Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Tylenol Terrorist

Looking for Answers

On October 2, 1982, another contaminated Tylenol bottle was discovered by police from a batch of bottles removed from a drug store in the Chicago suburbs. Thousands of other bottles were undergoing testing for traces of cyanide. Investigators had no idea how many other bottles might have been tampered with. In an effort to put an end to the senseless deaths, J&J offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the terrorist. 

Investigators discovered that the cyanide-laced capsules were placed in six Chicago area stores: Jewel Foods in Arlington Heights, Jewel Foods in Grove Village, Osco Drug Store in Schaumburg, Walgreen Drug Store in Chicago, Frank's Finer Foods in Winfield and another undisclosed retail outlet. Each store contained one tampered bottle with approximately three to ten tainted capsules, except for Osco Drug Store where two cyanide laced bottles were recovered.

It was suggested by the police that the bottles were randomly placed. However there was also a possibility that the terrorist may have purposely chosen those specific locations for unknown reasons. Some speculated that the terrorist could have held a grudge against the producers of Tylenol, society in general or even the stores in which the tainted bottles were found. It was further suggested that the killer many have lived within the vicinity of the drug stores, where the tampered bottles were placed.

Tampered Tylenol Placement Map
Tampered Tylenol Placement Map

Following tests on the capsules, toxicologists revealed the specific type of poison used, which was potassium cyanide. An article by researcher Wally Kowalski stated that potassium cyanide was mostly available to industries such as gold and silver mining, fertilizer production, steel plating, film processing and chemical manufacturing. Therefore, it was likely that the poisoner could have obtained the cyanide from such places and may have even worked in a related job. However, because there was very little evidence for investigators to work on to lead them to the identity of the killer.

Shortly after the random murders, investigators began a nationwide manhunt for the Tylenol terrorist. Although poison has historically been a weapon predominantly used by women to kill, investigators focused their search for an unknown male in connection with the crimes. Less than a month following the murders, police took into custody their first suspect.

According to a Newsweek article, a 48-year-old amateur chemist and dockhand that worked at a warehouse that supplied Tylenol to two of the stores where the tainted bottles were sold became the FBI and local law enforcement agencies primary suspect. The police claimed that he admitted to having worked on a project that involved the use of cyanide. The article further stated that after a search of his apartment, investigators found various weapons, two one-way tickets to Thailand and a suspicious book that described, "how to kill people by stuffing poison into capsules."

Although the police lacked hard evidence connecting the dockhand with the Tylenol murders, they charged him with illegal possession of firearms. He was sent to jail and eventually released on a $6,000 bond. At about the same time, investigators focused their attention on a new suspect.

Shortly following the Tylenol murders, J&J received a handwritten extortion letter demanding $1 million dollars for an end to the poisonings. The extortionist asked J&J to respond to his demand via the Chicago Tribune. Instead, the company contacted the authorities who began to trace the letter's source. It didn't take them long to trace the letter to a man named James W. Lewis, a tax accountant and known con artist, who was also sought in connection with the brutal murder of an elderly man in Kansas City and a jewel robbery. The police quickly issued a warrant for Lewis's arrest in connection with the Tylenol killings.

James W. Lewis
James W. Lewis

Several state law enforcement agencies and the FBI conducted a massive search for Lewis and his wife, LeAnn. The search led investigators across several states including Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Texas. Photographs and wanted posters of the couple were distributed across the country in local police stations, newsstands and public libraries. 

During the last week of October, lab technicians in Chicago discovered yet another unsold tainted bottle of Tylenol in a grocery store in North Chicago. The bottle was found less than one block from where Paula Prince purchased the bottle containing the cyanide-laced capsules that ended her life one month earlier. The bottle was examined for fingerprints and other clues that might link the murders to the killer.

That same week, a man named Robert Richardson sent a letter to the Chicago Tribune that stated that he and his wife did not take part in the Tylenol murders and that they were unarmed. Robert Richardson was one of the many aliases used by James W. Lewis after his arrest for the murder of his elderly boss in Kansas City years earlier. Investigators revealed that week that the letter had been sent from New York City.

On November 11, 1982, J&J held a news conference stating that they were going to reintroduce the Tylenol products that were temporarily pulled off the market. However, this time the bottles were wrapped in new safety packaging. In an effort to restore consumer confidence, the new Tylenol bottles contained a triple-seal tamper resistant package.

Johnson and Johnson spent heavily to advertise the new packaging and offered consumers a $2.50 coupon towards the purchase of any Tylenol product. It took less than two months before consumer confidence was restored. According to Steven Fink's book, Crisis Management, J&J was able to "regain more than 98 percent of the market share it had before the crisis."  

One month following Tylenol's re-introduction into the market place, FBI agents received their biggest tip in connection with Lewises whereabouts. After a ten-week search for their suspect, investigators received information from a librarian who claimed to have seen Lewis on several occasions at the New York Public Library. The librarian said she was able to recognize him from "wanted" posters at her workplace.  

On December 13, 1982, FBI agents surrounded Lewis in the reading room of the New York Public Library. He was immediately arrested and taken into custody for questioning. The following week, LeAnn Lewis turned herself into the Chicago police.

During the interview by police, the Lewises denied having anything to do with the poisoning of the Tylenol capsules. Moreover, James Lewis denied writing the extortion letter to J&J, even though his handwriting and a fingerprint on the letter was an exact match. Intriguingly, a December 1982 Newsweek article stated that Chicago officials disclosed that someone had sent another extortion letter to the White House, threatening to bomb it and create more Tylenol deaths unless Ronald Reagan changed his tax policies. Lewis vehemently denied writing the second letter even though his handwriting was a perfect match. 

Aside from the letters, investigators could not find any evidence linking James Lewis or his wife to the Tylenol murders. Registration records produced by the police showed that during the time the bottles were tampered with, the Lewises were living in a hotel in New York. Further evidence proved that LeAnn Lewis was at her job daily in New York at the time and witnesses claim that James Lewis was known to meet her everyday for lunch and after work.

According to Newsweek, police were unable to find any bus, train or airline records indicating that the Lewises returned to Chicago during the time when the bottles were tampered with.   The mounting evidence ruled out the couple as being involved in the Tylenol poisoning. Therefore, the FBI and Chicago law enforcement agencies were forced to accede that the Tylenol murderer was still on the loose. By this time, almost all the leads in the case had grown cold and the chances of finding the killer significantly reduced.

Although Lewis was never convicted for crimes directly related to the Tylenol deaths, he was eventually found guilty of extortion and six unrelated counts of mail and credit card fraud. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Lewis served only 13 years of his sentence before being released on parole in 1995.


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