Chicago Tylenol murders: New optimism for charges 40 years after cyanide-laced painkiller deaths

7 people died within 24 hours after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol in September 1982

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel and Ross Weidner via WLS logo
Friday, September 23, 2022
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There was fear and panic in late September of 1982. People were dying and nobody knew why.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- For 40 years, mystery and misery have been uncomfortable partners in a nagging, unsolved Chicago crime. The ABC7 I-Team has learned that recently gathered new evidence, and a review of old circumstantial evidence, have given rise to hope for charges four decades after a horrible crime spree.

Seven people died within 24 hours after doing something most of us have done: swallow a painkiller capsule. The over-the-counter pain medication had been laced with one of the deadliest and fast-acting poisons: cyanide.

7 people died within 24 hours after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol in September 1982

ABC7 investigative reporter Chuck Goudie was at the scene those deadly days four decades ago, and over the years has continued to zero in on the horrific and unsolved murders.

There was fear and panic in late September of 1982. People were dying and nobody knew why.

On Friday, the I-Team spoke with former Illinois State Police Director Jeremy Margolis, who said authorities have hope.

RELATED: FBI drops 1982 Tylenol murders task force, local police to lead probe

"Obviously a lot is going on about which I can't comment. But there is a renewed interest in this case" Margolis said. "Anything less than a prosecution successful prosecution of the person responsible, none of us will be satisfied."

The person that investigators, for years, have identified as suspect number one is James Lewis. During the height of the scare, as people were collapsing in cyanide comas, Lewis threatened Tylenol-maker Johnson & Johnson to pay $1 million or the killings would continue.

Following a nationwide manhunt for Lewis, he was arrested and convicted of extortion. Lewis was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.

In 1992, our investigative reporter Chuck Goudie gained access to Lewis in his Oklahoma prison cell. The cagey criminal said extortion wasn't an admission of murder guilt.

RELATED: New leads lead nowhere in 1982 Tylenol poisonings

"The Tylenol murderer is still dancing on the streets of this country and the prosecutors in Chicago could care less" Lewis told Goudie.

The ABC7 investigative reporter challenged Lewis, saying that prosecutors don't believe the killer is dancing, that instead, he is in prison in Oklahoma.

"Every time they make statements like that, they are blowing big wet kisses to that Tylenol murderer," Lewis replied.

Elaborate sketches by Lewis, allegedly to help investigators, show how cyanide powder could be packed into capsules.

The I-Team has learned from sources familiar with the investigation that old circumstantial evidence and unidentified newly-obtained evidence have brought authorities back to the table at state police headquarters. We've learned that recent meetings are between prosecutors from Cook and DuPage counties (where the deaths occurred) and with case agents discussing whether to charge Lewis.

WATCH: I-Team Investigates: The Tylenol Murders

In 1992, Margolis, also a former assistant U.S. Attorney in Chicago, said that, "the person responsible for this awful crime really should be executed or at the least rot in jail for the rest of their life."

On Friday, the ex-state police director is still looking for a solution to one of the world's most vexing criminal cases.

"I remain hopeful, as I always have, that this case so we'll see a resolution. We'll see charges and justice will prevail" he said.

Former Chicago federal prosecutor and ABC7 legal analyst Gil Soffer said authorities may have an end game.

"I think it could be a 'let's give it our best shot.' There seems to be enough there that this could go to trial, and I would not be surprised if that's the decision," Soffer said.

The I-Team Friday was told that nothing is imminent after these 40 years of mystery and misery. It's a long way past the first 24 hours which is typically considered the best window of opportunity to quickly solve any murder case. Some authorities believe if this same situation happened today, between crime solving science and security cameras, it would have been solved quickly.

The I-Team tried to reach James Lewis on Friday. Several of his numbers have been disconnected and messages we did leave have gone unanswered.