Before she takes any type of medication, Monica Janus makes the sign of the cross. And she never takes Tylenol.
That’s because 36 years ago, three members of Janus’s family died suddenly after taking Tylenol capsules, which unbeknownst to them and the rest of the world at the time, had been filled with poison.
“I remember running to my mom saying, ‘Please don’t die!’ and we kneeled by the bed and were praying and asking God to help our family. It was so scary,” Janus, who was 10 years old at the time, tells A&E Real Crime. “I’m still scared.”
Someone had put cyanide inside Tylenol capsules, put them back in the bottles and randomly placed them on store shelves across the Chicago area. Seven people, including a 12-year-old girl, unsuspectingly took the pills and died.
The crime would forever change America. It gripped the nation in fear and led to changes that are part of life today. It’s why there are tamper-proof seals on every medicine bottle and food product, sometimes in multiple layers. It made easy-to-open medicine capsules obsolete, replaced by unbreakable caplets.
The crime even impacted Halloween. Ever since the Tylenol poisonings, parents have been urged to examine their children’s trick-or-treat candy for anything suspicious.
It all began on September 29, 1982, when suburban Chicago seventh-grader Mary Kellerman took Tylenol for a sore throat and collapsed to the floor. She died immediately and inexplicably. Hours later, in a neighboring suburb, three healthy young members of the same family—Adam, Stanley and Theresa Janus—died the same way. So did Chicago flight attendant Paula Prince; suburban mom Mary Reiner, who had just come home from the hospital after giving birth to her fourth child; and Illinois Bell Phone Center employee Mary McFarland.
Officials quickly found the common denominator to these strange, sudden deaths: They had all just taken Tylenol. Once the pills were identified as the culprit and it was discovered that they were all laced with cyanide, extreme measures were taken to prevent people from taking Tylenol.
Because it was the pre-Internet era, suburban Chicago police drove along residential streets using bullhorns to warn people, “Don’t take Tylenol!” In some places, they went door-to-door with bags, collecting bottles. Announcements were made on school intercoms and on the evening TV news.
As more than 140 police and FBI investigators hunted for the killer, Tylenol’s parent company Johnson & Johnson did something unprecedented at the time: It helped issue warnings and immediately recalled all 31 million bottles of its product off store shelves nationwide. It cost the company an estimated $100 million. The massive product recall, referred to as “the recall that started them all,” continues to be hailed as an example of good corporate citizenship—and public relations. The Tylenol brand, initially considered doomed, returned to being the top-selling pain reliever within two months.
Yet, the killer was never found. The Tylenol poisonings remain one of the nation’s most notorious unsolved murder mysteries.
There hasn’t been much new with the investigation, at least publicly, in more than a decade. Many witnesses and suspects are in their 70s now, or have passed away. Detectives who worked on the case have retired.
Is time running out to solve this crime? Did someone get away with a mass murder?
Police remain tight-lipped about the case, as they’ve been all along. A small task force of police from around the Chicago area still works on the complex, cold case, but refuses to discuss their meeting frequency or latest work.
Arlington Heights (Illinois) Police Sgt. Scott Winkelman, a longtime task-force member, would only say that the investigation remains active and that he believes the case is still solvable. After all, his department just cracked a 45-year-old cold case that led to the July 2018 first-degree murder conviction of Donnie Rudd, 76, in the death of his teenage wife Noreen in 1973. On September 13, 2018, Rudd was sentenced to 75 to 150 years in prison.
“The Tylenol case is still open, and we continue to hold out hope that we will make an arrest and bring justice for the victims and their families,” Winkelman says.
Surviving family members hope that day comes as well.
Monica Janus, niece of victims Adam, Stanley and Theresa Janus, says her family still struggles with the fact that the person who committed this crime was never caught. Her grandparents, who have since passed away, never got over their loss.
“Literally, throughout their whole life, all they did was cry every day—because they never knew who did it,” she says. “Grandma always wanted answers, and there were no answers.”
Monica grew up fearing her family members could die suddenly. She still has vivid memories of relatives hysterically weeping over the caskets at the funeral, which was crawling with FBI agents and media. But she’s now ready to forgive the culprit who did this, saying “it’s time.” Sometimes, she even thinks it might have all happened for a reason.
“Maybe their deaths saved people all over the planet by putting safety seals on everything,” she says.
Joseph Janus, Monica’s father, who lost two of his brothers to the poisonings, says he is still traumatized from seeing his brother, Stanley, grab his chest and fall to the floor. Foam oozed from his mouth and his eyes rolled to the back of his head.
“That will never go away,” Joseph Janus says. “I still see that all the time in my mind.”
His brothers’ murders challenged his faith in God and sent him into a deep depression. Joseph says he tried to move on, but still misses his brothers and dreams about them often. In one recent dream, everyone involved in the Tylenol case was in a room, and two men in black suits and glasses were laughing about how they got away with murder.
“I don’t think they’re ever going to find out who did it—unless somebody slips,” Joseph says. “It’s never too late.”
Joseph believes the killer was someone who wanted to bring down America with some type of terrorist act, not unlike the anthrax scare that happened years later, following 9/11. Police examined that possibility, plus dozens of other possible motives—from the philosophical (Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s rage against technology), to the financial (companies that manufacture safety seals).
However, many investigators who have worked on the case have had their eyes on one man all along: James W. Lewis.
Lewis, who now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was convicted of trying to extort money from Johnson & Johnson a few days after the poisonings, demanding $1 million “to stop the killings.”
Lewis’s past is filled with arrests and strange behavior, but he steadfastly maintains his innocence.
On his website, Lewis writes: “The Lewis’s were in New York and were NOT in Chicago during murders! END OF DISCUSSION! It was therefore impossible for Lewis to have committed the Tylenol Murders! All discussions beyond this point are irresponsible, idle speculation.”
Michelle Rosen, daughter of victim Mary Reiner, doubts Lewis is responsible. Rosen has dedicated years of her life to her own in-depth investigation of the crime. She disagrees with the police’s “lone madman” theory, concluding from her research that the tampering occurred sometime after manufacturing, but before the product was stocked on store shelves.
Rosen has attempted, unsuccessfully, to get police to unseal and make public some of the investigation’s documents. She believes it isn’t too late to solve the crime.
“I will never stop investigating until there are actually answers,” she says. “Time will never run out, so long as there are willing bodies to explore beyond this dead end.” She believes if the case is looked at from a different angle, there’s potential to solve it. “This old, dusty avenue has returned no evidence or answers,” she says.
As of 2009, Johnson & Johnson was offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction. Company officials did not respond to requests about whether that reward money is still being offered. But if so, perhaps it will be enough of an incentive for someone to come forward and help the police solve the case and, ultimately, give the victims’ families closure.
“It’d be good to know, before I die, who it was,” Monica Janus says.