Saturday, September 29, 2007

Chicago's Most Insidious Unsolved Murders

On this day in 1982 the first of seven Chicago area people died after ingesting a poisoned Extra Strength Tylenol capsule; the "Tylenol Murders" not only spurred national outrage and fear, but led to a change in the way that medicine was packaged. In Rachel Bell's article "The Tylenol Terrorist: Death in a Bottle," she relates the details of those shocking days and the way that police and firefighters determined that this was not a crime committed at the factory:

"Following inspections, the company determined that the cyanide was not introduced into the bottles at the factory, which left only one other possibility. The FBI, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and law enforcement agencies realized that someone had methodically taken the Tylenol bottles off the shelves at the stores where they were sold, filled the capsules with cyanide and returned them back to the shelves at a later period."

This created what amounted to mass hysteria. With the initial realization of the cause of seven deaths, police were literally driving the streets of Chicago with bullhorns, warning people not to take their Tylenol.

I was a teenager when this occurred, and I remember very clearly watching the stories on the news and wondering why in the world a person would plan such a methodical--yet random--murder. Bell's title is appropriate--this was terrorism, insidious and horrifying. All of the victims of the Tylenol poison were young. The first was only twelve years old, the second 27; two members of the 27-year-old's grieving family complained of headaches while they gathered to mourn. They each took one of the dead man's Tylenol capsules and they both died, as well. They were aged 25 and 19. The oldest victim of these crimes was 35 years old.

I remember that initially, as a frightened young person trying to distance myself from the crime, I consoled myself with the idea that my family did not use that particular pain reliever. But as the days passed I began to fear that anyone would take anything from the shelf and somehow alter it--and of course the drug companies feared the same: the notion of copy-cat terrorism.

In fact, in subsequent years, many events of product tampering occurred, some of which resulted in arrests. The original Tylenol murderer, however, was never caught, despite suspicion cast on two different people back in 1982. One man, James W. Lewis, was even arrested, but denied committing the Tylenol poisonings; police were never able to link him specifically to the crime, although he served time for other crimes.

Therefore, the 1000 dollar reward that Tylenol offered in 1982 for the identification of the killer has never been paid; the murderer remains at large.


Kay said...

I remember this day or rather the next day intimately. I went into labor the night of 9-29-82 and had my precious girl the next day. The hospital was pulling those meds off their shelves quickly and I remember my husband mentioning that he and my OB watched the 5:30 news regarding this horrifying story while I was prepped for a C-section. I had no Tylenol in the hospital and they gave us something that started with a "D". Can't remember. I was distracted (naturally) at that time but I remember the whole nation was so panicked. Everyone, it seemed, took Tylenol. Thanks for the reminder. I don't think I realized that the murderer was never caught.

Julia Buckley said...

Kay, ironically, one of the victims was a woman who had just had a baby. I read about these horrible, random deaths and I can't believe someone would be so cruel and cold--and probably narcissistic.