Prime suspect in 1982 Tylenol murders dead at 76

The Chicago Tylenol Murders killed at least 7 people, poisoned after someone tampered with pill bottles on store shelves in 1982. The longtime prime suspect, James Lewis–convicted of trying to extort $1m from the manufacturer but not charged with the poisonings themselves–is dead at 76.

Seven people ages 12 to 35 were killed in the Chicago area after they ingested extra-strength Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide. Lewis, who was in his 30s at the time, denied any involvement. But he was convicted of attempted extortion after he wrote a ransom note to Johnson & Johnson, the company that manufactures Tylenol. Lewis demanded $1 million "if you want to stop the killing," according to the Chicago Tribune.

The letters were postmarked before it was disclosed to the public that the killings involved Tylenol, and there seems little doubt that he was the murderer. You also have him to thank for modern tamper-evident drug packaging, though that was a solution waiting for an inevitable problem to show up. He served 12 years in prison for the extortion attempt.

Before the 1982 crisis, Tylenol controlled more than 35 percent of the over-the-counter pain reliever market; only a few weeks after the murders, that number plummeted to less than 8 percent. The dire situation, both in terms of human life and business, made it imperative that the Johnson & Johnson executives respond swiftly and authoritatively.

For example, Johnson & Johnson developed new product protection methods and ironclad pledges to do better in protecting their consumers in the future. Working with FDA officials, they introduced a new tamper-proof packaging, which included foil seals and other features that made it obvious to a consumer if foul play had transpired. These packaging protections soon became the industry standard for all over-the-counter medications. The company also introduced price reductions and a new version of their pills — called the "caplet" — a tablet coated with slick, easy-to-swallow gelatin but far harder to tamper with than the older capsules which could be easily opened, laced with a contaminant, and then placed back in the older non-tamper-proof bottle.