Saturday, 2:15 PM
Authorities search home of former suspect in Tylenol killings
By Jonathan Saltzman, John R. Ellement, and Milton Valencia, Globe Staff
CAMBRIDGE -- FBI agents and State Police investigators today searched a Cambridge condominium that is the longtime home of a leading suspect in the 1982 deaths of seven people from cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules in the Chicago area, one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in the last generation.
James W. Lewis in 1995 (AP Photo)
The first-floor condominium belongs to James W. Lewis, 62, of 170 Gore St., who spent 12 years in federal prison for trying to extort $1 million from the painkiller's manufacturers but was never charged in the killings. The authorities spent most of the day inside the six-story brick building and also searched a storage facility at an undisclosed location in the city.
The Chicago office of the FBI said in a statement late today that agents, the Illinois State Police, and several local police departments were "conducting a complete review of all evidence developed in connection with the 1982 Tylenol murders," which prompted dramatic changes in the way almost all food and medical products are packaged.
"This review was prompted, in part, by the recent 25th anniversary of this crime and the resulting publicity," the statement said, adding that the anniversary had led to numerous tips to police. "Further, given the many recent advances in forensic technology, it was only natural that a second look be taken at the case and recovered evidence."
FBI agents from Boston and Chicago tonight removed five boxes covered in evidence tape and a late-model MacIntosh computer from the condominium. They would not comment on the contents of the boxes.
Lewis has lived at the complex, three buildings with 100 units, since around 1995, when he was freed from prison. Messages left on his phone went unreturned today. There were conflicting reports from neighbors about whether he was home.
The seven victims of cyanide-tainted Extra-Strength Tylenol -- four women, two men, and a 12-year-old girl -- died in 1982 after taking capsules that had been purchased from drug stores and groceries in the Chicago area. Someone had opened the capsules and replaced some of the acetaminophen with cyanide and returned them to the shelves.
The killer was never identified, but the murders caused widespread panic and led to tamper-resistant wrappings becoming the norm on food and medical products.
Lewis, an out-of-work accountant at the time of the killings, was widely described as a prime suspect. But he insisted he had nothing to do with the murders and said he was living in New York City at the time.
He was sentenced to prison in June 1983 for demanding $1 million from Johnson & Johnson, parent of Tylenol manufacturer McNeil Consumer Products Co., "to stop the killing." Johnson & Johnson was his wife's former employer. He admitted sending the letter demanding the money but said he never meant to collect it.
After he was freed from prison, he moved into the Gore Street condominium with his wife, Leann Lewis. He is listed as a partner in a Web design and programming company called Cyberlewis. On the firm's website, Lewis has a tab labeled "Tylenol" with a written message and an audio link in which a voice refers to himself as "Tylenol Man."
He also posted a message on the website in 2007, the 25th anniversary of the killings, in which he criticized being labeled the prime suspect.
"In a quarter of a century I have not been able to escape the Tylenol Man label," he wrote. "A Google search of 'James+Lewis+Tylenol' yields over 240,000 documents, and the list is growing. After twenty-five years of cringing in fear, I am tired of hiding in silence. I will not run and hide any more. I will now face this controversy head on."
Several neighbors at Lewis's condominium complex said yesterday that he is known around the building as "The Tylenol Man" and described him as a tall, thin man who jogged often and had a computer programming business. They said he seemed odd, often carried a suitcase, and recently lost a lot of weight.
Colleen Bryant, a resident of the complex, described him as "a completely unremarkable-looking man. He probably seems perfectly normal, but everybody knows who he is."
In 2004, Lewis was arrested on charges of rape, kidnapping, and other offenses for an attack on a woman in the apartment building. But prosecutors dropped the charges the day the trial was to start in July 2007 -- after he had been jailed for three years -- when the victim refused to testify, according to the district attorney's office.
Lewis was also charged in 1978 with the murder of Raymond West, an elderly former client of Lewis's accounting business, in Kansas City, Mo. West's body had been cut up, stuffed in a plastic bag, and hoisted to an attic ceiling in West's home.
Charges were dismissed after a judge ruled that Lewis's arrest and a search of his home were improperly conducted.
In 2007 in Cambridge, Lewis was interviewed several times by Roger Nicholson, who calls himself an “ambush journalist” and hosts The Cambridge Rag, a local access television show. One of the interviews is available online. When questioned on the the Tylenol and West cases, Lewis denied committing any crimes and refused Nicholson’s request to take a lie detector test.
Today, Nicholson, who lives in Cambridge, said he developed a rapport with Lewis and described him as extremely smart yet paranoid and sometimes delusional. Lewis stayed at Nicholson's house for several days in 2007, Nicholson said.
Lewis and his wife had an online accounting business, dimesworth.com, and were honored by the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, said Nicholson.
Nicholson said he did not know why the FBI would have a renewed interest in Lewis. He said he did know that Lewis kept a collection of what Nicholson called ``souvenirs'' about the Tylenol killings, including FBI documents. Lewis promised to show him the collection, which he kept in a chest, but never did, Nicholson said.
Nicholson said he has not been interviewed by the FBI.