On September 29, 1982, 12-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Illinois, (a suburb of Chicago) woke up at dawn and went into her parents’ bedroom. She did not feel well and complained that she had a sore throat and a runny nose. Suspecting a cold was coming on, her parents gave her one Extra-Strength Tylenol capsule. At 7:00 AM the went into her room to check on her and found her laying on the bathroom floor. She was taken to the hospital where she was pronounced dead. The doctors suspected that Mary had died of a stroke.
That same day, paramedics were called to an Arlington Heights home in the same area where they found 27-year-old postal worker Adam Janus lying on the floor. His breathing was labored, his blood pressure was dangerously low and his pupils were fixed and dilated. They rushed Adam to northwest Community Hospital. Attempts to resuscitate him were futile and he was pronounce dead shortly after arrival. Doctors believed his death was due to a massive heart attack.
Adam’s family members gathered at his home that evening to mourn his loss and to plan funeral arrangements. Adam’s 25-year-old brother Stanley and his 19-year-old bride, Theresa, both suffered headaches due to the stress of the day. To their relief, Adam had left a bottle of Tylenol on the kitchen counter. Stanley took one capsule and gave another to his new wife. Shortly thereafter, both collapsed on the floor. For the second time that day, paramedics were called to the Arlington Heights home. Stanley died that day. Janus lived for two days before succumbing to death.
Three family members dying in the same home on the same day was indeed suspicious. Authorities believed poisonous gas must have been present in the home. Doctors discussed the symptoms and John B. Sullivan of the Rocky Mountain Poison Center noted that they symptoms seemed more akin to cyanide poisoning. Blood samples were taken from the bodies and sent to the lab for testing.
At this same time, two Chicago firefighters were discussing the Adam’s family deaths and noted that Tylenol had been taken shortly before. They quickly contacted paramedics who worked the Janus case and they too confirmed that he too had taken Tylenol. The firefighters contacted the police and officers were immediately sent to the homes to collect any bottles of medicine from the premises. Cook County’s chief toxicologist, Michael Shaffer, examined the capsules and discovered that they were filled with 65 milligrams of deadly cyanide, 10,000 times more than the amount needed to kill the average person.
McNeil Consumer Products, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson and the maker of Extra Strength Tylenol, was immediately alerted to the deaths. A recall covering 35 million bottles was put into place. Alas, the recall was too late. 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.
The FBI quickly formed a task force under the code name TYMURS. Police drove through the streets of Chicago announcing the danger over their loudspeakers. Stores across the country pulled Tylenol products from their shelves. The Tylenol brand was ruined overnight.
McNeil Consumer Products investigators determined that the bottles had not been tampered with at the factory (the bottles came from different factories). Police realized that the poison was being put into the bottles on the store shelves and that they had a terrorist on their hands. Investigators discovered that the cyanide-laced capsules were placed in six Chicago area stores: Jewel Foods in Arlington Heights, Jewel Foods in Grove Village, Osco Drug Store in Schaumburg, Walgreen Drug Store in Chicago, Frank’s Finer Foods in Winfield and another undisclosed retail outlet. Each store contained one tampered bottle with approximately three to ten tainted capsules, except for Osco Drug Store where two cyanide laced bottles were recovered. In addition to the five bottles that resulted in deaths, three more tampered bottles were found.
Police closed in on suspects including a 48 year old chemist who worked at the warehouses that supplied Tylenol to two of the stores and was known to have worked on a project that utilized cyanide. To their disappointment, all suspects were eventually cleared. A $100,000 reward, posted by Johnson & Johnson for the capture and conviction of the “Tylenol Killer,” has never been claimed.
“I will never get past this because this guy is out there, living his life, however miserable it might be,” said Michelle Rosen, who was eight years old when her mother, Mary Reiner, collapsed in front of her after ingesting the pain medication for cramps.