Friday, February 11, 2005

Crime Scene Investigation : Tylenol Murders

(By Wally Kowalski and reproduced in full from the following website:


In 1982, seven people in the Chicago area collapsed suddenly and died after taking Tylenol capsules that had been laced with cyanide. These five females and two males, all relatively young, became the first victims ever to die from what came to be known as product tampering. The poisoned capsules had been placed on shelves in six different stores by a person intent on killing innocent people at random. One victim was a 12 year old girl who had a cold. Another victim had just returned from the hospital after giving birth to a baby boy. The tragedy was compounded for one family who lost three members. Overcome by grief at the sudden inexplicable death of a close relative, two other family members were offered Tylenol capsules from the same bottle, not yet aware that poison was the cause of death. The case has never been solved, and the $100,000 reward offered by Johnson & Johnson remains unclaimed.

A wave of copycat tamperings occurred afterwards: Lipton Cup-A-Soup in 1986, Exedrin in 1986, Tylenol again in 1986, Sudafed in 1991, and Goody's Headache Powder in 1992. Deaths resulted in these cases. Prior to 1982, tamper-proof capsules and tamper-proof packaging were essentially unknown. The technology evolved rapidly in response to the threat, and today such packaging is a familiar sight to all. Although copycat product tamperings have tapered off, probably as a direct result of improved packaging, cases continue to occur sporadically to this day. Incidents have occurred throughout the country, but with a surprising number in the Chicago area. Some 53 threats of product tampering have, in fact, been received by the FBI with a Gary, Indiana or south Chicago area postmark. Gary, of course, is a part of the Greater Chicago area. Cases of tampering, including the use of cyanide, have occurred in North Chicago, Lombard, Chicago proper and outlying areas. One unsolved cyanide poisoning occurred in Detroit, and another in Tennessee. Could the Tylenol Killer still be at work, continually attempting to bypass the latest tamper-proof products?


Mary Kellerman, 12, Elk Grove Village
Adam Janus, 27, Arlington Heights
Stanley Janus, 25, Lisle
Theresa Janus, 19, Arlington Heights
Paula Prince, 35, Chicago
Mary Reiner, 27, Winfield
Mary McFarland, 31, Elmhurst


The Tylenol killer has never been caught. Many believe he never will be caught. A somewhat bumbling suspect who attempted to cash in on the unprecedented publicity was arrested and charged with extortion, but not with the murders. The police concluded he was merely an opportunistic extortionist, and could not be the murderer. Although some believed he should have been tried for the murders, too many details and circumstances suggested he could not be the poisoner. James Lewis was released in 1995, after serving 13 years of a 20 year sentence.

The lot numbers of the tainted Tylenol capsules were MD 1910, MC 2880, MA 1801, and MB 2738. Evidently they were taken from different stores over a period of weeks or months, prior to being poisoned and placed back on the shelves of five different Chicago area stores. One package was placed in each store, except that two bottles were recovered from the Woodfield Osco. Also, two bottles were recovered from one other retail outlet that was not identified. Some of the packages had 5 or less poisoned capsules. One had 10 poisoned capsules.


The choice of locations for placement suggests the poisoner drove the highway routes 90/94, 290 & 294, driving in a near circular route, and selecting obvious and typical sites. The killer apparently spent several hours, possibly Wednesday all day or in the evening, distributing the fatally laced packages. The choice of supermarkets for placement suggests the killer was most comfortable with shoplifting from these types of stores. He probably lived near a similar supermarket, where he likely stole the original packages, although he would have been unlikely to place them back on the shelf of the same store. Sufficient information has not been released to determine the probable store(s) from which the Tylenol packages were taken, or the order in which the laced packages were placed on the shelves, but this might enable reconstruction of the driving route, including his possible origin, and whether the killer worked a day job at the time.


The specific avoidance of the numerous drug stores within the dense urban areas of west and north Chicago proper can hardly go unnoticed. The one odd location, the Wells street store, sits in the midst of a higher rent district, making it unlikely that the killer, unemployed, a student, or menially employed, would have lived there. Likewise, most of the other suburban locations can be ruled out. The area of most probable residence of the Tylenol Murderer would seem to have been areas of north and west Chicago proper, including neighborhoods like Lincoln Park (excluding the lakeshore), Rogers Park, Oak Park, and other non-black, non-Hispanic, non-affluent, rental areas between North & Touhy and Halsted & Harlem. Alternatively, the Woodfield Osco, where two bottles were placed, is a very unlikely location for a non-resident to stumble across, and the route shown in the image would be reversed if we take Woodfield as the first placement location.


Jewel Foods, 122 N. Vail, Arlington Heights
Jewel Foods, 948 Grove Mall, Elk Grove Village
Osco Drug Store, Woodfield Mall, Schaumburg
Walgreen Drug Store, 1601 N. Wells, Chicago
Frank's Finer Foods, 0N040 Winfield Rd, Winfield
(one unidentified retail outlet)


The poison used in the Tylenol Murders was a cyanide compound. Such compounds, which include potassium cyanide and sodium cyanide, are available to those in certain industries, such as gold and silver mining, fertilizer production, steel plating, and the film processing/chemicals industries. Workers in these industries have anonymous access, but then so do a variety of other people who are obliquely associated with these industries, such as truckers and college students.
The specific form of cyanide used in the poisonings has been reported to be potassium cyanide, according to then Illinois Attorney General Tyrone Fahner, in an article in the Chicago Tribune dated Oct. 3, 1982. The level of purity was not publicly reported, but in the 1986 incident, which also involved potassium cyanide, the purity was reported as 90%. Potassium cyanide is commonly used in the metal electroplating, metal extraction, photographic and cinematographic film processing industries.


The amount of cyanide inserted in each capsule was reported as 65 milligrams but was probably 100 milligrams or more since the fatal dose for NaCN is about 150 milligrams. Other doses reported in the newspapers (5-6 micrograms) were clearly incorrect.

The killer completely emptied each of some 20 or 30 capsules, and then refilled them with the grayish crystalline potassium cyanide. The capsules that were recovered all appeared deformed or bulky. This crude, clumsy work would have been obvious to a careful eye, but such a cruel and pusillanimous act could not have been anticipated in 1982.

The rather imprecise work indicates an amateur of limited skills -- probably someone incapable of performing quality work even in his own field or employment. This young man was no chemist, no biologist, no computer programmer, no precise professional of any sort, but more likely a facile, inexperienced amateur in his early twenties with pretensions to real knowledge.

The quantities used in this crime also suggest that he had anonymous access to no insignificant quantity of potassium cyanide, in amounts that were not missed. Furthermore, placement of the tampered product on store shelves, apparently on a Wednesday afternoon; suggest no daytime employment, or at least no full-time employment. Is this a possible college student or recent graduate without employment? Did he perhaps have access to a film processing laboratory? These possibilities are not inconsistent with what is known. Only a complete theory is lacking to tie it all together, and what a theory requires for completeness is a motive.


No evidence was ever found that anyone profited specifically from the Tylenol Murders. No unusual stock trading activity was detected, although Johnson & Johnson stock dropped dramatically overnight. None of the victims were wealthy or seemed to be a possible target of a murder plot to be covered up with 6 random murders. All the victims were relatively young, and no large insurance policies had been recently taken out on any of them. One of the victims had a manufacturing subcontract worth some $25,000 (gross) annually, and transfer of which was requested by two different relatives (actions apparently unknown to each other) shortly after his death. However, this is hardly the sort of money such an elaborate and horrendous crime is staged for. Neither relative was granted the subcontract anyway.

The motivation for this crime does not seem to have been any kind of direct profit. In fact, the motivation may not have been money at all. It may have been sheer hatred for humanity, or perhaps the attempt to gain publicity or fame for some other venture. Whatever the motivation of the killer, it would seem his objective was unrealized.


What do we know about the real Tylenol Killer? We can reasonably surmise all of the following:

1. The Tylenol killer is a white male.
2. He was in his twenties in 1982; he'd be in his 40s today.
3. Lived in the Chicago area in 1982.
4. Owned a car or truck.
5. Devious but not particularly intelligent.
6. A skilled shoplifter.
7. Has few friends, and temporary ones at that.
8. Definitely misanthropic, cowardly.
9. Limited income, and works a low wage job.
10. Perhaps has a degree, but is a failure in his degreed field.
11. Has comparatively menial employment, if any.
12. His objective in the Tylenol killings remains unachieved.

We could speculate the following:

1. He has an Associate's of Bachelor's degree in Liberal Arts.
2. May have majored in photography, cinematography, or related fields.
3. He has trouble holding a job and can't get along with people.
4. Probably myopic -- wears glasses.
5. Probably uses drugs.
6. A prankster who enjoys playing tricks on people.
7. Has a morbid sense of humor.
8. He probably moved out of the Chicago area within a couple years of the crime.
9. He didn't move far, but lives in the vicinity.
10. Owns a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook and related literature on poisons.
11. Probably attended a Chicago area college or university during or before the killings.
12. Deceptive, a good liar.
13. Has a violent temper, becomes irrational.
14. Likely to be a domineering and self-justifying.
15. Has probably been in trouble with the law, but for unrelated matters.

Ever know anyone like this? Certainly someone does, or did once.

Most people believe the Tylenol Killer will never be caught, and that this was an unsolvable crime. But consider the fact that the Unabomber now sits in jail, all because one person in the world recognized him in the published information. The Tylenol Killer is probably still alive, and as long as he lives there is still hope of solving this crime, because someone, somewhere, knows him personally.

During the evening of 8 November 1895, William Konrad Roentgen [1845-1923] was working alone in his laboratory, studying the Lenard effect, the penetration of cathode rays through different materials. In his darkened room, he covered his Hittorf tube (a variant on the glow tube of Hertz) with black cardboard. Quite by accident, on the wall six feet from the end of his tube, was a sheet of paper which had been treated with the salt barium platinum-cyanide which he used as a screen for other experiments. Because it was dark he noticed that the paper was glowing, fluorescing. Further study demonstrated that this fluorescent glow originated from the tube and that it exhibited amazing properties! He knew from his earlier work that source of the glow could not be the cathode rays themselves, as they seemed unable to penetrate the tube's glass wall and the cardboard. Rather, they were of unknown origin, so he called them "X-rays".
It is this unique property of cyanide compounds of being able to prevent x-rays from penetrating themselves that gave the investigators of the Tylenol murders the idea of efficiently sieving through large bulks of Tylenol products for the cyanide laced bottles by running all the cartons through the airports’ x-ray machines.