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If you are the Tylenol killer
An unsolved case for 40 years. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
"If you are the Tylenol killer, some of this may matter to you..."
Forty years ago this month, this was how Bob Greene of The Chicago Tribune opened his latest column. It was the height of the national terrorism that resulted from the deaths of seven people in the Chicago area after they each took Tylenol extra strength capsules that had been laced with cyanide.
Greene continued his column, focusing on a 12-year-old girl named Mary Kellerman who had been the first victim, and who had taken Tylenol for a head cold:
“If you are the Tylenol killer, though, you may be harboring just the vaguest curiosity about the people on the other end of your plan: The people who were unfortunate enough to purchase the bottle you had touched.
If you are curious, come to a small house on a quiet, winding street in Elk Grove Village. Come to 1425 Armstrong Lane.
Why include the family’s address an invitation to the killer? Because the FBI, which thought the killer might indeed be curious, and might indeed be careless or compulsive enough to go by, asked for it.
That’s one of the many details I learned about this case this week, after reading the extensively re-reporting project that the Tribune did recently, to mark the anniversary.
More than four decades after the string of murders—which led to a radical change in how pharmaceuticals are packaged, to what business school types call a case study on how to handle a crisis on the part of Tylenol maker Johnson & Johnson, and to lifetimes of grief for the loved ones of the victims—the case remains officially unsolved.
There have certainly been suspects. Chicago police zeroed in on a warehouse employee named Roger Arnold who was said to have bragged in bars about what he could do with cyanide, and he was publicly named as a suspect but never charged.
Arnold clearly had propensity for violence; he was later convicted of murdering a man he mistakenly believed had raised his name with the police. (In a bizarre twist, of which there are many in this case, Arnold correctly deduced the person who had provided his name to authorities, but after drinking in a bar, he mistook a completely unrelated man for him, and killed him.)
Meanwhile, the FBI seems to have focused on James W. Lewis, who served federal prison time for attempting to extort Johnson & Johnson over the killings, but who denies actually having been involved in the poisoning itself.
Lewis also has a heck of a past: He'd been charged with murder in 1978 but the case didn't go to trial after a judge ruled police had violated Lewis's rights. Later, after he served 12 years for the extortion plot, he spent another three years behind bars in Massachusetts awaiting trial on kidnapping and rape charges that were eventually dropped.
The Tribune reporters say they realized while re-reporting the story that authorities are still looking closely at Lewis, although charges do not seem imminent. (Arnold was released from prison on the murder case and died in 2010.)
I suppose it's possible the case might still be solved. We have an interesting track record in the United States of solving some long-dormant cold cases, often with the help of new technology.
David Sinopoli, 68, was arrested over the summer in connection with a 1975 murder.
Joseph James DeAngelo, the "Golden State Killer" was caught in 2018 and is now serving multiple life sentences in California for more than a dozen murders between 1974 and 1986.
And while it wasn't technically a cold case, there's the fact that Ted Kaczynski—the Unabomber—wasn't even on the FBI's radar until the Washington Post published his anti-industrial manifesto in 199X, and Kaczynski's brother recognized the language, the arguments, and his use of unusual phrases like "eat your cake and have it, too."
I had the Tylenol case anniversary on my calendar, and my first inclination was to write about how Johnson & Johnson basically wrote the textbook on handling the fallout from crisis.
But after reading the Tribune series and thinking about the people who were indiscriminately killed and whose families never saw justice, my focus changed.
If you're the family of Mary Kellerman, Adam Janus, Stanley Janus, Theresa Janus, Mary McFarland, Paula Prince, or Mary Reiner, your loved ones may be gone, but they're not forgotten.
And if you're the person addressed in that newspaper column 40 years ago—"if you are the Tylenol killer"—you might have gotten away with it. For now, anyway.
But I’m glad to know we haven’t stopped looking.
7 other things worth knowing today
How an assumption about what the "cone of danger" means on a hurricane map might have led people who should have evacuated in Florida to stay. (Weather)
Half of U.S. CEOs say they’re considering cutting jobs over the next 6 months— and remote workers may be the first go to, according to a report from KPMG. (Marketwatch)
A woman who moved into her new home in Detroit thought it was a mistake when she received a $5,200 water bill from the city. It wasn't. Under Michigan law, new homeowners are responsible for the previous owner’s delinquent water bills. (Metro Times)
The U.S. Army rebuked a 2-star general for defending women soldiers and engaging with trolls on Twitter, saying it brought “negative publicity” to the service: “While potentially admirable his post brought a measurable amount of negative publicity to the Army." (Task & Purpose)
Teenage chess grandmaster Hans Niemann “likely cheated” in more than 100 online matches, including ones with prize money involved, according to an investigation by one of the sport’s most popular websites. The 72-page report by Chess.com was released on Tuesday, a month after controversy erupted at a top tournament when the world chess champion accused the 19-year-old American of cheating. (CNN)
The Onion filed an amicus brief before the Supreme Court in a case about parody. From the real brief: "The Onion is the world’s leading news publication, offering highly acclaimed, universally revered coverage of breaking national, international, and local news events. Rising from its humble beginnings as a print newspaper in 1756, The Onion now enjoys a daily readership of 4.3 trillion and has grown into the single most powerful and influential organization in human history." (WSJ, the actual brief)
Band-Aid leads the most trusted brands in the United States. Here are the other top 9. (Boing Boing)
Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Fair use/video screen capture. See you in the comments!