The Tylenol Murders

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In 1982, American consumers were gripped with terror and fear. 12-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village just wanted to cure a morning headache, not knowing that the drug she sought to relieve her would send her to her death. It was the same case for the 27-year-old postal worker Adam Janus of Arlington Heights and his brother Stanley and his brother's new wife, Theresa, who, returning from the hospital after the death of Adam passed around a bottle of Tylenol, not knowing that the capsules in the bottle were the same that Adam. Collapsing almost at the same time as the paramedics came in to attend to them, the couple, who took cyanide-laced capsules of Extra Strength Tylenol, was dead not long after. 35-year-old Paula Prince of Chicago, 27-year-old Mary Reiner of Winfield and 31-year-old Mary McFarland were next in line in what would be remembered as the Tylenol Murders of 1982. It was what Barbara and David Mikkelson described as the time when "we lost our innocence in 1982."

``This was an outbreak of chemical terrorism,'' recalled Cook County Medical Examiner Edmund Donoghue, who investigated the 1982 killings as the office's chief deputy. ``It was kind of a ridiculous thought at the time that Tylenol, the world's greatest pain reliever, would have killed someone.''

As fast as the deaths came were the actions of Johnson & Johnson, the parent company of Tylenol manufacturer McNeil Consumer Products. The company immediately recalled more than 20 million bottles of Extra Strength Tylenol and burned every one even as Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne banned the sale of Tylenol products and 1,300 volunteers canvassed the city to warn the public about the potential danger. The public was quick to respond as across the country, everyone rushed to turn in bottles to authorities which led to investigators eventually recovering eight tainted bottles, five related to the deaths, two turned in by consumers and one pulled from a store shelf. But the campaign to hunt down and nail the perpetrator weren't as successful. A task force of 150 officers from local, state and federal agencies followed thousands of leads that went cold soon. In the end and because of the absence of known pattern or motive, no one was ever charged in the killings, aside from the conviction of Roger Arnold of Chicago for killing a man he thought directed investigators his way in the case, and James E. Lewis of Kansas City, who sent an extortion note to Johnson & Johnson threatening to poison bottles of the painkiller unless he got $1 million. Both were released from prison after serving term.

Time Magazine's George G. Church, in his article Murder by Remote Control, said that "the Tylenol case brings calls for tamperproof packaging of drugs It was more than a tantalizing mystery, more even than random terror. The Tylenol murders had the true Kafkaesque quality of a nightmare become real, of vague dreads taking on form and solidity in cold daylight. Such thoughts gripped Americans last week as poison scares spread around the nation, seemingly promising leads dissolved, and the hunt for the person who had put the cyanide into capsules of Extra-Strength Tylenol that killed seven people in the Chicago area two weeks ago made little progress."


Tamara Kaplan explained, "The public relations decisions made as a result of the Tylenol crisis, arrived in two phases. The first phase was the actual handling of the crisis. The comeback of both Johnson & Johnson and Tylenol, was the second phase in the public relations plan. The planning for phase two began almost as soon as phase one was being implemented."

The most important issue to be addressed by this PR program is to be able not to erase the memory of the disastrous Tylenol Killings but instead build on it to create a public thinking which would be favorable for the corporate client. The Tylenol Murders happened and...
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