35 years after landmark recall, Tylenol deaths still unsolved

By Danielle Haynes  |  Oct. 5, 2017 at 6:34 AM
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Oct. 5 (UPI) -- In 1982, cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules killed seven people in the Chicago area -- an unprecedented and unsolved public health scare that led to major industry changes and one of the first massive product recalls in the United States exactly 35 years ago Thursday.

The deaths began on Sept. 29, when 12-year-old Mary Kellerman died within hours of taken a capsule of Extra-Strength Tylenol. Later that same day, a postal worker, Adam Janus died. Both had been poisoned with potassium cyanide, which investigators later determined had been put inside the capsules of Tylenol.

Another five people would die, including Janus' brother, Stanley, and sister-in-law Theresa, who had each taken acetaminophen capsules from the same bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol that killed the postal worker. Mary McFarland, Paula Prince and Mary Reiner, all living in or near Chicago, also died. Tylenol samples taken from each of the victims' homes tested positive for cyanide.

The results of the test prompted one of the first massive recalls in U.S. history. On Oct. 5, 1982, Johnson & Johnson, the maker of Tylenol, pulled millions of dollars worth of product off store shelves, reducing the company's earnings by $50 million. There was nationwide panic as worried consumers went to hospitals out of fear of poisoning. The Food and Drug Administration counted hundreds of copycat incidents nationwide, including one in 1986 in which two people in died after taking cyanide-laced Excedrin capsules.

Investigators believe the killer pulled packages of Tylenol off the shelf, opened the push-together capsules and replaced the acetaminophen with toxic cyanide -- which kills in just seconds or minutes -- before putting the bottles back on the shelf. The ease with which capsules can be contaminated prompted drugmakers to replace capsules with solid caplets.

Companies also began implementing the use of tamper-resistant packaging for the drugs -- seals on bottle openings that are now required by federal law.

Despite the far-reaching impact of the Tylenol case, it remains one of the most mysterious cold cases in U.S. history. The FBI never found the culprit -- who was never even identified.

The only person convicted in relation to the case was James Lewis, who later sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson demanding $1 million in order to "stop the killings." He spent 12 years in prison for extortion, but police never charged him with tampering with the capsules.

In 2011, the FBI investigated the possibility that the so-called "Unabomber," Theodore Kaczynski, who grew up in the Chicago area, may have been behind the killings.

The Chicago Daily Herald said the FBI handed over the case to the Arlington Heights, Ill., Police Department. Deputy Chief Mike Hernandez told the newspaper the department is concerned too much time has passed in order to solve the crime.

"We're concerned about how long it's been. It's been a concern of the task force, as more time goes by," he said.

Years after the initial deaths, advances in technology allowed investigators to potential DNA evidence and a fingerprint smudge on one of the tampered Tylenol bottles. Neither lead resulted in an arrest.

Though investigators on the case no longer regularly meet, the Daily Herald reported, Hernandez said there's still hope.

"This case is still a high priority," he said. "It's not gathering dust."

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