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Troubled Tax Preparer Suspected of 1980s Tylenol Murders, Tax Crimes Is Dead

Troubled Tax Preparer Suspected of 1980s Tylenol Murders, Tax Crimes Is Dead

James W. Lewis, a tax preparer suspected of the infamous 1980s Tylenol murders, died last month in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

In September 1982, seven people died after ingesting Tylenol pills laced with cyanide. The now-notorious situation led Johnson & Johnson, the parent company of Tylenol manufacturer McNeil Consumer Products Company, to recall 31 million bottles of the over-the-counter medication.

Despite decades of investigation, no one was ever charged in the killings, but leads have continually pointed to Lewis, though he denied involvement throughout his life.

Credit: Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

According to a new Forbes report, Lewis's name was first aligned with the investigation when he sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson on October 1, 1982. In it, he stated he would “stop the killing” if the brand paid him $1 million. He signed the letter with the pseudonym "James Richardson.”

Lewis was arrested but denied actual involvement in the murders. He was convicted of extortion in 1983 as a result.

The next year, Lewis was handed a ten-year federal prison sentence ordered to run consecutively to two other concurrent sentences. His federal crimes included tax fraud.

Forbes notes that Lewis, a habitual offender, was already in prison for six counts of mail fraud involving his tax clients at the time of his sentencing. Lewis used personal information from his tax preparation clients to apply for credit cards without their knowledge or consent. The crooked tax preparer used unused rural addresses on the applications, then installed mail boxes at those locations in order to receive the credit cards.

Prior to the murders, in 1981, Lewis's home -- where he ran his tax business, Lewis & Lewis, with his wife —was raided by authorities. Investigators found the residence packed to the brim with loose papers, phone books, and "two large loose-leaf binders with instructions on committing various crimes, including how to disguise handwriting and commit travel agency fraud."

In a 2022 Chicago Tribune series about the murders, U.S. Postal Inspector Richard Shollenberger said, “It was almost like the kind of place where a pack rat would live. There was so much stuff, you could hardly walk through a room without bumping into something."

"It was surprising someone could run a business out of a house that had that much of a mess," he remarked.

Credit: Sandy Huffaker/Stringer

While it may initially seem odd for a man previously convicted of white-collar tax crimes to suddenly involve himself in a murder investigation, it's worth noting that Lewis had a violent past.

In 1978, he was charged with the murder of Raymond West, one of his tax clients. Per the Forbes report, West’s dismembered body was discovered in his own attic on the day Lewis tried to cash a $5,000 check from the deceased's account. However, Lewis never faced trial for the murder. It was dismissed in 1979 as the result of "procedural issues." In 2007, Kansas City authorities shot down attempts to reopen West's murder case.

Prior to that situation, it is alleged that Lewis attacked his adoptive mother with an axe. He voluntarily committed himself to a state mental institution in 1966 but was later released.

PBS outlined the string of Tylenol-related deaths, which began with Mary Kellerman, a 12-year-old girl from the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove Village. Kellerman told her parents she was suffering from a runny nose and sore throat, so they gave her a single extra-strength Tylenol capsule. By 7 a.m. that morning, the young girl had died. by 7 a.m. 

The same day, Adam Janus, a 27-year-old postal worker who lived in another Chicago suburb, Arlington Heights, passed away. Janus's death was originally ruled a massive heart attack, but was also ultimately discovered to be cyanide poisoning. Janus's brother and sister-in-law, Stanley, age 25, and Theresa, 19, went to Janus's home to be with loved ones. They each developed headaches from the stress, and took one Tylenol capsule each from the same bottle that had killed Adam. 

Stanley died later that day, while Theresa passed by the following afternoon.

Over the subsequent 72 hours, 35-year-old Mary McFarland of Elmhurst, Illinois, 35-year-old Paula Prince of Chicago, and 27-year-old Mary Weiner of Winfield, Illinois all mysteriously died after taking Tylenol.

ABC 7 Chicago previously spoke to Lewis while he was serving time. He explained to the news network's reporters how a killer would go through a complex process involving a pegboard to fill Tylenol gel capsules with cyanide.

He then, however, denied that he actually did this.

Credit: Justin Sullivan/Staff/Getty Images

NPR reported that Lewis -- who frequently moved around the United States both in and out of the prison system -- had lived briefly in Chicago with his wife in the early 1980s, though the exact dates are unknown.

Upon learning of Lewis's death, which occurred while he was a free man, Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeremy Margolis, who prosecuted the Lewis extortion case, commented, "I was saddened to learn of James Lewis's death. Not because he's dead, but because he didn't die in prison."

Do you believe Lewis was the Tylenol murderer?

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Feature Image Credit: Scott Olson/Staff/Getty Images

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