Monday Mystery: The Tylenol Murders

I recently found myself reduced to swearing and tears during a bad headache, when I discovered I had to break into a new bottle of medication to make it go away. If you've ever wondered why you have to gnaw your way through six layers of packaging to get at your painkillers, you can thank one particular homicidal twatwaffle in the Chicago area in 1982. If you can figure out who it was.

On the 29th of September, 1982, a 12-year-old girl named Mary Kellerman stayed home sick from school. She felt lousy, and her parents gave her some Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules. She collapsed within minutes.

Adam Janus, a 27-year-old postal worker, died the same day, in much the same fashion. Adam's family gathered at his house in the aftermath of his sudden death. His brother Stanley (25) and sister-in-law Theresa (19) took capsules from the very same bottle that evening. Neither survived.

Mary Reiner, also 27, had just had a baby a week before. Paula Prince (35) was a flight attendant who stopped off to buy her fatal capsules at Walgreens. Mary McFarland, 31, worked for the phone company. All perfectly ordinary people, all killed stone cold dead with poisoned Tylenol capsules.

The acetaminophen itself was fine, mind you. Someone had just opened the capsules and added a little cyanide to the mix. Well, a lot of cyanide. There's not really a reasonable dose of potassium cyanide, but if there were, the amount in those little pills would have been several orders of magnitude over it. There was a massive investigation, as you might expect; the FBI pursued several suspects, including the Unabomber, and a New York man who wrote a letter demanding money to make the killings stop, but never did manage to pin the crime on anyone.

This case is famous for a number of reasons, aside from its status as one of the great American unsolved mysteries. It's  cited in industry as an example of how to ethically respond to a contamination crisis. It took the authorities a day or two to figure out that it was the Extra-Strength Tylenol at fault, and a day or two longer to decide that someone had probably tampered with the capsules at the consumer level and put them back onto store shelves. In between those two press releases, the manufacturer of Tylenol, Johnson & Johnson, mounted one of the quickest and most complete product recalls in modern corporate history. They pulled tens of millions of dollars of Tylenol products off the shelves within days. And once they were told that the case involved tampering at the retail end, they developed the multi-layer tamper-proof drug packaging we all know and curse.

Ironically, there is a fair argument to be made that the murders weren't a case of retail tampering at all. The FBI decided it had to have been done at the store level because the affected bottles all came from different lots, and only came into geographic proximity when delivered to the stores near Chicago. Scott Bartz' book, The Tylenol Mafia, makes a decent case that, while the lots weren't produced in the same factories, they could have been brought together in a packaging facility instead, which bottled up and shipped tablets from a number of sources.

[That was the part of the book I found convincing, mind you. Bartz also seems to think that there was some sort of cover up involved in keeping this from the American public, under the traditional conspiracy theorist logic that the best way to keep a secret is to involve a million people and then threaten them into silence, while doing nothing to suppress, discredit, or in fact pay any attention whatsoever to the dude who just published a book about it. I could fully believe that the executives at J&J had motive and possibly means to keep it under wraps, but I'd be much more inclined to believe hurried incompetence or tunnel vision from the FBI.]

Mystery-wise, the sticking point of the case for me has always been Mary Reinert. The Extra-Strength capsules that killed her were from a small handful found at the top of a bottle of regular Tylenol, which her family said was what she normally took. No one seems to know where they came from. Did she buy them? If so, why? Clearly she already had Tylenol in the house. Why would she throw a few in the top of the regular bottle, and where did the rest of the Extra-Strength capsules go? If someone had given her a handful, why wouldn't they come forward? If it were me, I'd be running for the nearest police station, suspect bottle held as far in front of me as I could manage, begging the cops to take it away.

It's been postulated that she had brought the medication home from the maternity ward, but that would mean she got her poisoned capsules a week before any of the other victims, and just happened to take them on the very same day. It's possible, but vanishingly unlikely. Whoever tampered with them would have needed to get into the hospital dispensary -- the room where, might I remind you, they also keep the fun drugs with street value, and therefore have a lot of security -- and sneak the poisoned Tylenol into an industrial-sized bottle of the stuff. Where it would have had to be coincidentally only issued to Reinert.

I'd have looked at Mr. Reinert at that point, but apparently they did, and found absolutely no evidence he had anything to do with it. Someone else did have the bright idea to hide a spousal murder among some random homicides a few years later: Stella Nickell put cyanide into some Excedrin, which still came in regular capsules, and took out random victim Sue Snow on her way to killing off her own husband, Bruce. She would have gotten away with it, except that she contested the coroner's finding that Bruce had died of natural causes. Apparently his insurance had a bigger payout for accidental death, and she couldn't resist.