I-Team Report: The Tylenol Man

February 11, 2009 9:20:13 PM PST
It's been more than 26 years since seven Chicago area residents died taking cyanide-filled Tylenol capsules.No one has been charged with the murders and an FBI search last week shows the case is still alive.

During the Tylenol panic of 1982, James Lewis sent a letter to Johnson and Johnson demanding $1 million to stop the cyanide killings. Lewis was caught and convicted of extortion but was never charged with the actual homicides.

On Wednesday night, the I-Team uncovered court records that reveal top government officials, including the U.S. Attorney in Chicago at the time, concluded he was the killer 20 years ago.

When people began dying from cyanide-tainted Tylenol in 1982, James Lewis sent a letter to Johnson and Johnson offering to stop the killings for $1 million.

Despite Lewis admitting to the extortion letter; despite his criminal history including a previous arrest for murder that was dismissed; and despite the blueprints he provided for how the Tylenol killings could have been accomplished, Lewis was never charged with the murders themselves and has always contended he never committed them.

"The tylenol murderer is still out dancing in the streets of this country," Lewis told me in an interview in 1992 in a federal penitentiary where he was doing time for extortion.

But what no one knew at the time of the interview 17 years ago and what has not been revealed until now is that court records state James "Lewis was the Tylenol murderer."

That conclusion was made by the United States Parole Commission in 1989, just six years after the Tylenol murders and when James Lewis was still in prison for extortion, but asking to be let out on parole.

The commission, a branch of the Justice Department, at first granted Lewis' parole, but then reneged after receiving information from law enforcement officials.

In a confidential report, the parole commission finally stated that "Lewis was the Tylenol murderer" based on the new information.

Two officials who wrote to the parole commission in 1989 were the federal prosecutor who sent Lewis to prison for extortion, Jeremy Margolis and then Chicago U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas.

"There was substantial evidence which would indicate that Lewis was in fact the murderer who perpetrated this heinous crime," said Valukas, former U.S. Attorney.

Valukas says his letter stated that Lewis had committed "one of the most heinous and despicable crimes that the northern district of Illinois has experienced" and was a danger to the public. He also provided parole commissioners with a copy of a threatening letter written by Lewis to then President Reagan, threatening to kill the president with a remote controlled airplane and murder more innocents with cyanide-laced Tylenol.

"I believe that the evidence which was out there would lead a rational person to conclude that Lewis was in fact the murderer," said Valukas.

"After the conviction, Lewis had a call placed to me in the my office in the U.S. Attorney's office and offered to assist us in solving the Tylenol killings," said Margolis, former Assistant U.S. Attorney. "He provided us with a series of diagram s - pen and ink drawings - suggesting how the person could have loaded the cyanide into capsules."

In 1989 after receiving letters from Margolis and Valukas, Lewis' early parole was denied. He appealed to the tenth circuit court.

In the opinion, appellate justices determined that "the record provides a rational basis for the (parole) commission's conclusion that Lewis was the Tylenol murderer."

"They never gave us any evidence showing his link to the murders. Just the opposite...that from the evidence it seemed difficult for one person to have done this," said Mike Monico, Lewis' trial lawyer.

But determining parole is a far different standard than leveling criminal charges.

"There's a difference between saying there is a rational basis for concluding that someone participated in a crime and proving beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law by competent evidence that they in fact were the murderers," sad Valukas.

Last week, the FBI removed potential evidence from Lewis' home and a nearby storage locker.

"My thought on it was that they must have come up with something in addition to what we had back in 1989," said Valukas.

Lewis was paroled in 1995, after serving 13 years of a 20-year sentence.

In 2004, he was arrested in a Boston rape case where the woman was force-fed chemicals. After spending three years in jail awaiting trial, Lewis was released when the victim declined to testify.

Since the raid on his home last week, neither the 62-year-old Lewis nor his wife has returned phone calls or email from the I-Team.