James W. Lewis, the prime suspect in the 1982 deaths of seven people from Tylenol with cyanide, a poisoning that terrorized the nation and changed the way manufacturers packaged drugs, died Sunday in Cambridge, Mass. He was 76 years old.
Mr Lewis was pronounced dead after authorities responded to a report of an unresponsive person at his home, Cambridge Police Department Superintendent Frederick Cabral said on Monday. The cause of death « wasn’t suspicious, » Superintendent Cabral said, declining to comment further.
Mr. Lewis has spent more than four decades under scrutiny in connection with the infamous unsolved poisonings, in which someone mixed extra-strength Tylenol with deadly potassium cyanide, killing seven people in the Chicago area in September and October of 1982.
Mr. Lewis has never been charged with the murders and has denied any involvement in them. But in October 1982 he sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson, the parent company of MacNeil Consumer Products, the maker of Tylenol, saying he would « stop the killing » if he was paid $1 million. He was convicted of extortion in 1983 and spent 12 years in federal prison.
After Mr. Lewis was convicted, he offered to help prosecutors solve the Tylenol murders.
« He’s a prolific writer and artist, » Jeremy Margolis, a former Chicago federal prosecutor who handled the extortion case against Mr. Lewis, told the New York Times in 2009, « and he’s provided me with large volumes of documents and a series of diagrams, each of which involved his theories about what might have happened.
But Mr Lewis has steadfastly denied any involvement in the killings. When he was on the run on extortion charges, he wrote a series of rambling letters to the Chicago Tribune denying any connection to the murders. In one, he called himself « a victim » and called for capital punishment for « whoever poisoned those capsules. »
Mr. Lewis was born on August 8, 1946. He has been variously described in the news as a tax consultant and tax accountant.
In 1978 he was charged with murder in the death of Raymond West, a 72-year-old man from Kansas City, Mo., who had hired him as a bookkeeper.
Mr. West’s dismembered and decomposed body was found hanging from a pulley in his attic the same day Mr. Lewis attempted to cash a forged check on Mr. West’s account. The case was dropped after the judge discovered that the police had failed to inform Mr Lewis of his rights at the time of his arrest.
In 1983, Mr. Lewis was convicted of six counts of mail fraud in connection with a scheme to obtain credit cards using the information of customers of his tax preparation service in Kansas City in 1981.
In 1995, after being released from prison in the Tylenol extortion case, Mr. Lewis moved to the Boston area.
He was indicted in Massachusetts in 2004 on charges of aggravated rape, drugging a person with « intent to stupefy or overwhelm » for sexual intercourse and four other charges, the Boston Globe reported. He was held without bail until 2007, when the victim refused to move forward with the charge, The Globe reported.
Over the years, detectives have continued to scrutinize Mr. Lewis in connection with the Tylenol murders.
In 2009, FBI agents executed a search warrant at the Cambridge apartment complex where he lived. In 2010, Mr. Lewis garnered new attention when he published a self-published novel, « Poison!: The Doctor’s Dilemma. » And just last year, on the 40th anniversary of the murders, detectives departed from Illinois to interview Mr. Lewis as they continued to try to solve the case, the local Reported by CBS affiliate in Chicago.
The deaths, including that of a 12-year-old girl who swallowed a Tylenol capsule hoping to fend off a cold, have spread terror across the country and left Americans wondering if they could trust familiar products on the shelves of drugstores and pharmacies.
Pharmacies and supermarkets in the US have removed Tylenol from their shelves. State and local health officials issued warnings, and thousands of concerned people who had taken the popular pain reliever flooded hospitals, doctor’s offices and poison control centers with calls.
In response to the deaths, Johnson & Johnson ordered a nationwide recall of 31 million bottles of Tylenol, with a retail value of more than $100 million. The company pulled its TV commercials from the air. And he offered $100,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the « person or persons responsible for the murders. »
Just six weeks after the crisis hit, the company also offered a solution: a new bottle of Tylenol with tamper-evident safety features, including cotton ball, foil seal, child resistant cap and strip of plastic. The design is now used extensively throughout the industry. The capsules began to be replaced with tablets the following year.
The search for the culprit, however, proved elusive.
After the deaths, more than 100 state and federal agents scattered across the Chicago area in an attempt to trace the path of the poison capsules. But they have not been able to determine the source. Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Police, said in a statement Monday that « at this time, the investigation is still ongoing. »