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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Monday, October 4

At the behest of Mayor Byrne, the Chicago City Council passes an ordinance requiring tamper-resistant packaging for all drugs sold in stores.

Tuesday, October 5

Johnson & Johnson recalls all Tylenol products nationwide: 31 million bottles valued at more than $100 million.

In the ensuing days and weeks, the investigation continues.

Attorney General Fahner
The core the first couple of days was not so much to catch the perpetrators as it was to protect the public. Then the group grew, and within a couple of days we started having meetings in Des Plaines at a state police facility out there.

Superintendent Brzeczek
You had law enforcement agencies out in DuPage and law enforcement agencies in suburban Cook County and then the last one involved Chicago. You had the FBI involved; you had the U.S. attorney involved. I mean, everybody was involved.

Attorney General Fahner
We had hundreds of people actively seeking leads and running leads. We were getting a lot of wackos calling, saying they did it. There were over 1,200 things we thought were leads—not people calling, but leads we would go out and investigate.

Jeremy Margolis
Assistant U.S. Attorney
Were there leads? Thousands. Barrels of leads. The phones were ringing off the hook. Hotlines were set up. People were calling day and night with leads, some meaningful, some preposterous. A hundred officers and agents were running themselves ragged trying to make rational sense of the information being dumped—like drinking from a fire hose.

Superintendent Brzeczek
All this went on for a couple of weeks. This was the first media circus that I can remember. This was not only a Chicago story; it was an international story.

Attorney General Fahner
You couldn’t turn on a TV or look at a newspaper in the whole country and not see it.

Herb Hogberg
Detective with the Elmhurst Police Department
I went out to Des Plaines along with investigators from the other departments. The state had all the leads, and they would pass the information down to the investigators. We followed up with interviewing people from various areas.

Firefighter Keyworth
I have taught investigation for many years, and this was a traveling circus. Everyone was grasping for straws, you know. Of course, that’s the business. Everyone wanted to break it and be the first one to have the latest information.

Detective Hogberg
[The top investigators] had a series of people that they had us talk to that Johnson & Johnson had terminated. They were thinking, Well, maybe an ex-employee was upset with them. There was one I found interesting. Johnson & Johnson had had a problem with their talcum powder. Green stuff was growing in it, and mothers were upset. A team of chemists determined the green was a mold that grows in damp oak, and they had oak pallets down in the [talc] mine. On that team was this guy who got terminated. He was the type of person that I thought could lie through his teeth to me and I would believe it. He was very smart but didn’t seem to have an ax to grind.

Director Zagel
The distressing thing is there were a number of people who had absolutely nothing to do with the offense and were sorry that they didn’t. They wished they had.

Wednesday, October 6

An extortion letter arrives at Johnson & Johnson demanding $1 million to stop the Tylenol killings. The police eventually trace the letter to James Lewis in New York City. For weeks the investigation focuses on him. (He is finally apprehended in December.)

Superintendent Brzeczek
It wasn’t James Lewis. James Lewis was an asshole, an opportunist. He tried to extort some money from Johnson & Johnson, and he went to jail. He was in the joint a long time. When someone is in the penitentiary, you can go and talk to him, with or without his lawyer present. In all those years, all the work on James Lewis to put it together: nothing.

Attorney General Fahner
Do I think James Lewis was involved? I did, and I do. And the head of the FBI office here at the time—I can’t speak for him, but I think he felt as I did. But we could never put him in the city, in the places, at the right time.

August Locallo
Lieutenant with the Chicago Police Department
I was the top man in violent crimes. [Lewis] had lived in Chicago, and that’s why they zeroed in on my unit. He was in custody in New York, and I was assigned to go to New York to interview him. Basically, the FBI had him in custody, and by the time we got to New York, he had his attorney and he wouldn’t talk to us. That was a futile effort. He’s a con man. Strictly a con man. And he’ll do anything to get to his goal. I really believed he might have killed somebody, but they couldn’t put anything on him.

Director Zagel
I have no comment on James Lewis. [In 1995, after serving 13 years of a 20-year sentence for extortion, Lewis was released from prison. Today he lives on the East Coast.]

Wednesday, October 20

Superintendent Brzeczek
We got no breaks. There were no breaks. What began to bother me was the bullshit that was coming out about the progress being made in the investigation. I called a press conference, and I said in my opinion we know nothing more now than we did when the first murder took place, and in my opinion, based on what is now known, this case will never be solved. You want to talk about the shit hitting the fan. We had a big meeting in the U.S. attorney’s office. [U.S. Attorney Dan] Webb was there, Fahner, Zagel, [Chicago head agent Ed] Hegerty from the FBI—a bunch of people. “What did you say that for?!” [they asked]. “Because it’s the truth,” I said. “You’re bullshitting the people and they’re terrified out there. Stop giving them false hope. Tell them the truth.”

Thursday, October 21

Ongoing lab tests discover cyanide-laced Tylenol in a bottle turned in by a Dominick’s near the Walgreens where Paula Prince made her fatal purchase.

Monday, October 25

Authorities reduce the Tylenol task force from 115 to about 40 investigators.

Detective Hogberg
Every night we’d get back to Des Plaines, and [the investigation’s leaders] would fill us in as to what had transpired during the day. I never felt I had all the information as to what was going on. We ended up with maybe 40 [investigators] who showed up until almost the very end.

Sergeant Rizer
At the end, everybody just said, “That’s it. No more to be done.”



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