The FBI has recently released undisclosed interview tapes with James Lewis, the prime suspect in the 1982 Chicago Tylenol murders. The cyanide poisonings, which caused the deaths of seven individuals and prompted significant changes in the manufacturing and sale of over-the-counter drugs, have remained unsolved until this day. However, federal authorities strongly believe that Lewis, who passed away on July 9 at the age of 76, was responsible for these crimes. Despite never being convicted of the murders, Lewis was found guilty of attempting to extort Johnson & Johnson, the manufacturer of Tylenol. He had sent a letter claiming responsibility for the deaths and demanding a sum of $1 million to “stop the killing.”
Recently, the FBI released footage from 2008, wherein Lewis provides intricate details about how the Tylenol killer would have executed the poisonings. In one of the interviews, Lewis nonchalantly states, “They could have bought a bottle a month before and played with it until they got it right.” He goes on to suggest that the killer may have used a straightened paper clip to open the Tylenol container without damaging the packaging. Lewis also hints that purchasing the Tylenol bottles well in advance would have prevented surveillance cameras from capturing the killer’s actions immediately.
According to Lewis, the cyanide-laced drugs were likely brought to the store by the killer and inserted into the bottles while they were on the shelf. He even drew out the step-by-step process he believed the killer followed. The interviews were conducted with Lewis’ consent at a hotel room, as confirmed by the FBI. Although authorities deemed Lewis’ bizarrely specific statements incriminating, he maintained his innocence as recently as September 2022.
The death of Lewis earlier this year frustrated law enforcement officials who had been relentlessly pursuing him for his alleged involvement in the 1982 killing spree that spread terror throughout Chicago. Six adults and a 12-year-old girl lost their lives due to cyanide poisoning during this indiscriminate attack. Despite extensive investigations, no one has ever been charged in connection with the deaths, which triggered panic and major reforms in the prescription drug industry.
Lewis was apprehended in 1982 after a nationwide manhunt and served 12 years in federal prison for attempting to extort the drug manufacturer. While he eventually admitted to sending the ransom letter, he claimed that he had never intended to collect the money. Investigators have spent the past 40 years fruitlessly trying to establish Lewis’ connection to the letters before the poisonings occurred.
In a 1992 jailhouse interview with ABC 7 Chicago, Lewis described in detail how the killer would have used a pegboard to drill holes into the Tylenol capsules and inject them with lethal cyanide. The victims, Mary Kellerman (12), Mary McFarland (31), Mary “Lynn” Reiner (27), Paula Prince (35), Adam Janus (27), Stanley Janus (25), and Theresa Janus (20), all resided in the Chicago area. They were hospitalized and died within a few days of each other in late September and early October 1982, sparking a nationwide scare.
As a result of these tragedies, the Food and Drug Administration introduced anti-tampering features, such as foil seals, to packaging, which have since become standard. In 1983, Congress passed the “Tylenol bill,” making it a federal offense to tamper with drug packaging.