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Crime News Cold Cases

James Lewis, the Sole Suspect in the Infamous 1982 Chicago Tylenol Murders, Dies at 76

Lewis served time for attempted extortion related to the 1982 Tylenol murders in Chicago, but authorities never gave up trying to prove he committed the murders. 

By Elisabeth Ford
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The lone suspect in the infamous 1982 Chicago Tylenol murders was found dead at his Massachusetts home Sunday, leaving wide open a more than 40-year-old case that rocked the nation, even leading to a change in the FDA’s safety regulations.

James Lewis, 76, though never charged with murder, was the sole person law enforcement believed may have been to blame for seven people’s deaths more than four decades ago.

Cambridge police and EMS workers in Cambridge found Lewis unresponsive in his home around 4 p.m. Sunday. He was later declared deceased.

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“Following an investigation, Lewis’ death was determined to be not suspicious,” the Cambridge Police said in a statement.  

In September 1982, seven residents of the Chicago area between the ages of 12 and 35 all mysteriously dropped dead, with no connection to each other except for one unique link. They all had recently taken an extra-strength Tylenol capsule, which was determined to have been laced with cyanide.

James Lewis is escorted through Boston's Logan Airport in 1995

Though he steadfastly denied any involvement with the murders, Lewis was convicted of attempted extortion after he wrote a ransom note to Tylenol’s manufacturing company Johnson & Johnson demanding $1 million to "stop the killing,” according to the Chicago Tribune.

In an eight-episode podcast series titled “Unsealed: The Tylenol Murders,” the Tribune rehashed the investigation into Lewis, reviewing documents and video evidence obtained from authorities.

Part of that evidence was hidden on an envelope under layers of ink. The postmark on Lewis’ letter to Johnson & Johnson appeared to show the letter was written days before the public knew the deaths were linked to laced Tylenol pills, the newspaper reported.

Lewis spent 13 years in prison for the attempted extortion plot and was released in October 1995. He then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he spent the rest of his life, per the Tribune.

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Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeremy Margolis, who prosecuted Lewis in the extortion case, told the newspaper he regrets Lewis never got his day of reckoning.

“I was saddened to learn of James Lewis’ death,” he said in a statement to the Tribune. “Not because he’s dead, but because he didn’t die in prison.”

The Tylenol murders rocked the nation, leaving households to empty their medicine cabinets. The impact of what happened is still evident 40 years later, in the packaging of over-the-counter drugs. Following the 1982 poisonings of Chicago Tylenol consumers, the Food and Drug Administration issued tamper-resistant packing regulations that same year as a direct response to the murders, according to the agency’s website.

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Congress also passed the Federal Anti-Tampering Act in 1983, making it illegal to tamper with packaged consumer products. The crime is punishable up to 20 years in prison and a fine up to $100,000. If someone dies as a result of tampering, the maximum sentence increases to life in prison.

Lewis' link to the Tylenol murders wasn't his first brush with the law. According to the New York Times, he was charged in 1978 with the murder of a 72-year-old Kansas City, Missouri resident named Raymond West, who had hired Lewis as an accountant. Lewis was caught trying to cash a forged check from West's account, the same day his client was found dead in his attic. The case was dismissed after a judge found police hadn't properly informed Lewis of his rights when he was taken into custody.

Decades later, not all believed Lewis was responsible in the Chicago Tylenol case.

“Lewis was convicted of his opportunistic act and spent 12 years in prison for it,” Michelle Rosen, daughter of Mary Reiner, one of the seven victims in the Tylenol murders, told the Tribune in 2022. “I am appalled that they still circle back to him as the possible murderer. This inhibits the investigation and influences the public into believing a false narrative.”

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