The Chicago Tylenol-Cyanide Murders of 1982

Have you ever wondered why opening something as innocuous as Tylenol is so difficult? Or why all over-the-counter medication bottles seem to have that annoying seal? You may have heard these precautions called child-proof lids–but there’s also a much darker history behind them. 

In 1982, between September 29 and 30, seven people died sudden, shocking deaths seemingly out of nowhere. It would soon be revealed that the same thing had killed all of them–cyanide-laced Tylenol. These deaths would come to be known as the Tylenol murders. 

In this article, we’ll recount the tragic timeline of the Tylenol murders, explain how poisoning so many people in different parts of Chicago was possible, and what exactly we know today about the mysterious poisoner. 

The seven victims of the cyanide-laced Tylenol. Clockwise top left are Adam Janus, Mary McFarland, Mary “Lynn” Reiner, Terri and Stanley Janus, Paula Prince and Mary Kellerman. Chicago Tribune.

Chicago Tylenol Murders: A Timeline of Events 

While the effects of the Tylenol murders spanned months, all seven deaths occurred in just two days–September 29 and 30. It was a frantic race to find the connection between the deaths to prevent more.

Here is a timeline of events:

  • September 29, 1982
    • Mary Kellerman, a 12-year-old girl from Elk Grove Village dies after taking Extra Strength Tylenol.
    • Adam Janus dies after taking Tylenol for chest pains. 
    • Stanley Janus, Adam’s brother, takes Tylenol from the same bottle as Adam before offering it to his wife. Stanley dies shortly after.
    • Theresa Janus, Adam’s wife, takes the pills offered to her by her husband, and also dies.
    • Five bottles of tainted Tylenol are found at the various crime scenes.
    • Nurse Helen Jensen connects the deaths of the three Janus family members to Tylenol.
  • September 30, 1982
    • Mary Reiner, a new mother, takes Tylenol and dies almost immediately. 
    • Mary McFarland takes Tylenol while on break from her mall job and collapses, later dying.
    • Paula Price was alone in her condo when she took contaminated Tylenol. She was found dead in her home 2 days later. 
    • Cyanide is found to be the cause of death in the murders.
    • Tylenol begins to be pulled from store shelves. 
  • October 1, 1982
    • Johnson & Johnson, the manufacturer of Tylenol, launches a nationwide recall and ceases production of capsule Extra Strength Tylenol.
    • It’s determined that the bottles of Tylenol were purchased, the capsules pried open, cyanide added, and then the bottle was returned to the shelves. 
  • October 5, 1982
    • It’s discovered that the tainted Tylenol came from multiple production facilities, so it had to have been poisoned after it reached store shelves, not during manufacturing.

After early October, multiple agencies, including local Chicago police and the FBI, continued full-scale investigations into the Tylenol murders. Other tainted bottles are found on store shelves, but there are no leads on who the actual poisoner was. 

Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson was beginning damage control. They made nationwide announcements that acetaminophen capsules were the only sort of medication found to be affected by the poisonings and urged the public to dispose of any Tylenol capsules they still had. 

But Johnson & Johnson went a step further and created the first tamper-proof packaging for their medications. The company was lauded for its efforts to tackle the controversy of the Tylenol murders head-on–their recall of Tylenol capsules was the first mass recall in American history.

This likely saved lives with how swiftly it was implemented following the initial poisonings. So the public was safe. But who was guilty of this terrible crime?

Did They Ever Find the Tylenol Killer?

The Tylenol murders are still unsolved. No one has ever been officially charged with the Chicago Tylenol murders, but authorities do have a few ideas of who the perpetrator might be. 

In the early days following the murders, police tried several methods to flush the murderer out, including releasing the address and location of the grave of the youngest Tylenol murder victim, Mary Kellerman. There was a hope that the killer might show up at either place, and they were monitored, but the killer never appeared. 

Suspicious individuals were also found in security footage from the stores where the poisoned bottles had been found, but nothing conclusive was ever worked out. 

Who Were the Suspects of the Chicago Tylenol Murders?

There were two main suspects investigated for the Chicago Tylenol murders: Roger Arnold and James William Lewis. 

Roger Arnold was a dock worker who was reported to police by the owner of a bar he frequented. According to the bar owner, Marty Sinclair, Arnold had become increasingly unhinged after his marriage failed and mentioned using a white powder to kill. There was also a tenuous connection in the fact that Arnold had worked with Mary Reiner’s father at one time.

Ultimately DNA collected from Arnold did not match DNA found on the tainted Tylenol bottles. However, the accusation by Marty Sinclair made the already disturbed Arnold seek revenge.

In 1983, Roger Arnold shot and killed a man named John Stanisha after mistaking him for Sinclair. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. 

The suspect who all but delivered himself into the hands of authorities was James William Lewis. While the investigations were still underway for the Tylenol murders, he sent Johnson & Johnson a letter, demanding $1 million in exchange for the killings to stop. 

He was quickly arrested, but despite admitting to writing the letter, there was never enough evidence to charge Lewis for the murders. Instead, he was sentenced to 10 years for extortion for sending the ransom letter. 

Investigators still believed, despite the lack of DNA evidence, that Lewis was guilty of the Tylenol murders. He had a criminal record and had provided a detailed description of how the pills might have been tampered with, but denied that he was the actual killer. 

We may never know the truth about whether James William Lewis was responsible for the Chicago Tylenol murders–he died in July of 2023. The families of the victims still hold out hope that justice can one day be served.


“James Lewis, the suspect in the 1982 Tylenol poisonings that killed 7 in the Chicago area, has died”-Mark Pratt

“How the Tylenol murders of 1982 changed the way we consume medication”-Dr. Howard Markel


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