Chicago Tylenol Murders: An Oral History

TERROR IN A PILL: In 1982, seven Chicago-area residents were killed after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. Three decades later, in exclusives interview, the principal players in that drama relive what some consider the first act of domestic terrorism.

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Thursday, September 30

1 a.m.

Dr. Kim
I eventually got the [lab reports]. It was a massive amount [of cyanide]—100 or 1,000 times more than was necessary to kill them.

3:15 a.m.

Mary McFarland is pronounced dead at Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove.

9:30 a.m.

Mary Reiner is pronounced dead at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield.

Bill Rizer
Sergeant with the Winfield Police Department
We weren’t quite sure at the time exactly what had happened. We knew [Reiner] was dead, but I don’t think initially we realized until the other investigations came to light with the other towns that we had a connection.

Deputy Medical Examiner Donoghue
About ten in the morning, an attorney from Johnson & Johnson [parent company of Tylenol’s manufacturer] shows up in our offices. We took him up to the lab, and the toxicologist explained what we had found. He was there about a half hour and left, and he could see, once we found cyanide in Tylenol, there was no way we could not release that information.

Roy Dames
CEO of Cook County’s medical examiner’s office
My first reaction was, “Let’s make sure there’s no other connection between these deaths before we go and tell people not to take Tylenol.” So they proved it to me, and I said, “Great—let’s go.” I believe I talked to the CEO of the company that made Tylenol, and I informed him that we were going to have a press conference, and his reaction was, “Do you have to?” And I said, “Well, do you have a better idea?” And he said, “No.”

Nurse Jensen
I hardly slept because I was so concerned about it, and I was angry about it, and I was sure it was a danger. So my husband was getting ready for work, and he woke me up and said, “Helen, they are saying it was the Tylenol.”

10 a.m.

Deputy Medical Examiner Donoghue
The press conference was simply to tell people in the area that we had found cyanide in Tylenol and to warn them that there might be a danger—that if they had any, then it was probably a good idea at least for a while not to take it. We weren’t saying it should be recalled, but we thought that the community needed to be warned.

Nurse Jensen
I called our police department and said, “You’ve got to get Tylenol off the shelves.” Nobody had talked to the police. And they said, “Oh, we can’t do that,” and I said, “Oh, yes, you can.” The deputy chief was there, and he said, “Go ahead and do it.”

3 p.m.

Johnson & Johnson announces the recall of all Tylenol from lot MC2880.

Medical Examiner CEO Dames
I spent the rest of the day on the phone. You answer, and it’s people worried who had taken Tylenol. The simple answer is, “If you took it and you’re calling me, don’t worry. But don’t take any more.”

8 p.m.

Tyrone Fahner
Illinois attorney general
I was at Pheasant Run [a resort in St. Charles] at a big Republican event. There were a lot of people there—Senator [Charles] Percy and Governor Thompson and a whole bunch of local, state, and federal politicians. My aide came up and said, “I need you to take a call.” It was from one of my deputies, who told me that there had been poisonings. I said, “Why not call the state’s attorney?” He told me they were in multiple counties: Cook and DuPage. The attorney general has responsibility for the entire state.

James Zagel
Director of the Illinois Department of Law Enforcement
Somebody called me. There was a certain geographical dispersion, but the deaths were highly unusual—you don’t see a lot of poisonings.

Attorney General Fahner
I got in my car, and we started trying to figure out what was going on. There had been multiple murders at that point in time. Deaths, anyway. We didn’t know they were murders then.

Director Zagel
It became clear early on that this was something that was not only a terrible crime but capable of repetition. It was obvious very early on that this was going to require a lot of people to do what had to be done.

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