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The Mysterious Poisoned Pill Murders

What happened in Chicago?

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On September 29, 1982, seven people in the Chicago area ingested poisonous pills, consequently collapsing and dying. The events surrounding these deaths sparked a media circus about how this was even possible:

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The last three were all from the same family. Adam Janus collapsed and was rushed to the hospital where he died. When the family returned home to mourn, Adam's brother and his wife, Theresa, took the same medication resulting in both of their deaths.

That night, Cook County Investigator, Nick Pishos compared the Janus' pill bottle to another victim, Mary Kellerman's bottle. Pishos noticed that the bottles shared the same control number, "MC2880."

Deputy Medical Examiner, Edmund Donoghue, told Pishos to smell each bottle; both bottles smelled like almonds. It is said that cyanide smells like bitter almonds to 20-40% of the population.

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Exposure to cyanide can lead to seizures, cardiac arrest, and respiratory failure.

Later that night, McNeil Consumer Products, the subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson recalled over 31 million bottles and issued warnings. They also offered to replace recalled bottles with new bottles and offered a $100,000 reward to anyone with information.

By October 5th, The US Attorney General, as well as the FBI, were on the case. It's estimated that newspapers ran over 100,000 separate articles about the incident.

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A nationwide panic ensued. People who believed they might have been poisoned overwhelmed hospitals and poison control centers. The CPD went throughout the city warning people.

One fact that baffled police initially was that all the victims had bought their medication from different stores. Not only that, but those stores got their pills from different production plants.

Labs were set up and capsules began to come through for testing. 50 capsules were found to contain Cyanide across 8 bottles. 5 of the bottles belonged to the victims, 2 were sent back in the recall, and one was found sitting on a shelf still unsold. There were no fingerprints or physical evidence showing the killers trail in the stores.

Surveillance cameras were not as common then and investigators explored the possibility of it being a crime with the intent on tanking Johnson & Johnson's stock.

Investigators questioned disgruntled employees, shoplifters who had been caught at the drugstores where the poisoned pills were found, and people who were just released from prisons or psychiatric facilities. The police even publicized the victim's funerals hoping the killer would show up at one of them.

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Eventually, police reached the theory that the person who did this visited each store, purchased the bottle, planted the potassium cyanide in the capsules, placed those pills back in the bottle, and then returned them to the store.

Investigators determined that the murderer placed the deadly pills in the stores September 28th, one day before the deaths occurred. Their reasoning was that the cyanide would eventually eat through the capsules and whoever committed the crime would not only have to do it close to when the capsules were purchased and consumed but have to do it in Chicago.

The first suspect was 48-year-old dock worker, Roger Arnold, who said some suspicious things about the murders at a bar one night. When the police questioned him and searched his home, they found several interesting connections.

The first was that he worked at the same store as the father of one of the victims, Mary Reiner. According to the New York Times, the convenience store Reiner bought her fatal pills at was right across the street from where Arnold's wife's psychiatric ward was located.

Crime manuals, beakers, other chemistry equipment, and a bag of powder were found in Arnold's home. The powder was tested and it turned out to be Potassium Carbonate not Cyanide.

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Arnold refused to take a lie detector test and the police never found enough evidence to prosecute him.

A year later, Arnold shot John Stanisha outside of a bar because he was under the impression that Stanisha turned him into the police for his suspicious comments at the bar. Stanisha died and Arnold was sentenced to 30 years but got out early on parole.

The second suspect was Theodore J. Kaczynski also known as "The Unabomber." Once a brilliant mathematician, he's currently serving life in prison for killing 3 people and wounding 23 others with bombs sent through the mail.

His first connection was that he was an Illinois native. However, one death that is not official was in Sheridan, Wyoming which occurred two months before the killings in Chicago.

Sheridan, Wyoming was on the way to Kaczynski's cabin in Montana where he lived at the time of the killings. All Kaczynski's victims had connections to wood. He would often use return addresses and pseudonyms involving types of wood.

In 2009, the FBI requested a DNA sampling from Kaczynski. Kaczynski wrote that he was willing to provide the sample as long as the courts didn't allow the United States to conduct an auction of his belongings.

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His reasoning: "...Even on the assumption that the FBI is entirely honest (an assumption I'm unwilling to make), partial DNA profiles can throw suspicion on persons who are entirely innocent. For example, such profiles can show that 5%, or 3%, or 1% of Americans have the same partial profile as the person who committed a certain crime."

He then went on to say:

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Kaczynski believed that the items up for auction may be crucial in proving he never owned Potassium Cyanide. Regardless, the auction went forward as planned and Kaczynski declined to give his DNA voluntarily.

The third and prime suspect was James Lewis. One week after the first deaths, Johnson & Johnson received a copy of a handwritten letter with Lewis’ fingerprints.

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The letter read: "Gentlemen, as you can see, it is easy to place cyanide (both potassium & sodium) into capsules sitting on store shelves. And since the cyanide is inside the gelatin, it is easy to get buyers to swallow the bitter pill. Another beauty is that cyanide operates quickly. It takes so very little. And there will be no time to take countermeasures. If you don't mind the publicity of these little capsules, then do nothing. So far, I have spent less than fifty dollars and it takes me less than 10 minutes per bottle. If you want to stop the killing then wire $1,000,000,000 to bank account # 84-49-597 at Continental Illinois Bank Chicago, IL. Don't attempt to involve the FBI or local Chicago authorities with this letter. A couple of phone calls by me will undo anything you can possibly do."

Strangely, the bank account number listed in the letter did not belong to Lewis. It belonged to Frederick Miller Mccahey. Lewis believed that Mccahey stiffed his wife out of $511 and included his bank account with hopes that it would expose his $511 theft.

When he was 19, he allegedly chased his mother with an axe. In 1966, he was committed to the Missouri State Mental Hospital after taking 36 Anacin pills. There, he was diagnosed with Catatonic Schizophrenia.

In 1981, Lewis was suspected of falsifying credit card applications by using fake addresses and mailboxes. When police searched his home they found enough evidence to arrest him for these particular crimes.

However, the Lewis' bought Amtrak tickets from Chicago to New York City on September 4th, 25 days before the deaths began. If you recall, the killer would have had to plant the cyanide within close proximity of the consumption date and 25 days was too long.

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Some investigators on the original case believed that it could have been possible to fly into Chicago, rent a car, plant the poison and leave Chicago.

Additionally, surveillance from one of the drugstores showed a bearded man who some thought looked like Lewis. There was no positive ID though, and nobody could place him in Chicago shortly before the deaths.

Ultimately, prosecutors never had enough to prosecute Lewis let alone convict him of the murders. However, his letter fiasco did lead him to being convicted of extortion.

He was sentenced to 20 years in prison but served a little less than 13. While in prison though, Lewis was vocal about how someone might go about injecting the capsules with lethal amounts of cyanide.

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He was released in 1995 and him and his wife currently live in Cambridge, MA.

In 2010, Lewis published a book called, Poison! The Doctors Dilemma. He insisted that the book had nothing to do with the murders and regretted sending the police the ransom note.

One positive thing that came from the case was the creation of tamper-proof foil seals. But in the end, nobody knows who the killer was or why he or she did it. What transpired that tragic day in Chicago still baffles people, leaving the mystery...unsolved.

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