News of a nationwide Tylenol recall broke on October 5, 1982, after four people in the Chicago area were killed by arsenic-laced capsules. Authorities hoped to prevent more deaths due to the medication that was poisoned by an unknown person or group of people.
However, news of the recall did not reach everyone with Extra Strength Tylenol in his or her home. Paula Prince and Mary McFarland, both age 35 and Mary Reiner, 27 died shortly after the first four victims, bringing the final total to seven.
Investigators discovered eight poisoned bottles of Extra Strength Tylenol, including three that did not claim any victims. They also found that the bottles were not tainted in production, meaning that someone had stolen or bought the Tylenol, deliberately poisoned the bottles and returned them to store shelves. Police focused their search in the Chicago area, as all eight tainted bottles were from stores there, making it most likely that the killer was a local.
A dockhand that worked with cyanide and possessed suspicious items, including a book on how to poison people, was questioned but cleared. Soon afterwards, Johnson & Johnson, the parent company of Tylenol, received an anonymous letter demanding $1 million in exchange for an end to the killings. James W. Lewis, a New York City resident in his mid-30s, was eventually identified as the author of the letter and served over 12 years of a 20-year sentence for extortion and other crimes not associated with the Tylenol case. He was released in 1995 and remains the primary suspect in the case, although sufficient evidence to charge him does not exist as of June 2011.
In May of 2011, the Tylenol murders made the news again when Unabomber Ted Kaczynski publicly claimed that authorities were investigating him as a possible suspect in the case. Kaczynski stated that he was asked, and refused, to supply a DNA sample for comparison with partial DNA information available about the Tylenol killer. Although Kaczynski lived in the Chicago area at the time of the murders, he denies any involvement. He also filed a motion to halt the auction of his personal belongings to compensate his victims, claiming that some of his possessions could prove his innocence in the Tylenol case. His motion was denied and the auction continued as scheduled.
The unknown Tylenol killer(s) affects us all to this day. How many times have we all struggled to open tamper-resistant packaging on medications? When was the last time you bought an over-the-counter medicine in capsule form? These changes are part of enhanced safety measures put in place by drug companies in response to the murders. The Federal Anti-Tampering Act of 1983 was also a result of this case, making product tampering a federal offense punishable by varying sentences, according to the crime’s effects. Cases in which a death occurs may receive any number of years in prison, up to and including a life sentence. Stella Nickell of Washington State was the first person tried under this new law, and received a sentence of 90 years in prison for the 1986 Excedrin poisonings.