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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.