Could the Long Strange Story of the Tylenol Murders Be Drawing to a Close?

The city’s most notorious unsolved murders—the killing of seven people with cyanide-laced Tylenols in 1982—is back in the news, as the seating of a grand jury is “possible.” It’s another vague turn in a legendarily opaque case.

This month, Chicago has an oral history of the 1982 Tylenol killings—seven Chicagoans murdered, seemingly at random, with cyanide-laced tablets—timed to the 30th anniversary of the incident, which has gone unsolved. It turns out the timing is more precipitous; Natasha Korecki and Kim Janssen learned that a grand jury in the case is “possible”:

The evidence investigators presented to prosecutors so far remains circumstantial, but it could be bolstered by statements from potential witnesses who have declined to sit for interviews, according to sources close to the investigation.

So far, however, no decision has been made on whether to give the grand jury a green light. Sources say both state’s attorneys from Cook and DuPage counties have been briefed on the evidence. The investigation, handled by an FBI-led task force of law-enforcement agents, still centers on the same man: James W. Lewis, sources tell the Sun-Times.

The circumstantial evidence and lack of any decision regarding the grand jury is in keeping with the murders’ long and mysterious history, a crime without physical evidence or any apparent motive. David Zivan, who authored Chicago’s oral history, captures the confusion three decades later from some of the principals:

Superintendent Brzeczek
My opinion is that this was an initial homicide where the bad guy knew the victim and that was it. And then to cover it up, the bad guy went and contaminated the other ones. That motive makes the most sense to me.

Firefighter Keyworth
I personally think that the person or persons involved in this—my gut feeling was that their purpose was to bring the United States to its knees: “Look at the power we have. We can shut down the entire economy. We can control the world.” And for a short period of time, they did. In today’s world, it would be domestic terrorism. We didn’t have that terminology back then. But it was actually the first case of domestic terrorism in the country.

Attorney General Fahner
I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but it was kind of the first act of terrorism, in that there was no intended victim, just random victims. Not unlike what happens in the world today when people throw pipe bombs. Up until that time, when you had mass murderers like Richard Speck, these were people who had selected victims and decided what they were going to do or not going to do. But this really was random. And that’s what terrorism is to me—to frighten or kill indiscriminately.

Neither explanation is terribly satisfying. Brzeczek’s theory is, well, elaborate—that the perpretrator covered up a targeted murder by concealing it with indiscriminate murder. Fahner’s theory is predicated on the randomness of it, but terrorism is rarely indiscriminate; terrorists usually have some goal or purpose in murder. No one’s ever come up with a plausible motive for either discriminate or indiscriminate killing.

Which brings the story to James W. Lewis. This smart and troubled man incriminated himself into the Tylenol investigation by attempting to extort one million dollars from Johnson & Johnson… but not for himself. Lewis directed the company to wire the ransom to the closed account of a business owner who’d once bounced checks to Lewis and his wife, and allegedly shortchanged them while paying off his personal bills. The defense claimed Lewis just wanted to sic the feds on the target of his ire, and Lewis was duly convicted on charges of attempted extortion. He’s been out for years now, living in the Boston area. In a lengthy chronicle of the case for the Reader, Joy Bergmann paints Lewis as a suspicious character… but not, aside from his extortion, necessarily suspicious as the Tylenol killer:

Lewis maintained he was a “political prisoner,” a “scapegoat,” and an “all-purpose monster…fathered by the wild-eyed hyperventilated imaginations of two brutal men, Tyrone Fahner and Daniel K. Webb,” who simply “blew” the Tylenol investigation thanks to “bureaucratic blundering incompetence.”

McGarr had already listened to Dan Webb reiterate Lewis’s biography: the violence toward his parents, the mental hospital commitment, the Raymond West murder charge, the Kansas City fraud schemes for which he was convicted in May of 1983 and sentenced to ten years, the fugitive flight, the extortion conviction, the breadboard schematic, the grandiose and quick-to-explode temperament, the innumerable aliases and deceptions.

Years later, Zivan finds skepticism towards Lewis as the killer:

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.

Which is why it was a bit surprising when the FBI reopened the case, searching Lewis’s home in 2009. Since then the case has been ongoing again, and it’s hard to know how to read the latest news. If all the evidence presented to prosecutors remains circumstantial, has their case against Lewis gotten any better over the years?

For his part, Lewis has avoided the press… except for an interview given to a Boston cable access show a few years ago. Here’s a clip, no less weird than any other point in the story.

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