On This Day

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Associated Press

On This Day: Three Die After Taking Cyanide-Laced Tylenol

September 29, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Sept. 29, 1982, three people in suburban Chicago died after taking poisoned Tylenol, the first of seven victims killed by the “Tylenol Terrorist.” The case, which remains unsolved, led to the development of tamper-proof packaging.

Seven Killed by Tylenol Terrorist

Mary Kellerman, a 12-year-old living in the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove Village, awoke on the morning of Sept. 29 with a sore throat. Her parents gave her an Extra-Strength 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, suffered a cardiopulmonary collapse. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died despite doctors’ last-ditch efforts to revive him. “He suffered sudden death without warning,” said one of the doctors. “It was most unusual.”

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 two days.

Almost immediately after Mary Kellerman’s death, firefighter Richard Keyworth, a friend of a Kellerman family friend Philip Cappitelli, theorized that the Tylenol Mary had taken before her death may have been to blame. Cappitelli asked investigators about the Janus family’s deaths and learned that they too had taken Tylenol.

Medical investigators examined the Tylenol bottles and immediately determined that they contained deadly doses of cyanide. Public warnings were issued on the morning of Sept. 30, but three more people in the Chicago area—27-year-old Mary Reiner, 35-year-old Paula Prince, and 35-year-old Mary McFarland—died by Oct. 1.

The unknown perpetrator, who became known as the “Tylenol Terrorist,” sparked panic among consumers around the nation. “It was a modern version of poisoning the water well, and it struck home with the force of an ancient fear,” wrote Newsweek.

Tylenol’s Response

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.

“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,” says the Department of Defense Joint Course in Communication.

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 that featured “a glued box, a plastic seal over the neck of the bottle, and a foil seal over the mouth of the bottle,” according to the Department of Defense.

The FDA introduced laws requiring tamper-proof packaging. “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, to The Associated Press.

Search for the Tylenol Terrorist

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 $1 million 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.

The FBI has since reopened the case, again targeting Lewis. Agents searched his home in February 2009, but did not find enough evidence to charge him.

The Tylenol Terrorist inspired copycat crimes, as the killings were followed by “a score of similar but nonfatal cases occurred in which poisonous substances were introduced into pharmaceuticals and food products,” reported The New York Times. And later, in 1986, Diane Elseroth of Yonkers, N.Y., was found dead after ingesting tainted Tylenol.

Reference: Cyanide


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