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The Tylenol Terrorist

The Tylenol Terrorist
BY Rachael Bell
Death in a Bottle
Extra-Strength Tylenol package
On September 29, 1982, 12-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Illinois, woke up at
dawn and went into her parents' bedroom. She did not feel well and complained of having a sore
throat and a runny nose. To ease her discomfort, her parents gave her one Extra-Strength Tylenol
capsule. At 7 a.m. they found Mary on the bathroom floor. She was immediately taken to the
hospital where she was later pronounced dead. Doctors initially suspected that Mary died from a
stroke, but evidence later pointed to a more sinister diagnosis.
Mary Kellerman
That same day, paramedics were called to the Arlington Heights home of 27-year-old postal
worker Adam Janus. When they arrived, they found him lying on the floor. His breathing was
labored, his blood pressure was dangerously low and his pupils were fixed and dilated. The
paramedics rushed Adam Janus to the emergency room at Northwest Community Hospital,
where they attempted to resuscitate him, but it was too late. Adam died shortly after he was
brought to the hospital. His death was believed to be the result of a massive heart attack.
However, doctors would later learn that his death was anything but natural.
On the eve of Adam's death, his aggrieved family gathered at his house to mourn his sudden
passing and discuss funeral arrangements. Adam's 25-year old brother Stanley and his 19-yearold bride, Theresa, both suffered from headaches attributed to the stress of losing a family
member. To his relief, Stanley found on Adam's kitchen counter a bottle of Extra Strength
Tylenol. He took a capsule from the bottle and then gave one to his wife.
Shortly after taking the capsules, both Stanley and his wife collapsed onto the floor. The shocked
family members immediately called an ambulance. Once again paramedics rushed to the home of
Adam Janus and attempted to resuscitate the young couple. However, Stanley died that day, and
his wife died two days later.
According to an article by Tamara Kaplan, Dr. Thomas Kim at the Northwest Community
Hospital became suspicious following the deaths of the three family members. It was suspected
that poisonous gas could have caused the untimely deaths of Adam, Stanley and Theresa.
However, after consulting with John B. Sullivan at the Rocky Mountain Poison Center, it was
determined that cyanide might be the culprit. Blood samples were taken from the victims and
sent to a lab for testing.
While the blood samples were being tested for cyanide, two firefighters in another location of the
Chicago suburbs discussed the four bizarre deaths that had recently taken place in the
neighboring area. Arlington Heights firefighter Philip Cappitelli talked with his friend Richard
Keyworth from the Elk Grove firehouse about Mary Kellerman and the fact that she had taken
Tylenol before she died. Keyworth suggested that all the deaths could have been related to the
Following his friend's suggestion, Cappitelli called the paramedics who worked on the Janus
family and asked if they too had taken Tylenol. To both the men's surprise, they discovered all
three Janus family members had ingested the popular pain reliever. The police were immediately
sent to the Kellerman and Janus homes to retrieve the suspicious bottles.
The following day, Keyworth, Sullivan and Kim's hunches were confirmed. Cook County's chief
toxicologist, Michael Shaffer, examined the capsules and discovered that they were filled with
approximately 65 milligrams of deadly cyanide, 10,000 times more than the amount needed to
kill the average person. Moreover, the blood samples of all the victims further confirmed the
belief that they were all poisoned.
McNeil Consumer Products, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson and the maker of Extra
Strength Tylenol, was immediately alerted to the deaths. An October 1982 Newsweek article
reported that the company began a massive recall of their product and warned doctors, hospitals
and wholesalers of the potential dangers. However, by then it was too late for three more victims
of the deadly poison-laced Tylenol capsules.
Twenty-seven-year-old Mary Reiner of Winfield, Illinois, was recovering after the birth of her
son when she unsuspectingly ingested the Tylenol laced with cyanide. She died a short time
later. That same day, 35-year-old Paula Prince, a United Airlines stewardess, was found dead in
her suburban Chicago apartment. Cyanide-filled Tylenol capsules were also found in her home.
The seventh known victim of the Tylenol poisonings was 35-year-old Mary McFarland of
Elmhurst, Illinois.
Soon after the national news stories on the tragic deaths from the tainted Tylenol, widespread
fear swept throughout the country, especially in Chicago and its suburbs. The police drove
through the city using loudspeakers to warn citizens about the potential dangers of Tylenol,
which further compounded the people's fears. Citizens across the country literally ran home to
dispose of their bottles of Tylenol.
According to a Time article by Susan Tifft, hospitals in the Chicago area were flooded with
telephone calls concerning Tylenol and fears of poisoning. Jason Manning's article titled The
Tylenol Murders stated that the growing nationwide panic prompted the head of Seattle's Poison
Control Center to inform citizens that if they had indeed been poisoned with cyanide, they would
be dead before they were even able to make a telephone call to a hospital or the police.
Nevertheless, hospitals around the country admitted many patients under the suspicion of
cyanide poisoning from Tylenol. The rapid influx of patients was mostly due to mixed signals
from the health authorities concerning the threat and symptoms and the ensuing panic of people
who really believed that they might have fallen victim to poisoning from the tainted capsules.
However, although there were no new cases of poisoning related to Tylenol except for the seven
known deaths, many states and retailers took drastic measures to assure that it remained that
In response to the deaths, Johnson and Johnson immediately issued a nationwide alert to the
public, doctors and distributors of the drug. According to an article by Jeremy Cooke, they also
issued a massive recall of 31 million Tylenol bottles, costing approximately $125 million. J&J
also established a crisis hotline, so that consumers could obtain the latest information about the
poisonings, safety measures and any other information concerning the drug. Around the same
time, the company inspected the factories where the tainted bottles were produced to see if the
cyanide was somehow put into the capsules during production.
Following inspections, the company determined that the cyanide was not introduced into the
bottles at the factory, which left only one other possibility. The FBI, Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) and law enforcement agencies realized that someone had methodically
taken the Tylenol bottles off the shelves at the stores where they were sold, filled the capsules
with cyanide and returned them back to the shelves at a later period. Investigators had no
evidence as to who might have committed the heinous crime and there was continuing fear that
more deaths might occur unless they caught the Tylenol terrorist.
On October 2, 1982, another contaminated Tylenol bottle was discovered by police from a batch
of bottles removed from a drug store in the Chicago suburbs. Thousands of other bottles were
undergoing testing for traces of cyanide. Investigators had no idea how many other bottles might
have been tampered with. In an effort to put an end to the senseless deaths, J&J offered a $1,000
reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the terrorist.
Investigators discovered that the cyanide-laced capsules were placed in six Chicago area stores:
Jewel Foods in Arlington Heights, Jewel Foods in Grove Village, Osco Drug Store in
Schaumburg, Walgreen Drug Store in Chicago, Frank's Finer Foods in Winfield and another
undisclosed retail outlet. Each store contained one tampered bottle with approximately three to
ten tainted capsules, except for Osco Drug Store where two cyanide laced bottles were
It was suggested by the police that the bottles were randomly placed. However there was also a
possibility that the terrorist may have purposely chosen those specific locations for unknown
reasons. Some speculated that the terrorist could have held a grudge against the producers of
Tylenol, society in general or even the stores in which the tainted bottles were found. It was
further suggested that the killer many have lived within the vicinity of the drug stores, where the
tampered bottles were placed.
On November 11, 1982, J&J held a news conference stating that they were going to reintroduce
the Tylenol products that were temporarily pulled off the market. However, this time the bottles
were wrapped in new safety packaging. In an effort to restore consumer confidence, the new
Tylenol bottles contained a triple-seal tamper resistant package.
Johnson and Johnson spent heavily to advertise the new packaging and offered consumers a
$2.50 coupon towards the purchase of any Tylenol product. It took less than two months before
consumer confidence was restored.
As a direct consequence of the Tylenol murders, Congress approved in May 1983 a new
"Tylenol Bill" that made the malicious tampering of consumer products a federal offense. In
1989, the FDA set national requirements for all over the counter products to be tamper-resistant.
Steven Fink summed up the feeling of the nation when he stated that, "whatever innocence we
still had in the summer of 1982 was quickly shattered by the fall."
Americans had to think twice about the purchase of consumer products after the poisonings that
year. Furthermore, even though the new bill strengthened sentencing of product terrorists and the
FDA required increased safety measures, there was still no guarantee that any product was 100%
safe. As a nation we learned that we could no longer protect ourselves completely from even the
most harmless of products.
A number of copycat attacks involving Tylenol and other products also took place. In 1986,
Excedrin capsules in Washington state were tampered with, resulting in the deaths of Susan
Snow and Bruce Nickell from cyanide poisoning and the eventual arrest and conviction of
Bruce's wife Stella of crimes connected to both deaths. That same year, Procter & Gamble's
Encaprin was recalled after a spiking hoax in Chicago and Detroit that resulted in a precipitous
sales drop and a withdrawal of the pain reliever from the market
Many of the product-tampering cases that have resulted in death have, for the most part, led to
the successful conviction of the perpetrator. However, the one case that brought product
tampering to the forefront of America's consciousness has never been solved. To date, the $1,000
reward offered by Johnson and Johnson remains unclaimed because no one person has been
found guilty of the horrific crime that ended the lives of seven individuals. Despite the lack of
evidence and the disintegration of leads over time, hope remains that the Tylenol terrorist may
one day be brought to justice. Until then, his or her identity will remain a mystery.
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