With the 40th anniversary of the 1982 Tylenol case approaching, the Tribune launched an in-depth investigation into why the murders that both terrified and fascinated the country have never been solved.
Installments in a six-part newspaper series and eight-part podcast will be released online each Thursday through October, with print versions of the series on Sundays. Read it all at chicagotribune.com/tylenolmurders.
The eight-part podcast, “Unsealed: The Tylenol Murders,” is part of a partnership between the Tribune and At Will Media, in association with audiochuck. Click to subscribe and listen on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Amazon music, Pandora or Stitcher.
Both the series and the podcast start by recounting the chaotic 24-hour period on Sept. 29, 1982, in which seven people ingested Tylenol capsules laced with potassium cyanide.
Part 1: The story of a 40-year-old unsolved case begins with a terrifying medical mystery
The 1982 poisonings left seven people dead and panicked the nation. Widely regarded as an act of domestic terrorism — a term not in the country’s vernacular at the time — the murders led to tamper-evident packaging, copycat killings and myths about tainted Halloween candy.
The Tylenol case is a decadeslong story of heartbreak, anger and frustration. It’s a story without an ending, without closure for those involved.
And this is how it begins.
Part 2: Cyanide-laced Tylenol was the murder weapon. But who was the killer?
Within hours of finding cyanide in Tylenol capsules that killed three people in the northwest suburbs, the Cook County medical examiner’s office held a news conference to warn people about the potential poison in their medicine cabinets. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration then cautioned the public against taking the pain reliever in capsule form.
In Illinois, some towns began pulling bottles from the store shelves and sent police officers down the street with bullhorns encouraging people to throw out their Tylenol. Police departments and fire stations began collecting bottles, as well.
And a massive criminal investigation was soon underway.
Part 3: Chicago police zero in on a suspect, and the case claims an 8th victim
After being publicly identified as a Tylenol suspect, Roger Arnold became consumed with rage and later shot an innocent man. John Stanisha would become, in effect, the eighth victim in the Tylenol murders.
Years went by before the slain man’s children would take Tylenol again. His youngest child, Laurie Edling, said the brand name was a constant reminder of their loss.
“It was like swallowing sadness and grief,” she said.
Part 4: ‘That’s Jim Lewis!’ The Tylenol task force turns its attention to a man with a disturbing past.
The investigation into the Tylenol murders was struggling for leads when a letter arrived at a Johnson & Johnson office in Pennsylvania. If the maker of Tylenol wanted to “stop the killing,” the writer said, it would cost $1 million.
The writer of the letter was James Lewis, a Missouri native who had briefly lived in Chicago under an assumed name. But when authorities distributed his photo, Kansas City police recognized him immediately. Even before he inserted himself into the Tylenol case, Lewis had a disturbing history.
Part 5: For the Tylenol task force and their top suspect, the game is on
Two weeks after the Tylenol murders, authorities really wanted to talk to James Lewis, the man who had sent a letter demanding $1M to “stop the killing.” There was a problem: They didn’t know where he was.
But Lewis kept writing letters, including several to the Chicago Tribune. Ultimately, law enforcement was able to use clues in those letters to track him down in New York. But the game of cat and mouse didn’t stop there. In fact, it’s been going on for decades.
Part 6: A sting operation turned up the heat on a ‘perfect cold case’
The investigation into the 1982 Tylenol murders was pretty dormant when an FBI agent and a suburban detective decided in 2006 that it was time to take another look. “A perfect cold case,” one called it. Tylenol Task Force 2 was born.
As part of the revived investigation, the FBI launched an elaborate sting operation aimed at getting longtime suspect James Lewis to talk. And it worked. Lewis - who, it should be said, has repeatedly denied being the Tylenol killer - traveled with undercover agents to New York and to Chicago. In both cities, they revisited his past and gathered information that investigators would later use to urge prosecutors to press charges.
This article brings our six-part series on the Tylenol murders to an end. But as we reported last month, the story isn’t over for authorities who are still pushing prosecutors to take up the case and for families who still hope to see the day when someone is held responsible for killing their loved ones.
We’ll also have a bonus story for you next week, examining how the makers of Tylenol handled this crisis.
Tragedy, then triumph: How Johnson & Johnson made sure Tylenol survived the Tylenol murders
The fact that Tylenol survived the Tylenol murders is viewed as a shining example of crisis management. But there’s more to the story.
Tribune exclusive: Law enforcement seeks to persuade prosecutors to act on ‘chargeable’ case
As the 40th anniversary of the 1982 Tylenol murders approaches, investigators are working with prosecutors on a now-or-maybe-never effort to hold a longtime suspect responsible for the poisonings that killed seven people in the Chicago area, the Tribune has learned.
This summer’s meetings mark the latest effort to pin the unsolved killings on James W. Lewis, a former Chicago resident who was convicted years ago of trying to extort $1 million from Johnson & Johnson amid a worldwide panic that arose after the victims took cyanide-laced capsules. He has denied responsibility for the poisonings.
40 years ago, an infamous Chicago-area crime took these 7 lives
At the core of the Tylenol case are seven people, from Elk Grove Village to Chicago, who died simply because they took some Extra-Strength Tylenol for their aches and pains. Their deaths left children, spouses, parents, siblings and friends to mourn.
Here is how the murders unfolded 40 years ago over several days in late September, and a remembrance of each person.
How we reported this story
Reporters interviewed more than 150 people, many of whom are retired but continue to give their time and knowledge to investigators still working the case. The team also reviewed tens of thousands of pages of records, including sealed affidavits and other confidential documents that outline law enforcement’s best evidence.
James Lewis, sole suspect in the 1982 Tylenol murders, has died
James Lewis, the lone suspect in the 1982 Tylenol murders, was found dead in July at his home in suburban Boston, making it unlikely anyone will ever be charged in connection with the poisonings that killed seven people and caused a worldwide panic.
His death at age 76 comes after 40 years of intense scrutiny from law enforcement, in which Lewis played a cat-and-mouse game with investigators. Local authorities questioned him as recently as September as part of a renewed effort to bring charges in the case.
Videos show longtime Tylenol murder suspect James Lewis discussing the crime with undercover agents
One month after the death of James Lewis, the sole suspect in the 1982 Chicago Tylenol murders, authorities have released two old videotaped FBI interviews in which he makes what many investigators view as incriminating statements about his possible role in the unsolved crime.
Arlington Heights police, the lead law enforcement agency in the investigation, provided the video clips late Tuesday in response to a Tribune open-records request. The Tylenol investigation remains open, but Lewis’ July 9 death from a blood clot in his lungs cleared a legal path for some of the long-confidential recordings to be released.
Each interview was recorded during an elaborate 2007-08 undercover FBI sting investigation and runs about an hour in length; some of the audio is redacted.