In 1982, a string of murders caused panic across America. The murder weapon? Popular over-the-counter painkiller Tylenol. Various bottles across the country had been laced with potassium cyanide, a harmful chemical which prevents the body from absorbing oxygen and suffocates the victim. What made this so scary for people at the time was the idea of something innocent inside the home being a danger, what can you trust? Might food also have been tampered with? Furthermore, no one seemed safe; people weren’t deliberately targeted as part of a sordid past, innocent people who lived normal lives were the victims.
Seven people were confirmed to have died in this attack, all within a few days and all the deaths were concentrated in the Chicago area. The first death was 12-year-old Mary Kellerman, whose parents gave her Tylenol to ease a sore throat. Next was 27-year-old Adam Janus, doctors initially thought his death was the result of a heart attack, it wasn’t until later they realised that wasn’t the case. Stanley (25), and Theresa Janus (19), the brother and sister-in-law of Adam, returned home from the hospital and both took Tylenol to ease headaches. Unfortunately, it was the same bottle Adam had used and both died from cyanide poisoning. Three members of the same family dying on the same day was truly devastating, but lead the police to realise Tylenol was the cause. Mary McFarland (35), Paula Prince (35), and Mary Reiner (27), were the last three confirmed victims of Tylenol poisoning, although we can’t be sure other deaths weren’t mistaken for something else. (pbs.org)
The police quickly concluded that the pills had been poisoned after leaving the factory, and Johnson & Johnson – the manufacturers of Tylenol – recalled millions of bottles for testing offering replacements to customers now out of pocket. Of all the pills tested, two contaminated bottles were found still on shop shelves, and even more were found in peoples’ homes. The police established the cyanide would eat through the capsule from the inside, so the contaminated bottles had to have been bought close to the time they were tampered with. One suspect, James Lewis, came to police attention by sending a demand letter asking for $1 million to stop the killings – for which he served 12 years in prison – but he was not charged with the murders due to being in New York when the capsules would have been contaminated. Police struggled to find a connection however as none of the contaminated bottles had any common factors; they had been manufactured at different factories, sold at different shops, and delivered by different vans.
Johnson & Johnson were publically very active in the weeks and months after the deaths, spending thousands on recalling and testing pills, working with the police and media, and developing new safety procedures with the FDA. New covered pills were created that couldn’t be opened without leaving a trace. They also added safety features to bottles like foil seals that made it harder to open discretely.
No one was ever caught for the murders, and the case remains open. What made it so difficult for police was the random nature of the killings; the victims had nothing in common and no motive could be definitively established. Many theories have been circulated as to the intention; it could have been a new serial killer; a disgruntled ex-employee of the Tylenol manufacturers; or maybe malicious Johnson & Johnson competitors. The incident wiped Johnson & Johnsons’ market share out and they went from the most popular brand on the market, to being feared and avoided. If it was corporate espionage, it worked temporarily. The company’s swift actions in the aftermath meant that within a year they were once again the most popular over-the-counter painkiller.
As a result of these murders new safety regulations were implemented concerning the sale of medication, but why are we a reactive society, instead of being proactive and bringing in such precautions before something dreadful happens? Hopefully one day new scientific methods will mean an arrest and justice for these tragic deaths.