The Chicago Tylenol Murders: 30 years later

September 28, 2012

Tricia Bobeda

(Flickr/Katy Warner)
The deaths spurred new packaging safeguards for over-the-counter medications.

Thirty years ago today, the Chicago Tylenol Murders shocked the nation.

Seven Chicago area residents died from taking poison hidden in Tylenol capsules. 

Richard Keyworth was a firefighter in Elk Grove and one of the first investigators on the case.

“It scared people because it broke their trust,” Keyworth said. “You get to know there are bad people in the world.”

Keyworth said investigators quickly realized the poison was hidden in bottles of Tylenol.

But no one knew how it got there or how many people were at risk.

Johnson & Johnson yanked Tylenol out of stores nationwide in a panic.

“There was a feeling of helplessness,” Keyworth said. “And Tylenol was the medication for everything. If you can’t trust that, what can you trust?”

Richard Keyworth said 30 years ago, there was nothing to stop someone from tampering with the contents of a bottle of over-the-counter medicine.

“You’d pop the cap off and there was the pills,” he said. “And back then they were capsules. And you’d take the capsules apart and all the little balls of medication would roll out.”

Within a year of the poisonings, the FDA required new safeguards and Congress passed a federal anti-tampering law.

The FDA also banned companies from selling over-the-counter drugs in capsule format. Medicine now has to be sealed into gel caps or in tablet form.

The poisonings were the catalyst for all the shrink wrap and safety seals on over-the-counter drugs today.

No one was ever charged with the Tylenol murders.

The FBI reopened the case recently and is re-examining DNA evidence with new technology.

Roselle pharmacist Mark Mandell was finishing up pharmacy school in Chicago when the Tylenol murder story broke in 1982.

He said for a while, some people were scared to take just about any medication.

“You really had to try to reassure people,” Mandell said. “But how confident were you as an individual? Because no one knew. It was unknown who the attacker was, what the motive was, and it was out there.”

Mandell said there shouldn’t be any confusion now about how to handle a product with a broken seal.

“Now they’re pretty definitive. It’s sort of in your face,” he said. “You know, if anything appears wrong, don’t use it.”

Over time, Tylenol bounced back to its status as a household name.

O.C. Ferrell is a marketing ethics professor at the University of New Mexico.

He said rebuilding the brand was no easy task, and Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol case is still considered textbook crisis management.

“I would say we view them as kind of a role model of what you do when something goes wrong,” Ferrell said. “At a point like this you take a long term view and your shareholders probably are not going to be the immediate concern if you’re a good company like they were in making this recall. You’ve got to say - if we don’t protect the brand name and our integrity of our reputation, then nothing will matter in the long run.”

Johnson & Johnson declined to comment for this story.