The chilling non-lessons of the biggest American act of terror you’ve probably never heard of
The creepiest American act of terror you've never heard of
Mary K. had a scratchy throat. Adam J. had bronchitis. Mary R., fresh off childbirth, had full-body aches. Mary M. had a raging headache. Stan J. and his wife, Theresa, had suffered the sudden loss of a loved one. Paula P. just needed to settle the nerves after a red-eye flight. One by one, these seven Chicago area residents popped Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules. It was September 29, 1982. All were dead within 24 hours.
What we know about the Chicago Tylenol murders, as the incidents became known, is we don't know much of anything.
First, some facts we do know: The victims ingested potassium cyanide-laced capsules. These were purchased over the counter at five stores scattered about Chicago and surrounding suburbs. Mass hysteria – and the most intense media furor since Kennedy's assassination – ensued. Confounded local, state, and national law enforcement convened a 140 person investigative task force to crack the case, a flashpoint in the narratives of Big Pharma and the Food and Drug Administration. The Federal Anti-Tampering Act of 1983 (pdf) was a sweeping revision to how we go about packaging food and drugs. This saw marked shifts away from capsules – manipulated with little trace – to solid tablets.
It only got more batshit. Tips poured in, some anonymous, of lone-wolf crazies and international terror/crime syndicates alike. Investigators would amass 15,000 pages of documents, test millions of Tylenol capsules, and interview 400 persons of interest – out of a pool of 20,000.
Two key suspects emerged. Roger Arnold, a DIY chemist and dockhand at a Jewel Foods warehouse west of Chicago, was cleared of any blame. But he'd crack under the media's gaze, getting 30 years for point-blanking John Stanisha, a guy he mistakenly took for a bar owner, Marty Sinclair, whom Arnold thought had instigated the unwanted attention. Arnold was convicted in 1984 for second-degree murder. He'd be released after serving half his sentence, then die in 2008.
The manhunt turned to one James Lewis, an accountant and known extortionist from Kansas City. Lewis had fled to Chicago with his wife, LeAnn, on heat that he'd killed and dismembered an elderly colleague, Raymond West. Under the pseudonyms Robert and Nancy Richardson, the pair locked horns with Frederick McCahey, the Miller Brewing heir who owned Lakeside Travel, where "Nancy" kept the books. ("Robert" drifted as a temp for First National Bank of Chicago.) Lakeside would implode in a blaze of 18 bounced employee checks. One of these, to the tune of $511.33, was LeAnn's. Fuming, the pair blamed McCahey's shoddy management. They were struck down at an August wage-claim hearing, where a presiding officer didn't so much side with McCahey as rule that a claim couldn't be filed against non-existent money. They were also sued by the currency exchange where LeAnn cashed the check, but only paid a quarter of the eventual fine. On September 4, 1982, they lit out for the East Coast, this time as William and Karen Wagner. They'd quickly reassume the Richardson handle, hopping from one dilapidated New York City motel to another.
Then all hell broke loose in Chicago. The seven victims, aged 12 to 35, each fell comatose from the tainted pills. In some cases the cyanide, an almond-scented crystalline, gripped its target before there was even chance to reach for a phone. It didn't take long, either, for an extortion note to surface at Johnson & Johnson, Tylenol's manufacturer. If the drug maker wanted to "stop the killing" it had better wire $1 million to a certain Chicago bank account. Handwritten in capitals, the letter gushed over cyanide – the poison "operates quickly" and "takes so very little" – and had New York postage. It appeared the pseudonymous extortionist was at it again.
By now the Richarson's had new monikers: Edward and Carol Scott were holed up on the 200 block of East 17th Street. Investigators were onto them. Lewis/Richardson/Scott was their man. He'd hoped the extortion note would've framed McCahey. A TIME piece from December 27 reported that when LeAnn surrendered to Chicago authorities on December 14, a day after her husband's arrest, she was held on $5 million bail when U.S. Attorney Dan Webb "alleged that she helped her husband," panicked after the botched scam, "send a mid-October death threat to President Reagan."
Apparently this second note matched Lewis' handwriting. It remains unpublished, though we know it called for federal taxation overhaul. If this didn't happen, the author warned, the poisonings wouldn't let up, and a fleet of remote-controlled model airplanes slamming into the White House would fry Secret Service communications. Lewis, if in fact the author, figured this would wholly deflect suspicion on McCahey.
The two-month, citywide manhunt ended on the fourth floor of the Mid-Manhattan Library at 40th Street and Fifth Avenue. FBI and NYPD officials found James at a carrel "quietly copying names and addresses of newspapers from a reference book," TIME noted. Unarmed, he didn't resist. He was cuffed, hauled to New York's Metropolitan Correctional Center, and held on $5 million bail.
That's where it breaks down. Code-name TYMURS, as the FBI labeled the case, went cold almost as quick as the leads and suspects accumulated. Only 100 days into investigations, the 140-person unit was whittled down to 20 detectives. Said then Illinois Attorney General Tyrone Fahner in a 1985 New York Times feature: "We lacked a crime scene and we lacked a motive, the two inroads to move into the solution. All that was left was the cyanide."
James Lewis was convicted of extortion. He'd serve thirteen years of a twenty-year sentence, and be paroled in 1995. But with not enough evidence "to prove that he did more than piggyback on the notoriety of the deaths," TIME explained, the case stalled.
Johnson and Johnson's $100,000 reward is still unclaimed.
James and LeAnn currently live in Boston. Both maintain innocence. James writes science fiction. (He rebuffed my request to talk, saying over e-mail how neither his writings nor himself have ever been tied to TYMURS.) His website is littered with all manner of lists and insights picked up on the run. Rule No. 1: "RECOGNIZE that you are being falsely accused by a psychotic, kill crazy lynch mob wearing badges and guns." No. 14: "ALWAYS REMEMBER, you may be the only sane person in sight, because lynch mobs are actually a collection of insane individuals. Only your observations are trustworthy."
Theories abound. Maybe the killer or killers replaced the acetominophen, Tylenol's active ingredient, with cyanide onsite, visiting each store (there were five) and purchasing the pills so as to not blow the plan on a shoplifting charge. The switch could've been made in the parking lot – empty some capsules, fill with poison, recap, pepper doctored pills at the top of the bottle, return to store shelf. Repeat elsewhere.
Or maybe it was done at any point of Tylenol's distribution. The atrocity could've been far-reaching if in fact it was a factory or warehouse scheme. (Lewis insists it was.) Johnson & Johnson, reeling from what could've spun out into full-blown historical shaming, had no choice but to pull its entire stock of Tylenol – some 25-30 million bottles – from stores. This sort of recall was unprecedented in American history. Most Chicago-market pills were incinerated or flushed down toilets. The company lost $100 million, but was praised for damage control that favored public safety, not corporate earnings.
Either way, it was the perfect crime. There wasn't a better time or place. Commercial surveillance technologies were only just rolling out. Local economies were still largely cash-based; blazing paper trails didn't concern whoever did this. "There were no pictures, no credit cards, no witnesses, no evidence," as put in a Chicago Reader case profile. Chicago's sprawl, still in the serial-killer shadow of John Wayne Gacy, was the ideal, unsuspecting backdrop, providing the in-plain-sight anonymity that made indiscriminate killings untraceable.
That's why it's chilling. Not only is TYMURS unsolved 30 years on; it was done randomly. Larger chemical and bioterrorist acts have since bested Chicago '82, I won't argue that. A few come to mind. In 1984 Rajneeshee cult members in The Dalles, Oregon, spiked salad bars at 10 restaurants and a grocer with S. typhimurium. Members hoped mass salmonellosis – 751 cases were reported – would prevent citizens from going to the polls, thus swaying elections. (It didn't.) In 1995 Aum Shinrikyo cult members released sarin gas throughout Tokyo rail systems. Thirteen died, 50 were seriously injured and hundreds temporarily blinded. The post-9/11 anthrax letters, thought to have been sent by Bruce Ivins, a deranged microbiologist who worked on anthrax vaccines for the U.S. Army at Fort Detrick, killed five and exposed 17. (Ivins was 62 when he committed suicide on July 28, 2008, with an overdose of Tylenol.)
But TYMURS has largely drifted out of public consciousness. The FBI, citing forensic advances and new leads, actually reopened the investigation in 2009. It's only now, however, that the story may be resurfacing, due to a new suspect: the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. Last month, writing from prison, the Chicago native filed a letter (pdf) in the U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit. He agreed to provide a DNA sample, but said his effects, then being auctioned, could've exonerated him of TYMURS involvement.
Is it remarkable that Chicago '82 has faded from our collective memory? Sort of. Product tampering and small-scale terrorism weren't new phenomena; we've worried about these sorts of things since at least 1917, according to Chemical and Biological Terrorism (Institute of Medicine – National Research Council), when the National Research Council Committee began crafting what became the Army Chemical Warfare Service. Yet TYMRUS sparked legislation and (failed) copycats and hoaxes, traits typical of high-profile crimes and terrorism, the stuff of nightmares and chronologies and exhaustive analyses. And random, faceless violence at such a low technical threshold had rarely ever struck at this scale, which makes a hole in the literature all the more gaping. It was Tokyo, CBT argues, "that suddenly put the spotlight" on the danger to civilians from chemical and biological attacks" [italics mine]. A 2004 Congressional Research Service report (pdf) on small-scale chemical and biological terrorism mentions Oregon, Tokyo, and the anthrax and ricin letters.
I've had to notify – not remind, but inform – terrorism experts, not to mention my fellow laymen, that they're called the Tylenol murders for a reason. Or, sometimes, that they even went down in the first place.
In The Cognitive Neuroscience of Mind, William Hirst begins a chapter on the plasticity of collective memory with a simple question: "How does a memory become shared across a community?" Hirst focuses on "frequently occurring social interaction," or just how and why we speak of the past, to explore what happens to contrasting accounts and memories as we talk with one another about them. The idea, he argues, is that conversation allows dissimilar memories to "become shared," and as the number of shared memories rise then "collective memories deepen and social bonds increase."
With TYMURS, there are hard facts to reference, to talk about and consider. I should say, rather, there were shareable memories in the shockwave immediately following the poisonings and then, as the years dragged on, even points (see: theories) from which differing takes could (and still do) spring. I'll hazard the guess that many still remember what happened. But being unsolved this whole time, we don't have the sort of closure that could frame collective memories. This cuts down any talk of the case, making our collective Alzheimer's over TYMURS almost unremarkable. We've forgotten, maybe even repressed, what's alluded us:
. . . Collective amnesia applies to material that is related to what was talked about and remembered, only this other material was not talked about and was forgotten. As a result, retrieval-induced forgetting has that added benefit of making what was talked about more memorable, since competing material has become inhibited.
Our attention moved on to Oregon and Tokyo and elsewhere, to sometimes bigger, badder, solved, "more memorable" events. And being such a high-risk calculation (by which I mean the staggering amounts of time and money we need to spend, or that companies must shell out, in gathering the intel to thwart random acts of violence) TYMURS, like any apparently randomized job, is so horrendous in that it was damn near impossible to anticipate. This only hastened our forgetting it after the fact, and increases the struggle of ever understanding just how to think of the murders. Studying what we still have no real method of measuring is depressingly difficult.
So could the absence of the killings from our national psyche also be a matter of classification, of what can and can't be pegged chemical or bioterrorism? The CRS report refers to "C/B terrorism" as "individuals or groups motivated by ideology, but not necessarily accompanied by a stated political or social agenda," using chemical and biological agents. A 1999 empirical analysis by Jonathan Tucker, a noted C/B terrorism expert now at the American Federation of American Scientists, differentiates terrorist from criminal events:
To be classified as a terrorist event, an incident must involve an organization or person that conspires to use violence instrumentally to advance a political, ideologic, or religious goal. Criminal incidents, in contrast, involve extortion, murder, or some other nonpolitical objective.
It makes sense, then, that TYMURS is rarely cited. No one's ever claimed responsibility. "It's difficult to know what the motive was," Tucker said, "whether there was a strictly criminal motivation, or whether there was a political agenda." That it's again an active case, he added, suggests both the FBI and FDA are concerned about it, "because it's a pretty big vulnerability." He couldn't downplay its significance. Nor could I.
I grew up near the Jewel Foods where Adam J., the second victim, unknowingly bought poisoned capsules that killed him, his younger brother, Stan, and wife, Theresa. Family gathered in the evening at Adam's place to mourn his death and the bereaved couple, heads throbbing, found Extra-Strength Tylenol in Adam's medicine cabinet. Each popped the recommended dosage. Stan collapsed minutes later, and Theresa shortly after. House, family and first-responders were quarantined with all deliberate speed.
So I'd hear it regularly, how something heinously senseless happened here; how police and fire departments canvassed neighborhoods urging residents over loudspeakers to pitch their Tylenol; that the world turned its eyes, however briefly, on ours and other humdrum towns.
What was it? A watershed. A mystery. All unconscionable brutality aside, the Tylenol case is grim because, until we get a confession or conviction, it could remain obscured in the already gray area of American anomaly. And in an age of brazen admission – be it al-Qaeda or Anonymous or just some teenaged riffraff hacking the CIA and PBS for shits, all tweeting their deeds and misdeeds – all we get here, all we've ever gotten, is the void echoing back in on itself. Neither terrorism nor criminal act, TYMURS fits into no histories. It dissolved into our collective blood stream a long time ago. We may never know the side effects.
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org.