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  • Writer's picturejohn kepler

James Lewis, prime suspect in the Tylenol murders, found dead

In 1982, seven people in the greater Chicago area died after taking Tylenol laced with cyanide.



CHICAGO —The prime suspect in the 1982 Tylenol murders has been found dead.

According to police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, James Lewis was found unresponsive on Sunday just after 4 p.m. He was pronounced dead shortly after.

Police said his death was "determined to be not suspicious."

In 1982, seven people in the greater Chicago area died after taking Tylenol laced with cyanide.

Soon after, a man wrote an extortion letter to Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary, the maker of Tylenol, demanding $1 million to stop the killings.

Lewis was identified as the source of the letters, and was convicted of trying to extort $1 million from Johnson & Johnson in the days after the cyanide-laced pills showed up on store shelves. He spent a dozen years in prison for the attempted extortion.

For 40 years, he remained a person of interest in the actual killings, but was never charged with the murders.

Sources tell CBS Chicago this is a frustrating day for law enforcement who've been investigating the case for decades. The station's reporting uncovered Lewis was a prime suspect since Day One, and some officials felt they had sufficient circumstantial evidence for Lewis to be charged.

The series of deaths began on Sept. 29, 1982, when a 12-year-old girl in Elk Grove Village had a cold, so she took two Tylenol capsules before going to school in the morning. She collapsed and died.

Six more people would die in the days to come after taking Tylenol. Officials soon pieced together that the capsules were laced with cyanide. As fear and panic shot across Chicago, and the country, officials didn't yet know how widespread the poisonings were.

And without the existence of social media or the internet, they had to warn the community to prevent anyone else from taking the popular drug by going door to door and disseminating flyers as quickly as they could.

CBS Chicago began re-examining the case last year, and reporter Brad Edwards traveled to Massachusetts to try to track down Lewis.

He was living at the very same Cambridge apartment he moved into after being released from prison, and Edwards spoke with him there. Lewis was the only living known person of interest and had not been seen or heard from in more than a decade.

In Sept. 2022, task force investigators returned to re-interview Lewis.

CBS Chicago also interviewed family members, attorneys and law enforcement officers whose lives were forever impacted by the murders. They include members of the Janus family, who lost three loved ones — brothers Adam, 25; Stanley, 27; and Stanley's wife Theresa, 20 — after they consumed Tylenol.

Forty years later, the poisoning murders still send a chill through the memories of generations of Chicagoans. The deaths led to the creation of tamper-proof packaging and forever changed how people consume over-the-counter medication. But they also remain unsolved.

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