Thirty-one years ago today, on September 29, 1982, a 12-year-old girl named Mary Kellerman, who lived in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, died after taking a single capsule of the popular pain reliever drug Tylenol. Within a few days, six more people in the Chicago area were dead, including Stanley and Teresa Janus of Lisle, Illinois–Stanley’s brother Adam was also among the dead–who had swallowed Tylenol capsules from the same bottle. Within a week, the Johnson & Johnson company, maker of Tylenol, had recalled tens of millions of bottles of the pills, costing the company over $100 million. There were no more deaths, but the damage had already been done–seven people dead, all from poisoning by potassium cyanide, an especially ugly and horrible death. Whoever poisoned the Tylenol bottles in the Chicago area was never caught.
More than three decades later the Tylenol murder case remains one of the most baffling and mysterious cases in the bloody history of serial killers. And, make no mistake–this was a serial killing. Some sick person out there deliberately introduced potassium cyanide into various bottles of Tylenol. At this point in time, Tylenol came in cellulose capsules–two bullet-shaped containers stuck end to end, with the powdered dust of the drug inside of them. Pill bottles did not have foil lids or cotton inside. Thus, a person could simply take a bottle of pills off the shelf, open it, pull open the capsules, inject the poison, put the capsules back together, and put them back in the bottle, and the next person who picked up the bottle would never know that it had been tampered with.
But who could have done this, where, and most importantly, why? This was not a traditional terrorist attack, where a group or individual calls authorities and claims responsibility, whether rightly or wrongly. (Many terrorists attempt to claim responsibility for each other’s actions even if they are unrelated, and especially if they create a media splash). Investigations of the poisoned Tylenol bottles concluded that they had not all come from the same factory–meaning they weren’t poisoned at the source. That suggested that someone went around to drugstores in the Chicago area and poisoned bottles one by one. Why? If there was a political objective, it remained undisclosed. If it was an act of senseless madness by a psychotic, it seems awfully well-constructed. Mad dog killers usually gain their sick satisfaction from face-to-face killings, watching their victims die. The Tylenol killings were, by definition, murder from afar.
Ted Kaczysnski, the infamous “Unabomber,” as a student at UC Davis in 1968. Did he spike the Tylenol 14 years later? Unknown.
Over the years, suspects in the Tylenol case have come and gone, but none have ever withstood the test of time. One of the most prominent theories is that Ted Kaczysnski, the “Unabomber,” may have done it. He was in the Chicago area in 1982, but there’s no concrete proof he was involved, and his weapon of choice seems to have been bombs, not poison. Kaczynski, arrested in 1996, is serving a life sentence for his crime spree which lasted nearly 20 years. He is also suspected of being the “Zodiac” killer who terrorized California in the 1960s.
Although Johnson & Johnson received a lot of good PR for its handling of the crisis in 1982, Tylenol itself remains an extremely controversial product. Even without the tampering of murderers, its main ingredient, acetaminophen, is viewed as an unusually dangerous drug, killing over 150 Americans every year from accidental overdoses–a record in considerable excess of death from any other over-the-counter medication. Reportedly the FDA has long been aware of the dangers of Tylenol, but the company has resolutely resisted stronger safety warnings or other regulations.
Who poisoned the bottles of Tylenol back in September 1982? Most likely we will never know. It remains a chilling reminder of the dangers of our mass-production society, and how vulnerable it can sometimes be.