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News / Nation & World

James Lewis, the sole suspect in the 1982 Tylenol murders, has died

By Christy Gutowski, Stacy St. Clair, Chicago Tribune
Published: July 10, 2023, 8:25am

James Lewis, the lone suspect in the 1982 Tylenol murders, was found dead Sunday at his home in suburban Boston, multiple law-enforcement sources confirmed to the Tribune.

His death comes after 40 years of intense scrutiny from law enforcement, in which Lewis played a cat-and-mouse game with investigators. Local authorities questioned him as recently as September as part of a renewed effort to bring charges in the case.

With the investigation’s only suspect dead, it now seems unlikely that charges will ever be brought in poisonings that killed seven people and caused a worldwide panic.

“I was always hoping justice would be served, and this short-circuits it,” said former FBI special agent Roy Lane, who worked the case for decades.

Former assistant U.S. attorney Jeremy Margolis, who successfully prosecuted Lewis for an attempted extortion related to the case, also expressed regret that Lewis was never held accountable for the murders.

“I was saddened to learn of James Lewis’ death,” he said in a statement to the Tribune. “Not because he’s dead, but because he didn’t die in prison.”

Lewis — a convicted con man who inserted himself into the Tylenol investigation by sending an extortion letter to the drug’s manufacturer — long denied being the killer. He was 76.

Seven Chicago-area residents died after swallowing Tylenol capsules laced with potassium cyanide in September 1982. The victims were Mary Kellerman, Mary McFarland, Mary “Lynn” Reiner, Paula Prince, and Stanley, Adam and Terri Janus. Their deaths prompted a national recall of the medicine and led to the adoption of tamper-evident packaging.

The ensuing police investigation, including the intense focus on Lewis, was the subject of a Tribune series and companion podcast last year. The award-winning podcast, “Unsealed: The Tylenol Murders” was produced in partnership with At Will Media.

The Tribune investigation revealed investigators believe Lewis tampered with the Tylenol in an act of revenge against Johnson & Johnson, Tylenol’s parent company. Records show his 5-year-old daughter, Toni, died in 1974 after the sutures used to fix her congenital heart defect tore.

The sutures were made by Ethicon, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, according to a medical document reviewed by the Tribune.

Days after the murders, Lewis sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson, demanding payment to “stop the killing.” After being convicted of attempted extortion, he offered to help investigators find the killer. He met with them several times, drawing detailed sketches showing ways of filling the capsules and providing flowcharts on how to carry out the poisonings without getting caught.

Those drawings played a key part in what law enforcement described as a “chargeable, circumstantial case” against Lewis, according to documents reviewed by the Tribune.

Lewis spent about 13 years in federal prison for attempted extortion related to the Johnson & Johnson letter and for committing mail fraud in a Kansas City credit card scam in 1981. He was released from prison in October 1995 and then joined his wife in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lived the rest of his life.

In a brief conversation with the Tribune last August, Lewis again denied being the Tylenol killer and suggested he has been treated unfairly.

“Have you been harassed over something for 40 years that you didn’t have anything to do with?” he asked.

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A Tribune reporter spoke to Lewis while he was walking near his home. He gave no direct response to a question about law enforcement’s most recent attempts to bring charges against him.

Lewis, instead, pointed the finger at Johnson & Johnson and questioned why its corporate scientists were allowed to test Tylenol bottles that were recalled after the murders. Lewis has long maintained that the company was given too powerful a role in an investigation that centered on its own product.

Last September, a suburban police detective and two Illinois State Police investigators traveled to Cambridge to interview Lewis. Sources said they persuaded Lewis to meet with them by offering to return a personal item seized in a raid of his home in 2009.

Lewis met with investigators on an overcast afternoon at a hotel within walking distance of his condo. They spoke for several hours in a recorded interview. Investigators left Boston the next day without making an arrest. The meeting was the most significant sign of activity in the case in a decade. But the investigation appears to have stalled afterward.

Lewis’ cause of death was not immediately known.

Cambridge police Superintendent Fred Cabral confirmed to the Tribune that authorities found Lewis’ body after responding to his condo just after 4 p.m. Sunday.

Lewis’ wife was out of town at the time. After being unable to reach her husband, she asked someone to check on him and he was found unresponsive.

“We have no reason to believe there was anything suspicious,” Cabral said of Lewis’ death.

Public records show Lewis had a history of heart problems and had been in poor health recently. Cabral said Cambridge police also notified Illinois law enforcement.

The Tribune’s investigation leading up to the crime’s 40th anniversary included more than 150 interviews in multiple states. Reporters also obtained tens of thousands of pages of documents through records requests, including sealed affidavits and court orders that outline some of law enforcement’s best evidence in the unsolved case.

Reporters viewed an FBI video from an elaborate 2007-08 undercover sting operation in which Lewis stated it took him three days to write the extortion letter. At Lewis’ 1983 trial for attempted extortion, prosecutors could not determine the exact date on the letter’s postmark. They told jurors only that it had been sent in early October.

Since then, however, advancements in technology had allowed the FBI to determine the letter was mailed Oct. 1, 1982, the Tribune reported.

On the undercover recording, Lewis did not dispute that date. After confirming he spent three days writing the letter, Lewis asked FBI Special Agent Lane — who had come out of retirement to help with the sting — when the homicides took place.

Lane picked up a manila folder, sketched out a calendar and showed it to Lewis, who had a messenger bag strapped across his body. The agent calmly counted back three days from Oct. 1, landing on Sept. 29 — the day all seven victims swallowed poisoned capsules.

News of the poisonings didn’t become public until Sept. 30, meaning Lewis would have been writing the letter before officials had even determined the pills had been poisoned.

Lewis was quiet for a moment on the recording and then hugged the messenger bag to his chest.

“I see your quandary,” he says on the recording. “I’ve been telling myself for 25 years I worked on it for three days. But it’s impossible.”

The FBI asked Cook and DuPage County prosecutors in 2012 to move forward with a grand jury, stating that it was law enforcement’s best — and perhaps last — chance at bringing justice to the case. No charges were ever approved.

“There’s not, as the prosecutors say, a smoking gun,” Rob Grant, former special agent in charge of the Chicago office, told the Tribune last year. “But smoking guns can come in a lot of different places and they can come from a compilation of evidence. … It’s all the pieces assembled on the table that makes a gun. And it’s all those pieces I think we have.”

Lewis’ life is chronicled in more than 5,000 pages of court transcripts, parole documents and psychological assessments maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration and obtained by the Tribune. The records paint a portrait of a convicted con man whose life, at times, was driven by vindictiveness, trauma and a steadfast belief that he was always the smartest person in the room.

Born on Aug. 8, 1946, in Memphis, Tennessee, Lewis was the youngest of seven children. His birth name was Theodore, after his father, Theodore Elmer Wilson. His parents were “poor, irresponsible” and ill-equipped to care for their children, according to federal court documents.

After his father deserted the family when Lewis was a year old, his mother, Opal, moved the children to Joplin, Missouri, to be closer to her own mother. But she still struggled to provide a stable home and later abandoned the children in the summer of 1948.

Young Theodore was adopted at age 2 and his name was changed to James William Lewis.

The Lewises raised him as an only child on a 20-acre farm near Joplin, living what investigators called “an unremarkable childhood.”

The first documented sign of psychological trouble came in summer 1966 when Lewis was 19. According to the records, the teen went missing for about two days that June and was found in a shallow pond “apparently trying to drown himself.”

He was brought back to his family’s home, where he demanded access to his stepfather’s gun cabinet. When his stepfather refused to give him the key, court records say, Lewis violently attacked the older man and broke several of his ribs. As his parents fled their farm during the outburst, Lewis threatened them with an ax, the records state.

Lewis was arrested on assault charges and spent three weeks in the county jail, where authorities said he took 36 aspirin in a suicide attempt. The charges were dropped after Lewis was committed to a state psychiatric hospital on June 24, 1966, according to federal records.

In the decades that followed, Lewis would repeatedly deny attacking his stepfather. “My parents were good and loving people,” he told a judge in 1984. He insisted that “his commitment for treatment was merely a ruse he perpetrated in concert with his parents in order to evade the draft,” records show.

He briefly attended the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he befriended people in the pharmacology department and met his wife, LeAnn. The couple married in 1968 and she gave birth to their only child, Toni, the following year.

Toni, who was born with Down syndrome, would sit in the window of her parents’ tax business and wave to passersby. One of those people was Raymond West, who befriended the little girl’s parents and hired them to do his taxes.

Five years after Toni’s death, West’s dismembered body was found in the attic of his home in August 1978. Lewis was charged with his murder after Lewis forged a check in West’s name for $5,000 and police determined Lewis was the last person to see West alive. Prosecutors, however, dropped the case on the eve of trial after a judge found Lewis had not been read his rights before being questioned about his former tax client’s death.

Kansas City police began investigating Lewis again in 1981 for a credit card scam, prompting Lewis to leave town and move to Chicago. He and LeAnn lived there for about nine months under assumed names before assuming new identities and moving to New York three weeks before the Tylenol poisonings.