Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Tylenol Terrorist

Copycat Criminals

As a direct consequence of the Tylenol murders, Congress approved in May 1983 a new "Tylenol Bill" that made the malicious tampering of consumer products a federal offense. In 1989, the FDA set national requirements for all over the counter products to be tamper-resistant. Steven Fink summed up the feeling of the nation when he stated that, "whatever innocence we still had in the summer of 1982 was quickly shattered by the fall."

Americans had to think twice about the purchase of consumer products after the poisonings that year. Furthermore, even though the new bill strengthened sentencing of product terrorists and the FDA required increased safety measures, there was still no guarantee that any product was 100% safe. As a nation we learned that we could no longer protect ourselves completely from even the most harmless of products.

Almost from the first mention of the Tylenol murders, the incidence rate of product tampering skyrocketed around the nation. An article by Barbara and David P. Mikkelson titled Horrors: Tylenol Murders claimed that in 1982 alone, the FDA counted 270 suspected incidents of product tampering, of which 36 of the incidents were listed as "hard core, true tamperings." The article listed several of the cases, including one of a 14-year-old Minneapolis boy, Marlon Barrow, who became sick after drinking poisoned chocolate milk. Another case was that of a 27-year-old Florida man, Harry Browning, who became ill after drinking insecticide-laced orange juice. Miraculously, neither victim died. However, in the years to come there was a surge of more deadly copycat crimes that would serve as haunting reminders of the Tylenol murders.

Probably one of the first known cases that seemed to share remarkable similarities to the 1982 Tylenol deaths occurred in February 1986. While visiting her boyfriend in New York, 23-year-old Diane Elsroth took two Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules from an allegedly tamper-proof sealed bottle. According to a February 1986 Newsweek article, she fell dead within minutes. Investigators later determined that her death was a result of ingesting cyanide. They also discovered that there were three more deadly capsules in the bottle.

Following a recall of Tylenol from area stores, another tainted bottle was found at a Woolworth's in Westchester County, New York. Immediately, the death renewed old fears of Tylenol's safety. Consumer's fears were further compounded by the fact that the killer was able to make the packaging appear as if it were safely sealed. The impregnation of the poison was believed to have occurred en route to the area stores or in the stores themselves.

Once again, the death prompted the FDA to warn consumers nationwide of the possible threat of contaminated Tylenol products. Newsweek stated that more than a dozen states banned the sale of Tylenol until further notice from the FDA. Johnson and Johnson came close once again to recalling their most popular product. Fortunately, no more Tylenol-related deaths occurred following that of Elsroth.

Dr. Park Dietz
Dr. Park Dietz

Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychologist and expert on criminal behavior, claimed in his article on Product Tampering that there was a significant increase in tampering complaints in March 1986, following the Elsroth poisoning. After comparing the number of product tampering complaints with related news reports, Dietz discovered that there was indeed a correlation between the amount of publicity focused on product tampering crime stories and like complaints.  Thus Dietz suggested that publicity leads to increased complaints concerning product tampering.

According to Dietz, there is also a direct correlation between an increase in copycat crimes and intense news coverage. He states, "We now know that each instance of widespread publicity of a purported tampering causes dozens of new crimes…by limiting product withdrawals and publicity to the affected populations however, these damages can be minimized." Although publicity might be partly to blame for an increase in copycat tampering cases, it certainly does not provide a complete explanation as to the motivation behind tampering with products and the random killing of innocent people. Therefore, the motivation for the crime must be looked at with each individual case. 

Approximately four months following Elsroth's murder another copycat killing occurred that was reminiscent of the Tylenol killings. On June 11, 1986, a 40-year-old Washington state bank manager, Sue Snow, woke up with a headache at 6 a.m., went to her kitchen and took two Extra-Strength Excedrin capsules. After wishing her 15-year-old daughter Haley a good morning, she went into her bathroom, plugged in her curling iron and turned on the shower.

Extra-Strength Excedrin Capsules
Extra-Strength Excedrin Capsules

Some 40 minutes later, Haley went into the bathroom to see what was taking her mother such a long time to get ready and found her mother lying unconscious on the floor. She immediately phoned 911, and Sue Snow was taken to a nearby hospital. Doctors worked frantically to determine what was wrong with Sue, but, after just a few hours, she died.

During the autopsy of Sue Snow, Assistant Medical Examiner Janet Miller suspected cyanide poisoning from the distinct odor of bitter almonds emanating from the body. Laboratory tests proved her right. The source of the cyanide was traced to an innocuous looking bottle of Extra-Strength Excedrin capsules. In response to the death, the manufacturer of the drug, Bristol-Myers, nationally recalled the product hoping to avert any more deaths.

Stella Nickell
Stella Nickell

On June 17, 1986, one day following the highly publicized massive recall, the police received a telephone call from a widow who feared her husband could have been poisoned less than two weeks earlier. The woman, Stella Nickell, told investigators that her husband Bruce suddenly died on June 6, 1986, shortly after taking four Extra-Strength Excedrin Capsules. Bruce Nickell's death was initially determined to have been due to complications from emphysema. However, after laboratory tests conducted on his blood on June 19, 1986, there was no doubt that his death was caused by the ingestion of cyanide. That same day, investigators recovered two tainted Excedrin bottles from the Nickells' residence.

Like with Chicago's Tylenol murders, fear swept through Washington state as a result of the two cyanide-laced Excedrin deaths. The FBI joined forces with Washington law enforcement agencies in an effort to find the murderer and prevent further deaths. Investigators determined that the drugs were most likely taken from area stores, filled with cyanide and then returned to the stores.

In the months that followed, two more bottles of Excedrin Extra-Strength Capsules that were recalled from stores in Auburn and Kent, Washington were also found to contain cyanide. All five bottles were taken to the FBI crime lab in Washington, D.C., and examined by Roger Martz for fingerprints and other evidence that might connect the victims to their killer. During Martz's investigation of the bottles, he made an unusual discovery.

CBSNews.com reported Martz found each tainted capsule contained minute specks of a green crystal-like substance. Martz was able to link the tiny green crystals with algaecides used in aquariums and fishponds. Moreover, he was able to pinpoint the exact brand of algaecide found in all the capsules, which was known as Algae Destroyer. The murderer could have used a container that once held the Algae Destroyer to mix the cyanide before it was eventually introduced into the capsules. Martz's connections proved to be one of the most critical pieces of evidence in the on-going investigation.

Upon further investigation, law enforcement officials discovered that Stella Nickell not only owned a fish tank but had also bought Algae Destroyer from a pet store prior to the murders. Investigators also learned that Stella took out three life insurance policies on her husband in the year prior to his death worth a total of $71,000. According to Detective Mike Dunbar who worked on the case, Stella stood to gain an additional $100,000 from her insurance company if she was able to prove that his death was accidental. Intriguingly, following Bruce's death Stella confronted her doctor on several occasions about his decision to list her husband's death as natural. The new evidence led investigators to shift their focus onto Stella Nickell as the primary suspect in the cyanide-laced Excedrin deaths.

Following Stella's failure to pass a lie detection test on November 18, 1986, the investigators became convinced that she murdered her husband. The FBI and state police theorized that she placed the cyanide in the Excedrin capsules, repackaged them and placed three of the bottles in area stores and kept the other two bottles to use to kill her husband.  Stella attempted to make her husband's death look like the work of a serial poisoner, thus escaping any responsibility for the crime. The only problem the investigators faced was trying to prove their theory. 

Less than two months later, their big break came. Stella's 27-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Cindy Hamilton, came forward with critical information. Cindy told police that her mother often talked about killing Bruce, because she was bored with the relationship. Cindy stated that her mother even admitted to her that she tried to kill him with foxglove, but her attempt failed. According to CBSNews.com, Cindy told investigators that several months before Bruce's death, her mother conducted research on cyanide at the local library.

Early in 1987, the FBI collected as much evidence concerning Stella's possible involvement in the killing of Bruce Nickell and Sue Snow. Library computers were searched and the books that Stella checked-out were obtained by the FBI. One of the books that Stella read was called Deadly Harvest, from which the FBI was able to collect fingerprints.  The pages that contained the most prints were those relating to cyanide.

Stella was charged with the deaths of Sue Snow and Bruce Nickell on December 9, 1987 and her court trial began four months later. On May 9, 1988, a jury found Stella Nickell guilty of murder. She was sentenced to 90 years in prison with eligibility for parole in 2018. Stella Nickell was the first person to be tried and convicted for committing murder using product tampering. She would by no means be the last.

Another copycat murder bearing remarkable similarities to the Tylenol and Excedrin poisonings occurred in 1991. Thirty-one-year old Joseph Meling was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for fatal product tampering after spiking Sudafed decongestants with cyanide. According to investigators, Meling attempted to murder his wife in February 1991 with the cyanide-laced capsules.

That same month, two more people died as a result of Meling's tampering. As with the Excedrin poisonings, Meling filled other packages of Sudafed with cyanide and placed the drugs back on the shelves in stores to make it appear as if there was a serial poisoner on the rampage. The motivation was to claim $700,000 in insurance from her death.

Many of the product-tampering cases that have resulted in death have, for the most part, led to the successful conviction of the perpetrator. However, the one case that brought product tampering to the forefront of America's consciousness has never been solved. To date, the $1,000 reward offered by Johnson and Johnson remains unclaimed because no one person has been found guilty of the horrific crime that ended the lives of seven individuals. Despite the lack of evidence and the disintegration of leads over time, hope remains that the Tylenol terrorist may one day be brought to justice. Until then, his or her identity will remain a mystery.

 

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