Is the killer behind the 1982 Tylenol poisonings still on the loose? Exclusive revelations by investigators yield the first authoritative account of what happened and who likely did it.
By Michael Solomon
In the early hours of September 29, 1982, two Kane County sheriff’s deputies, Joseph Chavez and Alan Swanson, were on a routine patrol of the Chicago suburb of Elgin Ill. Sometime around 2:30 a.m., they stopped at a 24-hour Howard Johnson’s restaurant where they noticed something odd in the parking lot. Strewn about were two boxes and hundreds of empty capsules. Both the boxes and the capsules were labeled Extra Strength Tylenol. Between them was a sizable pile of white powder.
Detective Chavez picked up some of the powder and examined the capsules. A few of them had been put back together. Because Extra Strength Tylenol was an over-the-counter pain medication, and not a controlled substance, he and his partner decided to blow off this odd discovery and not report it. Several minutes later, Deputy Swanson began violently vomiting and complaining of a headache and dizziness. Soon Chavez was stricken with similar symptoms. They knew something was wrong–though they had no idea what. They decided to have their blood tested later in the day, but the analysis, which tested for common ailments and abnormalities, revealed nothing unusual.
Four hours later, in a nearby suburb, a paramedic named Dave Spung was inside a speeding ambulance frantically trying to save the life of a 12-year-old girl. Mary Kellerman had collapsed shortly after waking up, and no matter what Spung tried the little girl’s body was completely unresponsive. All he knew was that she’d woken up with a cold, and now, as he held the child in his arms with thoughts of his own daughter racing through his mind, he was rapidly running out of time to save her. The ambulance reached the hospital, but at 9:56 a.m. Mary was pronounced dead. It was the worst ambulance call Spung had ever had. He was gutted and could only imagine the suffering of Mary’s horrified family.
No one could understand the cause of Mary’s death. Or that it was to be the first in an episode of horror the entire nation would never forget.
Dr. Thomas Kim’s shift started like any other. Kim was Chief of Critical Care in the emergency room at Northwest Community Hospital in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights. It was midday when paramedics brought in the unconscious and unresponsive 27-year-old postal worker Adam Janus. The paramedics reported that Janus had gone out to buy some medicine for a headache. He returned home and collapsed minutes later on the floor of his home.
Kim and his ER team struggled feverishly to revive Janus, yet nothing the ER doctors tried was working. Kim was mystified as to how this otherwise healthy man had suddenly lapsed into a coma. Was it something he’d eaten or a violent allergic reaction to something? He knew he couldn’t rule out a massive heart attack or brain hemorrhage even though it would be a significant anomaly for someone so young and healthy.
Within two hours, Janus expired, leaving Kim the morbid task of informing his shell-shocked family members who’d gathered at the hospital. They included Janus’ immigrant parents, his younger brother Stanley, Stanley’s wife Theresa, and Theresa’s older brother Wally. The family told Kim they had no clue what triggered the tragedy. One minute Adam was absolutely fine and the next he was out cold. Had he eaten anything unusual? Not that anyone noticed, no. With nothing else to go on, the despondent family left the hospital and returned to Adam’s house to grieve.
Later that day, as Doctor. Kim was preparing to go home following what had been a puzzling and difficult shift; he was told that another member of the Janus family was being rushed back to the emergency room. He assumed it was his deceased patient’s father because the old man had complained of chest pains earlier. That would make sense: the shock of his son’s unexplained death had to be extremely stressful. Doctor Kim decided to stick around.
But the news was far worse than he could imagine. At the Janus household, paramedics were grappling with the unthinkable. Upon arrival, they’d found the younger brother, Stanley, out cold on the floor. He’d suddenly collapsed shortly after the family returned home from the hospital. An on-scene paramedic who’d also responded to the first call began shouting: “This is the same thing! This is just like the first one.” The panicked family, including the father, stood by in horror as the paramedics, unable to revive Stanley, frantically prepared him for the trip to the ER. The nightmare that had begun only a few hours earlier now seemed sure to take another one of their beloved family members from them without explanation. Then, in an instant, the terrible tragedy unfolding in front of them crossed the border into the surreal. As Stanley was placed onto a gurney, his 20-year-old wife, Theresa, fell to the ground next to him.
Theresa arrived at the hospital in a coma. Stanley died shortly thereafter. Doctor Kim was dumbfounded. He had just seen these two young adults a couple hours earlier and they’d been completely fine. Faced now with two dead young people, a third he couldn’t revive, and a family wondering which of them would be next to die, he sprang into action, ordering the remaining family members hospitalized as a precaution. Suspecting botulism, he sent the paramedics back to the Janus house to gather up anything ingestible: food, coffee grounds–whatever anyone might have eaten or drank. He also told the first responders to bring in the contents of the medicine cabinet. To Kim, the most vexing aspect of each case was that no one had exhibited any symptoms prior to collapsing. It was as if they’d all been struck by a kind of invisible lightning.
When the paramedic crew returned once more from the Janus home, Doctor Kim found nothing amiss in what they’d gathered. He had no reason to suspect a Tylenol overdose, and, after spilling out the contents of the recovered bottle, he saw that only a few capsules had been taken. He didn’t suspect poisoning because none of the victims had displayed the usual retching or vomiting symptoms that go along with it. He called the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office to see if there’d been any similar cases, but nothing had been reported. He had the Board of Health send someone to the house to rule out carbon monoxide poisoning. One of the paramedics mentioned that a young girl, Mary Kellerman, had died earlier in the day, and she too had taken Tylenol. But when Kim asked if it had been an overdose, they told him no. He instructed them to bring in the bottle of Tylenol the little girl had used. He knew he was grasping at straws and couldn’t imagine what was the connection, but he was running out of time and desperate for some sort of commonality that could tie these mysterious and violent deaths together. If he figured it out quickly enough, perhaps Theresa could still be saved.
As Kim struggled for an answer, casualties continued to pile up around town. A recent mother in the suburb of Winfield, Mary Reiner, went to her medicine cabinet and–moments later–collapsed into a coma. She had been well enough to go shopping only minutes earlier.
Around 6:30 p.m., Mary McFarland emerged from the ladies room of the Illinois Bell office where she worked in Lombard, which is along the western cusp of the city. McFarland, 31, had complained of a headache a short time earlier. As she crossed the office on her way back to her desk, she suddenly fell to the floor and lapsed into a coma. She was rushed to a nearby hospital.
Doctor Kim received word that a detective who’d been to young Kellerman’s house had, on a hunch, taken the Tylenol bottle from her house. When no one back at the police station seemed interested in it, he decided to keep it in his desk drawer for future use rather than throw it out. That bottle was brought to the ER where Kim examined its contents and found nothing amiss. He began to call poison experts around the country. One of the experts in Colorado said that the four cases sounded like cyanide poisoning.
The idea was both cogent and yet, on some level, completely ludicrous. How could cyanide get into Tylenol and how could the Januses and Kellerman, who’d never met, both ingest it on the same day? Kim decided to send blood and urine samples from Stanley and Theresa to a lab in Highland Park. He confided to a colleague that he hoped no one would review his medical charts on the case because the idea of ordering cyanide testing on two patients was so unprecedented he was concerned he’d end up looking silly. But people were taking Tylenol and dying, and the implications were harrowing: Was there tainted Tylenol out on store shelves? If so, how long did they have to figure it all out before the next person was stricken?
Tragically, not long at all. At around 8 p.m. a 35-year-old airline stewardess, Paula Prince, returned home to Chicago on a flight from Las Vegas. She wasn’t feeling terribly well. She was scheduled to fly out again the following day, so when she learned that the friend she was planning to meet that evening was going to be delayed, she decided to call it a night and head home. Prince stopped along the way at a Walgreens to pick up a bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol. Once home, she changed into a nightgown, put cold cream on her face and took a couple of capsules. She walked into the hallway and dropped to the floor with a thud. Because she lived alone, no one was there to call for help.
Detectives Chavez and Swanson, who earlier in the day had discovered the box of discarded pills, caught wind of the chatter about the possible connection between the deaths and Tylenol. As soon as they heard it, they told their boss about the bizarre incident along with their unexplained but short-lived symptoms earlier that morning. Investigators were dispatched immediately. By the time they reached the Howard Johnson’s parking lot the boxes were gone, save for a few empty capsules and some white powder.
At around 1 a.m., seven and a half hours after he was supposed to have gone home, Kim received a call at the hospital from the lab saying that high levels of cyanide had been detected in each of the Janus couple’s blood. He immediately called and woke the head of the lab at home, who assured him that the tests were accurate.
Doctor Kim called the Medical Examiner’s office. “I can tell you right now that these people probably died of cyanide. When the medical examiners analyze the Tylenol capsules please have them check for cyanide.” Not long after he hung up, Mary McFarland died at Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove.
It was now terrifyingly clear — yet still widely unknown — that countless numbers of pain relief capsules in houses and on store shelves were ticking time bombs.
When dawn finally arrived, Dr. Robert Stein, the Cook County Medical Examiner, hurriedly called a press conference and announced that cyanide had been detected in Tylenol, and that there was reason to believe the product had been tampered with on a large scale. He called for an immediate halt to its use until further notice. At 9:03 a.m., Mary Reiner, mother of four, was declared dead.
Doctor Kim heard the news flash on his car radio as he returned to work, having briefly gone home to rest and clean up. Six people were dead. Kim still had Theresa to try and save though sadly, her condition was unchanged.
James Zagel, director of the Illinois Department of Law Enforcement, was listening to the morning radio on his way to work as well. His first instinct was to pull over and call his wife, urging her not to take any of the Tylenol they had in their medicine cabinet.
Save for helping local police departments with some small tasks, IDLE was more geared toward fighting organized crime and narcotics trafficking. But as the reports became clearer–multiple deaths all across the Chicago area–Zagel knew this could be the most important case of his career. He began making a flurry of phone calls: first to Thomas Schumpp, the director of the Northern District of IDLE that handles Chicago and its suburbs. He told Schumpp to assemble his top agents and have them start collecting data from the individual police departments. Later he reached out to high level officials and asked for their assistance. That included Illinois Attorney General Tyrone Fahner, who happened to be at a yawn-inducing fund raising event seated next to the Governor of Illinois. After Fahner’s aide tapped him on the shoulder and began whispering in his ear, Fahner relayed the news to the governor and raced out to his car to call Zagel.
Zagel and Fahner decided to convene a meeting with top law enforcement officials, as well as representatives from Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Tylenol. Fahner knew he needed the FBI’s superior resources, especially if the still locally isolated crisis devolved into a national emergency. His top assistant spent the next several hours scouring law books until he finally found an obscure statute making tampering with drugs a federal misdemeanor. Not exactly the major crime he was looking for but enough to get the feds involved.The FBI assigned 50 agents and their enormous network of national resources to the case.
All three major networks led their news shows that evening with the Tylenol panic. It was a news story unlike any in recent memory. Terrified Americans across the country scoured medicine cabinets and drawers, handling bottles of capsules like volatile explosives. Once the Tylenol was discarded, consumers were still forced to confront the sheer number of packaged products in their homes. Any one of them might be a Trojan horse for deadly poison.
As a sense of foreboding spread across the nation, 20-year-old Theresa Janus died due to the deadly poison at Northwest Community Hospital. Kim had done everything he could, but Theresa had been too far gone by the time she’d first arrived.
All that day Schumpp and his second-in-command, Edward Cisowski, got reports from their men in the field and desperately tried to figure out who might be responsible for this monstrous crime. There was no apparent motive and little evidence to work with. At the meeting the following morning, an exhausted Schumpp stood up and gave it his best shot. Maybe it was someone trying to manipulate the price of J&J stock, he told the law enforcement gathering. Or perhaps only one of the victims was a target and the others were killed to cover up the actual murder. It could also be a disgruntled J&J employee looking for revenge. Whatever the case, every possibility would have to be run down until a clear motive came to light. Typically most poisoners were women, though they nearly always killed people they knew. And other than three of the victims being named Mary and the Janus’ being an extended family, there was nothing linking the victims together.
The Johnson & Johnson reps at the meeting listened as the decision was taken to get all Tylenol products off store shelves and out of people’s medicine cabinets, nationwide and immediately. Despite the massive loss of revenue they faced, J&J agreed and decided to go even further, temporarily halting all production of Tylenol products. The one main concern for everyone — and it was a big one — was that the product itself was the evidence. Once it was destroyed, it would become impossible to properly trace where and when the poisonings might have occurred, and it would be unavailable for use in a criminal trial down the road. But millions of lives were now at stake so saving them had to take precedence, a decision that was destined to play a big part in events that unfolded later. The Johnson & Johnson reps offered to set up a lab to test for cyanide. J&J set up and held press conferences in major media centers all across the country to alert consumers to the danger. If the product couldn’t be saved, they hoped, perhaps their reputation could be.
When the meeting ended, Schumpp set up teams of investigators mixing state, local and FBI resources to set up surveillance on all the victims’ houses. His theory was that an anonymous killer might be looking to set up a personal connection to his victims. Surveillance teams were also sent to all of the victim’s funerals. Still more agents were dispatched to conduct interviews with anyone working in the vicinity of the stores where the tainted Tylenol had been purchased. Everyone from the clerks and janitors to the towel supply guys. A hotline was set up and quickly became flooded with tips, theories and calls from people wondering what to do with their Tylenol. A daily law enforcement meeting at 7:30 p.m.was also set up at the Des Plaines police headquarters. Every investigator would be required to write-up what they learned each day and those reports were entered into a special computer program developed just for this case.
The authorities were so determined to find the perpetrator that even psychics were given their due. The man was white, they told police. The man was Black. The man was Hispanic. He drove a van, a pickup, a motorcycle. At one point a psychic called in saying he’d had a crystal clear vision of a 46-year-old Japanese woman who was angry at J&J for refusing to hire her. She’d bought a jar of olives at the store before dropping off the poisoned Tylenol, he said. The specificity of his details made his story seem plausible until police asked how he came upon his visions and he told them his magic pen wrote the details out for him whenever he picked it up.
Investigators ruled out any chance that the tainting had occurred in the plants where Tylenol was manufactured, then poured feverishly over a years worth of Chicago newspapers for Tylenol overdose or accidental death stories that might motivate revenge. When nothing turned up, they went through 10 years of murders that occurred on September 29 to see if the date was in any way significant.
Frustration mounted. As days ticked by, the pressure on investigators to find a suspect was building to a boil. The killer had made no demands, and had struck randomly through Tylenol. Who was to say that pulling Tylenol off the market would stop them from finding other ways to kill? There were dozens of other over-the-counter medications that could be equally vulnerable. Try as authorities might to calm the public, the truth was that until the killer was found, everyone was a potential target. All the follow-up and interviewing had thus far only served to exonerate a large number of innocent people.
Then, on October 6, an unsigned, handwritten letter arrived at the offices of Johnson & Johnson.
As you can see, it is easy to place cyanide (both potassium & sodium) into capsules sitting on store shelves. And since the cyanide is inside the gelatin, it is easy to get buyers to swallow the bitter pill. Another beauty is that the cyanide operates quickly. It takes so very little. And there will be no time to take countermeasures.
If you don’t mind the publicity of these little capsules, then do nothing. So far I have spent less than fifty dollars and it takes me less than 10 minutes per bottle.
If you want to stop the killing then wire $1,000,000.00 to bank account # 84–49–597 at Continental Illinois Bank Chicago, Ill.
J&J immediately alerted what had now become the Tylenol Task Force. The first thing investigators focused on was the bank account, but rather than the key breakthrough they so badly needed, what they discovered sounded more like a hoax. The account was registered to an heir to the Miller Brewing fortune, Frederick Miller McCahey, who had recently closed a travel agency he owned. The pre-stamped envelope containing the letter was traced to the agency’s Pitney-Bowes stamp machine. They soon learned that McCahey’s former employee Nancy Richardson had an axe to grind with him over a bounced final $511 paycheck. Hardly the impetus to commit mass murder, yet at the same time, the letter was a confession so not easily ignored either. Nancy and her husband Robert Richardson had had an angry confrontation with McCahey over the check. Agents subsequently learned that the Richardsons had lived in Chicago up until three weeks before the first Tylenol deaths, then left town without explanation. A warrant was issued for their arrest and a nationwide manhunt was launched.
Far from Chicago, nearly three weeks after the mayhem began, an eager, 28-year-old Kansas City homicide detective named David Barton sat down in his living room to watch the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. Like most cops, he’d been following the Tylenol case from a distance while attending to local crimes in Kansas City. Neither Chicago police nor the FBI had figured out a motive for the poisonings, nor had they made much progress in terms of a suspect, save for the apparent hoaxster Richardson. On the set, Rather announced there’d been a new break: a surveillance photo from the Walgreens where Paula Prince bought her poisoned bottle that was taken at the moment of purchase. In one of the aisles in the background there was a bearded man wearing a white lab coat whom police thought might be Robert Richardson. Anyone who recognized him was urged to contact local authorities.
When the surveillance photo came up on screen, Barton leapt from his seat and began shouting to his daughter: “That’s him, the bastard! That’s him!”
He’d never been more certain of anything in his life. Except Barton had never met a man named Robert Richardson. The man in the photograph, he was sure, was James William Lewis, a former Kansas City grifter and the prime suspect in a gruesome murder and mail fraud scam whom Barton had been after for years. Only now he had a beard. The next day Barton and his colleague Billy Moore were on a plane to Chicago to meet with Tylenol investigators. They brought with them two boxes related to the Kansas City crimes that were so large they had to purchase separate seats for them. Those boxes told a spine-chilling tale.
Back in 1978, four years before the Tylenol murders, Lewis and his wife Leann (alias Nancy Richardson) had lived in Kansas City where they ran a tax preparation service. One of their customers was a 72-year-old bachelor named Raymond West. When the elderly man went missing, West’s close friend Charles Banker, who’d gone to check on him, called the police and suggested that West’s ‘tax man,’ James Lewis, had been spending a lot of time over at West’s house of late and might know West’s whereabouts. When the KCPD followed up on the lead, Lewis told them that West had gone to the Ozarks for three or four days with a girlfriend. But West–a lifelong bachelor–never had a girlfriend, and Banker, the concerned friend, was certain he wouldn’t leave town without telling him first.
The next day, Banker filed a missing person’s report. He and another acquaintance went to West’s house where they found a note on the front door, which was written on Lewis & Lewis Tax Service letterhead, saying that West had gone to the Ozarks for three or four days. “For further, contact Jim” it concluded. Banker noticed that the shade on the bedroom window had been lowered, indicating someone had been in the house since the friend’s visit the previous day. He again called police, who forced their way in and found another handwritten note on the coffee table which read: “Please don’t disturb until after 1 p.m. sleeping late.” Not only wasn’t the note in West’s handwriting, a friend told the cops, but it was signed, “Raymond,” a moniker that West never used. He was always “Ray,” never “Raymond.” They searched the house but found no sign of West.
Banker went out and bought two new padlocks, and after the police left, he affixed one of them to the front door. Since West’s car was still in the garage, he decided to put a lock on the garage door as well. As he did so, James Lewis drove up and ran straight towards him. “What the hell are you doing?” Lewis shouted. He was angry and picked up a hammer. Lewis eventually calmed down and drove off, but when the two friends left, they saw that Lewis had parked his car down the street behind a delivery truck. They decided to wait Lewis out and see what he was up to. Some 10 minutes later, the delivery man returned to his truck and drove off, leaving Lewis exposed. He sat another few minutes then drove away. Banker later went to the bank to see if Ray had made any recent withdrawals. The vice president informed him that they’d just received a check in the amount of $5,000, drawn on West’s account and made out to Lewis & Lewis Tax Service that James Lewis had tried to cash. The bank had refused Lewis’ request because they suspected the signature was a forgery.
By the middle of August 1978, temperatures in Kansas City were regularly climbing above 90 degrees with stifling humidity. Three weeks had passed since anyone had seen or heard from Ray West. Police once again searched the house. This time there was a horrible odor emanating throughout the house, and they noticed a small hole behind a mirror leaning up against the wall. Inside was a spent .32 caliber lead bullet. They found blood stains in the bathtub and white powdered soap residue from someone trying to clean blood from the carpet. A green lawn chair was missing from the room. They searched the basement and found it there covered in bloodstains. Sitting atop the chair was a trash bag containing a man’s wig, dark-rimmed eyeglasses and blood-stained sheets–all belonging to Ray West. But there was no sign of a body anywhere.
It wasn’t until the cops returned to the main floor of the house that one of them looked up and noticed a dark stain on the ceiling. They searched the attic and made the grim discovery of Ray West’s neatly dismembered and highly decomposed corpse. The hand-wound watch he wore on his left wrist had stopped on July 24, the day after his disappearance. Both of his legs had been cleanly severed from the torso and individually wrapped in sheets. The torso was covered from the waist up by a tan trash bag that had been tied around the waist with intricately knotted rope. The same type of rope and knots were used to tie his head with a separate sheet. Next to the corpse were a baseball bat, a pair of wood-handled pruning shears, and — Barton noted in his exhaustive report — a yellow Bic pen.
Hanging from one of the rafters was a triple pulley game hoist: the type used to skin a deer. A section of rope stretched from the pulley down into the closet a floor below, the access point to the attic. When the cops removed the tan trash bag they found an L-shaped piece of metal pipe that had been wedged between the hips so as to steady the hoist of the body.
Detectives were sent to Lewis’ house to bring him in for questioning. In legal terms, he was now a person of interest: a nebulous term used by law enforcement agencies to identify someone they believe may have been involved in a crime but who has not yet been arrested. Often it’s whoever last saw the missing person. The KCPD was extremely busy at the time of the West case, so two robbery detectives, rather than homicide, were dispatched to bring in Lewis. Lewis was brought up to the 11th floor, briefly placed in a holding cell, and made to turn over his shoelaces, a tactic used to prevent suicide. He was then brought down to the second floor where he was introduced to homicide investigators. The robbery detectives neglected to mention the pit stop they’d made up on 11.
Lewis mostly stuck with his story, adding that he and West had had a beer together on the day he disappeared. That’s when West loaned him the five grand, Lewis said. When the bank said the check had been returned as “unpayable,” he simply borrowed the money from his wife Leann’s parents instead.
The next day, Lewis was questioned again, and this time his car, a 1969 AMC station wagon, was searched. Police found 34 cancelled checks on the front seat, as well as a briefcase full of checks and documents–all of which belonged to Ray West. Wedged into the spare tire well was a 20-foot piece of the same type of rope that had been used to tie up the body. They searched the Lewis’ other car, an inoperable 1969 Ford Fairlane, where they found a seven-foot section of the same rope, with the same intricate knots. Lewis was then read his Miranda rights.
In time, Jim Bell, a plain-spoken Midwesterner with a knack for persuasive rhetoric, was assigned to prepare the prosecution against Lewis. In response to the physical evidence recovered, Bell kept wondering why out of the countless accounting clients the Lewis’ had, only Ray West’s canceled checks were found in their car. Furthermore, how many people, particularly tax preparers, have a need for a three pulley game hoist? Lewis’ explanations simply didn’t add up.
Barton tracked down a friend of Lewis who said Lewis had been interested in buying her .32 caliber pistol, which had since gone missing.
She also told Barton that on the day West disappeared, she and Leann had gone to a movie but on the way there, they were surprised to see Jim walk by. He told them he was coming from West’s house and that West had said he was leaving town for a few days. Jim got in the car and they all went to a late movie together.
The Kansas City coroner examined the pieces of Raymond West’s deteriorated corpse and prepared her report. She had recently been under fire for being unable to determine the cause of death in several cases, but this case seemed to offer little wiggle room. How could a person who hadn’t been murdered dismember themselves, wrap their body parts up and hoist themselves into their attic? Why would they have a skull fracture? And why would someone dismember a person who’d died from natural causes?
Bell began preparing himself for trial. Lewis’s defense attorney, Albert Riederer, let slip that Lewis had learned how to butcher livestock as a member of Future Farmers of America. To Bell, West’s dismemberment clearly wasn’t a hack job–it was all clean cuts. He went out to the crime lab to look at all the physical evidence to see what could be offered at trial. There, in a series of doubled and tripled Ziploc bags, he found some of the ropes used to tie up West’s body. When Bell opened the bags, the experience was so overwhelming it took him days to recover.
A few days after receiving West’s corpse the coroner issued her report: The cause of death for Ray West could not be determined. His body parts were too decomposed. Her verdict sent shock waves through the KCPD and Jim Bell’s office. There was no way they could get Lewis for homicide. The killer had been improbably rescued by a heat wave. Lewis still technically faced jail time for dismemberment, but the state was in for another surprise.
When the officers who took Lewis in for questioning brought him to the 11th floor and detained him, he had not been read his Miranda rights. At the time a person is booked they must be given their Miranda rights immediately. Otherwise, it poisons the case against them. All incriminating information they reveal before they receive their Miranda rights, and any evidence gathered based on that information, is considered fruits of a poisonous tree, meaning it can’t be used in court. The ropes, the canceled checks, the knots, the notes on the door and in the living room — in the West case, all of these were now inadmissible legal poison.
There would be no trial. Too much of the evidence against Lewis had been tainted by the bungled arrest to mount a solid case, and Lewis’ high priced lawyers, paid for by Leann’s well-to-do parents, successfully filed dozens of motions to suppress the evidence they had.
Then an odd bolt of serendipity struck. Barely two years later, Barton, the homicide detective, began getting wind of some mail fraud activity going on in the area–petty stuff, mostly $400 or $500 jobs. He discovered that all of the Kansas City victims had some relationship with Lewis & Lewis Tax Service. The Lewises had been stealing personal information from their accounting clients in Kansas City, using it to order credit cards and having those cards sent to mailboxes they’d placed on the road. When the illicit cards would arrive, James Lewis would collect the mail–including the mailbox itself–and drive off.
As Barton and his men dug further into the scam, they began to uncover an even more detailed and deliberate plan of action. In several cases, James Lewis would first befriend his victims and spend time hanging out with them, much as he’d done with Raymond West. He’d volunteer to help them inventory their goods, or prepare a will, while at the same time stealing their identities, opening bank accounts, and making purchases on phony credit cards in their name. He’d even transferred deeds to their houses to himself through a shell company. Eventually a disagreement of some sort would arise, and Lewis would be deemed a nuisance who was no longer welcome.
Barton began tailing Lewis until one day he witnessed him out on a country road opening a mailbox, pulling out the contents, then throwing the entire mailbox into his trunk. Barton immediately tried to get a warrant issued for Lewis’ arrest, but before the warrant could be served, the Lewises somehow got wind of it and fled. A day or so later, unbeknownst to anyone in Kansas City, they showed up in Chicago, newly minted as Robert and Nancy Richardson.
When Barton and Moore got off their flight from Kansas City to Chicago in October of 1982, the Tylenol investigation was in full swing. They were immediately introduced to the Tylenol Task Force. Barton couldn’t wait to tell Chicago PD and the FBI about James Lewis’ past. He’d even brought along the game hoist pulley from the West case hoping the FBI could positively identify the smudged fingerprint on it with their superior technology. Moore was sent to the crime lab at FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, along with the pulley.
Coordination among the many agencies involved in the Tylenol investigation had been smooth thus far, though the number of leads they were running down was becoming exhausting. A few arrests were made, but they led nowhere. John Douglas, the legendary FBI behavioral profiler, suspected that the Tylenol perpetrator would be trying to follow the crime investigation from a distance. The best way to do that back then was to read reports in the local Chicago papers, which could only be done from afar in public libraries. The task force created posters and sent them to public libraries across the country.
In the wake of Barton’s arrival, attorney general Fahner announced at a press conference that he was taking Lewis’ involvement in the murder case in Kansas City seriously, even if it wasn’t proof that he was the Tylenol killer. One puzzling–and critical–question about Lewis remained: Had he tried to use the horrible Tylenol tragedy simply to get revenge on McCahey, or did he create the tragedy?
As investigators dug deeper, they learned that Leann Lewis, as Nancy Richardson, had taken more than a few pre-stamped envelopes from McCahey’s Lakeside Travel office before it shut down. She’d also pilfered a number of blank airline tickets that she could handwrite herself and use to travel anywhere within the U.S. Back in 1982, there was no ID requirement for travel domestically. As such, she knew she could choose a destination and be Leann, Nancy or anyone else.
FBI agents went to Amarillo, where the Richardsons last told friends they were heading just prior to the Tylenol murders. There they discovered a woman whose name really was Nancy Richardson. She’d never met Jim or Leann Lewis, she told them, and the address the feds showed her was for an apartment she’d moved out of two years earlier. Still, Leann had been using her driver’s license.
The more investigators learned about Lewis, the more the pieces began to fit together. Lewis had had a difficult childhood, and, unsurprisingly, a different identity. He was born Theodore Elmer Wilson in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1946. His father left the family before Theodore turned three. Later, he and his sisters were placed in foster care after their mother abandoned them in a motel near Joplin, Missouri. He was eventually adopted by Floyd and Charlotte Lewis, who renamed him James William Lewis. Among other things, James would always remember the nearby mines of Cave Junction, Missouri, where they lived, which he believed were responsible for poisoning the local water. Floyd died when James was 12, and his mother remarried six years later. James reportedly broke his stepfather’s ribs in a fight and threatened his mother with an axe handle.
He eventually went to college, where he met and later married Leann Miller. After graduation, they both worked some freelance stints as bookkeepers, then opened Lewis & Lewis Business Tax Service in Kansas City.
On October 27th, the Chicago Tribune received a letter from Robert Richardson along with a dossier of alleged proof of McCahey’s crime.
As you have probably guessed, my wife and I have not committed the Chicago area Tylenol murders. We do not go around killing people. We never have and we never shall. Contrary to reports we are not armed unless one means in the anatomical paraplegic sense. We shall never carry weapons no matter how bizarre the police & FBI reports.
Domestically, weapons are for two quite similar types of mentalities: (1) Criminals & (2) Police.
We are neither.
The game pulley sent to Quantico detected an exact match of James Lewis’ fingerprint. If Barton and the Tylenol team could get him into custody, there was fresh hope he could go down for the West murder as well. Shortly after Barton returned from Chicago, and days before Thanksgiving, the editor of the Kansas City Star received another letter entitled “A Moral Dilemma.” Its seven pages, this time signed “James Lewis,” included several personal details about Lewis’ life and worldview. “I grew up a southern Missouri hillbilly,” he wrote. “Then life was relatively simple. Values of right and wrong were clear cut black and white. The law was to be obeyed. The sheriff was to be obeyed and respected.”
Lewis avoided any mention of Tylenol in his letter to the Star, though it was clear he was monitoring the case’s developments while on the lam, including the involvement of his old nemesis David Barton. At one point in the letter Lewis crowed, “Reopen the Raymond West case? That sounds like a splendid idea. Why have the police taken so long to come to their senses?”
Unbeknownst to investigators, James and Leann Lewis were in New York City, where they’d come immediately after leaving Chicago. They spent their wedding anniversary walking hand in hand at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as the search for the Tylenol perpetrator intensified. Even though they were the subject of a nationwide manhunt, they made little effort to hide. Leann had already secured another accounting job as Carol Wagner. Jim, now using the alias Bob Wagner, would meet her after work each day and walk her home to the hotel where they lived.
Finally, on December 13, a librarian at the main branch of the New York City public library spotted a man who matched the description of Lewis. He was in the periodicals section, reading out-of-town newspapers exactly as John Douglas had hypothesized. NYPD detectives swarmed the vicinity and Detective Vincent Piazza raced inside and made the collar. The news spread rapidly, and Leann knew she was next in line for arrest. She called her parents in Missouri, who summoned two prominent Chicago lawyers, Michael Monico and Barry Spevack, to help arrange for Leann’s surrender.
Leann was flown to Chicago and packed into the custody of then-assistant prosecutor Jeremy Margolis. She was briefly held on a charge of using a false social security card. While in custody, she took a lie detector test, which revealed deception in two key responses:
Question 1: “Did you ever return to Chicago after you moved to New York?”
Question 2: “Do you know who put that cyanide in the Tylenol?”
James Lewis refused a polygraph. He was held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago for attempted extortion. Incredibly, Leann was released and the charge against her was dropped. James Lewis was the whale they were looking to take down, and a polygraph wasn’t enough to convict Leann of a crime this enormous.
Fahner and Zagel were convinced that James Lewis had committed the Tylenol murders. In all this time he was the only one who’d claimed any responsibility. The difficulty was proving it beyond a reasonable doubt. They tried enlarging the pharmacy surveillance photo, but the bigger it got, the grainier it got. No fingerprints could be pulled from any of the tainted bottles. As the trial approached, Fahner and his selected prosecutors–Jeremy Margolis, Cynthia Giacchetti and Dan Webb–had to make a crucial choice: go for the lay down extortion case they were certain they could win or lose everything by trying to prove mass murder without concrete evidence. Now in custody, Lewis was looking at a possible 30 years on the mail fraud charges, but if they could get him another decade for extortion he wouldn’t get out until sometime in his mid-70s, not to mention the distant hope that Lewis might finally be prosecuted for West’s murder and dismemberment. They made the painful but safer decision to get Lewis for extortion.
Lewis’ defense team also suspected he might have done the Tylenol murders, but their job was to keep him out of jail, or rather, get him out of jail as quickly as possible. Although he had confessed to the Tylenol poisonings in the letter, including specifics about the type of cyanide used, and asked for payment of a million dollars, if they could prove that Lewis was simply trying to avenge his wife, perhaps they could duck the extortion rap and get him off on a lesser charge. Monico decided to try something bold. He would concede outright that Lewis wrote the letter and argue that he was not trying to commit a crime but rather to expose McCahey. Furthermore, they would argue, there was no way for him to have received the extortion money even if J&J had paid it.
A month before the Tylenol trial started, Lewis was convicted of six counts of mail fraud in Kansas City and sentenced to 10 years in prison. For Barton, Fahner and his team it was at least a solid start. When the Tylenol trial began, both sides agreed not to discuss the poisonings or the murders and to focus only on the letter of extortion. The prosecution introduced two friends of the Lewis’ who testified that James had bragged to them about how easy it would be to use computers to transfer money undetected between corporate bank accounts. He considered himself something of a computer genius. Then they introduced evidence about how Lewis had previously set up an unwitting accounting client of his to take the fall for an act of mail fraud in Kansas City, a la’ McCahey, and succeeded in making off with the money.
The Tylenol jury returned a guilty verdict on the extortion charge, and Lewis was sentenced to another 10 years to run consecutively to his mail fraud sentence.
Prosecutor Margolis, for one, assumed that was the end of Lewis as far as Tylenol was concerned. Then one day shortly after his conviction Lewis reached out from prison with an unsolicited offer to help find the perpetrator. Hoping Lewis might trip himself up in the process, Margolis accepted the offer and began to meet with him. A game of cat and mouse quickly ensued. Lewis began to ‘helpfully’ provide a series of precise, handmade drawings he’d crafted showing how a person could get cyanide into capsules of Tylenol if they wanted to. Margolis played along, all the while holding his cards close to the vest lest he tip Lewis off to any of the evidence they had against him in the murder cases. In the end neither man blinked. Margolis still keeps the framed original of Lewis’ “Drilled Board Method” in his present-day office. It depicts eight small symmetrical holes that have been carefully drilled into a suspended square block of wood so that eight empty half capsules can be held into place while a pile of unidentified powder is swept over their openings with a butter knife. Below the drawings in block letters Lewis added: “NOT DRAWN TO SCALE.”
Lewis served a total of 13 years in state prison before being released on parole in 1995 and rejoining Leann, who had moved to Massachusetts in the interim. He was arrested again in 2003 and held for the attempted rape of a woman who lived in the same building as he and Leann. But when the victim said she was too afraid to testify, Lewis was released again. One of the enduring mysteries of both the Tylenol and West cases has been trying to understand where Leann fits in. Could she have truly been shielded from it all until well after the fact? Prosecutor Jim Bell, for one, has little doubt.
“I think they’re two peas in a pod, operating with the same idea and the same motive. Part of it comes from her being involved in the tax business. Part of it comes from her detailing where they went the night Raymond West disappeared. Jim Lewis was spending almost every evening over on Raymond West’s porch … I just believe she had to know.”
To date, no one has ever been charged with a crime for the death of Raymond West. David Barton believes to his core that no matter what, a jury would have still convicted James Lewis at trial. But it was never his decision to make. Lewis’ prosecution evasion wasn’t entirely due to a lack of trying on the government’s part. Several months after he was arrested in Chicago, a special prosecutor was appointed in Kansas City to re-examine the evidence against Lewis in the West case and determine if a murder prosecution could finally be successfully mounted.
Yet as if the police having previously poisoned so much evidence against Lewis hadn’t been enough, the special prosecutor soon found himself facing a new conundrum because a trove of physical evidence from the case had somehow been lost. Among the missing items: the triple hoist game pulley with James Lewis’ fingerprint on it.
To the untrained eye, the two crimes couldn’t be any more different. Ray West was murdered in a moment of passion versus seven strangers killed in cold blood with the Tylenol case. One would expect a criminal psychologist, of all people, to focus on what was going through the minds of each killer. Yet in this story of seemingly endless paradoxes, the opposite of one’s expectations is generally the surer bet. According to Richard Walter, arguably the nation’s premiere criminal psychologist and a co-founder of the Vidocq Society, a monthly gathering of cold-case experts, the killer could easily have been the same person. And he may have been hiding in plain sight all along.
“There’s a tendency to focus too much on the crime itself, rather than the crime type,” says Walter. “It’s not what the killer thinks, it’s what he does that matters most.” Walter has made a career out of teaching cops what to look for in investigations. To him, both the Tylenol and West cases are clearly the work of a power assertive killer. The alleged rape case of 2003 is yet another example of power assertiveness. The seeming ‘passivity’ of the Tylenol case is merely a different sort of power being asserted. Here, it’s icier and more distant but equally deadly. Walter points to Lewis’ use of the first person pronoun in his extortion letter as indicative of the sociopathic need of a power assertive killer to brag about his work. “I have spent less than fifty dollars and it takes me less than 10 minutes per bottle.” He sees Lewis’ ‘helpful’ drawings for Margolis as yet another form of braggadocio, much like O.J. Simpson’s controversial and bizarre book, If I Did It, about the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. This same compulsion may also explain why Lewis welcomed renewed attention to the West case despite the overwhelming evidence against him.
For the first time, it may not be unthinkable that the Tylenol murders would have never happened had Lewis been prosecuted and sentenced for Ray West’s murder. What’s crystal clear is that the poisonings changed the world irrevocably That change is easily tallied in the ubiquity of safety-sealed drug packaging, yet immeasurable in terms of the lasting terror it engendered in the American psyche about our collective vulnerability.
In an exclusive interview for this piece, James Bell confessed that 40 years later, he is still “haunted” by the West case, while David Barton continues to believe a jury would convict James Lewis of Ray West’s murder “no matter what.”
Wally and Bob Tarasewicz, Theresa Janus’ brothers, struggle to hold back tears when discussing the losses that permanently marked their family. A photo of their newlywed sister Theresa smiling in her husband Stanley’s arms holds pride of place in both their homes and in their memories.
Dr. Thomas Kim’s little-known role in halting the Tylenol crisis was an act of determined professionalism that saved untold numbers of lives, and his willingness to look “silly” remains an unsung, yet extraordinary deed of medical sleuthing and public service.
The FBI still considers Tylenol an open, active case. Despite a nationwide manhunt, thousands of hours of police work and an unsolicited confession from the only enduring suspect, no one has ever been charged for the poisoning that killed Mary Reiner, Paula Prince, Mary McFarland, Adam, Stanley, and Theresa Janus, or a 12-year-old girl named Mary Kellerman, a singular set of serial murders. James and Leann Lewis are now in their 70s and living in Massachusetts. There is no statute of limitations for the crime of homicide nor for the recurring grief that persists in its wake.
MICHAEL SOLOMON is a Brooklyn-born author, journalist, and award-winning filmmaker whose work includes the memoir Now It’s Funny: How I Survived Cancer, Divorce, and Other Looming Disasters and the documentary films How To Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) and Constantine’s Sword, among others.
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