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'Tylenol Man' cast as offbeat, angry intellect

Forensic advances enable Chicago police to reopen case

February 6, 2009
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This report was reported by Jonathan Saltzman, John Ellement, and Milton Valencia of the Globe staff and written by Saltzman.

Twenty-five years after the deaths of seven people in the Chicago area from cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules, James W. Lewis met a local journalist at a Cambridge diner in 2007 and discussed what he characterized as the unbearable burden of going through life under suspicion for committing the murders.

"I can tell you, it is a big weight to have thrown at you, and it is nothing that your mother prepares you for, and it is not something that you learn about in school," Lewis told Neil W. McCabe, who published a story based on the interview in the now defunct newspaper The Alewife.

During the 14 years he has lived in Cambridge, Lewis railed against the label of Tylenol Man, but also freely spoke about an extortion letter he sent demanding $1 million to the painkiller's parent company "to stop the killing," according to McCabe and others who encountered Lewis after he was released from prison in 1995.

Through interviews and court papers from a 2004 rape charge against Lewis, a portrait began to emerge of an intelligent man, a specialist in an obscure computer language who dabbled in painting and photography, but who was also angry. He railed against what he considered abuses by the criminal justice system, organized religion, and banks.

"He's an intense man with an intense stare, and I found myself fumbling to talk to him, and it was almost like he was . . . jamming my brain," McCabe said.

Lewis - who served 12 years in federal prison after he was convicted in 1983 of trying to extort the painkiller's manufacturers, but was never charged in the killings - is once again the target of scrutiny in one of the nation's most notorious unsolved cases.

Yesterday, an FBI spokesman in Chicago said that advances in forensic technology, including DNA evidence, had rekindled the investigation. Investigators searching his Cambridge condominium Wednesday were seen carrying out five boxes and a late-model MacIntosh computer.

"As you can imagine if you were at the search scene, there's a lot of evidence that has to be gone through, a lot of tests that have to take place, and we don't know if it's going to be positive," said the spokesman, Ross Rice.

Investigators had also obtained a warrant to search an unidentified storage facility nearby that Lewis, 62, had rented, according to Rice. A police officer from Arlington Heights, Ill., where three of the slayings occurred, was dispatched to Boston, the Associated Press reported yesterday.

Rice said that police from the Chicago area who investigated the murders still have capsules recovered as evidence. It might be possible to find traces of DNA on them, he said.

Since the search, no one has answered the door or phone at the condominium Lewis shares with his wife, LeAnn.

McCabe said yesterday that during his interview with Lewis, he dismissed his attempted extortion of Tylenol manufacturer McNeil Consumer Products Co. as "just the acts of a young man who didn't understand what buttons he was pressing," McCabe recalled.

At the time of that interview, Lewis had been recently released after almost three years in jail awaiting trial on charges that he raped a woman in his apartment in July 2004. Prosecutors dropped the charges in July 2007 when the victim refused to testify, according to the Middlesex district attorney's office.

According to documents filed by Middlesex prosecutors in Superior Court and examined by the Globe yesterday, Lewis allegedly dragged a woman who was his neighbor and a partner in a website design business into his apartment. Prosecutors alleged that over the next 24 hours, he kept her lashed to a bed covered with a plastic tarp, sexually assaulted her, and vowed to kill her.

The woman was released and fled to her apartment, where her father found her with bruises on her body, wrists, and ankles, according to court records.

Although Lewis was represented at various times by four lawyers, he ultimately defended himself in 2006, writing two motions.

Lewis was also charged in 1978 in the death of an elderly former client of his accounting business in Kansas City, Mo. Charges were dismissed after a judge ruled that Lewis's arrest and a search of his home were improperly conducted.

Roger Nicholson - who hosts "The Cambridge Rag," a local-access television show - also interviewed Lewis and said he found the man "highly intelligent, very knowledgeable about facts and science."

At one point, Nicholson said, he allowed Lewis to sleep at his apartment for a few days because Lewis told him he had separated from his wife and was sleeping along the Charles River.

In 2007, Lewis wrote on his website that he was sick of being branded The Tylenol Man. "I fear being arrested again on false charges," he wrote.

Through the years, Lewis seemed to flirt with law enforcement officials about the case.

Jeremy Margolis, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago who prosecuted the extortion case, met with Lewis multiple times while he was serving his prison sentence.

"In general, what he did was talk about his speculation of how the Tylenol killings might have taken place and why," Margolis said yesterday. "He drew a number of sketches, presented us with a volume of manuscripts, written work, and we had hours and hours of conversation."

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