The Chicago Tylenol murders occurred when seven people died after taking pain-relief capsules that had been poisoned. The Tylenol poisonings, code-named TYMURS by the FBI, took place in the autumn of 1982 in the Chicago area of the United States. These poisonings involved Extra-Strength Tylenol medicine capsules which had been laced with potassium cyanide. The incident led to reforms in the packaging of over-the-counter substances and to federal anti-tampering laws. The case remains unsolved and no suspects have been charged. A $100,000 reward, offered by Johnson & Johnson for the capture and conviction of the "Tylenol Killer," has never been claimed.
Wednesday morning, September 29, 1982, 12-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Illinois died after taking a capsule of Extra Strength Tylenol. Adam Janus of Arlington Heights, Illinois died in the hospital shortly thereafter. Adam's brother Stanley of Lisle, Illinois and sister-in-law Theresa died after gathering to mourn his death, having taken pills from the same bottle. Soon afterward, Mary McFarland of Elmhurst, Paula Prince of Chicago and Mary Reiner of Winfield, Illinois also died in similar incidents. Investigators soon discovered the Tylenol link. Urgent warnings were broadcast, and police drove through Chicago neighborhoods issuing warnings over loudspeakers.
As the tampered bottles came from different factories, and the seven deaths had all occurred in the Chicago area, the possibility of sabotage during production was ruled out. Instead, the culprit was believed to have entered various supermarkets and drug stores over a period of weeks, pilfered packages of Tylenol from the shelves, adulterated their contents with solid cyanide compound at another location, and then replaced the bottles. In addition to the five bottles which led to the victims' deaths, three other tampered bottles were discovered.
Johnson & Johnson, the parent company of McNeil, 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. The company also advertised in the national media for individuals not to consume any products that contained acetaminophen. When it was determined that only capsules were tampered with, they offered to exchange all Tylenol capsules already purchased by the public with solid tablets.
During the initial investigations, a man named James W. Lewis sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson demanding $1 million to stop the cyanide-induced murders. 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 convicted of extortion, served 13 years of a 20-year sentence and was released in 1995 on parole. WCVB Channel 5 of Boston reported that court documents, released in early 2009, "show Department of Justice investigators concluded suspect James W. Lewis, who now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was responsible for the poisonings, despite the fact that they did not have enough evidence to charge him." Lewis continues to deny responsibility for the poisonings.
A second man, Roger Arnold, was investigated and cleared of the killings. However, the media attention caused him to have a nervous breakdown and he blamed a bar owner, Marty Sinclair, for the police investigation of him. In summer 1983, he shot and killed John Stanisha, whom he mistook for Sinclair but who was in fact an innocent man 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.
The media gave Johnson & Johnson much 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, Johnson & Johnson established relations with the Chicago Police, the FBI, and the Food and Drug Administration. This way the company could have a part in searching for the person who laced the Tylenol capsules and they could help prevent further tamperings. While at the time of the scare the market share of Tylenol collapsed from 35% to 8%, it rebounded in less than a year, a move credited to J&J'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 become the most popular over-the-counter analgesic in the US.
A number of copycat attacks involving Tylenol and other products (see Stella Nickell for information on the 1986 Excedrin tampering murders) ensued during the following years. One of these incidents occurred in the Chicago area; unlike Tylenol, it actually forced the end of the product affected by the hoax, Encaprin, from Procter & Gamble. However, the incident did inspire 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.
Additionally, the tragedy 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 Food and Drug Administration 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 to the addition of tamper-evident safety-seals to bottles of many sorts.
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.