In the final days of September 1982, seven people in the Chicagoland area died suddenly after ingesting extra-strength Tylenol that, unbeknownst to them, was laced with potassium cyanide. The Tylenol Murders, as they became known, sent shockwaves through the country, forever changing our idea of safe medicine and how we consume over-the-counter drugs.
Forty years later, the victims—who ranged in age from 12 to 35—remain unvindicated as no charges have been made against the killer or killers responsible. But recent developments suggest investigators are once again turning up the heat on this infamous cold case.
Here’s what we know (and, more importantly, what we still don’t know) about the ongoing investigation.
1982: The Tylenol Murder Victims
The string of deaths related to the tainted Tylenol began with 12-year-old Mary Kellerman; followed by 27-year-old Adam Janus and his brother and sister-in-law, Stanley (25) and Theresa (19); 35-year-old Mary McFarland; 35-year-old Paula Prince, and 27-year-old Mary Reiner.
All otherwise healthy individuals, each victim suddenly collapsed within minutes of taking the medication. It was the Janus killings—and an insightful nurse, Helen Jensen—that tied the deaths to the OTC acetaminophen. After comparing notes of all three Janus deaths, Jensen noticed Tylenol was the one common factor.
CBS News Chicago reports that Jensen counted out pills from the Janus’ poisoned Tylenol bottle in front of police, showing six capsules missing (three adult doses for Adam, Stanley, and Theresa). Despite digging through the trash to recover Adam’s original receipt for the medicine, investigators initially disregarded Jensen’s theory.
The following day, news outlets everywhere warned viewers of the link between the deaths and the common painkiller. As the body count continued to rise, the public grew more uneasy. Without the help of social media to communicate a warning quickly to the masses, police drove up and down Chicago streets, yelling ‘don’t take Tylenol’ through their bullhorns.
1983-2022: Hunting For The Killer
As stores and households began purging their Tylenol stock, a 15-agency task force began their work of finding the killer(s) responsible. The force found three potential leads in 1982. After ruling out the first two suspects, the investigators had only one name: James Lewis.
Lewis was the author of a letter sent to Tylenol’s manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, in which he threatened further cyanide poisoning unless $1 million was placed in a postal box at Continental Bank in Chicago. A jury convicted Lewis of extortion, and the judge sentenced him to ten years in prison. While this seemed like a step in the right direction, it still wasn’t a serial murder charge.
Moreover, Lewis continued to deny his involvement in the actual murders. “I could send a letter to the Roman senate and say, ‘give me one million gold pieces, and I will stop the killing of Caesar,” Lewis said in a 1984 interview with CBS. “But that doesn’t mean that I killed Caesar.”
Despite being linked to other crimes, including the 1978 murder of Raymond West, Lewis managed to slither free on technicalities. After his release from prison, Lewis settled down in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, apartment where he still lives today. In 2022, CBS reporter Brad Edwards paid him a visit. Shortly after, the cops did, too.
2020-2023: Investigators Order New DNA Tests
CBS showed their exchange with Lewis to Arlington Heights Police Sergeant Joe Murphy, who currently heads the Tylenol Murder task force. The force asked for a copy of the interview but was unable to comment on their intentions due to the ongoing nature of the investigation.
However, in January 2023, CBS obtained AHPD investigation reports through a Freedom of Information Act request. Those documents reveal that police have been collecting new DNA samples and testing old samples with new technology in collaboration with Houston-based company, Othram.
The new DNA includes samples from the Morgan family, another Chicago family who narrowly escaped being the next victims of the Tylenol Murders when they decided not to take the medication after “sensing something was off.” The old DNA likely includes samples from the contaminated pills and bottles, though police cannot confirm the exact evidence.
The AHPD’s new collaborator, Othram, uses highly specialized technology to extract trace amounts of human DNA from items and analyze them. Kristen Mittelman, chief development officer at Othram, told CBS that the company “can successfully analyze DNA smaller than the top of a pin needle.” She also said that the company has returned investigative leads in thousands of cases, including identifying a murder victim from 1881.
2023: Does This Mean They’ll Solve The Case Soon?
Because the Tylenol Murder investigation is ongoing, we likely won’t know whether the AHPD has found new, more useful evidence anytime soon. Still, this is more active investigating than this case has seen in decades.
So, one could assume there is a valid reason for the heating up of this cold case. And indeed, modern DNA technology solves decades-old cold cases all of the time. For the peace of mind of all the families involved, we hope that the new DNA testing helps investigators finally convict the Tylenol Murder killer after four decades of searching.