Unlike a lot of you, I’m old enough to remember when over-the-counter medicines didn’t come with a shrinkwrap tamper-evident seal on the bottle, like the one I have so artfully shown. Over the years, I’m sure that US food and drug industries have spent billions developing and using this packaging. I thought I knew why these measures were put into place, but I wasn’t exactly right.
In my memory, these product safety requirements were the direct result of the Extra Strength Tylenol (EST) murders of 1982. In September and October of that year, seven people in the Chicago area died after ingesting Extra Strength Tylenol, causing widespread alarm and massive news coverage.
Imagine the horror: people who had minor headaches and the like reached for a popular brand-name product trusted as safe and died because of it, totally at random. It was a big, big deal.
The fact that the case has never been solved and led—indirectly, as it turns out—to such a drastic change in the way products are packaged has always fascinated me. For some reason, I never took the time to read anything about it until recently. (Hey, I’m busy.—ed.)
Here are three things I thought knew about the case, but didn’t, along with links to the articles that set me straight.
•The seven people who died consumed poisoned EST from seven different bottles bought at seven different Chicago-area stores—WRONG
In fact, the seven victims consumed poisoned EST from five different bottles: in a sad and twisted tragedy, three victims were poisoned from the same bottle! In the first known deaths, one lady died early one day; later the same day, two of her relatives who had gathered at her house to grieve didn’t feel so well, so they took capsules from the same bottle that killed her, whereupon they collapsed and later died.
This was, of course, before authorities had figured out what was going on. Later, when all of the EST had been removed from store shelves from coast to coast, a couple more EST bottles removed from Chicago-area stores were found to contain poisoned capsules. Luckily, no one had bought them before they were yanked.
•We have tamper-evident packaging on everything directly because of the EST murders of 1982—WRONG
The Federal law that requires companies to use tamper-evident packaging was not a direct result of the Tylenol poisonings of 1982. It did become a Federal crime to tamper with consumer products in 1983, in the wake of the Extra Strength Tylenol murders.
It was only in 1989, after a spate of copycat crimes occurred over the years, that the Federal government enacted the requirements for tamper-evident packaging.
In two separate copycat crimes, murderers poisoned their spouses with cyanide-laced OTC medication. In both cases, the motive was insurance money. Also in both cases, the murderers placed other poisoned bottles in stores to make the poisoning of their spouse look like a random act, resulting in the deaths of three total strangers who were unlucky enough to buy and consume the planted poison pills. Killing random strangers to cover the murder of one’s spouse for money—does it get more cold-blooded than that?
•No good suspects were ever developed for the original EST murders—WRONG
In fact, almost since the very beginning, investigators have tried in vain to build a case against a man named James W. Lewis. As recently as 2009 they executed a search warrant on his home trying to find evidence that would finally lead to an indictment.
Lewis served a long prison sentence after he was convicted of sending an extortion letter to McNeil Consumer Products in the wake of the poisonings. The letter threatened more deaths if the drug maker didn’t pony up $1 million. But the crime was allegedly less of an actual shakedown and more of an attempt to pin the murders on Lewis’s wife’s ex-boss, with whom the couple had an ongoing feud.
With so much time passed, it seems very unlikely that a case will be made against Lewis, though apparently some law enforcement types are convinced of his guilt.
The fact that Lewis was charged with an earlier murder in Kansas City probably stoked these suspicions in the first place. In spite of the seemingly strong case against him, Lewis was never prosecuted for that murder thanks to sloppy police work that enabled his lawyer to get the case thrown out on technical grounds.
Lewis has always adamantly denied that he was in any way responsible for that crime, or the EST murders. Rather than keeping a low profile since his release from prison, he seems to take great delight in taunting law enforcement over their continuing fruitless focus on him. Check out his website—yes, his website—to see what I mean. You might even decide to buy his book: POISON! The Doctor’s Dilemma