It was the night before last that I cursed the Tylenol killer for the seven hundred thousandth time. I had just ripped the plastic wrapper off some hoisin sauce with my one free hand, and turned the bottle bottom up. I started shaking it, but nothing came out. Doh! There was still another foil-and-cardboard seal underneath the spout which had to be removed before any hoisin sauce could be had.

This — and billions of daily frustrations like it worldwide — can all be blamed on the Chicago-area Tylenol killer, who has never been caught.

Younger people do not even remember the days when you could simply open any bottle or box of anything without first solving a complicated series of challenges, but there was such a time. And then, in the autumn of 1982, people started dropping dead in Chicagoland. Someone has been poisoning Tylenol capsules with potassium cyanide.

Amy was babysitting for a mother who liked to stay out until dawn, so I sat with her and we watched the news as Mayor Jane Byrne, the Chicago police, and Johnson & Johnson all grappled with the seven murders. A Chicago Reader story recalls the exact night I remember:

Officials focused first on removing Tylenol from store shelves and recalling bottles from buyers. Mayor Jane Byrne called for the removal of all Tylenol products from Chicago during a dramatic press conference late on the night Paula Prince was discovered dead. The briefing, beamed nationwide, stoked a panic that soon became global.

The chaos of those days is also noted in Wikipedia: “Urgent warnings were broadcast, and police drove through Chicago neighborhoods issuing warnings over loudspeakers.” Great significance was attached to the fact that backwards, the name Tylenol spells “lonely T.”

Since then, 26 years of plastic wrappers and product safety foil seals have passed — until today, when a Chicago Tribune story reports some new activity in the FBI investigation.

It’s too early to know whether anything will finally result from this. Authorities have identified individuals in other incidents — like the 2001 anthrax attacks — ultimately producing nothing more than the awkward phrase “person of interest.”

In the Tylenol case, according to the Sun-Times, “Sources say an investigation into James William Lewis is under way in Chicago and one of the search warrants was executed at his home in Cambridge, Mass, outside Boston.”

The story also mentions that James W. Lewis operates “a data processing business out of his home called Cyberlewis,” so of course I Googled that, producing There, in obvious response to the suspicions, is a link labeled Tylenol, which permits us to hear Lewis “yammer.”

The website includes a gallery labeled “Moni,” a future home for drawings, and what promises to be an “an hour and eleven minute audio diary” made while jogging in Chicago in September 2007 — but that link is bad. Elsewhere on the site, James Wm. Lewis writes about “My Fears of Scapegoating.”

Jim Lewis can even be seen on YouTube. He appeared in 2007 on Roger Nicholson‘s “The Cambridge Rag” show on Cambridge Community Television — CCTV’s BeLive channel — to talk about being labeled “The Tylenol Man.” I have grouped that four-part interview into one playlist, and placed Part 1 at the top of this blog entry.

That community access host, Roger Nicholson, was interviewed today on Boston’s WBZ Newsradio 1030, and spoke about his contacts with Lewis. His impression is that “If he didn’t kill people with Tylenol, he definitely killed somebody, because you could just see this– he’s got a seething rage inside of him, and I caught a flash of that more than one time.”

For an in-depth profile of James Lewis and the story of the Tylenol killings, see Joy Bergmann’s Chicago Reader cover story from November 3, 2000. It is long and comprehensive, providing no conclusions, just a lot of food for thought — for example the 25 days that passed between the time Lewis moved to New York and the the first Tylenol victim died in a Chicago suburb. Another full summary of the case online is in the truTV Crime Library, called “The Tylenol Terrorist.”

(Update: That Chicago Reader story cites a number of interviews with James Lewis by WBBM-TV’s Mike Parker. Tonight on the 10:00 p.m. newscast, Parker mentioned that a “special vault” containing the station’s past coverage has been created at their website.)

I realize that product safety seals are for our own good, and are here to stay no matter what, but it would be nice to have this mystery solved.

According to ABC7’s Chuck Goudie, “Lewis was apparently seen late Wednesday afternoon being taken away by authorities.”

Boston’s WBZ-TV has more about the search at Lewis’ Cambridge apartment, and the Chicago FBI released a media advisory today acknowledging their ongoing investigation.

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