Chicago – Metropolitan Area – 1982. If you are inclined towards headaches and pop Tylenol on a regular basis, you might not want to read this post. It inspired a rash of copycat killings, including that of Bruce Nickells by his wife Shirley Nickells using Excedrin capsules (see my post Stupid Stella Staged a Stunning Statistical Kill).
On the morning of September 29, 1982, little twelve-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Illinois, woke up with a sore throat and a nasty headache. Her father Dennis gave her one capsule of Extra-Strength Tylenol and told her to stay home from school. The little girl went to the washroom and promptly fell to the floor in full cardiac arrest. By the time Kellerman reached the hospital at 10:00 a.m. she was pronounced dead. The autopsy wasn’t looking for poison in the child’s body and the death was declared as a result of aneurysm or heart attack. Heart attack. I suppose it happens in 12-year-olds.
Adam Janus, 27, of Arlington Heights Illinois, was the next Tylenol murder victim. He collapsed after taking two Tylenol Extra-Strength capsules on September 29, 1982 at 2:00 p.m. Janus was pronounced dead at hospital at 3:15 p.m. There was no explanation for Janus death. Shortly thereafter Janus’s brother Stanley and sister-in-law Theresa, who had also taken pills from the same bottle, hurried to his home. While there, the two developed headaches, a common stress reaction to family crises and consumed capsules from the same bottle as Janus. Within two days, they too died.
In the coming days Mary McFarland of Elmhurst, Illinois, took several Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules while at work in Lombard, then told co-workers I don’t feel good, guys, and promptly fell forward onto a table. Within minutes of swallowing the cyanide-laced capsules she was clinically dead. Paula Prince of Chicago, and Mary Reiner of Winfield, who had a one-week old infant, also died after taking Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules. Reiner, like Janus, first went into convulsions before dying. Investigators began asking the right question: did the loved one consume anything that day out of the ordinary They soon discovered the Tylenol link.
Urgent warnings were broadcast, and police drove through Chicago neighborhoods issuing warnings over loudspeakers. Johnson & Johnson, the owners of the corporation that manufactured Tylenol, moved fast. It distributed warnings to hospitals and distributors and halted Tylenol production and advertising. J & J also instigated a nationwide recall of Tylenol products of an estimated 31 million bottles with a retail value of over US $100 million. Ouch. The company also advertised in the national media for individuals not to consume any of its products that contained acetaminophen. Johnson & Johnson offered to exchange all Tylenol capsules already purchased by the public for solid tablets as it was only capsules that had been poisoned. Uh, no thanks.
One might think that it was the work of a disgruntled employee at a Tylenol factory. One would be wrong. After it was determined that only these capsules in the Chicago area had been tampered with it was determined that the poisoner didn’t work for Johnson & Johnson. Rather, the psychopath had purchased several bottles of Tylenol, poisoned them over a period of weeks, added cyanide to the bottles and returned them to the shelves in various locations. In addition to the five bottles that led to the victims’ deaths, three other poisoned bottles were discovered.
During the initial investigations, a man named James William 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. Perhaps he was tired of buying losing lottery tickets.
A second man, Roger Arnold, was investigated and cleared of the killings. The poor man had a nervous breakdown due to the media attention, which he blamed on Marty Sinclair, a bar owner. In the summer of 1983, Arnold shot and killed John Stanisha, whom he mistook for Sinclair. Stanisha was an unrelated 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.
Laurie Dann, a mentally ill woman who poisoned and shot people in a May 1988 rampage in and around Winnetka, Illinois, was briefly considered as a suspect, but no connection was ever found. (See my post Laurie Dann – Mentally Ill Murderess).
The media gave Johnson & Johnson much positive coverage for its handling of the crisis; an article in The Washington Post said, “Johnson & Johnson has effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster“. It applauded the company for being honest with the public. In addition to issuing the recall, the company established relations with the Chicago Police Department, the FBI, and the Food and Drug Administration so it could have a part in searching for the person who laced the capsules and they could help prevent further tamperings. While at the time of the scare the company’s market share collapsed from thirty-five percent to eight percent, it rebounded in less than a year, a move credited to the company’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 the highest market share for the over-the-counter analgesic in the U.S.
Not everyone was convinced that J&J or government officials conducted an honest investigation into the murders. Scott Bartz, author of The Tylenol Mafia and former employee of Johnson & Johnson, offers a different perspective of the tragedy and supposed insider cover-up. I guess he didn’t get a gold watch upon retirement.
Sadly, the tragedies that resulted from the Tylenol poisonings can never be undone. But their deaths did inspire a series of important moves to make over-the-counter medications safer for the hundreds of millions of people who buy them every year. As a direct consequence of the Tylenol murders, Congress approved in May 1983 a new “Tylenol Bill” that made the malicious tampering of consumer products a federal offense.
I’m feeling the effects of reading such a sad blog. I need to go pop a Tylenol. Or perhaps not. Does anyone have an Excedrin.