Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Tylenol Terrorist

Death in a Bottle

Extra-Strength Tylenol package
Extra-Strength Tylenol package

On September 29, 1982, 12-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Illinois, woke up at dawn and went into her parents' bedroom. She did not feel well and complained of having a sore throat and a runny nose. To ease her discomfort, her parents gave her one Extra-Strength Tylenol capsule. At 7 a.m. they found Mary on the bathroom floor. She was immediately taken to the hospital where she was later pronounced dead. Doctors initially suspected that Mary died from a stroke, but evidence later pointed to a more sinister diagnosis.

Tylenol Poison Victim Mary Kellerman
Mary Kellerman

That same day, paramedics were called to the Arlington Heights home of 27-year-old postal worker Adam Janus. When they arrived, they found him lying on the floor. His breathing was labored, his blood pressure was dangerously low and his pupils were fixed and dilated. The paramedics rushed Adam Janus to the emergency room at Northwest Community Hospital, where they attempted to resuscitate him, but it was too late. Adam died shortly after he was brought to the hospital. His death was believed to be the result of a massive heart attack. However, doctors would later learn that his death was anything but natural.

Janus' family funeral
The Janus family victims' funerals

On the eve of Adam's death, his aggrieved family gathered at his house to mourn his sudden passing and discuss funeral arrangements. Adam's 25-year old brother Stanley and his 19-year-old bride, Theresa, both suffered from headaches attributed to the stress of losing a family member. To his relief, Stanley found on Adam's kitchen counter a bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol. He took a capsule from the bottle and then gave one to his wife.

Shortly after taking the capsules, both Stanley and his wife collapsed onto the floor. The shocked family members immediately called an ambulance. Once again paramedics rushed to the home of Adam Janus and attempted to resuscitate the young couple. However, Stanley died that day, and his wife died two days later.

According to an article by Tamara Kaplan, Dr. Thomas Kim at the Northwest Community Hospital became suspicious following the deaths of the three family members. It was suspected that poisonous gas could have caused the untimely deaths of Adam, Stanley and Theresa. However, after consulting with John B. Sullivan at the Rocky Mountain Poison Center, it was determined that cyanide might be the culprit. Blood samples were taken from the victims and sent to a lab for testing.

While the blood samples were being tested for cyanide, two firefighters in another location of the Chicago suburbs discussed the four bizarre deaths that had recently taken place in the neighboring area. Arlington Heights firefighter Philip Cappitelli talked with his friend Richard Keyworth from the Elk Grove firehouse about Mary Kellerman and the fact that she had taken Tylenol before she died. Keyworth suggested that all the deaths could have been related to the medicine.

Following his friend's suggestion, Cappitelli called the paramedics who worked on the Janus family and asked if they too had taken Tylenol. To both the men's surprise, they discovered all three Janus family members had ingested the popular pain reliever. The police were immediately sent to the Kellerman and Janus homes to retrieve the suspicious bottles.  

The following day, Keyworth, Sullivan and Kim's hunches were confirmed. Cook County's chief toxicologist, Michael Shaffer, examined the capsules and discovered that they were filled with approximately 65 milligrams of deadly cyanide, 10,000 times more than the amount needed to kill the average person. Moreover, the blood samples of all the victims further confirmed the belief that they were all poisoned.

McNeil Consumer Products, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson and the maker of Extra Strength Tylenol, was immediately alerted to the deaths. An October 1982 Newsweek article reported that the company began a massive recall of their product and warned doctors, hospitals and wholesalers of the potential dangers. However, by then it was too late for three more victims of the deadly poison-laced Tylenol capsules.

Twenty-seven-year-old Mary Reiner of Winfield, Illinois, was recovering after the birth of her son when she unsuspectingly ingested the Tylenol laced with cyanide. She died a short time later. That same day, 35-year-old Paula Prince, a United Airlines stewardess, was found dead in her suburban Chicago apartment. Cyanide-filled Tylenol capsules were also found in her home. The seventh known victim of the Tylenol poisonings was 35-year-old Mary McFarland of Elmhurst, Illinois.

Soon after the national news stories on the tragic deaths from the tainted Tylenol, widespread fear swept throughout the country, especially in Chicago and its suburbs. The police drove through the city using loudspeakers to warn citizens about the potential dangers of Tylenol, which further compounded the people's fears. Citizens across the country literally ran home to dispose of their bottles of Tylenol.

According to a Time article by Susan Tifft, hospitals in the Chicago area were flooded with telephone calls concerning Tylenol and fears of poisoning. Jason Manning's article titled The Tylenol Murders stated that the growing nationwide panic prompted the head of Seattle's Poison Control Center to inform citizens that if they had indeed been poisoned with cyanide, they would be dead before they were even able to make a telephone call to a hospital or the police.  

Nevertheless, hospitals around the country admitted many patients under the suspicion of cyanide poisoning from Tylenol. The rapid influx of patients was mostly due to mixed signals from the health authorities concerning the threat and symptoms and the ensuing panic of people who really believed that they might have fallen victim to poisoning from the tainted capsules. However, although there were no new cases of poisoning related to Tylenol except for the seven known deaths, many states and retailers took drastic measures to assure that it remained that way.

Newsweek's October 1982 issue stated that some state health departments actually banned all forms of Tylenol products. Moreover, many retailers completely removed Tylenol products from their shelves. Many other states and retailers decided to follow the FDA's warning and remove only the products with particular serial numbers linked with the deaths that posed the greatest threats. Regardless, Tylenol's reputation was virtually ruined by the scare because no one wanted to buy the products any longer for fears of being poisoned. 

At stake were the reputations of McNeil Consumer Products, who manufactured the over-the-counter Tylenol capsules, and its parent company, Johnson & Johnson (J&J). The future of both companies greatly depended on how they were able to handle the alarming situation. The main problem they faced was that the drug, once trusted by millions worldwide, was now equated with death. Their first steps were to inform the public, find the source of the poisoning and determine if the cyanide had been impregnated into the capsules at the factory where they were manufactured or elsewhere.

In response to the deaths, Johnson and Johnson immediately issued a nationwide alert to the public, doctors and distributors of the drug. According to an article by Jeremy Cooke, they also issued a massive recall of 31 million Tylenol bottles, costing approximately $125 million. J&J also established a crisis hotline, so that consumers could obtain the latest information about the poisonings, safety measures and any other information concerning the drug. Around the same time, the company inspected the factories where the tainted bottles were produced to see if the cyanide was somehow put into the capsules during production.

Following inspections, the company determined that the cyanide was not introduced into the bottles at the factory, which left only one other possibility. The FBI, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and law enforcement agencies realized that someone had methodically taken the Tylenol bottles off the shelves at the stores where they were sold, filled the capsules with cyanide and returned them back to the shelves at a later period. Investigators had no evidence as to who might have committed the heinous crime and there was continuing fear that more deaths might occur unless they caught the Tylenol terrorist. 

 

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