A suburban police detective climbs the steps of the main Cook County criminal courthouse in hopes of ending a 40-year-old mystery.
The Tylenol murders, as they are commonly known, have been his investigation since he assumed responsibility for the cold case more than 15 years ago.
Now, he and several other law enforcement officials believe they have solved the killings.
They just need prosecutors to agree with them, to take the risky step of indicting a 76-year-old man in a case built almost entirely on circumstantial evidence. The detective knows the odds are steep as he heads into the January 2022 meeting with top criminal investigators from the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.
He makes his best pitch anyway.
His presentation references undercover FBI recordings, a secretly exhumed body and writings discovered during a raid on the suspect’s home, multiple law enforcement sources say. It explains the complicated tests being done to sort out the TAUT profiles discovered on several poisoned bottles. And it offers a possible motive never previously disclosed to the public.
The detective implores the prosecutor’s office to look at the totality of his team’s work. He asks them to set aside the reasons and ways the case has faltered for nearly four decades.
In months that follow, officials from the Cook and DuPage County state’s attorney’s offices will meet twice with the detective. The head of the Illinois State Police — a former prosecutor from the St. Louis area — will attend the meetings, as well.
They all know that time is running out to solve the Tylenol murders.
Key sources have died. Memories have deteriorated. And records have been lost.
The 1982 poisonings left seven people dead and panicked the nation. Widely regarded as an act of domestic terrorism — a term not in the country’s vernacular at the time — the murders led to tamper-evident packaging, copycat killings and myths about tainted Halloween candy.
The Tylenol case is a decadeslong story of heartbreak, anger and frustration. It’s a story without an ending, without closure for those involved.
And this is how it begins on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 1982:
Twelve-year-old Mary Kellerman woke before sunrise with a nagging head cold that would keep her home from school.
After persuading her father to let her miss her classes, she went into the bathroom and swallowed an Extra-Strength Tylenol capsule that her mother had purchased at the grocery store the previous night.
Seconds later, her father heard coughing and then the sound of something hitting the floor. He called out to Mary.
When she didn’t respond, he opened the bathroom door and found his daughter — his only child — lying on the floor. Her eyes fixed and dilated. Her breathing shallow, as if being suffocated by an invisible force.
Nothing the paramedics tried seemed to help. Mary was in full cardiac arrest by the time they reached Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village, records show. The doctors, in need of a miracle, installed a pacemaker and called a priest to give the child last rites.
Mary — who liked making pottery and cooking with her mother, riding her pony, and playing Atari with her dad — was pronounced dead at 9:56 a.m.
“I remember just a very happy-go-lucky person. I remember her crooked teeth because she was always smiling,” her childhood friend Sharon Hogg told the Tribune. “She was just a very warm and loving person. I was certainly drawn to her because, I think, as kids we kind of have a radar for good people.”
Mary’s death was the start of a chaotic and terrifying 24 hours in the Chicago area that saw six more healthy people perish in horrific fashion, sometimes before their families’ eyes.
Authorities would create the largest police task force in Illinois history to investigate the killings, but first officials needed to figure out that these weren’t isolated deaths.
In the end, a small group of people solved the shocking medical mystery through experience, intuition and, at times, sheer luck.
One of those fortuitous moments came when Richard Keyworth, a firefighter in Elk Grove Village, received a call from a friend in neighboring Arlington Heights.
Phil Cappitelli, a fire lieutenant, was off duty at the time. But he had heard about Mary’s death — his mother-in-law worked with the girl’s mother at United Airlines — and he wondered what had happened.
The health care privacy law known as HIPAA was still 14 years away and Keyworth, who was off work that day, telephoned his fire station for details about Mary. He then shared what he learned with his friend:
Mary had a cold and took some Tylenol. Otherwise, she was a perfectly healthy seventh grader.
For Cappitelli, that information would pay off with a piece of crucial insight later in the day, when several members of the same family suddenly collapsed in his town.
Mary’s mother, Jeanna Kellerman, had been at work at United when Mary fell ill. She rushed home in time to see paramedics placing her daughter in an ambulance. She tried to get close, but authorities held her back.
She and her husband, Dennis, have rarely spoken publicly about their daughter’s death. They declined a request to be interviewed for the 40th anniversary.
But in a 1991 deposition, part of a lawsuit they filed against Tylenol’s maker, Jeanna Kellerman described Mary as an inquisitive, well-loved child who took guitar lessons and gymnastics.
At 12, she had just begun babysitting and used the money she earned to buy books for herself and little gifts for her parents. She kept her room clean and happily took care of the family’s three dogs.
“You didn’t have to ask her to do anything,” Jeanna Kellerman said in the deposition. “She would just go ahead and do it.”
According to the 1991 transcript, she and her husband still hadn’t talked about her daughter’s final moments in the family’s home, nearly a decade later.
“I asked him once about it,” she said, “and he just said: ‘You don’t ever want to know what happened in that room.’ ”
Adam Janus, a burly post office supervisor, had the day off work. He’d experienced some chest pains the previous day but felt well enough to spend the morning running errands with his wife and young son.
After picking up his daughter at a Catholic preschool, he stopped by a local grocery store and purchased several items, including steaks, fresh-cut lilies for his wife and a bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol.
Janus had moved to the leafy bedroom community of Arlington Heights in the late 1970s, around the time the first of his two children was born. For Janus and his wife, Teresa, the small brick bungalow represented a promising future.
Born on a small farm in southern Poland, Janus came to the United States as a child after his father refused to join the Communist Party. They left their homeland in 1963 and settled on Chicago’s Northwest Side.
Adam Janus met Teresa on a visit to his old hometown, brought her to the United States and married her in a big, joyful wedding at the same church and reception hall where the Janus brothers celebrated their marriages in America.
“Everything my brothers and I did, we did because we were looking to the future,” his oldest brother, Joseph Janus, told the Tribune.
After his grocery store stop, Janus cheerfully put away his purchases and went into the bathroom, where he apparently swallowed two Tylenol. Teresa Janus told police she did not see her husband take the capsules but he walked out of the bathroom clutching his chest and complaining of pain.
When she followed him into the bedroom, she saw that his eyes were fixed and dilated, his breathing shallow.
Teresa Janus looked outside and saw two neighbors talking. She knew one was a nurse who spoke Polish, so she ran and asked for help. The women rushed inside the house, where the nurse tried to resuscitate Adam Janus and the other called for an ambulance.
At Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, the paramedics trying to revive Janus were met by Dr. Thomas Kim, medical director of the ICU, who had the trust of local first responders. Kim tried to save Janus as well, but his heart never regained a normal, sustained rhythm.
Adam — a 27-year-old father who tinkered with clocks in his spare time — was pronounced dead at 3:15 p.m. There was no immediate way to know what killed him, Kim said in an interview.
“There was nothing obvious like a gunshot wound or anything,” Kim said. “In (Janus’) case, we thought of the heart first. So the diagnosis for him was either a massive heart attack or a massive injury to the brain. We had to wait until the tests came back.”
In the meantime, Kim had to tell the Janus family the shocking news. Teresa Janus didn’t speak much English at the time, so the doctor spoke directly with Adam’s parents and youngest brother, Stanley, a 25-year-old Lisle resident who ran an auto parts store in Chicago.
Shortly afterward, the extended Janus family went to Adam and Teresa’s house to console Teresa and start making funeral plans. Stanley tried to beg off. His back pain had flared up and he wanted to return home to the west suburbs with his wife, also named Theresa.
His mother, Alojza Janus, wouldn’t hear of it.
“My mother said, ‘No, you come with us to Adam’s house,’ ” Joseph Janus recalled. “He didn’t want to come, but when he got to Adam’s house, he came inside with us.”
There, Stanley grabbed two Tylenol from the bottle Adam had purchased earlier that day.
About 30 minutes after Adam Janus died, 27-year-old Mary “Lynn” Reiner was preparing to feed her 6-day-old son in the living room. She had a headache, and earlier in the day she’d purchased Tylenol at a grocery store.
Following her doctor’s advice, Reiner swallowed two capsules and felt dizzy almost immediately. She tried to make her way to the bathroom, but she collapsed onto a kitchen chair and began having seizures.
When a police officer arrived at the family’s duplex, summoned by Reiner’s husband, her eyes were fixed and dilated. She experienced one seizure after another while her sobbing mother-in-law held the newborn in her arms.
One of Reiner’s school-age children was upstairs and could hear all the commotion, former Winfield police Officer Scott Watkins told the Tribune.
“And they’re yelling, ‘Dad! Dad! What’s going on?’ And he’s telling them, ‘Stay upstairs! Stay upstairs!’ It was just horrible,” Watkins said.
The Tribune could not locate many of the police records related to Reiner’s death despite Freedom of Information Act requests to multiple agencies. The Winfield Police Department said it provided copies of the case file to the Illinois State Police before losing the originals in a flood.
A state police spokesperson said all reports related to the Tylenol murders are stored on microfiche and cannot be searched electronically. The agency is gradually turning over more than 30,000 pages in its Tylenol archives, but police reports stemming from the call to the Reiner home haven’t turned up yet.
Reiner’s daughter Michelle Rosen has spent more than a decade investigating her mother’s murder. She called on law enforcement agencies to release their investigative records so the victims’ families and, by extension, the public can have answers.
“Releasing case records would not alter or disrupt the current investigation in any way,” she said in a statement. “It will have the opposite effect. By giving access to all the files, we can examine the available information. Even if nothing comes of unsealing the records, we deserve to see them.”
DuPage County coroner’s records indicate Reiner was taken to Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield and placed on life support.
The young mother, who grew up in Villa Park and played softball, died the next day.
Back at the Janus house, a stunned family gathered to make funeral plans.
Stanley was there, per his mother’s orders. So was his new wife, 20-year-old Theresa, known as Terri to her friends. Like the Januses, her family emigrated from Poland, and she grew up in a home where Polish was the primary language.
The two married just three months earlier in a large ceremony held at St. Hyacinth in Chicago, an ornate Catholic church that has served as the heart of the city’s Polish community for generations. Hundreds attended their reception at the White Eagle banquet hall in Niles, the same place where Stanley’s older brothers Joseph and Adam had celebrated their weddings.
Stanley and Terri were so newly married when they stepped into Adam Janus’ house that day, they hadn’t even received the proofs from their wedding photographer yet. They would never see the images of Terri, wearing a lace gown with a full, tiered skirt, smiling as she looked adoringly at Stanley.
Or of her father walking her down the aisle.
Or of Terri with her bridesmaids, dressed in soft lavender.
“Oh, she was beautiful,” said her high school friend Sandy Botwinski, one of the six bridesmaids. “It was just a happy day. … I thought they would have a long, good life together.”
And for the first three months after the wedding, life indeed was good. They honeymooned in Hawaii, set up house across the street from her parents in Lisle and embarked on an ambitious remodeling project.
But now, the newlyweds were sitting in Adam’s kitchen, planning a funeral at the same church in which they had just married.
Stanley, suffering from chronic back pain and a headache born of the day’s sorrow, said he needed to take a couple of Tylenol. He asked if anyone else wanted some, and his mother shook her head. She had pain reliever in her purse and had already taken two pills at the hospital.
Terri, however, had a headache that showed no signs of abating. She grabbed a glass of water and followed her husband into the bathroom.
Moments later, Stanley emerged clutching his chest.
“My God, I feel bad,” he said.
He started to collapse, but his brother Joseph caught him and eased him to the floor. Terri Janus complained her chest hurt too.
While a family member called for an ambulance, Teresa Janus rushed her two young children out of the house and brought them to a neighbor. She had seen these symptoms just hours earlier and wanted to shield them from the horror.
The firefighters and paramedics at Arlington Heights Station 3 were making dinner when the call came in about “a man down.” When the dispatcher gave the address — 1262 S. Mitchell Ave. — they looked at one another in disbelief.
The station’s paramedics had just been there a few hours ago for a man down. And that man had died.
Fire Lt. Chuck Kramer ordered an engine to follow the ambulance to the house. It was unusual for the bigger vehicles to respond to a medical emergency, but two calls to the same address in less than six hours was alarming.
“As we were coming down the street … there were crowds of people,” said Kramer, who was in the trailing firetruck. “And as we pulled up in front, I started to go up to the house and I can hear screaming come out of the house.”
Inside, paramedics were trying to revive Stanley as he lay on the floor. One of the medics looked at Kramer with fear in his eyes.
“This is the exact same thing that happened to the man this morning,” he told his lieutenant. “And we lost him.”
Terri grabbed Kramer’s shoulder for support.
“Stanley! Stanley!” she yelled to her unconscious husband.
Then she groaned and fell to the floor. Kramer assumed she had fainted, but when he turned her over, he knew it was something far more serious.
Her breaths were shallow. Her eyes were fixed and dilated.
“So now I’ve got six paramedics working on two people,” Kramer said. “And I’m looking at what’s going on. I said, ‘Guys, this isn’t heart attacks. There’s something wrong.’ ”
The paramedics loaded the couple into separate ambulances and headed to Northwest Community Hospital. Concerned that some kind of airborne contagion or other deadly environmental poison was in the house, Kramer put the entire Janus family in police cars and sent them to the hospital too.
He radioed ahead to the hospital staff.
“You better find a place for us,” he recalled telling them. “I’ve got 14 people who need to be isolated.”
As the ambulances raced toward the hospital, Dr. Kim was about to leave after a long shift. But a nurse stopped him to say that two people had collapsed at the Janus house and were on their way.
He assumed it was Adam’s parents, overcome with grief. The nurse said no, it’s his brother.
“So then I said, ‘Well, maybe he fainted,’” Kim recalled. “Then she said his wife also collapsed. So I threw my jacket off … and told the ICU nurses I was staying.”
Kim mobilized the emergency department and began treating Stanley and Terri as soon as they arrived. The rest of the Janus family was quarantined in a hospital meeting room with the police, firefighters and paramedics who had responded to the call.
“I was in shock so bad that I didn’t know what was going on,” Joseph Janus said.
Kim still didn’t know why Adam Janus was dead or why two relatives were critically ill. He didn’t know two other people had been stricken in the same way.
Or that more deaths were yet to come.
An hour later in a town 20 miles away, Mary McFarland, a single mother with two young boys, took her dinner break at the Yorktown Shopping Center. After going through a divorce two years earlier, her life seemed to be steadying a bit.
The 31-year-old Elmhurst woman had a good job at the Illinois Bell Telephone store in the mall, where the union wages and flexible hours were ideal for someone with small children. She also had started dating someone.
“Her kids were everything to her,” said Jan Hoffman, a friend and co-worker. “Her divorce was difficult and she had just started dating a guy and she seemed happy. … I don’t know if it was anything serious, but she was having a good time and she needed it.”
After eating dinner with Hoffman, McFarland returned to the store floor. It wasn’t long before she slipped into the break room to deal with a headache.
Migraines were common at the store, thanks to the flickering fluorescent lights and constantly complaining customers. Illinois Bell even provided a jar of generic pain pills for the workers to take as needed. The staff called them “greenies” because of their mossy hue.
McFarland, however, preferred her own medication. Shaking two Tylenol capsules from their container for herself, she offered some to co-worker Diana Hilderbrand, also in the break room.
“I said, ‘No, I just took some greenies.’ I’d had a rough day,” Hilderbrand said. “Then she walked back on the floor.”
But McFarland quickly returned to the break room.
“I don’t know if it was even 10 minutes later,” Hilderbrand said. “She said, ‘I don’t feel good,’ and she just collapsed. … We’re all trying to do CPR and call 911 and all that kind of thing. The paramedics got there and they said, ‘Do you know if she took anything?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, she took Tylenol.’ ”
McFarland was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, where doctors told her family she suffered a catastrophic stroke.
She never regained consciousness.
With Stanley and Terri Janus’ conditions dire, it was obvious to Chuck Kramer that someone needed to call a public health expert. He knew only one person who would qualify: his friend Helen Jensen, the Arlington Heights village nurse.
As the town’s only public health official, Jensen did everything from flu shots for firefighters to home health care for cancer patients. She also never backed down from a challenge.
The fire lieutenant, who was still at the hospital, called her at home and said he needed help figuring out how three young, healthy people from the same family were so suddenly stricken. Jensen, who had been making dinner for her family, grabbed her car keys and rushed out of the house, still wearing shorts and a T-shirt.
Jensen arrived at the hospital 15 minutes later and walked into the quarantine room. The people inside marveled at her courage.
“I thought she would go and talk to the doctors, but no. She came directly into the room and I couldn’t believe that,” Kramer said. “But that’s just Helen. She is brave. She sees it as just doing her job, but I really admired her.”
Jensen asked to speak with Adam’s widow, Teresa, who was standing by herself across the room and looking undeniably lost.
With a relative interpreting, Teresa walked Jensen through Adam’s morning and the family gathering later that afternoon. In her retelling, Jensen noticed, all three people who got sick had taken Tylenol.
Jensen asked Teresa for a key to the house and told a village police officer to take her there immediately.
“I want to go out,” she recalled telling the patrolman. “I want to take a look for myself to see what I think.”
Jensen entered the tidy bungalow around 8 p.m. and gathered a few things she thought all three people could have come in contact with: a pot of black coffee, used coffee grounds, home-jarred fruits, cherry juice, a pound cake, prescription medicines, the fresh flowers from the store.
She found the Tylenol bottle on the bathroom counter and the receipt in the trash can.
How a single bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol killed three members of a close-knit Polish clan. >>> View the timeline here
Jensen poured out the capsules and counted them repeatedly. There were only 44 capsules in the 50-count bottle. She could easily do the math: three people, each taking the recommended two capsules. Three people, dead or dying.
She returned to the hospital, where she found a representative from the Cook County medical examiner’s office in a conference room. She placed the white plastic bottle on the table.
“It has to be the Tylenol,” she said.
Her declaration was met with skepticism, she said. So, she repeated it, this time stamping her foot and raising her voice.
“There’s something in the Tylenol.”
Feeling frustrated and unheard, she went home and poured herself a Scotch on the rocks. She told her husband that lives were potentially still at risk and she couldn’t get the right people to believe her.
She cried herself to sleep.
“I’m a woman and a nurse,” she said. “No one was going to listen to me.”
As Jensen searched the Janus home, United flight attendant Paula Prince landed at O’Hare following a long day in which she worked a return trip from Las Vegas and then an out-and-back to Hartford, Connecticut.
She checked the flight board after landing and saw that her friend Jean Regula Leavengood — a fellow flight attendant who lived in the same Old Town condo building and shared Prince’s passion for travel and fun — would not be arriving for another hour or so.
Prince scribbled a note to her friend, explaining that she had left for home and she would talk to her soon. Prince left it in her friend’s airport mailbox.
“Let’s meet for a drink later,” Prince wrote. “I have exciting news to tell you.”
On the way home, Prince stopped at a Walgreens near her building. A security camera snapped an image of Prince at the cash register, still dressed in a United Airlines uniform consisting of a navy pantsuit, neck scarf and high-heeled shoes.
The photo captured the exact moment the 35-year-old Nebraska native unwittingly purchased her own death.
At 9:16 p.m., she paid $2.39 for a 24-count bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol.
Once home, Prince put on a flowery nightgown and began taking off her makeup with a cotton ball. She paused to swallow a single capsule from her new purchase, seemingly forgetting that she already had an open bottle of Tylenol in her travel bag.
Regula Leavengood and Prince’s sister would find her lifeless body two days later, looking nothing like the striking blond woman they knew.
“She was a bombshell, you know,” said Regula Leavengood. “She was pretty, she was vivacious. Always laughing. Always laughing.”
At Prince’s funeral, a man approached Regula Leavengood and introduced himself. He said he had met Prince during a recent layover in Las Vegas and they had fallen immediately, madly in love. He said they planned to marry.
He was Paula Prince’s exciting news.
After hours in quarantine, firefighter Kramer heard from Dr. Kim that Stanley Janus had been pronounced dead and Terri was on life support with no chance of recovery.
Kim said he didn’t think the deaths had been caused by anything environmental, but rather something they all ingested. He was trying to find a poison expert to help him make a diagnosis.
The first responders were released from quarantine with instructions to decontaminate at their home stations, just to be on the safe side. Doctors admitted all the Januses to the hospital for overnight observation for that same cautious reason.
Joseph Janus shared a room with his sister, Sophia. The siblings passed a sleepless night, afraid they wouldn’t wake up if they fell asleep.
“I was just looking at my sister and she was looking at me to see if we were still alive,” he said. “I thought we were going to die too.”
At home, Joseph Janus’ wife, Elizabeth, pulled their two young children into a bedroom and told them to pray harder than they had ever prayed. She also called her family in Poland and asked them to go to nearby Czestochowa, a religious site where Catholics have long asked for miracles.
“I remember my (4-year-old) brother holding a statue of Jesus and just holding it really tight,” recalled Joseph Janus’ daughter, Monica, who was 8. “We’re all sitting there and praying together, hoping that my dad would come home because everyone’s dying in our family.”
As the Janus family prayed, Kramer and his crew headed back to the firehouse. On the way there, Kramer got on the radio and notified emergency dispatchers that his trucks would be out of commission until further notice.
Minutes after he returned to the station, his phone rang.
It was his close friend and fellow Arlington Heights fire lieutenant, Phil Cappitelli. Always one to keep a scanner nearby on his days off, Cappitelli wanted to know what possibly could have happened to shut down the entire station.
Kramer, who had listened to Jensen’s conversation with Adam Janus’ widow, told him about the family and their mysterious illness. They didn’t have anything in common, Kramer told his colleague, except that they each took Tylenol.
The information clicked with Cappitelli. He told Kramer about his inquiry into Mary Kellerman’s sudden death and that she also had taken Tylenol moments before collapsing.
“Oh my God, it just hits you,” Kramer recalled. “Someone is out there indiscriminately poisoning people.”
Kramer immediately called the Elk Grove Village Fire Department and spoke with the paramedic who had treated Mary Kellerman. Were her eyes fixed and dilated? Was her breathing rapid and shallow? Were her symptoms resistant to medical intervention?
Yes, the paramedic said. Yes. Yes.
Kramer called the hospital to relay what he found out — what Jensen already knew.
“There’s something wrong with the Tylenol,” he said.
Dr. Kim was told about the Tylenol connection, but it didn’t completely solve the medical mystery. The doctor had treated cases of acetaminophen poisoning previously, and this wasn’t that.
Yes, the Januses all took Tylenol before falling into respiratory distress. But Kim needed to know what substance caused them to suffer sudden cardiac arrest. He consulted with several poisoning experts and scoured his old medical school textbooks. He paced back and forth in his office, thinking and ruling out various causes.
“I can’t just say, ‘Oh, I tried my best,’ ” Kim said. “I had to find an answer.”
In the end, there was only one substance that he could think of that killed people so rapidly after being ingested: cyanide.
It was a wild thought, but it was the best explanation he could offer. His hospital couldn’t test for cyanide at the time, so he found a 24-hour lab in Highland Park. He put two vials of blood — one belonging to Stanley, the other to Terri — in a cab and gave the driver instructions on where to take them.
As he watched the taxi pull away, he hoped that none of his colleagues would see the Januses’ charts and think he was being foolish.
“My back was against the wall,” Kim said. “I mean, I had nothing else to offer, so I ordered the test.”
Meanwhile, an Elk Grove Village police officer brought the Tylenol bottle from the Kellerman home to the hospital and gave it to Nicholas Pishos, an investigator with the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
Pishos already had the bottle left by Jensen. Both bottles had the same lot number.
Pishos called his boss, Dr. Edmund Donoghue, deputy chief medical examiner for Cook County. Donoghue, who was at home, told him to open one of the bottles and smell inside.
When Pishos poured out the capsules, he caught a strong almond scent. The second bottle produced the same bitter smell.
Donoghue’s suspicion was confirmed. He knew instantly the odor was cyanide, a notorious and rapid-acting poison that cuts off oxygen to red blood cells. The almond odor isn’t always present, and even when it exists, it’s discernible by only about 60% of the population.
Pishos apparently was among them.
“As soon as I popped the top, I could smell the cyanide,” Pishos said in an interview. “I remember it smells like burnt almond from my chemistry classes in college.”
Donoghue called Michael Schaffer, the county’s chief toxicologist, and asked him to come to the morgue and run tests on the confiscated Tylenol capsules. It was the first time Donoghue could ever recall asking the toxicology department to work through the night.
“This was a crazy idea, that there might be something in Tylenol,” Donoghue said in an interview. “I mean, this was the world’s most common analgesic.”
Tests would show that four of the 44 remaining capsules in the Januses’ bottle contained cyanide. Records indicate each capsule had between 550 and 610 milligrams of poison — nearly three times the amount needed to kill someone.
In the early morning hours of Sept. 30, a technician from the Highland Park lab called to notify Dr. Kim that her tests had found massive amounts of cyanide in the newlyweds’ blood.
She also told him she had never run a cyanide test before, but she assured him she had followed the screening protocols.
“There’s just so much cyanide,” Kim recalled her saying. “I mean, it’s just too much.”
Kim asked for the lab director’s home phone number so he could call and discuss the results. When the technician hesitated, Kim told her she could either give it to him or give it to Arlington Heights police when he sent them to the laboratory.
She gave Kim the number.
Kim called and woke up the director, who assured the doctor he was confident the test had been run correctly. The tech, he said, was one of his best.
The results were indisputable: Stanley and Terri Janus died from acute cyanide poisoning.
The first news related to the Tylenol poisonings broke when a reporter for the City News Bureau — a famed Chicago news organization that operated 24 hours a day — published a bulletin.
City News reporter John Flynn Rooney wrote that authorities were looking into the sudden deaths of Adam Janus and his brother Stanley. The information was attributed to a hospital spokesperson.
The item, based on a tip received by overnight editor Rick Baert, didn’t mention Tylenol. Rooney couldn’t get someone to confirm that part of the story right away.
But Baert told the Tribune that he recognized the potential danger to the public and urged Rooney to keep digging.
Baert also called his best friend in the middle of the night because he knew the man took Tylenol for his knee each morning. He warned his buddy to skip the pills when he woke up.
“All I could think of was how many more people could be at risk if this news didn’t get out by morning,” Baert said.
Shortly before sunrise, Rooney — who died in 2016 of complications from ALS — nailed down the story. Around 5:30 a.m., City News reported that the medical examiner’s office was attributing three deaths to an unnamed “headache remedy” and a news conference would be held later that morning.
The story was immediately picked up by local radio stations, including the one Helen Jensen’s husband listened to before work. When he heard the news, he woke up his wife.
“You were right,” he told her. “It’s on the radio. It’s the Tylenol.”
In less than 24 hours, a group of first responders and medical experts had solved a critical piece of a heartbreaking puzzle.
Although autopsies would have detected the cyanide eventually, according to Donoghue, that process would have taken another 18 hours — and, in this case, every minute counted.
The same morning the news broke, stores began pulling the pain reliever from their shelves and public health departments went door-to-door with flyers warning people about potentially poisonous capsules in the medicine cabinets. Police officers drove through streets, using bullhorns to order people to throw out their Tylenol.
And these efforts almost certainly saved lives, as testing turned up three other tainted Tylenol bottles and no other deaths occurred after those first 24 hours.
Kramer said he often wonders what would have happened if just one small thing about that day had been different.
What if Cappitelli’s mother-in-law hadn’t worked with a woman whose little girl had mysteriously died? What if Keyworth, the Elk Grove Village firefighter, hadn’t been around when Cappitelli called him for information about Mary Kellerman? What if Kramer hadn’t called in nurse Helen Jensen, who interviewed Teresa Janus and retrieved the poisoned bottle? What if Dr. Kim hadn’t acted on his cyanide hunch, sending blood samples to the lab?
What if Cappitelli hadn’t heard something puzzling on his scanner and learned about the Januses from his friend Kramer?
What if Kramer hadn’t overheard Jensen discussing Tylenol with Teresa Janus and relayed that detail to Cappitelli?
What if Nick Pishos couldn’t smell cyanide’s distinctive almond odor?
Remove any of these people and their efforts that night, and the public wouldn’t have known about the poisoned capsules as quickly as they did.
Remove any of these people and their efforts that night, and more people likely would have died.
“It all came together,” Kramer said. “We were lucky.”
The massive police task force assigned to find the culprit, however, would not be as fast in its mission.
Or as fortunate.