In 1982, seven people in the Chicago area collapsed suddenly and died after taking tylenol capsules that had been laced with cyanide. These five females and two males, all relatively young, became the first victims ever to die from what came to be known as product tampering. The poisoned capsules had been placed on shelves in six different stores by a person intent on killing innocent people at random. One victim was a 12 year old girl who had a cold. Another victim had just returned from the hospital after giving birth to a baby boy. The tragedy was compounded for one family who lost three members. Overcome by grief at the sudden inexplicable death of a close relative, two other family members were offered tylenol capsules from the same bottle, not yet aware that poison was the cause of death. The case has never been solved, and the $100,000 reward offered by Johnson & Johnson remains unclaimed.

    A wave of copycat tamperings occurred afterwards: Lipton Cup-A-Soup in 1986, Exedrin in 1986, Tylenol again in 1986, Sudafed in 1991, and Goody's Headache Powder in 1992. Deaths resulted in these cases. Prior to 1982, tamper-proof capsules and tamper-proof packaging were essentially unknown. The technology evolved rapidly in response to the threat, and today such packaging is a familiar sight to all. Although copycat product tamperings have tapered off, probably as a direct result of improved packaging, cases continue to occur sporadically to this day. Incidents have occurred throughout the country, but with a surprising number in the Chicago area. Some 53 threats of product tampering have, in fact, been received by the FBI with a Gary, Indiana or south Chicago area postmark. Gary, of course, is a part of the Greater Chicago area. Cases of tampering, including the use of cyanide, have occurred in North Chicago, Lombard, Chicago proper and outlying areas. One unsolved cyanide poisoning occurred in Detroit, and another in Tennessee.


    The Tylenol killer has never been caught. Many believe he never will be caught. A somewhat bumbling suspect who attempted to cash in on the unprecedented publicity was arrested and charged with extortion, but not with the murders. The police concluded he was merely an opportunistic extortionist, and could not be the murderer. Although some believed he should have been tried for the murders, too many details and circumstances suggested he could not be the poisoner. James Lewis was released in 1995, after serving 13 years of a 20 year sentence.
    Mary Kellerman, 12, Elk Grove Village
    Adam Janus, 27, Arlington Heights
    Stanley Janus, 25, Lisle
    Theresa Janus, 19, Arlington Heights
    Paula Prince, 35, Chicago
    Mary Reiner, 27, Winfield
    Mary McFarland, 31, Elmhurst

    The lot numbers of the tainted tylenol capsules were MD 1910, MC 2880, MA 1801, and MB 2738. Evidently they were taken from different stores over a period of weeks or months, prior to being poisoned and placed back on the shelves of five different Chicago area stores. One package was placed in each store, except that two bottles were recovered from the Woodfield Osco. Also, two bottles were recovered from one other retail outlet that was not identified. Some of the packages had 5 or less poisoned capsules. One had 10 poisoned capsules.

    Jewel Foods, 122 N. Vail, Arlington Heights
    Jewel Foods, 948 Grove Mall, Elk Grove Village
    Osco Drug Store, Woodfield Mall, Schaumburg
    Walgreen Drug Store, 1601 N. Wells, Chicago
    Frank's Finer Foods, 0N040 Winfield Rd, Winfield
    (one unidentified retail outlet)


    The choice of locations for placement suggests the poisoner drove the highway routes 90/94, 290 & 294, driving in a near circular route, and selecting obvious and typical sites.The killer apparently spent several hours, possibly Wednesday all day, distributing the fatally laced packages. The choice of supermarkets for placement suggests randomness and unfamiliarity with Chicago. Sufficient information has not been released to determine the probable store(s) from which the tylenol packages were taken, or the order in which the laced packages were placed on the shelves, but this might enable reconstruction of the driving route.


    The specific avoidance of the numerous drug stores within the dense urban areas of west and north Chicago proper can hardly go unnoticed. The one odd location, the Wells street store, sits in the midst of a higher rent district, making it unlikely that the killer, unemployed, a student, or menially employed, would have lived there. Likewise, most of the other suburban locations can be ruled out. The area of most probable residence of the Tylenol Murderer would seem to have been areas of north and west Chicago proper, including neighborhoods like Lincoln Park (excluding the lakeshore), Rogers Park, Oak Park, and other non-black, non-hispanic, non-affluent, rental areas between North & Touhy and Halsted & Harlem. Alternatively, the Woodfield Osco, where two bottles were placed, is a very unlikely location for a non-resident to stumble across, and the route shown in the image would be reversed if we take Woodfield as the first placement location.

    Quite possibly, the killer arrived on a plane at O'Hare airport in the morning, rented a car and drove the roughly circular route back to the airport, returning home the same day. Airline records, if they still exist, might show a very limited number of people who arrived and left within 24 hours, and did not use a hotel but did rent a car. Mileage on the car, if the records still exist, might corroborate the route. This would also suggest the killer was well-employed, perhaps in the very competitive pharmaceutical industry. If he took a single day off work (returning to work inconspicuously the next day) then he could not be from the West Coast, but more likely the East Coast, where the pharmaceutical industry is centered (i.e. New Jersey). Company records (at the competitor's main office) would show this man missed a day of work the day before the killings.


    The poison used in the Tylenol Murders was a cyanide compound. Such compounds, which include potassium cyanide and sodium cyanide, are available to those in certain industries, such as gold and silver mining, fertilizer production, steel plating, and the film processing/chemicals industries. Workers in these industries have anonymous access, but then so do a variety of other people who are obliquely associated with these industries, such as truckers and college students.

    The specific form of cyanide used in the poisonings has been reported to be potassium cyanide, according to then Illinois Attorney General Tyrone Fahner, in an article in the Chicago Tribune dated Oct. 3, 1982. The level of purity was not publicly reported, but in the 1986 incident, which also involved potassium cyanide, the purity was reported as 90%. Potassium cyanide is commonly used in the metal electroplating, metal extraction, photographic and cinematographic film processing industries. It also is used in animal pharmacology, where purity levels are generally higher, and some equestrian applications.


    The amount of cyanide inserted in each capsule was reported as 65 milligrams but was probably 100 milligrams or more since the fatal dose for NaCN is about 150 milligrams. Other doses reported in the newpapers (5-6 micrograms) were clearly incorrect.

    The killer completely emptied each of some 20 or 30 capsules, and then refilled them with the grayish crystalline potassium cyanide. The capsules that were recovered all appeared deformed or bulky. This crude, clumsy work would have been obvious to a careful eye, but such a cruel and pusillanimous act could not have been anticipated in 1982.

    The rather imprecise work indicates an amateur criminal. This man was no chemist, no biologist, no computer programmer, no precise technical professional of any sort, but more likely a facile business manager or PR man.

    The quantities used in this crime also suggest that he had anonymous access to no insignificant quantity of potassium cyanide, in amounts that were not missed. Only a complete theory is lacking to tie it all together, and what a theory requires for completeness is a motive.


    No evidence was ever found that anyone profited specifically from the Tylenol Murders. No unusual stock trading activity was detected, although Johnson & Johson stock dropped dramatically overnight. None of the victims were wealthy or seemed to be a possible target of a murder plot to be covered up with 6 random murders. All the victims were relatively young, and no large insurance policies had been recently taken out on any of them. One of the victims had a manufacturing subcontract worth some $25,000 (gross) annually, and transfer of which was requested by two different relatives (actions apparently unknown to each other) shortly after his death. However, this is hardly the sort of money such an elaborate and horrendous crime is staged for. Neither relative was granted the subcontract anyway.

    If this was about money then it looks like an attempt to damage J&J's immensely successful Tylenol brand. If it wasn't about money then he may have had some vendetta against J&J. In either of these cases, it looks like he may have been an employee of a competitor. J&J had two or three major competitors but only one that had suffered a serious sales reduction due to the competition with Tylenol, and it is this company's employees that should have been investigated.

    Whatever the motivation of the killer, it would seem his objective was unrealized. Having become a murderer and a failure, it is possible that this man committed suicide some years after the incident. Surely the suicide of a manager at a major pharmaceutical firm would not go unnoticed by fellow employees?

    Many people believe the Tylenol Killer will never be caught, and that this was an unsolvable crime. There is still hope of solving this crime, because someone, somewhere, knows something.

    I previously attempted to gain access to the FBI files on the Tylenol murders under the Freedom of Information Act and the following letter was returned. Since the FBI was involved in the investigation, it's hard to believe that they have no files on this crime.

    I'm interested in hearing from anyone who has any additional information that is missing from this webpage, or can get access to FBI records through FOIA, and would like to hear from anyone formerly employed (1980s & 1990s) by J&J's competitors in the New Jersey area.


    1. Chicago Tribune, Friday October 1, 1982, Sec 1, p1.
    2. The Chicago Sun, October 1, 1982.
    3. The New York Times, October 3, 1982.
    4. Chicago Tribune, Saturday Oct 2, 1982, Sec 1, p1.
    5. Chicago Tribune, Sunday Oct 3, 1982, Sec 1, p1.
    6. Chicago Tribune, Monday Oct 4, 1982, Sec 1, p14.
    7. Newsweek Magazine, October 11, 1982, "The Tylenol Scare."
    8. The Washington Post, October 11, 1982, "Johnson & Johnson Sets Example in Crisis."
    9. Time, Oct. 11, 1982, p18.
    10. Time, Oct. 18, 1982. p16.
    11. The Courier Post, October 23, 1982, "FDA clears Tylenol maker."
    12. Time, Nov. 8, 1982, p27.
    13. The Kansas City Times, November 12, 1982, "The Tylenol nightmare: How a corporate giant fought back."
    14. The Kansas City Times, November 12, 1982, "PR effort launches new Tylenol package."
    15. Advertising Age Magazine, November 15, 1982, "New Tylenol package debuts."
    16. Fortune Magazine, November 29, 1982, "The Fight to Save Tylenol."
    17. The New York Times, December 24, 1982, "Tylenol Posts an Apparent Recovery."
    18. Kentucky New Era, February 11, 1986, "Big company reacts quickly in drug scare."
    19. The Wall Street Journal, February 11, 1986, "Tylenol Capsules are Linked to Death of New Yorker."
    20. The Wall Street Journal, February 12, 1986
    21. The Washington Post, February 12, 1986, "NY Cyanide Death Appears to be an Isolated Murder."
    22. The Journal Herald, February 12, 1986, "Company credos can pay off in crisis."
    23. The New York Times, February 12, 1986, "Officials Say Fatal Tampering of Tylenol was Isolated Case."
    24. New Brunswick Home News, February 12, 1986, "Tamper-proof container requirements exceeded."
    25. The New York Times, February 14, 1986, "2nd tainted bottle of Tylenol found by Investigators."
    26. Trenton Times, February 13, 1986, "Tylenol capsules banned in Jersey under Kean order."
    27. The Star Ledger, February 13, 1986
    28. The New York Times, February 15, 1986, "Johnson & Johnson Ends Sale of Tylenol Capsules."
    29. New York Daily News, February 15, 1986, "J&J halts Tyl capsules."
    30. NY Star, February 16, 1986, "Terrorism strikes home."
    31. The Courier News, February 15, 1986, "J&J puts $100G on head of terrorist."
    32. The New York Post, February 15, 1986, "Tylenol Poisoning is an Act of Terror."
    33. The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 16, 1986, "Formidable work ahead for Tylenol."
    34. The New York Times, February 18, 1986
    35. The Daily Targum, February 18, 1986, "Editorial: Bravo J&J."
    36. The Coloradoan, February 18, 1986
    37. Courier News, February 19, 1986, "A company with a human heart."
    38. The Kennebec Journal, February 19, 1986, "Terrorism without a motive."
    39. The Home News, February 19, 1986, "J&J takes bold action."
    40. Chicago Daily Southtown Economist, February 19, 1986, "Consumer loyalty to Tylenol maker quite fascinating."
    41. Sheboygan Wisconsin Press, February 19, 1986, "Public Safety Came First."
    42. The Miami News, February 21, 1986, "A capsule history of corporate morality."
    43. The Courier News, February 27, 1986, "J&J cleared in Tylenol cases."
    44. The Trenton Time, March 2, 1986, "Salvaging Tylenol."
    45. The Courier News, February 9, 1987, "Tylenol tampering trail going cold."
    46. Presentation "Our Credo", made to the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor, by James E. Burke, Chief Executive Officer of Johnson & Johnson, February 28, 1986.
    47. The Comeback, A Special Report by Johnson & Johnson Corporate Public Relations, 1986.
    48. The Guardian, Apr. 27, 1989, p4, col 1.
    49. Detroit News, Jan 18, 1989, Sec A, p1, col 2.
    50. Boston Globe, Jan 14, 1989, p26, col 5.
    51. Chicago Tribune, Feb. 1, 1989, Sec 2S, p5, col 6.
    52. Boston Globe, May 14, 1991, p3, col 1.
    53. Wall Street Journal, May 14, 1991, Sec B, p6, col 5.
    54. Chicago Defender, Dec. 28, 1992, p12, col 3.
    55. USA Today, Sep 29, 1992, Sec A, p3, col 2.
    56. Los Angeles Times, Aug 24, 1989, Sec. I, p19, col 1.
    57. USA Today, Jun 17, 1993, Sec A, p2, col 5.
    58. Chicago Tribune, May 14, 1991, Sec 1, p1, col 3.
    59. Chicago Defender, May 13, 1991, p1, col 1.
    60. Chicago Tribune, May 4, 1991, Sec 1, p5, col 5.
    61. Chicago Tribune, Oct 13, 1995, Sec 2C, p1, col 2.
    62. New York Times, Dec 25, 1992, Sec A, p21, col 1.
    63. Chicago Tribune, Apr 3, 1992, Sec 2C, p6, col 1.
    64. Chicago Tribune, Jun 5, 1995, Sec 2D, p4, col 1.
    65. New York Times, Oct 15, 1995, Sec 1, p25, col 1.
    66. FDA Consumer v29, n6, Jul 1995, p5-9.
    67. Chicago Tribune, Apr. 26, 1996, Sec 2C, p3, col 5.
    68. Chicago Tribune, Mar 5, 1997, Sec 2NW, p6, col 6.
    69. The Johnson & Johnson Credo and the Tylenol Crisis by Lawrence G. Foster, 1983, The New Jersey Bell Journal, v6, n1.
    70. Product Tampering: A Worldwide Problem, by Park Dietz,
    71. Cyanide: Poison Available to Some:
    72. The Tylenol Crisis: How Effective Public Relations Saved Johnson & Johnson. by Tamara Kaplan, The Pennsylvania State University.

Many thanks to the people at McNeil Consumer Products for providing copies of some of the above references, and for their (pending) permission to use their tradenames and images on this website.

Questions? Comments? Send email to Wally Kowalski at: email: drkowalski"at"