Forty years ago, seven people in the Chicago area died after taking Tylenol that was tampered with and laced with cyanide.
It’s a cold case that paralyzed the Chicago area and captivated the nation. Bottles were pulled off shelves across the country and a major criminal investigation was launched.
The Tylenol poisonings case is still unsolved, but new reporting from the Chicago Tribune says investigators might be closer than ever to charges.
Public health officials, emergency responders and reporters played roles in tracing the deaths back to Tylenol bottles and informing the public at a time when people were mysteriously dying.
“All of these people worked so hard and they saved lives,” says Chicago Tribune reporter Stacy St. Clair.
At the time, Michael Petros was serving as the acting section chief of serology and virology at the Chicago Department of Health Division of Laboratories.
“We knew that it was an emergency situation unlike anything we had ever experienced in public health before,” says Petros, who is now a clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health.
Chicago Tribune reporter Christy Gutowski says agencies at the time made some groundbreaking efforts to try to solve the case.
“It was such a random crime,” Gutowski said. “You had no real crime scene.”
One of the key suspects was James Lewis, who was convicted of extortion against manufacturer Johnson & Johnson. He has denied several times that he was responsible for the murders.
One of the lasting effects of the murders, Petros says, were more consumer protections around over-the-counter medicines being packaged with multiple levels of safety seals, even extending to pre-packaged foods at grocery stores.
Learn more about the case in a six-part series and eight-part podcast by the Chicago Tribune: chicagotribune.com/tylenolmurders/.