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Main suspect in the 1982 Chicago Tylenol Murders dies

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the fall of 1982, a panic gripped Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Medical officials in Chicago say some capsules of the pain reliever Extra Strength Tylenol have been laced with the deadly poison cyanide.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: ...Has already been taken off shelves and...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The Illinois attorney general has blamed a madman for the poisonings.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: And authorities there have moved to confiscate most of the city's Tylenol supply.

KELLY: Seven people died after swallowing Tylenol capsules that had been laced with potassium cyanide, and no one was ever charged with the murders. And now the man who law enforcement has focused on for four decades has died on Sunday at his home in Cambridge, Mass. Authorities believed they had a case against James Lewis, but they did not have direct physical evidence. They did have an extortion letter Lewis had written to Johnson & Johnson, the company that manufactures Tylenol, demanding a million dollars to make the killings stop. Lewis was convicted of attempted extortion and spent 13 years in prison. Stacy St. Clair is part of a Chicago Tribune reporting team that delved into the Tylenol murders last year. She joins us now. Hi there.

STACY ST CLAIR: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So briefly explain a little more why investigators were so convinced that Lewis was responsible.

ST CLAIR: Well, as you said, it first begins with him inserting himself into the case with this blackmail letter, this extortion attempt where he admits to being the killer in the letter and says he'll stop the killings if he gets a million dollars. He gets convicted a year later of attempted extortion in that case. They never charge him with the murders because they couldn't place him in Chicago, and there were no fingerprints that matched. After he gets convicted but before he's sentenced, he calls the FBI and says, I'd like to help you solve the case. I think I can help you find, you know, the, quote-unquote, "real killer." And he sits down for a series of interviews, and he waives his lawyer being present, and he begins to tell them what the killer would be thinking when he poisoned the capsules or put them on the shelves. And he...

KELLY: He drew, like, all these little diagrams - right? - of how...

ST CLAIR: Yes.

KELLY: ...He would have done it if you had done it.

ST CLAIR: Correct. He was an extremely talented artist. And what he did was draw pictures for the FBI and federal prosecutors of exactly how you would put the cyanide into the pills without poisoning yourself.

KELLY: So fascinating. So was it just that lack of physical evidence we mentioned? Is that why murder charges were never brought?

ST CLAIR: It was the lack of physical evidence and the fact that they actually could never place him in Chicago that week, you know? It's - it was a different time. We didn't leave sort of the digital footprint everywhere we went. And you could get on a plane under a different name.

KELLY: You interviewed him for the articles you wrote and the companion podcast. Did he maintain his innocence till the very end?

ST CLAIR: Yes. My colleague Christy Gutowski spoke with him outside his home in Cambridge, Mass., about a year ago, and he denied being the killer. And he asked her if she knew what it felt like to be falsely accused of something for 40 years. And he also suggested that Johnson & Johnson was responsible for the poisonings, that the poisonings occurred at the plant level, which is something that was investigated. And investigators decided there was no way that it could have happened at the plant level and then all ended up on the shelves of the Chicago area within the same 24-hour period. Like, the math and the chances of that happening were astronomical.

KELLY: So I want to acknowledge how frustrating this must be for the families of those...

ST CLAIR: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Seven people who died who still don't have closure after all these years.

ST CLAIR: Right.

KELLY: I also want to note the far-reaching consequences of what happened. Before Tylenol was tampered with, there were no safety seals, right?

ST CLAIR: No. You could walk into a store, open up any product on the shelf - not just medicine. We're talking, you know, peanut butter, milk, anything. You could just open it up and tamper with the product. Or as we saw in some police reports, it was very popular for people to go into the grocery store, open a peanut butter jar, dip their finger in and then put the jar back on the shelf. I mean, that's how freewheeling it was back then. There are actually three ways or three barriers you have to get through now before you can take the Tylenol. And those three barriers were introduced in the weeks following the murders in order to restore the public's trust in Tylenol.

KELLY: Well, with James Lewis dead, do you know - have you reached out and ask the FBI or investigators in Chicago - do they plan to keep looking, or does this mystery die with him?

ST CLAIR: Officially, everyone says the case is still open and ongoing. But the investigators that we've spoke to, investigators who have spent decades on this case, have told us that the case ends here. For 40 years, they have built a case against James Lewis that prosecutors decided not to charge. It was a circumstantial case. They didn't want to take the risk. And so all the evidence they've built up all these years is based on Lewis. And there's - you can't charge somebody who's not alive. So absent some advancement in DNA technology, which does happen, or a confession, it's likely nobody will ever be charged with this case.

KELLY: Stacy St. Clair with the Chicago Tribune. She was part of the team that worked on the Tribune series "Unsealed: The Tylenol Murders." Thank you.

ST CLAIR: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALICIA KEYS SONG, "UN-THINKABLE (I'M READY)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.