Oct. 10, 2011 Special to Crime Magazine
by Scott Bartz
On September 29, 1982, seven people in Chicago died after taking Extra Strength Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide. Authorities immediately blamed the poisonings on an anonymous madman who had supposedly put the poisoned capsules into Tylenol bottles in several local retail stores. The evidence, however, refutes this madman-in-the-retail-stores hypothesis, and points instead to a culprit who planted the lethal capsules at a warehouse in the Tylenol distribution system - a system the police did not understand and the media did not investigate.
The Tylenol murders case had been cold for more than 26 years when it was publicly reactivated on February 4, 2009. An FBI spokesperson said new tips generated by the 25th anniversary of the murders were being pursued in “a renewed effort to solve this crime and bring some measure of closure for the families of the victims.” In reality, this investigation had been secretly reactivated just prior to the 25th anniversary of the Tylenol murders. The 25th anniversary was an important milestone in this case, because, under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), documents more than 25 years old and of historical interest must be declassified. However, documents related to an active investigation are exempt from this FOIA provision.
In July 2007, with the imminent declassification of documents related to the Tylenol murders drawing near, “retired” FBI Agent, Roy Lane, and “Sherry Nichols,” posing as a freelance journalist writing a book about the Tylenol murders, had initiated a covert operation that looked an awful lot like an attempt to frame James Lewis for the Tylenol murders. Lane and Nichols met with James and his wife LeAnn many times. They flew the Lewises to New York City and Chicago, paid James thousands of dollars, and taped 80 hours of interviews with him. When the Tylenol case was publicly reactivated, Roy and Sherry cut off all contact with the Lewises. The details of this bizarre investigation are revealed in Scott Bartz’s new book, The Tylenol Mafia: Marketing, Murder, and Johnson & Johnson.
Officials have long cited the scarcity of physical evidence and apparent lack of motive as the reasons why they failed to capture the Tylenol killer. But now, new revelations and information not previously disclosed tell a very different story of a crime that should have been solved.
A Curious Discovery
A man who would soon become notoriously anonymous slipped away unseen as a squad car driven by Deputy Al Swanson approached the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge and Restaurant in Elgin, Illinois early Tuesday morning, September 28, 1982. Deputy Swanson turned left into the parking lot from the southbound lane of Route 25, a two lane highway known locally as Dundee Avenue. He veered right as he approached the motel lobby and then drove about 40 yards before pulling into one of 15 parking spaces facing Dundee Avenue. He waited in his patrol car until Deputy Joseph Chavez arrived about a minute later. The deputies were working the midnight to 8 a.m. shift for the Kane County Sheriff’s Department and were meeting at the all-night restaurant for breakfast.
It was a clear night and about 55 degrees when Swanson and Chavez exited their vehicles at 2:32 a.m., exchanged pleasantries, and headed for the restaurant’s entrance. Chavez glanced down the line of mostly empty parking spaces and saw two light-brown cardboard boxes resting on the pavement just off the 30-foot wide strip of grass that ran between the parking lot and Dundee Avenue. The boxes, identical in size, measured about 10 inches wide by 10 inches deep and were 8 inches tall. The labels on the boxes gradually came into focus as the deputies, obviously curious, walked toward them.
The words “EXTRA-STRENGTH TYLENOL CAPSULES” were embossed in bold black uppercase letters at the center of the right half of each box-front. The Tylenol manufacturer’s name - “McNEIL” - was imprinted on the bottom left quarter section of each box-front just below the description of the contents: Twelve 6-packs of 50-count bottles of Extra Strength Tylenol capsules.
One of the boxes was open. Two dozen Tylenol bottles remained in the open box, but two of those bottles were also open. Strewn on the pavement within a few feet of the boxes were hundreds of red and white capsule parts labeled with the 500-milligram Extra Strength Tylenol dosage mark. In between the boxes was “a big pile of powder that looked as if it had been dumped.”
“It looked like hundreds of capsules had been emptied,” Deputy Chavez said later. “We looked at them and found a couple of capsules that had been put back together.”
Swanson and Chavez scraped up some of the powder and rubbed it between their fingers. They picked up and examined a few of the capsules and capsule parts. The deputies guessed that the capsules had been emptied by drug dealers who were planning to mix the acetaminophen with cocaine or some other illegal drug. Still, it was odd that some of the capsule parts had been refilled and “put back together.” The Tylenol 500mg labels on the reassembled capsules were misaligned as a result.
Before the deputies had time to fully consider the possible implications of what they had found, Swanson suddenly became violently ill, with vomiting, a headache, and dizziness - all symptoms of cyanide poisoning, which can occur from inhalation or absorption through the skin. Deputy Chavez also became dizzy and nauseous, and he too began to vomit. Too sick to eat or work, the deputies got back into their squad cars and drove away. They had made no immediate connection between the Tylenol capsules and the sudden onset of their mysterious illness, so they simply left the boxes of Extra Strength Tylenol capsules right where they had found them, sitting in the Howard Johnson’s parking lot at the intersection of Route 25 and Interstate 90, about 38 miles northwest of Chicago.
Twenty-eight hours later, and about 20 miles east of the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge and Restaurant in Elgin, Dennis Kellerman opened a brand new bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol capsules in his Elk Grove Village home. He then gave one of the capsules to his twelve-year-old daughter, Mary. Minutes later, she was dead from cyanide poisoning. By the end of the same day, six other Chicago area residents would also die from cyanide-laced Extra Strength Tylenol capsules.
The search for the Tylenol killer began the next day, on Thursday, September 30, 1982 with an investigative strategy that remained unchanged through October 25, 1982. However, the historical record of that manhunt excludes much of what really happened prior to October 26th, leaving the public today completely unaware of the true scope of the first 26 days of Tylenol murders investigation.
A Mea Culpa
The Howard Johnson’s incident had been briefly reported but seemingly forgotten by the evening of October 26, 1982, when a crowd of reporters gathered outside the makeshift headquarters of the Tylenol murders task force - a drab one-story, 2,000 square-foot brick building in Des Plaines, Illinois. A small wooden platform in front of the task force headquarters served as the stage for the news conference that was about to begin. One day earlier, officials had disclosed a major new development in the Tylenol case, fueling rumors of possible impending arrests. The month long manhunt, which had seemed dead in the water just two days earlier, had suddenly become red hot. Now, the state’s top lawman was about to cool things back down.
Governor “Big” Jim Thompson had handed the job of top Illinois lawyer-lawman to Tyrone Fahner in July of 1980 when the immensely popular, long-time Attorney General, William J. Scott, was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to 11 months in prison. Having never run for office, Fahner was a political neophyte when Thompson appointed him Illinois Attorney General. Fahner had been a virtual unknown 26 days ago, even to the residents of his home state. That anonymity had changed instantly when he became the official spokesperson for the task force charged with solving the Tylenol murders. Fahner seemed to enjoy the constant media attention he was now receiving, but on this night, he was not looking forward to interacting with the crowd of reporters waiting outside.
From inside his command center, Fahner straightened his tie and glanced through the window at the crowd of reporters from national, international, and local news-outlets. He took a deep breath, opened the glass door, and followed the well worn path to the brightly lit plywood stage. With all the confidence he could muster, Tyrone Fahner delivered his mea culpa. The hot new development in the Tylenol murders case had turned out to be nothing more than a flawed theory and some wishful thinking.
Just one day earlier, “officials close to the case” had told the Chicago Sun-Times and NBC-News that the Tylenol murders were part of a conspiracy carried out by two men. Investigators had said they were close to solving the Tylenol murders. But now, their conspiracy theory had fallen apart completely. Fahner had no evidence, no suspects, and apparently no clue as to the identity of the Tylenol killer. To make matters worse, Election Day was just one week away, and the polls showed that former Lieutenant Governor, Neil Hartigan, was hammering Fahner in the race for Illinois Attorney General. Fahner needed a scapegoat. That’s where James Lewis came in.
Copyright © 2011 Scott Bartz
All rights reserved.