November 1, 2016

The Tylenol Murders of 1982

Photo credit:

It's hard to imagine now for younger people out there but back in 1982, there was no such thing as a tamper proof bottle.  Drugs, like Extra Strength Tylenol, were sold off the shelf in the bottle with a cotton ball tucked under the lid.  No boxes glued shut and no protective foil seal across the lid.  What happened in Chicago in the autumn of 1982 led to a change in the pharmaceutical industry and the packaging industry.

Mary Kellerman was only 12, the youngest and the first victim of the poisonings.  She woke around 6:30 on the morning of Wednesday, September 29, 1982 feeling sick with a cold; her parents elected to keep her home from school.  She takes Tylenol to help ease her symptoms. Her father Dennis would tell the Chicago Tribune that he heard his daughter go into the bathroom, close the door and then heard something drop. He called out to her, asking if she was okay but got no response. After calling out again, he opened the door to find Mary, still in her pajamas, unconscious on the floor.

Paramedics arrived at the Kellerman home in Schaumburg and tried every drug they had to resuscitate her, with no success.  She is transported to the Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove, where she is pronounced dead at 9:56 a.m.

Because of her age, an autopsy is ordered.  It's noted that she took Tylenol that morning but nothing seems out of sorts . . . at least not yet.

Around noon on that same Wednesday, postal worker Adam Janus, 27 years old and from Arlington Heights, is at home, also under the weather. He was worried that he was coming down with a cold. He picked up his kids from preschool and stopped off at the store to pick up some Tylenol. After eating lunch with the children, he took two Tylenol and went to lie down. A few minutes later, he staggered into the kitchen and collapsed.

Adam was taken to Northwest Community Hospital, where the attending physician believed he had a cardiac arrest.  Despite efforts, like Mary Kellerman, his heart would not start beating again. He was pronounced dead around 3:15 p.m.

At 3:45 p.m., 27 year old Mary Lynn Reiner is at home in Winfield and not feeling well, as she had given birth to her fourth child a week earlier.  She takes some Tylenol and collapses. Her husband returned home to find her on the floor.  An ambulance rushes her to Central DuPage Hospital.

At 5 p.m., the family of victim Adam Janus is gathered together at his home to mourn and make funeral arrangements.  Adam's younger brother Stanley, suffering with chronic back pain, asked his wife Theresa to bring him some Tylenol.  She gave him two, which he took, and she took two herself.  Stanley fell first, followed by Theresa.

The Arlington Heights Fire Department responded to the emergency at the Janus home, where units had been less than five hours earlier.  Four men worked on Stanley; four men on Theresa.  They noted that each symptom or response that Stanley had, Theresa would likewise have a few moments later.

Dr. Thomas Kim, the Medical Director at Northwest Community Hospital, who had pronounced Adam Janus dead just over two hours earlier, was preparing to leave at 5:45 when he was told that the Janus family was returning.  Initially believing that Adam's parents may have been reacting to the stress of the death of their son, he was instead surprised to see that it was Adam's healthy younger brother and his wife.

This was the first time suspicions were raised that something was not right. Still not knowing what had killed one and felled two members of the Janus family, investigators began examining the home in Arlington Heights.

Meanwhile, at 6:30 p.m. in Lombard, 31 year old Mary McFarland is telling her co-workers at the Illinois Bell store that she has a terrible headache. She goes into the back room and takes at least one Tylenol. Within minutes, she's collapsed on the floor.  The suspicion was that she had ingested something bad.

Around 8 p.m., the bottle of Tylenol, with six capsules missing, is found at the Janus home.  It was rightly deduced that three victims taking two capsules each adds up to the six capsules.

At 8:15 p.m., Stanley Janus is pronounced dead.

At 9:30 p.m., following a flight from Las Vegas, Paula Prince, a 35 year old flight attendant with United Airlines, stops in at a Walgreens to purchase some Tylenol.

At 10 p.m., the Janus bottle of Tylenol is compared with the Kellerman bottle of Tylenol and it's noted that the control numbers are the same. Upon orders from the Medical Examiner, both bottles are opened and sniffed.  The investigator smelled almonds in both bottles, telling the Medical Examiner they were dealing with cyanide.

Blood is drawn from the bodies of the Janus victims and Mary Kellerman.

On Thursday, September 30 at 1 a.m., Dr. Kim received his lab reports.  Not only was there cyanide present in each body but between 100 and 1,000 times more cyanide than necessary to kill each person.

At 3:15 a.m., Mary McFarland is pronounced dead at Good Samaritans Hospital in Downers Grove.

At 9:30 a.m. Mary Lynn Reiner is pronounced dead at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield.

Some time around 10 a.m., an attorney for Johnson & Johnson, the parent company of Tylenol, showed up at the Medical Examiner's Office to hear firsthand the connection between Tylenol and the deaths.  A press conference was held immediately thereafter, suggesting that people not take Tylenol if they had any.  It was not suggested that the product be recalled.

By 3 p.m., however, Johnson &Johnson itself issued a recall of all Tylenol from lot number MC2880, the control number found on the Janus and Kellerman bottles.

On Friday, October 1 at 11 a.m., the state police and FBI are called in.

At 1:15 p.m, Theresa Janus is removed from life support at Northwest Community Hospital and pronounced dead.

At 5 p.m., police discover Paula Prince's body in her apartment on North LaSalle Street. Paula had been expected for dinner with her sister and when she didn't answer repeated telephone calls, her sister notified the police. She had also been due to work a flight out of O'Hare.  The Chicago PD had expected a routine "well person" check.  Instead, they found the Tylenol bottle open in her bathroom, not far from Paula's body in the doorway.  She had just enough time to take a step or two after taking the capsules before dying.

Walgreens had cameras located at their cash registers and police would find footage of Paula buying the pills that would kill her on Wednesday night.  Unfortunately, at the time there were no cameras located in the aisles of the store, making it impossible to see who may have tampered with the medication.

At 11 p.m., Jane Byrne, then Mayor of Chicago, made an announcement about the death of Paula Prince, as well as assisting in the making of fliers in multiple languages warning about the tainted Tylenol.  It was also announced that Tylenol would be pulled from shelves in Chicago.

On Monday, October 4, the Chicago City Council passes an ordinance requiring tamper-resistant packaging for all drugs sold in stores.

On Tuesday, October 5 Johnson & Johnson recalled all Tylenol products nationwide, an estimated 31 million bottles at a cost of more than $100 million.

On Wednesday, October 6 an extortion letter arrives at Johnson & Johnson demanding $1 million to stop the killing. The police would trace the letter to a man in New York named James Lewis.  Despite a thorough investigation, Lewis could never be placed in Chicago at the right time to tie him to the murders. He was sentenced to 20 years for extortion and would serve 13 before being released and moving to the East Coast.

By Monday, October 25, the task force on the Tylenol murders would be reduced from 115 to 40 investigators.

And that's where the case stalled.  It's been 34 years since the crimes happened and the murders are still unsolved.  What happened?

Normal capsule on the left; tainted on the right
Photo:  Daily Kos
Back in 1982, video surveillance at all locations was not the norm.  Tamper resistant packaging was not the norm.  Worrying about products being tampered with was not the norm.

Was the perpetrator looking to kill one person and the others were collateral damage?  Or was he or she after the thrill of killing an untold amount of strangers?  And if so, did he or she act again?

If the perp was looking to kill a certain individual with others dying as a cover up to the actual target, it's likely that Mary Kellerman, Adam Janus and Paula Prince can be eliminated as potential targets. Mary's age eliminates her; both Adam and Paula purchased their Tylenol immediately before taking it.  That also eliminates Stanley and Theresa Janus, who were only at the Janus home because of Adam's death.  Nothing in their victimology suggests that Mary Lynn Reiner or Mary McFarland had someone determined to kill them. Of course it's also possible - - and extremely likely given the known victims - - that if this was the motivation behind the poisonings the intended target escaped harm, quite possibly because of the rash of other victims.

The widely accepted story is that whoever did this purchased the bottles of Tylenol, took them home, tainted capsules in each bottle, and then went around town, putting the bottles on shelves of various stores. There didn't seem to be anything special as to the locations.

One theory the investigators did not put much stock in was that the tainting happened within Johnson & Johnson's production or distribution channels.  While this theory may seem like a stretch at first it does give somewhat of a motive.  What if the person was angry with Johnson & Johnson, had some bone to pick?  The murders could have destroyed the company, not just by consumers refusing the products but also by lawsuits the company would be forced to pay out on.   Scott Bartz, a former Johnson & Johnson employee spent 3 1/2 years researching a book on the subject, which he released in 2011.   His book, The Tylenol Mafia, opens with two Kane County sheriff's deputies who, on the night of Tuesday, September 28, 1982 found two cardboard McNeil boxes filled with Extra Strength Tylenol capsules in an unincorporated area near Elgin. Both deputies became ill after examining them.  The book also calls note to a bottle of cyanide-laced Tylenol that was turned in some two weeks after the poisonings by a woman who identified herself as the wife of a DuPage County judge.  What's interesting about this?  The woman was not who she said she was. When police went back to talk to the judge's wife, she was not the woman who turned in the bottle.  The woman's identity, or her motive for turning the bottle in, has never been determined.

Infamous Unabomber Ted Kaczynski has also had the finger of suspicion pointed at him.  Kaczynski at one time lived in Evergreen Park and Lombard.

A man by the name of Roger Arnold was also investigated.  The investigation led to him having a nervous breakdown, due to the relentless media attention, even after he was cleared.  Arnold blamed a bar owner named Marty Sinclair for the media attention.  In the summer of 1983, Arnold shot and killed who he thought was Marty Sinclair but in actuality was John Stanisha, a man who had no connection to Arnold or Sinclair.  Arnold was convicted of second degree murder in 1984 and sentenced to 30 years.  He would serve 15 years and then die in 2008.

Laurie Dann, who went on a rampage in nearby Winnetka on May 20, 1988, setting fires, poisoning and shooting people, was also considered a suspect but there was no direct connection.

Copycat attacks began popping up after the Tylenol murders, many involving Tylenol.  In 1986 Excedrin capsules in Washington state were tampered with, resulting in the deaths of two persons, with the wife of one being the perpetrator. Also in 1986, Encaprin was recalled after a spiking hoax in Detroit and Chicago, leading to Encaprin being withdrawn from the market entirely after sales plummeted.

The poisonings led not only to the introduction of tamper resistant caps and seals but to the pharmaceutical industry moving away from capsules and to solid caplets.

What do I think?  I think all given scenarios have merit.  It's certainly within the realm of possibility that someone had a grudge against Johnson & Johnson; after all, the bottles all had the same control number and yet they were purchased from different stores in the Chicago area. An inside job would have made it easier.  My problem with that theory is that the bottles that were tampered with, at least the ones that were known, were in a relatively condensed area.

It's also possible that there was a set target and whoever the perp was did not want to be connected with the target and so poisoned a handful of bottles resulting in collateral victims. As I stated above, if that were the case it's almost certain that the intended victim did not become a victim after all.  At least not of the poisonings.

And let's not forget that maybe there was just a sick person in the Chicago area who wanted to hurt people but didn't find it necessary to do so up close and personal.  Was it Ted Kaczynski?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

Will the truth ever be known?  It's hard to say.  Barring a deathbed confession, it's likely no suspect will ever be charged with the murders.


  1. God I had totally forgotten about these tragic deaths. They scared my 9 year old ass straight. I had never even read about the victims until this post and I finished it almost close to tears.

    1. I remember this being all over the news. Totally scary. What's so amazing is that it happened in the course of ONE DAY. I had not realized that.

      Thanks for posting, Tyson!