that court documents released in early 2009, “show Department of Justice investigators concluded Lewis was responsible for the poisonings, despite the fact that they did not have enough evidence to charge him”. In January 2010, both Lewis and his wife submitted DNA samples and fingerprints to authorities. Lewis stated “if the FBI plays it fair, I have nothing to worry about”. Lewis continues to deny all responsibility for the poisonings.
A second man, Roger Arnold, was identified, investigated and cleared of the killings. He had a nervous breakdown due to the media attention, which he blamed on Marty Sinclair, a bar owner. In the summer of 1983, Arnold shot and killed John Stanisha, an unrelated man whom he mistook for Sinclair and who did not know Arnold. Arnold was convicted in January 1984 and served 15 years of a 30-year sentence for second-degree murder. He died in June 2008.
In early 1983, at the FBI’s request, Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene published the address and grave location of the first and youngest victim, Mary Kellerman. The story, written with the Kellerman family’s consent, was proposed by FBI criminal analyst John Douglas on the theory that the perpetrator might visit the house or gravesite if he were made aware of their locations. Both sites were kept under 24-hour video surveillance for several months, but the killer did not surface.
A surveillance photo of Paula Prince purchasing cyanide-tampered Tylenol at a Walgreens at 1601 North Wells St. was released by the Chicago Police Department. Police believe that a bearded man seen just feet behind Prince may be the killer.
In early January 2009, Illinois authorities renewed the investigation. Federal agents searched the home of Lewis in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and seized a number of items. In Chicago, an FBI spokesman declined to comment but said “we’ll have something to release later possibly”. Law enforcement officials have received a number of tips related to the case coinciding with its anniversary. In a written statement, the FBI explained,
This review was prompted, in part, by the recent 25th anniversary of this crime and the resulting publicity. Further, given the many recent advances in forensic technology, it was only natural that a second look be taken at the case and recovered evidence.
On May 19, 2011, the FBI requested DNA samples from “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski in connection to the Tylenol murders. Kaczynski denied having ever possessed potassium cyanide. The first four Unabomber crimes happened in Chicago and its suburbs from 1978 to 1980, and Kaczynski’s parents had a suburban Chicago home in Lombard, Illinois, in 1982, where he stayed occasionally.
Three more deaths occurred in 1986 from tampered gelatin capsules. A woman died in Yonkers, New York, after ingesting “Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide”. Excedrin capsules in Washington state were tampered with, resulting in the deaths of Susan Snow and Bruce Nickell from cyanide poisoning and the eventual arrest and conviction of Nickell’s wife, Stella, for her intentional actions in the crimes connected to both murders. That same year, Procter & Gamble‘s Encaprin was recalled after a spiking hoax in Chicago and Detroit that resulted in a precipitous sales drop and a withdrawal of the pain reliever from the market.
In 1986 a University of Texas student, Kenneth Faries, was found dead in his apartment after succumbing to cyanide poisoning. Tampered Anacin capsules were determined to be the source of the cyanide found in his body. His death was ruled as a homicide on May 30, 1986. On June 19, 1986 the AP reported that the Travis County Medical Examiner ruled his death a likely suicide. The FDA determined he obtained the poison from a lab in which he worked.
Johnson & Johnson response
Johnson & Johnson received positive coverage for its handling of the crisis; for example, an article in The Washington Post said, “Johnson & Johnson has effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster”. The article further stated that “this is no Three Mile Island accident in which the company’s response did more damage than the original incident”, and applauded the company for being honest with the public. In addition to issuing the recall, the company established relations with the Chicago Police Department, the FBI, and the Food and Drug Administration. This way it could have a part in searching for the person who laced the capsules and they could help prevent further tampering. While at the time of the scare the company’s market share collapsed from 35 percent to 8 percent, it rebounded in less than a year, a move credited to the company’s prompt and aggressive reaction. In November, it reintroduced capsules but in a new, triple-sealed package, coupled with heavy price promotions and within several years, Tylenol had regained the highest market share for the over-the-counter analgesic in the U.S.
Scott Bartz, a pharmaceutical industry insider, wrote a book in 2011 called The Tylenol Mafia making the case for contamination somewhere in the repackaging process in the distribution chain that was not investigated by the media or police. The text also provides a motivation for Johnson & Johnson to cover up the matter.
The 1982 incident inspired the pharmaceutical, food, and consumer product industries to develop tamper-resistant packaging, such as induction seals and improved quality control methods. Moreover, product tampering was made a federal crime. The new laws resulted in Stella Nickell‘s conviction in the Excedrin tampering case, for which she was sentenced to 90 years in prison.
Additionally, the incident prompted the pharmaceutical industry to move away from capsules, which were easy to contaminate as a foreign substance could be placed inside without obvious signs of tampering. Within the year, the FDA introduced more stringent regulations to avoid product tampering. This led to the eventual replacement of the capsule with the solid “caplet”, a tablet made in the shape of a capsule, as a drug delivery form and with the addition of tamper-evident safety-seals to bottles of many sorts.