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Revisiting Chicago’s Tylenol Murders

In 1982, seven Chicago-area residents were killed after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. Three decades later, the principal players in that drama recount the frantic efforts to solve the crime — and the search for the perpetrator that continues to this day.

Terror in a Pill: The first victim, 12-year-old Mary Kellerman, died within four hours.   Photo: denisenfamily/Flickr

(page 1 of 5)

Wednesday, September 29, 1982

6:30 a.m.

Mary Kellerman, a 12-year-old from Schaumburg, wakes up feeling sick. Her parents keep her home from school, and she takes some Tylenol.

Dennis Kellerman
Mary’s father [to the Chicago Tribune]
I heard her go into the bathroom. I heard the door close. Then I heard something drop. I went to the bathroom door. I called, “Mary, are you OK?” There was no answer. I called again: “Mary, are you OK?” There was still no answer. So I opened the bathroom door, and my little girl was on the floor unconscious. She was still in her pajamas.

Richard Keyworth
Firefighter/inspector with the Elk Grove Village Fire Department
One of the paramedics on the call with the Kellerman girl was Dave Spung. Dave was one of the best paramedics I had ever met. He threw everything in that drug box at this young lady, and nothing made a difference.

9:56 a.m.

Mary Kellerman is pronounced dead at Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village.

Edmund Donoghue
Deputy chief medical examiner for Cook County
She was the first victim. Our office was notified, but there wasn’t anything too suspicious about that death. She was ordered into the medical examiner’s office for an autopsy because of her age and circumstances.

Nick Pishos
Investigator with Cook County’s medical examiner’s office
Basically, the investigator did a phone investigation. He interviewed the father, and the police go to the house and make sure it’s the same story.

Firefighter Keyworth
In what we call the ambulance report, the medications were listed as Tylenol. Well, everybody in the world took Tylenol. That didn’t seem out of order.


Adam Janus, a 27-year-old postal worker in Arlington Heights, had taken a sick day.

Helen Jensen
Public health nurse for Arlington Heights
He had stayed home from work because he had felt like he was getting a cold. And then he went to pick up his kids from preschool and stopped at the Jewel to get some Tylenol. He came home and they had some lunch, and he said, “I’m going to take two Tylenol and lie down.” And a couple of minutes later, he came staggering into the kitchen and collapsed.

3:15 p.m.

Thomas Kim
Medical director of Northwest Community Hospital’s intensive care unit
Our first job is to resuscitate, and we couldn’t even do that. His heart just would not resuscitate. I signed [Janus] out as probably cardiac death. I was talking to his family, explaining—trying to explain—what had happened. It’s hard even if you know the diagnosis. I was trying to tell them we didn’t know why. Adam’s wife, Teresa, was there. His parents were there, and a whole slew of other people. And they didn’t go back to their home; they went back to [Janus’s] house in Arlington Heights.

3:45 p.m.

Mary “Lynn” Reiner, 27, is at home in Winfield. She had recently given birth to her fourth child. Not feeling well, she takes some Tylenol and collapses.

Ed Reiner
Mary’s husband
We were together for a long time. She was an excellent mother. We had four children. The baby was a week old. I came home right after she had fallen on the floor. An ambulance came [and rushed her to Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield]. I’m not gonna say a whole lot more than that.

5 p.m.

Nurse Jensen
The [Janus] family was all at Adam’s house, planning the funeral and mourning together. Adam’s younger brother, Stanley [Janus], had some chronic back pain. And he asked his wife—they had been married just a little while, and her name was also Theresa—to get him some Tylenol. And she came out and gave him two Tylenol, and then she took two Tylenol. And then he went down. And then she went down.

Charles Kramer
Lieutenant with the Arlington Heights Fire Department [to the Daily Herald]
When I arrived at the house, there were cars and people everywhere. All eight of my men were working, four on one man and four on a woman. Everything that would happen to the man happened to the woman a few minutes later.

Dr. Kim
As I was putting on my blue blazer to leave, around 5:30, a nurse told me that they were bringing the Janus family back. And I said, “Well, it’s probably the parents,” because they were feeble and they might have been very upset. And the nurse said, “No, it’s his brother.” I had been talking to this six-foot healthy guy. And I said, “Well, what happened? Did he faint?” And she said, “They are doing CPR—and they are working on his wife too.” That’s when I took my blazer off.

Nurse Jensen
I got a phone call in the middle of dinner from Chuck Kramer [of the Arlington Heights Fire Department], and he said, “There’s something going on here. We had a death this morning, and now we brought in two more from the same house. And they want a public health person here, and you’re the only public health person I know.” So I dropped everything and went to the hospital.

Deputy Medical Examiner Donoghue
At the time, I lived two blocks away from the medical examiner’s office, and I just happened to come back to pick something up. I walked through the investigations area, and one of the guys said, “Doctor, we’ve got something unusual going on. We had this family in Arlington Heights where one person died, and then the brother and sister-in-law came over, and now the brother is dead and the sister-in-law is in very serious condition and not expected to live.”

Nurse Jensen
There was this poor lonely lady standing off in the corner, and that turned out to be Teresa, Adam Janus’s wife. I asked her to tell me exactly what had happened that morning and what had happened all day. I ask a lot of questions. I’m a nurse. And you don’t get answers if you don’t ask questions.

Investigator Pishos
When I first got [to the hospital], I found nobody really knew how this was happening. I asked Dr. Kim what he thought, and he said, “We don’t know.” I said, “Well, let’s go back to the house and try to see what’s out of the ordinary.”

6:30 p.m.

At an Illinois Bell store in Lombard, Mary McFarland, a 31-year-old resident of Elmhurst, tells her coworkers she has a bad headache.

Jack Eliason
McFarland’s brother [to the Associated Press]
She went in the back room and took I don’t know how many Tylenol—at least one, obviously—and within minutes she was on the floor.

John Millner
Commander of detectives at the Elmhurst Police Department
I didn’t know her, but I knew her dad. It was just so sad that he lost his daughter like that. Somehow it was suspected that she had ingested something bad. Poison or something.

8 p.m.

Jensen, Pishos, and police officers arrive at Adam Janus’s house in Arlington Heights.

Investigator Pishos
I was expecting to walk in the house and go, “Oh, there it is.” But it was nothing like that.

Nurse Jensen
I looked and didn’t see anything that could possibly be a contaminant. There was a shelf full of over-the-counter medications and some prescription drugs.

Investigator Pishos
I went into the basement and found that they did some metalworking. Somebody had mentioned that sometimes in metalworking they use cyanide for polishing. We just wanted to make sure there was nothing in the basement they had been in contact with.

Nurse Jensen
I found a bottle of Tylenol, and there were six capsules missing—and three people dead. In my mind, it had to be something to do with the Tylenol. And of course there was no protective sealing on this or any over-the-counter drugs. They just had cotton tucked in there. So we went back to [Northwest Community Hospital]. We took the bottle with us.

8:15 p.m.

Stanley Janus is pronounced dead at Northwest Community Hospital.

9:30 p.m.

After landing at O’Hare from Las Vegas, Paula Prince, a 35-year-old flight attendant with United Airlines, stops at the Walgreens at 1601 North Wells Street to buy some Tylenol.

10 p.m.

Investigator Pishos
There was a tiny little room off the ER [at Northwest Community] where I sat down with a policeman to preserve the chain of evidence. Of course, we didn’t know at the time what the chain of evidence was.

Nurse Jensen
I plopped the bottle down and said, “This is the cause.” And of course nobody would believe me. And I stamped my feet. They said, “Oh, no—it couldn’t be. It couldn’t be.”

Dr. Kim
She said, “Maybe it’s the Tylenol.” And I thought, Well, that’s fine. But at the time, that was just someone saying that. I was very frustrated—and I was very desperate. How come I can’t figure out what is wrong with these people?

Investigator Pishos
The other bottle from earlier in the day, from the little girl—for some reason the paramedics in Elk Grove Village had inventoried it. And I had the police department in Elk Grove Village bring it to me at the hospital.

Dr. Kim
I was pacing in my office. I kept going in my systematic way: What is likely or not likely? All I came down to was cyanide. But I said, “No! Where? Where was the exposure?” The only way I could test was to check the blood for cyanide. I had never done that. I’d never heard of it. We didn’t do that in the hospital. Someone, maybe another doctor, told me about a lab that does those special tests. So I sent the blood samples away.

Investigator Pishos
When I got [the Tylenol bottles], I looked and saw the control numbers were the same. I reported back to the medical examiner’s office and I said, “Look, everything here is different except this: Both have Tylenol bottles, and they both have the same control number: MC2880.”

Deputy Medical Examiner Donoghue
I told him [over the phone] to open the bottles and to smell them.

Investigator Pishos
I opened them up and looked inside. I poured them out. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. Everything was capsules. However, as I was pouring them out of the bottles, I could tell there was a strong smell of almonds. And then I opened the second bottle and I said, “You know, the first one smells like the second one: almonds.”

Deputy Medical Examiner Donoghue
I was very lucky because this investigator was able to smell cyanide. Only about half the population can smell it.

Investigator Pishos
And we both said the same thing at the same time: “Cyanide.”

Deputy Medical Examiner Donoghue
Cyanide is a chemical asphyxiant. It blocks the utilization of oxygen by red blood cells. You can be in an atmosphere with plenty of oxygen, and you can breathe it in, but it doesn’t get picked up by the red blood cells, and you asphyxiate. It causes brain damage and cardiac arrest. It happens very quickly.

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