Suspect in Tylenol Poisonings Is Dead at 76

James Lewis always adamantly denied involvement in the 1982 deaths
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 10, 2023 5:00 PM CDT
Tylenol Poisonings Suspect Dies at 76
James Lewis is escorted through Boston's Logan Airport, Friday Oct. 13, 1995, after being released from the Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma.   (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

The suspect in the 1982 Tylenol poisonings that killed seven people in the Chicago area, triggered a nationwide panic, and led to an overhaul in the safety of over-the-counter medication packaging, has died, police said on Monday. The AP reports that officers, firefighters, and EMTs responding to a report of an unresponsive person about 4pm Sunday found James W. Lewis dead in his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home, said Cambridge Police Superintendent Frederick Cabral. "Following an investigation, Lewis' death was determined to be not suspicious," the statement says. Lewis was 76.

No one was ever charged in the deaths of seven people who took the over-the-counter painkillers laced with cyanide. Lewis served more than 12 years in prison for sending an extortion note to manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, demanding $1 million to "stop the killing." He and his wife moved to Massachusetts in 1995 following his release. When Lewis was arrested in New York City in 1982, he gave investigators a detailed account of how the killer might have operated. Lewis later admitted sending the letter and demanding the money, but he said he never intended to collect it. He said he wanted to embarrass his wife's former employer by having the money sent to the employer's bank account.

Lewis always denied any role in the Tylenol deaths but remained a suspect and in 2010 gave DNA samples to the FBI. He even created a website in which he said he was framed. Although the couple lived briefly in Chicago in the early 1980s, Lewis said they were in New York City at the time of the poisonings. In a 1992 interview with the AP, Lewis explained that the account he gave authorities was simply his way of explaining the killer's actions. In a span of three days beginning Sept. 29, 1982, seven people—including a 12-year-old girl—who took cyanide-laced Tylenol in the Chicago area died, triggering a nationwide recall of the product.

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Lewis had prior run-ins with the law. In 1978, he was charged in Kansas City, Missouri, with the dismemberment murder of Raymond West, 72, who had hired Lewis as an accountant. He was convicted of six counts of mail fraud in a 1981 credit card scheme in Kansas City accused of using the name and background of a former tax client to obtain 13 credit cards. Lewis was charged in 2004 with rape, kidnapping, and other offenses for an alleged attack on a woman in Cambridge. He was jailed for three years while awaiting trial, but prosecutors dismissed the charges. (More Tylenol stories.)

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