James Lewis poses for his booking photo on Dec. 13, 1982, when he was taken into custody in New York City. (Tom Ellis)
There is a PowerPoint presentation outlining all the evidence in the case, but it’s not shown during the July videoconference on the Tylenol murders. Medical Lead Apron
Everyone on the call has already seen it.
The presentation includes a section on the drawings made by the attempted extortionist shortly before his sentencing. The sketches depict the many ways a person could fill Tylenol capsules with cyanide.
The drawings are extraordinarily detailed.
So detailed, in fact, the U.S. Parole Commission became the first — and, so far, only — government agency to declare someone responsible for the Tylenol murders.
The task force investigating the Tylenol killings doubted that James Lewis would be reckless enough to stay in Manhattan after mailing an extortion letter to Johnson & Johnson demanding $1 million to “stop the killing.”
James Lewis' first letter to the Tribune was mailed from New York on Oct. 27, 1982, and addressed to the city editor at the newspaper. (Chicago Tribune historical photo)
Lewis, however, kept sending letters from New York in the fall of 1982 with a catch-me-if-you-can swagger that stunned investigators. He wrote to President Ronald Reagan, the Chicago Tribune, the Kansas City Star, the FBI and his wife’s parents in Missouri.
Initially, investigators had viewed Lewis as a heartless opportunist determined to profit off of the poisonings that killed seven people, including a child. But their perspective changed after learning he had been charged in — but not convicted of — a gruesome slaying in Kansas City four years earlier.
“It is an important lead,” Illinois Attorney General Ty Fahner, coordinator of the multi-agency task force investigating the Tylenol murders, told reporters at an Oct. 14 news conference. “Yes, this has great significance.”
Ty Fahner, head of the Tylenol task force, speaks at a news conference on Oct. 14, 1982. At right is Kansas City police Sgt. David Barton, who had investigated James Lewis in Missouri. (John Bartley / Chicago Tribune)
Chicago police, meanwhile, had homed in on a man named Roger Arnold, a home chemist with access to cyanide and a penchant for telling tall tales. Authorities had enough evidence to charge the disgruntled grocery store dockhand with misdemeanor weapons violations unrelated to the poisonings, but detectives planned to keep digging.
The task force wasn’t interested, though. On the same day of Fahner’s announcement, another task force spokesman publicly eliminated Arnold from suspicion, without consulting Chicago police.
As state and federal investigators launched what was then the largest manhunt in U.S. history, they were almost entirely focused on Lewis, a 36-year-old Missouri man with an alleged history of vindictive and violent behavior. The chase was the start of a peculiar game of cat-and-mouse between Lewis and law enforcement that has lasted for decades and, in many ways, has come to define the case.
The letters Lewis sent often referenced details about the Tylenol investigation and included photocopied newspaper articles. The mailings proclaimed his innocence, questioned the business dealings of his nemesis and taunted the Tylenol task force — sometimes all in the same paragraph.
James Lewis sent several letters to the Tribune, including this one. The notations at upper left imitate the story number, slug and computer function symbols that appeared on stories distributed by news wire services. (Chicago Tribune archive)
The Tribune was his first choice in communication; he sent three letters to the newspaper during the manhunt, all handwritten with a black felt-tip pen.
“I hope the law finds whoever poisoned these capsules and I would demand capital punishment,” Lewis wrote in a letter to the newspaper. “But what are the chances in the hands of the FBI and Fahner’s Fumblers!!”
It was these very letters, authorities told the Tribune, that ultimately helped lead to his capture.
By the time Fahner publicly identified James Lewis as the extortion letter’s author, investigators had figured out much of his troubled background from his friends, co-workers and a pile of police records.
They knew he had been charged with killing Raymond West after the retired delivery man’s dismembered body had been found in the attic of his Kansas City home in 1978. They knew that the case had been dropped because of a procedural error and that, three years later, he spearheaded an elaborate credit card scam.
And they knew Lewis had fled to Chicago, where he and his wife, LeAnn, spent the next nine months living under the names Robert and Nancy Richardson before abruptly leaving about three weeks before the Tylenol poisonings.
What authorities didn’t know, however, was where they went.
James Lewis and his wife, LeAnn, lived in this building on West Belden Avenue in Chicago in 1982 under the names Robert and Nancy Richardson before abruptly leaving. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
The couple had told their Chicago friends they were moving to Amarillo, Texas, to be closer to family. But the extortion letter had been sent Oct. 1 from Manhattan. The following day, a note was mailed from New York to the White House that threatened more poisonings if President Reagan raised taxes as part of a deal with Congress to reduce spending.
Both letters were written as if they came from travel agency owner Frederick Miller McCahey, the former boss of LeAnn Lewis. James Lewis despised McCahey, who he believed drove the travel business into bankruptcy and stiffed his employees on their final paycheck.
The task force knew James Lewis was behind the letters, and initially it seemed doubtful he would stay in Manhattan. Perhaps he had traveled to New York with the sole purpose of mailing the letters. Agents scoured the couple’s former Lakeview apartment but found no clues as to where they might have gone.
Authorities were frustrated with the case and, at times, with one another. It began to show in the press.
At top left is a photo of James Lewis from the time he was using the name Robert Richardson. Authorities distributed illustrations based on the photo that showed how he might have looked with and without glasses and with and without facial hair. (Chicago Tribune archive)
Within a week of learning their true identities, Fahner called James and LeAnn Lewis “prime suspects” in the murders but cautioned that investigators lacked direct evidence connecting them to the poisonings.
“They are not simply wanted for extortion,” Fahner told reporters at an Oct. 18 media briefing. “They are wanted in connection with the Tylenol killings.”
The statement led to an exchange of words with Richard Brzeczek, the young and personable Chicago police superintendent whose department had a strained relationship with Fahner’s task force. Brzeczek publicly downplayed the possibility of Lewis being the killer, angering state and federal investigators.
“We have no real leads, no prime suspects, no tentative suspects,” Brzeczek said at a news conference. “We have no mediocre suspects. We have no suspects period.”
Brzeczek told the Tribune he didn’t make the statement to embarrass Fahner, whom he considered an outstanding lawyer. He said he just wanted to be honest with people.
“I just don’t want anyone to have false hope,” he said earlier this year.
Chicago police Superintendent Richard Brzeczek at a news conference at 11th and State streets in Chicago on Oct. 19, 1982. Brzeczek publicly downplayed the possibility of James Lewis being the Tylenol killer. (Anne Cusack / Chicago Tribune)
With their differences now firmly fixed in public view, U.S. Attorney Dan Webb whistled Fahner, Brzeczek, state police director James Zagel, assistant U.S. attorney Jeremy Margolis and a few other top-ranking law enforcement officials into his office. The men all knew and respected one another, having worked and socialized together for years.
This, however, promised to be a difficult meeting.
Two weeks earlier, Brzeczek had told reporters that police had a better chance of finding “a gray snowflake in Greenland” than finding the Tylenol killer. And now he was publicly contradicting Fahner’s statements on Lewis.
Webb reminded the men that they all had the same goal.
“I gave my team speech,” Webb told the Tribune. “The public’s confidence in how law enforcement responded to this murder scheme was critical. Nationwide, we were under a microscope. We had to be together and we had to work as a team.”
The tension eased, at least for a moment, when someone tipped off authorities that LeAnn Lewis had recently worked a temp job in Manhattan under the alias Nancy Richardson.
Someone tipped off authorities that LeAnn Lewis, shown here in 1982, had worked a temp job in Manhattan under the alias Nancy Richardson. (Tom Ellis)
After three weeks of perfect attendance, she suddenly stopped showing up at her bookkeeping gig. A man who identified himself as her husband later called the office and reported that she was too ill to come to work. She never returned, not even to pick up her final paycheck.
Her disappearance came after authorities announced that James Lewis was wanted in connection with the extortion letter. A separate warrant was issued for LeAnn on a misdemeanor charge of using a fake Social Security number to work in Chicago.
Records show the couple hastily left their cheap New York hotel on Oct. 14, despite having paid through the 18th.
FBI Special Agent Tom Ellis, a 15-year veteran assigned to the fugitive squad, was in charge of the search effort. After setting up a command post near Times Square, 150 FBI agents and New York police detectives looked for the Lewises. They went up and down blocks, visiting hotels, hospitals and restaurants.
Former FBI agent Tom Ellis, shown in August at his home in San Antonio, Texas, was part of the crew that nabbed James Lewis in New York after a three-month manhunt. (Lisa Krantz/for the Chicago Tribune)
The FBI declined the Tribune’s request to interview Ellis, who is long retired, despite his willingness and the fact that he has testified about his role in court. However, a detailed picture of the intense manhunt emerges through classified FBI reports, court records and interviews with others who participated.
A week into the search, frustrated agents gave up their command post and returned to their regular office in lower Manhattan. The effort dwindled to a couple dozen agents chasing leads and following up on possible sightings.
Despite being one of the most wanted couples in the country, James and LeAnn Lewis managed to stay one step ahead of authorities for weeks.
Back in Chicago, investigators examined photographs taken from a cash station camera near the entrance of the drugstore where victim Paula Prince had bought a tainted Tylenol bottle. On WBBM-Ch. 2, Walter Jacobson broke the story that one of the images showed a bearded man seeming to look at the pretty blond flight attendant while she shopped.
Tom Kline, who worked in the building where James Lewis lived in Chicago, holds a copy of the Tribune on Oct. 19, 1982, featuring a surveillance photo of Paula Prince purchasing the Tylenol that killed her. Some thought the Tylenol killer was pictured in the photo behind Prince. (Karen Engstrom / Chicago Tribune)
When asked about the man’s likeness to Lewis, Fahner told reporters at the time that it was unclear whether he was Lewis.
Sources recently told the Tribune the man in the photo was quickly eliminated from suspicion after he came forward and denied he was the killer, saying his wife had sent him to the store to buy toothpaste. But to this day, some people continue to perpetuate the myth that Lewis appears in the infamous image.
In late October 1982, a tipster reported seeing the Lewises in Miami, renewing doubts as to whether they were still in New York. Acting on information from LeAnn Lewis’ parents, authorities alerted medical centers in Florida that she might seek treatment for a possible kidney infection.
Everyone knew it was a long shot, but the options were limited.
“Literally we were getting 500 people a day saying ‘I just saw him in Alaska in a fishing bar’ or, you know, everywhere,” said retired FBI Special Agent Grey Steed, who was the task force’s liaison in Chicago for the manhunt. “Back in those days, you didn’t have ‘America’s Most Wanted.’ You didn’t have 24-hour television. You didn’t even have to show your ID to get on an airplane.”
Luckily for law enforcement, James Lewis didn’t stay quiet for long.
“We do not go around killing people,” he wrote in his first letter to the Tribune, postmarked Oct. 27 in New York. “We never have and we never shall.”
A 1982 letter to the Tribune, signed as Robert Richardson by James Lewis, denies responsibility for the Tylenol murders. (Chicago Tribune archive)
His note continued: “Contrary to reports we are not armed, unless one means in the anatomical paraplegic sense. We shall never carry weapons no matter how bizarre the police and FBI reports. Domestically, weapons are for two quite similar types of mentalities: (1) criminals & (2) police. We are neither.”
On Oct. 30, Fahner urged the Lewises to turn themselves in.
“If you’re innocent, as you claim,” he said at a media briefing, “we’ll help you prove your innocence.”
Days later, Fahner lost his election bid to keep his job as attorney general. He remained the public face of the task force for two more months until leaving office early the next year.
James Lewis took credit for Fahner’s defeat in a letter to his wife’s parents a short time later.
“We think we may be able to continue similar victories,” Lewis wrote. “This is not the type of game most people can stomach. But this appears to be the only game in town.”
Ty Fahner, shown here in June, lost his bid to keep his job as Illinois attorney general in a late 1982 election. He remained the public face of the Tylenol task force until leaving office early the next year. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
Lewis sent at least two letters that November to LeAnn’s parents, who were cooperating with law enforcement. The messages, which have not previously been made public, include Lewis’ typical purple prose and his belief in a vast government conspiracy against him dating back to the West murder charges.
“As you know, we did not start this mess,” he wrote. “It was started four years ago by certain government employees who violated a very sacred public trust. As for us, we are just two dumb country kids with our love for each other to keep us warm.”
Two weeks later, Lewis took a sharper tone with his in-laws, who had been quoted in media coverage of the manhunt.
“Because you love her we think you will want to read this very carefully,” he wrote. “From your point of view, LeAnn should come back to Kansas City. If you convince her to return, you shall surely guarantee that she shall loose (sic). And you will also loose. Those prospects are not pleasant. Is this your intention? We don’t think so.”
On the day Lewis mailed the letter, his father-in-law wired the couple $140 with the FBI’s knowledge. Surveillance cameras showed the Lewises picking up the money at a Western Union in Manhattan on Nov. 21, just days before their 14th wedding anniversary.
The sighting sparked a new weeklong manhunt in New York.
A blurry surveillance video image reportedly shows James Lewis inside a Western Union in New York, where he and his wife had been living under aliases. (Tom Ellis)
A blurry surveillance video image is said to show LeAnn Lewis inside a Western Union in New York. (Tom Ellis)
By this time, the task force had read enough of Lewis’ letters to the Tribune to realize that he had access to the newspaper and had been reading it during the manhunt. Investigators began leaking specific items to the Tribune in the hopes of luring him out of hiding, and the FBI began 24-hour surveillance of every New York newsstand that sold the Tribune. Both efforts proved futile.
Then Steed had an idea.
Lewis had often included photocopied articles about the Tylenol case in his mailings. Where would he go to make those copies? Steed asked himself.
“Frankly, I kicked myself that I didn’t think of it quicker,” he told the Tribune. “I called an agent in New York who was assigned to handle the leads and I said, ‘Hey, we should stake out the public library.’ ”
Federal agents soon swarmed the New York libraries that carried the Tribune, leaving behind copies of the FBI’s “wanted” poster with photos of the Lewises. They didn’t have to wait long before a potential sighting.
Retired FBI agent Tom Ellis holds an album featuring photos and newspaper clippings about the Tylenol case, including mug shots of James Lewis. (Lisa Krantz/for the Chicago Tribune)
About 1 p.m. Dec. 13, a librarian working in a modest annex in midtown Manhattan spotted a clean-shaven man who resembled the bearded fugitive. He studied the photos in the poster again, then asked the senior librarian what he thought. After walking past the patron to try to get a better look, the senior librarian called the FBI.
Minutes later, agents headed to the library with a New York police escort that took them right to the doorstep. Officers covered the exits as agents rushed to the library’s fourth floor.
The librarian pointed out the man, whose back was turned to the agents as he used a reference book to write out the mailing addresses of major newspapers. The agents cautiously approached, with their guns holstered. The man did not have identification and refused to provide his name, but there was no doubt in their minds.
“He had a 20-carat stare,” said a retired FBI agent who was part of the arrest. “He was strange.”
James Lewis’ life on the run was over.
At the local FBI offices, Lewis was fingerprinted and photographed. He declined to sign a waiver of his Miranda rights, but he agreed to talk to the arresting agents’ boss.
Lewis described the couple’s movements since arriving in New York in early September 1982, a three-month period also detailed in more than a thousand pages of FBI records and court documents obtained by the Tribune.
James Lewis poses for a booking photo on Dec. 13, 1982, when he was taken into custody in New York City. (Tom Ellis)
After arriving by train on Sept. 5, they moved into a cheap hotel in midtown Manhattan. Co-workers at LeAnn’s new bookkeeping job told agents she said she moved to New York because her husband, a computer consultant, had a good business opportunity there.
James Lewis did not find a steady job in New York. He seemed to spend most of his time reading newspapers and financial magazines. He waited outside his wife’s work twice a day so they could have lunch and, later, walk home together.
When the manhunt started, the couple hid in plain sight for two months. They rented a furnished room at another flophouse under the names Edward and Carol Scott, and LeAnn eventually got a different bookkeeping job. Lewis told the FBI the couple even attended the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.
Equal parts brazen and bizarre, the couple’s decision to stay in New York made it easier for the FBI to catch James Lewis.
“If he had not stayed in New York, if he had moved around again, it would have been much longer before we would have apprehended him,” Steed said. “All we had was an artist’s conception of him and a bad old picture. … He would very easily disappear among the crowd.”
Within hours of his arrest, Lewis appeared before a federal magistrate in New York. He was ordered held in lieu of a $5 million bond on charges of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution and attempted extortion. He again refused to identify himself.
That next day, LeAnn Lewis surrendered to FBI agents in Chicago after arriving at O’Hare International Airport. Special Agent Jeff Hayes, now retired, said in an interview that she sobbed as she was booked and fingerprinted.
Authorities hoped she would cooperate with their investigation into her husband’s possible involvement in the Tylenol killings. “I got the sense if this guy was involved, she may be able to provide information that would lead us to his arrest and conviction for those murders,” Hayes said.
LeAnn Lewis waits with her father, Charles Miller, at Midway Airport for a Dec. 31, 1982, flight to Kansas City on their way to Miller’s home in Kearney, Missouri. (Walter Kale / Chicago Tribune)
But LeAnn Lewis didn’t cooperate. She got a lawyer and refused to talk. Her father put up his home as collateral for her $100,000 bond, and she returned with him to Missouri, where friends set up a legal defense fund.
Prosecutors later dropped the misdemeanor charge against her.
In a recent interview, the Lewises’ friend Selene Hunter said she helped set up the fundraising effort and was the first to make a donation. Hunter, 82, said Lewis’ extortion letter was “not well thought out” but she still believes his motivation was to draw attention to fraud at the bank where the $1 million was to be transferred.
“He’s just eccentric, just a little unusual, and this culture does not allow that,” said Hunter, who visited Lewis when he was in custody in New York and said she does not think he was involved in the Tylenol murders beyond the extortion letter.
As James Lewis’ capture made national news, Fahner and Brzeczek once again offered differing views of the case. Fahner told reporters that Lewis was “very capable of doing the things that were done,” given his prior conduct.
Brzeczek, meanwhile, said Lewis could not be ruled out because investigators had not yet questioned him, but called the possibility of Lewis being the Tylenol killer “highly remote.”
Forty years later, Brzeczek told the Tribune he sticks by his initial assessment.
“James Lewis is an asshole,” he said. “But he’s not the Tylenol killer.”
Former Chicago police Superintendent Richard Brzeczek, shown in September, called the possibility of Lewis being the Tylenol killer “highly remote." (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
A gaunt, clean-shaven James Lewis made his first court appearance in Chicago on Dec. 28, 1982. He traveled with guards on a military plane from New York to Chicago. Authorities had connected him only to the extortion letter, not to the murders.
It had been three months since the Tylenol victims died. A once round-the-clock operation involving more than 100 state, federal and suburban officers had dwindled to about two dozen people.
A confidential police memo lists only three significant suspects identified by the task force within the first six months: Lewis, Arnold and a 35-year-old west suburban man with a history of anger issues.
The task force investigated the third man after an informant said he claimed responsibility for the poisonings. The U.S. Secret Service had been keeping tabs on him for years, records show, because he allegedly threatened the lives of Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. He had a history of mental instability and bore a grudge against the Jewel grocery chain where two of the eight recovered tainted bottles were sold, according to a sealed affidavit obtained by the Tribune.
An Oct. 29, 1982, search warrant of the room he rented in west suburban Lombard revealed the man had hundreds of clear gelatin capsules in his possession and bottles marked “poison,” though no cyanide was recovered. Authorities spent several weeks searching for him before he turned himself in in Los Angeles, where his landlord said he had moved earlier that month.
The Tribune is not naming the man, who currently lives in California, because he was never charged in connection with the murders and hasn’t been tied to the case in almost 40 years.
Hayes and his task force partner, state police investigator Joe McQuaid, flew to California to get the man, who had waived extradition. He greeted them naked in his L.A. holding cell with hands covered in excrement. The man later ate so many peanuts on the turbulent flight back to Chicago that he vomited, investigators said.
Hayes and McQuaid told the Tribune the man appeared to lack the organization, cunning and “terrorist mentality,” among other factors, to be responsible for the killings. He was released on Dec. 2.
“(He) looked good for a while. Nobody wanted to discount him yet,” McQuaid said. “He was interviewed by other teams to see what they thought. And he was interviewed at least a third time. And then we started the rotation again. We wanted to make sure, but we just couldn’t place him as the one committing this crime.”
Roger Arnold, a onetime suspect in the Tylenol murders, leaves a court appearance related to misdemeanor weapons charges in October 1982. (Carl Hugare / Chicago Tribune)
And then there was Arnold, the suspect who caught the interest of Chicago police detectives.
Police had taken the 48-year-old grocery store dockhand into custody after a local bar owner told them Arnold had cyanide in his home and had been acting erratically.
Arnold admitted buying two 16-ounce bottles of cyanide for experiments about six months earlier, but the self-described amateur chemist told detectives he got rid of it because he was having trouble with his wife and “didn’t want the stuff around,” according to an FBI analysis obtained by the Tribune.
Items recovered from Roger Arnold's home, including several unlicensed handguns, a rifle and various books, magazines and manuals. (Charles Osgood / Chicago Tribune)
Inside his home, detectives found four pistols, a carbine rifle, test tubes and how-to manuals about explosives and poisons — but no cyanide. One book, “The Poor Man’s James Bond,” included instructions on how to make a type of cyanide similar to that used in the Tylenol poisonings.
Arnold also had curious connections to the case, including working with the father of one of the Tylenol victims at one point. He was charged with misdemeanor firearms violations and released without being charged in the poisonings.
By that time, however, someone had leaked his name to the media.
“I had nothing to do with this Tylenol thing at all,” Arnold told reporters after posting bond on the misdemeanor gun charges. “They can think what they want. (This) has been blown way out of proportion.”
Several months later, he decided after a night of heavy drinking to seek revenge against the bar owner who turned him in. When he pulled the trigger, he fatally shot John Stanisha — a father of three who looked very similar to the bar owner — in a horrific case of mistaken identity.
Arnold was convicted of Stanisha’s murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Before putting Lewis in front of a federal jury in Chicago, authorities transferred him to Missouri, where he faced six counts of mail fraud related to an old credit card scam. The government accused Lewis of using the U.S. Postal Service to obtain credit cards in the name of a former tax client.
A talented artist, Lewis spent his May 1983 trial sketching and doodling. One drawing depicted the bearded and bespectacled defendant bleeding on the ground as a bald eagle representing the U.S. Department of Justice digs its talons into his torso. A noose around the man’s neck is tethered to papers labeled “Tylenol” and “Pre-trial Publicity.”
“Can this really happen in America?” an observer asks in a cartoon-type manner.
At his 1983 trial for mail fraud, James Lewis made a drawing that depicts the bearded and bespectacled defendant bleeding on the ground as a bald eagle representing the U.S. Department of Justice digs its talons into his torso. (Richard Shollenberger )
Lewis presented only one witness: a private investigator who testified that the handwriting on the credit card applications didn’t belong to Lewis.
“He really wasn’t a handwriting expert, so I think the cross-examination by the U.S. attorney pretty much made his testimony moot,” said U.S. Postal Inspector Richard Shollenberger, who testified against Lewis. “And obviously the jury thought so too.”
Jurors took only about an hour before convicting Lewis on all counts.
A day later, Lewis wrote a letter to the lead prosecutor offering to help the U.S. Justice Department solve crimes. The four-page message, written in blue pen, cited knowledge and expertise in corporate bankruptcy, land fraud schemes, agriculture, credit, roofing, hair cutting — both human and animal — carpentry, welding, legal research and even cake decorating.
He told the prosecutor that he and LeAnn were a package deal, according to a copy of the letter reviewed by the Tribune. The couple were willing to assume new identities and move somewhere else, Lewis wrote, as long as they could stay together.
James Lewis arrives for a January 1983 hearing on mail fraud charges in Kansas City. (AP)
“My wife and I have always thought ourselves prudishly ethical, even if our current reputation is otherwise,” he wrote.
The Justice Department passed on the offer, though it wouldn’t be the last time Lewis offered his assistance. Three months after the fraud trial, Lewis returned to Chicago to face the attempted extortion charge.
After two days of jury selection, his trial opened in mid-October. The testimony of handwriting experts that Lewis had authored the four-paragraph extortion note was expected to be key to the prosecution’s case.
But in his opening statement, defense attorney Michael Monico cut to the chase. In a remark that stunned many in the courtroom gallery, he acknowledged his client wrote the “vile and stupid” letter.
“We need not wait until the end of this,” Monico told the federal jury. “Jim wrote the letter.”
The lawyer said Lewis never intended for Johnson & Johnson to wire $1 million to a Chicago bank account as the letter demanded. Instead, Monico said, Lewis acted out of a “misguided sense of justice,” hoping to focus attention on his wife’s former boss. Defense witnesses later testified about Lewis’ anger that his wife’s last paycheck bounced, about a failed attempt to win a state wage claim and about his belief that the ex-boss committed fraud.
Monico said Lewis, who did not testify, was not trying to hide his motives from authorities and in fact was seeking their help. But Webb and his assistant U.S. attorneys, Jeremy Margolis and Cynthia Giacchetti, dismissed that argument as a smoke screen.
Michael Monico, an attorney for James Lewis, speaks with reporters at the Dirksen Federal Building on Dec. 28, 1982, the date of Lewis' first court appearance in Chicago. (Karen Engstrom / Chicago Tribune)
“The man who wrote that letter is insensitive to the human suffering of the Tylenol victims and their survivors,” Webb told the jury. “The man who wrote that letter was a premeditated manipulator of the fear of Johnson & Johnson, and the man who wrote that letter is an evil and a depraved opportunist who was trying to turn a tragedy to his own benefit.”
Pointing at Lewis, Webb said: “That man is you, James Lewis.”
After two-and-a-half hours of deliberations, the jury convicted Lewis of attempted extortion on Oct. 27.
In a February 1984 jailhouse interview while he was awaiting sentencing, Lewis denied poisoning the Tylenol capsules. He expressed remorse over writing the letter and said he didn’t anticipate it would be taken seriously or garner so much attention.
“I will regret sending that letter for the remainder of my life,” he told a Tribune reporter back then, adding: “I became an all-purpose monster to satisfy the demand for a public appearance of justice.”
Not long after the extortion trial, Special Agent Roy Lane Jr. returned to his FBI office one afternoon to a message about a missed phone call from a surprising person — James Lewis.
The two men had never met, but Lewis knew who Lane was because the agent was a constant presence in the Chicago courtroom during the attempted extortion trial while seated alongside federal prosecutors. Lane also provided brief testimony.
Sitting in the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center awaiting sentencing, Lewis rang Lane again the next day.
“I understand you want to talk to me,” Lewis told Lane.
Not long after James Lewis' attempted extortion trial, FBI Special Agent Roy Lane Jr., shown here in August, received a call from Lewis, who offered to talk. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)
They met in an FBI office in downtown Chicago. A U.S. marshal escorted a handcuffed Lewis. Margolis and a state police investigator joined them. Lane told the Tribune that Lewis waived his right to have an attorney present.
Initially, Lane said, Lewis talked about why he said he wasn’t the Tylenol killer, stating that he was in New York at the time authorities believe the capsules were tainted.
“But at the end of it, he goes: ‘I think I can help you in the investigation. I’d like to see the (case) files and everything that you’ve done,’ ” Lane said. “And I told him, I said: ‘You know, this is going to be a hard, hard sell, Jim. One minute they think you’re the Tylenol poisoner and then you want me to put you on the investigation with us?’ Let me see what I can do.”
Lane said authorities never gave Lewis the files, but the request set the stage for several meetings in late 1983. Each meeting typically lasted an hour or two. Their discussions weren’t confrontational, Lane said, as that wasn’t his style and investigators wanted to keep Lewis talking. They removed his handcuffs. And if Lewis wanted a soda, they provided a soda.
“I think we even went to get him some McDonald’s one time,” Lane said.
He said Lewis provided elaborate descriptions of how the Tylenol murders might have been carried out, with multiple hypothetical ways that the killer could have loaded the cyanide into the capsules and returned the tainted bottles to store shelves. To better explain his theories, Lewis made detailed drawings. Most included notes on the minimum age required to pull off the actions depicted — as young as 8 and as old as 16.
One drawing by James Lewis, titled "Measuring Cup Method," shows how an empty rifle cartridge could be used to fill Tylenol capsules. (National Archives and Records Administration)
The Tribune obtained seven of Lewis’ drawings. Each is dated and includes the disclaimer “drawn on speculation at the request of Asst. U.S. Attorney Jeremy D. Margolis.” Lewis illustrated, in careful detail, the possible use of pen caps, measuring cups or paper funnels to fill the capsules. One drawing, labeled the “drilled board method,” showed how the killer might have piled the poison onto a board, then brushed it with a bread knife into open capsules inserted into holes in the wood.
Another drawing depicts how the killer could pour the poison on small pieces of paper, fold them up and then place them in an empty Salem cigarette box, which Lewis wrote would hold “30-40 pre measured doses” and serve as the best method for transporting the cyanide. Lewis also drew a flow chart, with exhaustive instructions, on adding poisoned pills to the bottles in the store, in a restaurant, on a park bench or in one’s car.
He even mapped out what the killer might do if “technical problems” arose.
“They’re all very specific, but they are all different,” Margolis said in an interview.
A copy of a drawing made by James Lewis in 1983 sits on the desk of Jeremy Margolis, former assistant U.S. attorney, in his Chicago office. Margolis was on the team that prosecuted Lewis for attempted extortion. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
Lane recalled talking to Lewis about why the killer might have chosen to tamper with Extra-Strength Tylenol as opposed to regular Tylenol. Perhaps it was to spare a child from dying, Lane suggested.
“And he broke out laughing, I mean, hysterically laughing,” Lane said. “He goes, ‘No, it’s that joke, don’t you get it? There’s something extra in the capsule.’ And it just struck me as odd.”
Their meetings ended when Lewis wanted authorities to agree that anything he said would not be used against him in court. That was a deal authorities would not make with James Lewis, who at that point reinstated his Miranda rights and stopped talking.
“During these interviews, it was like a little game being played,” Lane said. “There were times when he would look at you and he’d just smirk. He knows that you were trying to play this game with him.”
In interviews with Tribune reporters in June 1984 and September 1992, Lewis denied poisoning the Tylenol capsules and said he just wanted to help investigators.
“I’d love to see the thing solved so people would stop blaming me,” he said in 1984.
“They (the police) asked me to show how it might have been done and I tried, as a good citizen, to help,” he said in the later interview. “It was a speculative scenario. I could tell you how Julius Caesar was killed, but that does not mean I was the killer.”
Lane said he never wondered why Lewis contacted him and not some other government official. An FBI profiler had once opined that whoever was responsible enjoyed the attention and might offer to assist law enforcement after things quieted down. The person would gravitate toward a gray-haired man wearing a blue suit and a red tie, the profiler said. The description fit Lane.
“That’s just what I normally wore,” he said when asked if he intentionally dressed that way for Lewis. “It’s a little coincidental. … I think it was a combination of just me being there, and then I had some of the stuff that he liked.”
Lewis’ self-proclaimed good deed did not go unpunished.
At Lewis’ sentencing hearing in June 1984, Webb told the court he could not eliminate Lewis as a suspect in the Tylenol killings because of the meetings with Lane and Margolis. He described the drawings and interviews in detail, using the drilled-board example as Lewis’ most compelling scenario for how the poisonings may have occurred.
In this July 12, 1983, photo, James Lewis leaves a federal court in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was convicted of mail fraud. (Don Ipock/The Kansas City Star)
“We thought, at one time, he was going to make a slow confession to the Tylenol murders,” Webb told the judge.
That statement would have serious implications for Lewis years later, but at that moment, it was just one of the many ways Webb hammered away at him during the hearing. Calling Lewis “a walking crime wave” and asking for the maximum 20-year sentence, Webb detailed the credit card scam as well as an alleged attack on his stepfather in 1966.
He also alleged that Lewis had killed an acquaintance, Raymond West, in Kansas City four years before the Tylenol case. West’s dismembered and decomposing body had been lifted into an attic with a pulley system.
“I believe the evidence is very strong that Mr. Lewis, in that bizarre and grisly fashion, murdered this elderly gentleman,” Webb said in court.
Instead of offering the judge reasons to impose a shorter sentence, Lewis — who represented himself at the hearing — used his time to rebut a 20-page report by a federal probation officer. He denied everything in the document, from the attack on his stepfather and involvement in West’s murder to an IRS agent’s characterization of his tax work as “sloppy.”
“I believe the evidence is very strong that Mr. Lewis, in that bizarre and grisly fashion, murdered this elderly gentleman,” Dan Webb said in court of Raymond West, shown here in old photos. Lewis has denied killing West. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
Lewis also took a few jabs at Webb and Fahner, telling the judge he wrote the extortion letter, in part, to expose their refusal to look into the travel agency owner. He also said he did it to warn the public about the pending collapse of Continental Illinois Bank, where he had demanded the money be wired. That excuse had not been offered at trial; the bank didn’t fail until nearly two years after he wrote the letter.
“Does the FBI and the attorney general do the sensible thing and investigate the bona fide criminal? No,” Lewis said. “These well-paid lawmen needlessly made the informant’s name a household word.”
Lewis described himself as a “nonviolent person” and a “scapegoat” in the poisoning investigation.
Even Webb, the star prosecutor who told the court he thought Lewis had been on the brink of confessing, acknowledged at the hearing and maintains today there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him.
U. S. Attorney Dan Webb at a news conference about LeAnn and James Lewis on Dec. 14, 1982, at the Federal Building in Chicago. “We thought, at one time, he was going to make a slow confession to the Tylenol murders,” Webb told a judge in 1984. (Ovie Carter / Chicago Tribune)
Investigators have never been able to place him in Chicago during the crucial time they believe the tainted bottles were placed on store shelves, despite exhaustive efforts checking for the couple’s names and aliases at car rental companies, buses, trains and airlines, FBI records show.
“I wanted the judge to know that the person in front of him could very well have been the Tylenol killer, but we also had limited evidence of that,” Webb told Tribune this year in an interview. “No one has indicted Lewis for being the Tylenol murderer, and that’s because after all the work and effort that everybody did, there’s no proof beyond a reasonable doubt that would justify that indictment of Lewis.”
The judge assured Lewis that he had not seen “a shred of evidence” connecting him to the Tylenol murders during the trial and would not be influenced by allegations that did not result in a conviction.
He sentenced Lewis to 10 years in prison for the extortion letter, to be served after he finished doing time for the credit card scam.
After his sentencing Lewis moved through a couple of federal prisons before ending up at a medium-security correctional institution in El Reno, Oklahoma. Records indicate he was a “model inmate” well-liked by both the staff and other prisoners.
He worked a string of jobs — librarian, office clerk, technical writer — for prison educational departments. He often went beyond his assigned duties, including writing and illustrating a book for inmates in the institution’s English as a Second Language program.
The U.S. Parole Commission notified Lewis in January 1989 that he was eligible for release in August after less than seven years. Lewis made plans to move to Boston, where his wife had started a successful bookkeeping business and he had lined up employment at a nearby church.
The commission, however, rescinded its decision to release Lewis after receiving letters from Margolis and then-U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas. Both men described Lewis as a threat to public safety and asked that he be forced to serve his entire 20-year term.
“His youth and adulthood show that James Lewis is a harmful man, not merely a callous opportunist,” wrote Margolis, who had become state police director in 1987.
Valukas also cited Lewis’ October 1982 letter to Reagan — the one in which he vowed to harm the president and plant more cyanide pills across the country. Valukas described it as new evidence, even though the missive had been widely publicized and certainly known to prosecutors at the time of his sentencing.
The commission suspended plans for Lewis’ release and scheduled a hearing to determine how long he should remain in prison. On the day of the meeting, the two-member panel said it also would take into consideration the information Webb had provided to the court during Lewis’ sentencing.
In the end, commissioners determined the preponderance of the evidence indicated Lewis was responsible for the Tylenol murders. And, because of that, they ordered him to stay in prison.
This meant the panel decided it was more likely than not that Lewis had poisoned Adam Janus, Stanley Janus, Terri Janus, Mary “Lynn” Reiner, Mary Sue McFarland, Paula Prince and Mary Kellerman in September 1982. That standard is far below the threshold applied in criminal cases, which requires proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but it’s the closest any law enforcement agency has come to holding someone responsible for the killings.
Court records show commissioners listed several factors in their decision:
“The national commission has solved by administrative fiat one of the century’s most infamous and terrifying crimes,” Lewis attorney Don Morano wrote in a scathing legal brief seeking to reverse the parole board’s decision.
A U.S. appellate court upheld the panel’s conclusion, even though the judges called the idea of the extortion letters serving as a confession “suspect.” In their 15-page decision, the justices wrote they might not have reached the same conclusion as the parole board, but “the record provides a rational basis for the commission’s conclusion that Lewis is the Tylenol murderer.”
Lewis remained in the El Reno prison, where he used his artistic talents to paint landscapes in his free time.
Nearly 800 miles from El Reno, Roger Arnold also made repeated attempts to overturn his sentence or, barring that, gain early release.
Like Lewis, Arnold had done well during his incarceration, making friends and earning a bachelor’s degree from Lewis University. He lived for several years in the honors dormitory of the now-shuttered Joliet Correctional Center, the 19th century limestone monolith made famous by deadly riots, appalling living conditions and the 1980 “Blues Brothers” movie.
After years of heavy drinking, Arnold had dried out in prison and gotten a job as a clerk in the vocational school. He also took a paralegal course, which qualified him to work in the correctional center’s law library, and helped other inmates with their appeals.
About a dozen years into his sentence, Arnold petitioned the state parole board for early release and sought clemency from then-Gov. Jim Edgar. In his petition, Arnold expressed deep regret for fatally shooting John Stanisha.
“The petitioner is sorry, but being sorry really doesn’t cut it,” he said. “The petitioner killed an innocent man that did him no harm.”
Laurie Edling holds a photo of her dad, John Stanisha, from 1983, the year he was killed by former Tylenol suspect Roger Arnold. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
Stanisha’s youngest daughter, Laurie Edling, drove to Springfield for one of Arnold’s parole hearings and begged the board to keep her father’s killer behind bars. She even presented a petition of her own, filled with hundreds of signatures of friends, family and complete strangers who opposed his early release.
As she stood before the panel, she thought about every milestone and holiday her father missed since his death:
Her high school and college graduations. Her sisters’ college graduations. Her wedding. A dozen Christmases.
She blamed Arnold for all of it.
The board denied Arnold’s early parole. The governor also rejected his clemency petition.
“That made me feel good at the time,” Edling told the Tribune. “But I will say much later, I thought about it and it doesn’t give me the comfort that it did initially. In many ways, I think I was acting out of grief, but I was acting out of vengeance too.”
Laurie Edling stands in the doorway of Lilly’s bar in September, near where her father, John Stanisha, was fatally shot. Edling once drove to Springfield to plead with a parole board to keep her father’s killer behind bars. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
After her parole board appearance, Edling focused on the things in her life that brought her joy. Her husband, for one. And her son, who has her father’s eyes. And music ― the deep love of folk singers, Pink Floyd and Steely Dan that her father instilled in her.
“As hard and as traumatic as it is, I do have closure,” she said. “More closure than the other families of the (Tylenol) victims. … Forty years and no trial, no clemency, nothing. Just a question mark. And it’s so wrong. It’s so wrong.”
Arnold was released from prison in 1998 after serving roughly half of his 30-year sentence. He moved back to the South Side, found a job at an auto parts store and made a few friends who became his surrogate family.
James Lewis was eligible for release from prison in August 1989 but a federal parole commission kept him in custody. He was not released until 1995. He's shown here with his wife, LeAnn, as he is escorted through Boston's Logan Airport. (Charles Krupa/AP)
Lewis was released on Oct. 13, 1995, after serving about 13 years in prison. He reunited with his wife in Boston, where he began a web design business and started working on a novel.
Roy Lane retired from the FBI in 1996 after 26 years and took a job with U.S. Robotics. When he left the FBI, he was supervisor of the agency’s Chicago public corruption squad and had overseen Operation Silver Shovel, the sting operation in which six city aldermen and a dozen other officials were convicted of taking bribes.
As the millennium came to a close, the Tylenol murders still hadn’t been solved.
And three men who were often at the center of the case had begun new lives.
It wouldn’t be long before their stories intertwined again.
Next week: The case reopens.
Christy Gutowski focuses her work on stories about criminal justice, public corruption and issues that impact the everyday man. A native of the south suburbs, Gutowski received a master's degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield and is a graduate of Southern Illinois University.
Lead Covered Wire Stacy St. Clair joined the Chicago Tribune in 2007. Before that she reported for the Daily Herald, the Dayton Daily News and The Topeka Capital-Journal. She has received numerous national honors for her work. Stacy has a journalism degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, with minors in American politics and Spanish.