The decade's most triggering comedy
In the early morning of September 29, 1982, 12-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village outside of Chicago, Illinois, woke up with a sore throat and a runny nose. Not the most concerning of symptoms, but Mary told her parents and they gave her a single Extra-Strength Tylenol capsule.
Within seconds of taking the capsule, Mary’s father heard her coughing and then the sound of something hitting the floor, the Chicago Tribune reported. He called Mary’s name but received no response, so he went to the bathroom door and found her lying on the floor. Her eyes were fixed and dilated, her breathing was shallow, and she seemed to be suffocating.
Paramedics tried and failed to help her, so she was rushed to Alexian Brothers Medical Center. By the time they arrived, Mary was in full cardiac arrest. Doctors installed a pacemaker and called a priest.
Shortly before 10 a.m., Mary died.
“I remember just a very happy-go-lucky person. I remember her crooked teeth because she was always smiling,” Mary’s childhood friend Sharon Hogg told the Tribune. “She was just a very warm and loving person. I was certainly drawn to her because, I think, as kids we kind of have a radar for good people.”
Phil Cappitelli, a fire lieutenant in nearby Arlington Heights, Illinois, called his friend and Elk Grove Village firefighter Richard Keyworth, curious about what had happened to Mary.
Keyworth filled him in, saying that Mary had taken Tylenol for her cold and was otherwise perfectly healthy. This information would prove crucial to solving the mysteries surrounding Mary’s death and others who would die over the next 24 hours.
About an hour after Mary died, in Arlington Heights, some seven miles from Elk Grove, 27-year-old postal worker Adam Janus walked out of his bathroom clutching his chest in pain. His wife, Teresa, followed her husband into their bedroom and noticed his eyes were fixed and dilated and his breathing was shallow. She saw her neighbor who was a nurse outside their window and asked for help. The nurse tried to revive Adam but couldn’t, so an ambulance was called.
Paramedics at Northwest Community Hospital tried to revive Adam as well, but he ultimately died of what was initially believed to be a massive heart attack or an injury to the brain.
Adam was pronounced dead at 3:15 p.m. on September 29, 1982.
Teresa’s parents and Adam’s brother Stanley, 25, along with Stanley’s wife Terri, 19, took Teresa home to begin making funeral plans.
Due to the stress of Adam’s death, Stanley and Terri took an Extra-Strength Tylenol capsule or two from a bottle at Adam’s house.
Stanley died that same day, while Terri died two days later.
Thirty minutes after Adam died, 27-year-old Mary Reiner was about to feed her 6-day-old son when she got a headache. She took two Tylenol capsules and immediately felt dizzy, the Tribune reported. She tried to get to her bathroom but collapsed and began having seizures. A police officer, called by Reiner’s husband, arrived at the home and found her eyes were fixed and dilated and she continued having seizures. Reiner’s mother-in-law was at the house as well, and held the newborn baby while crying as her daughter-in-law died.
At 6:45 p.m. in Elmhurst, Illinois, 20 miles from the Janus’, single mother Mary McFarland had a massive headache and went to the break room where she worked to take some Tylenol. McFarland returned to work but quickly rushed back to the break room.
“I don’t know if it was even 10 minutes later,” McFarland’s co-worker, Diana Hilderbrand, told the Tribune. “She said, ‘I don’t feel good,’ and she just collapsed. … We’re all trying to do CPR and call 911 and all that kind of thing. The paramedics got there and they said, ‘Do you know if she took anything?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, she took Tylenol.’”
McFarland was rushed to Good Samaritan Hospital, where she died of a catastrophic stroke.
By 7 p.m. that night, Arlington Heights public health expert Helen Jensen, a nurse, was called in to look at what happened to Adam, Stanley, and Terri Janus, all young people with no reason to suddenly die on the same day.
Jensen spoke to Adam’s widow, Teresa, who explained what happened that morning before and after Adam’s death. Jensen realized that all three family members who died had taken Tylenol, so she went to the house and retrieved the bottle. She brought the bottle back to the hospital and gave it to a representative from the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
The representative viewed her with skepticism.
At 8:34 p.m., still on September 29, United flight attendant Paula Prince, 35, landed at O’Hare International Airport after a long day of work. Before arriving home, Paula purchased a bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol, which was captured on security footage at the Walgreens near her home. Once home, Paula took a capsule.
Her body was found two days later by her sister and a friend.
Fire Lt. Chuck Cramer, who had been working on the Janus case, was contacted by a doctor at the hospital saying he believed the family ingested something that led to their deaths. Later, Kramer received another phone call – from Phil Cappitelli, the fire lieutenant in Arlington Heights – who was asking why the entire fire station was shut down. First responders had been quarantined due to the Janus situation.
Kramer told Cappitelli what happened, and Cappitelli told him about young Mary Kellerman’s similar death, mentioning that she had taken Tylenol.
“Oh my God, it just hits you,” Kramer told the Tribune. “Someone is out there indiscriminately poisoning people.”
A multi-agency investigation was launched, with investigators noticing that the bottles of Tylenol in the Kellerman and Janus cases were from the same lot. Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Tylenol, recalled the entire lot. But bottles from McFarland were traced to other lots, so Johnson & Johnson recalled those as well. The company started warning hospitals and distributors, halted production, and stopped advertising. On October 5, 1982, the company issued a nationwide recall for an estimated 31 million bottles worth $100 million ($303 million in 2022 dollars).
Johnson & Johnson also warned consumers not to take any of their products with acetaminophen, since by now it was clear only those products had been tampered with.
Investigators determined that the capsules contained potassium cyanide, a deadly poison. The tainted bottles came from Pennsylvania and Texas, ruling out the possibility that a disgruntled employee was to blame. Police theorized that someone had taken the bottles from store shelves, replaced some of the capsules with ones laced with potassium cyanide, and returned the bottles to the shelves.
Along with the bottles that killed seven people, additional tainted bottles were found around Chicago.
Police obtained DNA from the tainted bottles but to this day, do not know who placed the potassium cyanide in the bottles in 1982.
One suspect, James William Lewis, sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson saying the murders would stop if the company paid him $1 million. He was arrested and convicted of extortion and sentenced to 10 years in prison. His DNA did not match that on the tainted bottles, and is not considered the culprit.
The murders sparked numerous copycat attacks around the country as well. Three deaths occurred in 1986, including Susan Snow and Bruce Nickell. It was later determined that Nickell’s wife, Stella, had committed the murders. That same year, Procter & Gamble recalled Encaprin due to a spiking hoax in Chicago and Detroit.
In 1991, Kathleen Daneker and Stanley McWhorter were killed by cyanide-tainted Sudafed. Jennifer Meling also went into a coma due to a similar poisoning but ultimately recovered. Her husband, Joseph Meling was convicted of poisoning his wife and killing Daneker and McWhorter. Additional deaths due to laced pills have also occurred.
The original Chicago murders prompted changes to over-the-counter medicine bottles to prevent tampering. Product tampering was also made a federal crime.