Chicago Tylenol murders: A look back 40 years later Pt. 2

This month marks 40 years since seven Chicago-area residents died of poisoning after taking Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide. In all those years, no one has ever been charged with the murders.

In part two of a special report, FOX 32’s Dane Placko talks with three former federal agents who worked on the case.

They say the question now isn't who did it, but why the case has not been charged.


"I think the encouraging thing is they are really trying to close the case, and I almost got the impression that potentially they may be close to something," said Jack Eliason, brother of one of the victims.

That was Eliason’s hope in February 2009 when the FBI revved up its investigation into Chicago's infamous Tylenol murders.

Eliason's sister, Mary McFarland, was one of seven Chicago-area residents who died after taking Tylenol capsules tainted with cyanide in the fall of 1982.

"Over the years, you just thought nobody cares. It's done, they can't find anything," Eliason said.

That fresh look at the case started when agents served a search warrant on the Cambridge, Massachusetts home of James Lewis, who in 1984 was convicted of writing a letter to Johnson and Johnson, demanding a million dollars to stop the Tylenol killings.


Lewis spent 11 years in prison for extortion, but was never charged with the murders, and has always denied being the killer.

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

"It's 40 years and we, the three of us here and other task force members, believe we have enough evidence to convict a person," said Roy Lane, a retired FBI agent. "And what we'd like to see is the person prosecuted."

Lane and Ross Rice, another retired FBI agent, along with former Special Agent in Charge Rob Grant, were instrumental in the re-investigation taking place.

In addition to searching the home in Cambridge, they also formed a task force of all the local law enforcement agencies involved in the original case to pull all the evidence together and examine it with new forensic tools.

"Digitized it. Sent a lot of it to the FBI laboratory for analysis," Grant said. "That was a couple of years in the undertaking."

"Some of the evidence state police had not seen. Some of the evidence the FBI had not seen. So in some cases, this was the first time some of these agencies had seen some of the evidence that had been collected by other people," Grant said.

By 2012, the federal agents believed they had built a strong case against a suspect and brought it to two local state's attorneys.

"The evidence in totality was presented to Anita Alvarez of Cook County and to Robert Berlin of DuPage County," Lane said. "So all the evidence we believed points to a certain individual. They are knowledgeable and are in possession of many of the witness statements."

"At the time, the task force was attempting to do certain things, and needed their cooperation," Lane said. "That was the last of my involvement. It was the last week I was in the office."

So how did that meeting between Alvarez and Berlin end?

"It ended with, 'we'll get back to you'," Grant said.

Grant retired from the FBI 10 years ago and regrets that charges were never brought.

"I think we can say we pieced together a fairly good mosaic of evidence that points to a particular subject," Grant said. "The task force is satisfied there is enough of a case here to at least throw it to a jury and let a jury decide whether we've made a case or not."

But that's a decision only a prosecutor can make. Generally speaking, most don't like to charge a case unless they think they can win at trial.

"Lewis had always suggested there's somebody else out there who did it. Our conclusion is it was Lewis who did it. Period," said Anton Valukas, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.

Valukas was one of two prosecutors who wrote a letter to the U.S. Parole Commission in 1989 asking them to deny parole for Lewis when he was serving his prison sentence for extortion.

"We supplied them in that letter with information we had - some of it public, others not public - which led us to the reasonable belief that Lewis was in fact the murderer," he said.

Valukas said his letter included conversations Lewis had with the FBI and federal prosecutors after his conviction when Lewis offered to help them solve the case.

It also included a drawing Lewis gave the FBI, showing how the killer could have put the cyanide in those Tylenol capsules.

"This was Lewis. I think Lewis, with his ego, showing you how he could do it. We concluded was not only how you could do it but how he did it," Valukas said.

Based in part on Valukas's letter, the parole commission denied Lewis's parole request in 1989, concluding that he was indeed the Tylenol murderer. In 1991, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.

But Valukas says whether that evidence is strong enough to win a conviction is still in question.

"My belief is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt. That's the difference," Valukas said.

"The family members are entitled to some closure," Rice said. "But until there is a prosecution, until someone is charged and hopefully convicted, there really is no closure for them."

Today, Grant makes the same plea to prosecutors he did in 2012.

"Give it its due attention and run the risk you may fail. But charge this case before witnesses are gone," Grant said.

FOX 32 News reached out to DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin and former Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez about that June 2012 meeting.

In a statement to FOX 32 News, Berlin says in part, the DuPage County State's Attorney's Office "has worked tirelessly with state, local and federal law enforcement officials to bring the person or persons responsible for the Tylenol murders to justice," and that the case remains an "open and active investigation."

FOX 32 reached out to Alvarez several times for comment and has not heard back yet. FOX 32 also reached out to Lewis's attorney about this story. He declined to comment.

As for the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, they also said this case remains an open and active investigation.

Berlin's full statement to FOX 32 News reads as follows:

"For the past 40 years, the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s Office, along with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, has worked tirelessly with state, local and federal law enforcement officials to bring the person or persons responsible for the Tylenol murders to justice. Together, we have interviewed scores of witnesses, poured over thousands of documents and devoted countless man hours in this pursuit and continue to do so. This case remains an open and active investigation and will continue to be until justice is served." - Robert Berlin, DuPage County State’s Attorney