Chicago Tylenol murders: A look back 40 years later

Next week marks 40 years since the Tylenol murders shook Chicago and the nation. Decades later, it remains a cold case.

Or is it?

In a special report, FOX 32’s Dane Placko looks back at the deadly poisonings and talks with some former federal agents who think they know who did it.

"This crime captivated the nation. Put the nation on its ear and had probably hundreds and hundreds of thousands of households going through their medicine cabinets to try to determine if we have poison in our house," said Jeremy Margolis, former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago.


When you opened a bottle of Tylenol in the early 1980s, or any product, you didn’t see a protective seal.

Now, it's the law because of what happened in the Chicago area starting on Sept. 29, 1982.

"I think looking at this story, they’re going to open their eyes and say 'I never knew that happened here in Chicago,'" said Ross Rice, retired FBI agent.

In a matter of days, the death toll mounted.

"That was the year they canceled Halloween. Because of the poisoning everybody was afraid their child would pick up candies that were poisoned," said Roy Lane, retired FBI agent.

Forty years later, FOX 32 News sat down with two retired Chicago FBI agents who originally worked the Tylenol investigation and the former Chicago special agent in charge who initiated a re-investigation of the case in 2009.

They all believe they know who did it.

"I think it’s solved," said Rob Grant. "I can’t go into that detail because it's not public."

"I believe that it’s solved," Lane agreed.  

"I think there is sufficient evidence to go forward," said Ross Rice,

Early on, there were few, if any leads. Then one man became the focus of police.

In 1984, former Chicagoan James Lewis was convicted on federal extortion charges for sending an anonymous letter to Johnson and Johnson shortly after the poisonings, demanding $1 million to stop the killings.

"The jury was out a half hour before they came in and convicted him," Lane said.  

Lewis spent 11 years in prison for the shakedown, but through the decades has denied being responsible for the murders.

"I think the Tylenol murderer is still out there dancing in the streets," Lewis said from prison.

He even reached out to federal agents following his conviction offering to help them solve the case.

"He was in keeping with the profile we originally had in the investigation," Lane said. "We had a profiler tell us that one of the points of the profile is that this person who might be involved in the poisoning will contact an investigator."

Lane was one of the FBI's lead case agents for the Tylenol investigation. Margolis was an assistant U.S. attorney from 1973-1984 and prosecuted Lewis on the extortion charge.

They met with Lewis several times after the trial.  

During one of those meetings, they say Lewis gave them a sketch of how he "thought" the killer put the cyanide in the Tylenol capsules.

So what happened to that information?

"The FBI’s got it. It’s sitting in a case file," Margolis said. "I don’t know if they’ll tell you it was helpful or not.  I’ll just describe it as extremely interesting."

What’s also interesting is how the FBI decided to re-investigate the case 15 years ago.

"2006- 2007, at the time I was the public affairs director for the FBI office in Chicago," Rice said. "25th anniversary of the poisonings was coming up, and I was contacted by a local reporter that I had dealt with extensively over the years. He had taken up this case as what he called ‘a hobby.’"

So Rice arranged for a meeting at the FBI's Chicago field office.

"He laid out his theory," Rice said. "It was very well-thought-out, and he had some, I’d guess you’d call, evidence to support it. We thanked him for coming in and excused him. And right away, Roy said 'that wasn’t possible.'"

"I think the quote was 'that’s not the guy. We know who did it,'" Grant said. "That’s what I remember."

Even though they disagreed with the reporter's suspicions, the meeting sparked a critical question.

"Where is this person that we think did it?  Then we ran an investigative report and found he was in jail for alleged violent crimes he was never convicted of," Grant said.

Grant said it meant it was time to use new forensic tools to find the killer.

"We had to re-look at the investigation. That means re-contacting the five other police departments, including the state police, and see what everybody had," Grant said. "It may behoove us to take up evidence from 25 years ago and reapply it through the FBI laboratory. That’s how we started the re-investigation."

As a result of the Tylenol murders, Congress passed federal product tampering laws in 1984.