Bottle Caps and the Mystery of Tylenol Deaths

Drugs Health Care

            Pearl River      I have to agree with Helen Jensen, the Chicago-area nurse that first figured out that a killer had poisoned people she was caring for at her hospital by tampering with a bottle of Tylenol, when she says that the killer, “changed the world because of what he did.”  I have to admit how often I think about those killings when I open a bottle of aspirin or vitamins.  As I sometimes twist and turn and struggle to pop them open, I stop myself from cursing and wonder about the unknown killer and the horrible price that seven peoples’ death paid to create permanent protection for billions of people over the last forty years.  I’ve sometimes wondered if the killer would ever be caught?  I’ve fantasied about reading a deathbed confession that would resolve the mystery after all of these years.

Reports of the death of James W. Lewis surprised me.  For me, this was always an unsolved cold case, as they say on TV.  I knew that there had never been a definitive verdict on the killer, but somehow even as my memories would regularly return to this mystery, I had not absorbed how much of the attention and investigation and centered on this one man.  He had been arrested after the 1982 deaths in New York City where he was living then and done a dozen years in jail for trying to extort money from Johnson & Johnson claiming he would “stop the killing” if paid.  He later claimed that he had sent the letter in some kind of convoluted effort to extract revenge for his wife and burn her employer.  From Nurse Jensen’s remarks, she feels closure with his death, nonetheless the police and various investigators are still trying to close the case and never were able to definitively prove that Lewis was the killer that actually tainted the Tylenol bottles with cyanide.

I’m still left uncertain reading these obits.  The federal prosecutor on his extortion case also seems less convinced.  Lewis’ death would be the natural time for him and the police to claim that it was over, the whodunit was solved, and for whatever reason he was the killer they just couldn’t prove it in court.  Maybe he will, but in 2009, he said of Lewis,

“He is a prolific writer and artist…and he provided me with great volumes of documents and a number of diagrams, all of which dealt with his theories as to what might have taken place.”


…Lewis steadfastly denied any involvement in the killings. When he was a fugitive on the extortion charge, he wrote a series of rambling letters to The Chicago Tribune disclaiming any connection to the murders. In one, he called himself “a victim,” and demanded capital punishment for “whoever poisoned those capsules.”

There’s no doubt he was a bad man.  His obit lists a rap sheet that caroms between murder and attempted rape, even though he was never convicted of either.  If he was the killer, he also was amazingly lucky at escaping punishment.

His death doesn’t mean we can rest easier now than we have for the last forty years.  We have been able to live safely as we open all manner of such containers, because companies were forced to make changes and the government mandated those changes permanently.

The reinforced design became the industry standard after the Food and Drug Administration issued rules in 1982 requiring tamper-resistant packaging for all over-the-counter medications. The following year, Congress passed a law making it a crime to tamper with packaged consumer products.  The search for the culprit, however, proved elusive.  After the deaths, more than 100 state and federal agents fanned out across the Chicago area in an effort to reconstruct the route of the poisoned capsules. But they could not determine the source. Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Police, said in a statement on Monday that, “at this time, the investigation is still ongoing.”

This may end it all.  There still might be a movie-style deathbed confession.  More likely, we will just never know, because as Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, this is all part of the “inscrutable mystery of life.”