Associated Press

History of the Tylenol Poisonings

February 05, 2009 08:59 AM
by John Noonan
On Sept. 29, 1982, the first four victims died in a series of Tylenol-poisoning crimes that terrified the nation and ultimately claimed seven lives. The case, which remains unsolved, led to the development of tamper-proof packaging.

Tylenol Deaths Shock Nation

Mary Kellerman, a 12-year-old living in the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove Village, was the first victim. On the morning of Sept. 29, Mary awoke with a sore throat and her parents gave her a Tylenol. A short time later, they found her collapsed on the bathroom floor and rushed her to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Her death was initially believed to be the result of a stroke.

Later that same day, Adam Janus, a 27-year-old postal worker, was found unconscious on the floor of his home in nearby Arlington Heights. “His breathing was labored, his blood pressure was dangerously low and his pupils were fixed and dilated.” Janus was rushed to the hospital, where he died despite doctors’ last-ditch efforts to revive him. His death was attributed to heart attack.

Suffering through the stressful and sudden loss of a family member, the Janus family gathered at Adam’s house, where Adam’s 25-year old brother Stanley and his 19-year-old wife, Theresa, began to feel ill. Stanley took Tylenol from the same bottle his brother had used, and gave one to Theresa. Both family members soon collapsed and once again, ambulances raced to the house. Stanley was pronounced dead soon after reaching the hospital, and Theresa died after losing a two-day fight against the poison.

Baffled by the string of deaths, medical investigators tested the victims’ blood for traces of something unnatural, and emergency personnel began discussing possible causes. It was Arlington Heights firefighter Philip Cappitelli who first made the connection that all four people had ingested Tylenol just prior to their deaths.

Police were sent to the victims’ homes to retrieve and test the Tylenol, later determining that deadly doses of cyanide had been added to the pills.

The unknown perpetrator, who became known as the “Tylenol Terrorist,” would claim three more lives in the weeks that followed. The deaths of 27-year-old Mary Reiner, 35-year-old Paula Prince, and 35-year-old Mary McFarland sparked panic among consumers around the nation.

Tylenol maker Johnson & Johnson was quick to cooperate with investigators, ordering a mass recall of the medication, halting production and taking other measures to improve product safety. The company has been widely praised for its reaction.

Shortly after the seven deaths, tax accountant and con artist James W. Lewis was arrested for sending a letter to Johnson & Johnson, claiming to be the killer and demanding one million dollars in return for an end to the poisonings. Investigators soon determined he was not the Tylenol Terrorist, but Lewis landed in jail for his extortion attempt.

“For those who lost loved ones or investigated the case, pain, anger and frustration remain. Part of the reason is that nobody was ever charged, much less convicted of the crime,” reports USA Today.

The seven deaths attributed to the Tylenol Terrorist inspired numerous similar crimes, but also led to national legislation to protect consumers. “Every time you open a bottle or package (of medicine, food or drink) that has tamper-evidence features, a band around the lid or an interior seal, it is because of the Tylenol case,” said Pan Demetrakakes, executive editor of Food & Drug Packaging magazine.

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Later Developments: Copycat poisonings; Johnson & Johnson’s reaction

The Tylenol killings in 1982 were only the first of dozens of crimes involving deliberately tainted products. Immediately after the initial attacks, “a score of similar but nonfatal cases occurred in which poisonous substances were introduced into pharmaceuticals and food products.” And later, in 1986, Diane Elseroth of Yonkers, N.Y., was found dead after ingesting tainted Tylenol.

In 1988, Stella Nickell of Seattle was convicted for product tampering and two counts of murder in a bizarre plot mimicking the Tylenol killings. First, Nickell poisoned her husband’s Excedrin capsules with cyanide, killing him for his life insurance money. She then planted other poisoned Exedrin bottles in a local store to make the first murder look random, resulting in the death of Susan Snow.

Following the Tylenol Terrorist attacks, Johnson & Johnson was closely scrutinized by the public. The company’s first step was to alert Americans through the media by issuing a warning to stop consuming Tylenol, also halting both production and advertising of the product. “By withdrawing all Tylenol, even though there was little chance of discovering more cyanide-laced tablets; Johnson & Johnson showed that they were not willing to take a risk with the public’s safety, even if it cost the company millions of dollars.”

Rather than trying to cover up the deaths, Johnson & Johnson openly sought press coverage, setting up a series of press conferences and creating a 24/7 information hotline for Tylenol consumers. The company also developed new tamper-proof packaging which featured “a glued box, a plastic seal over the neck of the bottle, and a foil seal over the mouth of the bottle.”

Reference: Cyanide’s deadly effects


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