IRL Mysteries: The Mystery Behind That Annoying Tamper-Resistant Packaging

by Kassandra Lamb

You know what I’m talking about – those frustrating, multiple layers of plastic, foil, paper, and/or cotton that keep you from the pill that will wipe out your headache, calm your anxiety or dry up your allergy-produced drippy nose.

Pills weren’t always distributed that way. Here’s the in-real-life (IRL) mystery behind tamper-resistant packaging, which is still unsolved to this day.

In 1982, seven people died mysteriously. Three were in one family, but the rest were scattered around the Chicago metro area. Other than the family members, there was no connection between the victims.

The Investigation

The mystery behind tamper-resistant packaging
Photo by Amanda Jones on Unsplash

The police quickly discovered that they had all taken Tylenol® shortly before their deaths. The capsules were tested and were found to contain potassium cyanide, along with the actual medication.

Someone had tampered with the drug, with no particular victim in mind and for no apparent motive. The hardest type of crime to solve.

In the next few days, there were several copycat tamperings and more people died.

The drug’s manufacturer, Johnson and Johnson®, determined that the contamination was not happening at their plant, but nonetheless they immediately implemented a massive recall. Investigators soon decided that the tampering had happened in the stores.

The Response

So Johnson and Johnson came out with the first tamper-resistant packaging. Their quick response to the crisis saved their company, and also saved many, many lives since then, as such packaging soon became the norm.

Some of the copycat tamperers were caught, but the one who started the whole mess was never found.

The police thought they had their man when James W. Lewis sent a letter to Johnson and Johnson demanding a million dollars to stop the killing. He was convicted of extortion, but there was no evidence that he had actually done the tampering. He had just taken advantage of the situation.

Other leads were pursued but no culprit was ever definitively identified, and the Tylenol-tampering murders remain unsolved today.

So the next time you are cussing at that pill-bottle you can’t get open, remember this mystery behind that tamper-resistant packaging.

It’s there for a good reason.

To read more about this case and Johnson and Johnson’s response to it, see this article in The New York Times.

This is the first in a new series here on misterio press, regarding IRL mysteries that remain unsolved. In some ways, it’s a rather grim topic, but we are mystery writers after all, so we find such things interesting. We hope you do as well.

Are you old enough to remember the Tylenol-tampering in the 1980s? Do you know of any other in-real-life mysteries?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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  • Reply
    Vinnie Hansen
    February 25, 2020 at 5:43 pm

    I love our new series! Yes, I am old enough to remember the Tylenol case, but I surprised to learn they never caught the bad guy. But then, if they had, I guess it wouldn’t be an IRL mystery, would it? 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      March 2, 2020 at 6:14 pm

      Glad you like the idea, Vinnie. I didn’t know the Tylenol tamperer was never caught either.

      Let me know if you stumble over any unsolved IRL mysteries we can use.

  • Reply
    Shannon Esposito
    February 27, 2020 at 3:06 pm

    I sort of remember it. I didn’t know the orginal perpetrator was never caught! They would never get away with that now, with all the security cameras.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      March 2, 2020 at 6:12 pm

      True! Seems a shame we have to be constantly “under surveillance” now, to keep people from doing stuff like this.

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