THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Suspect in ’82 Tylenol case appears at hearing

May have to provide fingerprints, DNA

James W. Lewis in court in Kansas City, Mo., in 1984. He reportedly sees himself as a “huge victim’’ in the Tylenol case. James W. Lewis in court in Kansas City, Mo., in 1984. He reportedly sees himself as a “huge victim’’ in the Tylenol case. (Keith Myers/Kansas City Star via Associated Press/File)
By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / January 8, 2010

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A leading suspect in the 1982 deaths of seven people from cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules in the Chicago area attended a closed hearing along with his wife in a Woburn courtroom this week to determine whether the couple must provide fingerprints and DNA samples to authorities, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the case.

James W. Lewis of Cambridge and his wife, LeAnn, appeared before a Middlesex Superior Court judge Wednesday morning at a hearing attended by FBI agents and local police, said the law enforcement official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The hearing was first reported Wednesday on the website of the Somerville News and Cambridge News Weekly.

It marked one of the first known recent developments in the investigation of the notorious case, which authorities rekindled a year ago as a result of advances in forensic technology, including DNA evidence.

The official who confirmed the hearing did not know whether the presiding judge, who was not identified, ordered the couple to comply with grand jury subpoenas and provide their fingerprints and DNA samples. No one has been charged.

David E. Meier, a Boston criminal defense lawyer representing the 63-year-old Lewis, declined to confirm that the hearing took place.

“Proceedings such as that reported by the Somerville News, to the extent that they occur, are supposed to be secret precisely to protect the reputations of innocent people like James Lewis and his wife,’’ said Meier, the former longtime head of the homicide unit of the Suffolk district attorney’s office. “To comment further would be irresponsible, unprofessional, and unethical.’’

Ross Rice, an FBI spokesman in Chicago who last February confirmed that the bureau, Illinois State Police, and other police departments were reexamining evidence in the case, said yesterday that he had “no personal knowledge’’ of grand jury subpoenas issued to the Lewises.

Although the FBI is coordinating the renewed investigation of the unsolved slayings, he said, any possible murder charges would be brought by the state of Illinois, not the federal government, because the killings predated federal antitampering laws.

Spokesmen for state prosecutors in Cook and DuPage counties in Illinois, where the seven killings occurred, said the case remains open, but declined to say whether grand juries there had been convened.

Jessica Venezia, a spokeswoman for Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr., referred all questions to the FBI.

The Lewises did not return phone calls to their Cambridge condominium or answer the door. Last Feb. 4, FBI agents and State Police investigators searched the home for evidence and were seen carrying out five boxes and a Macintosh computer.

Roger Nicholson, a self-described “gonzo journalist’’ who interviewed Lewis in 2007 on The Cambridge Rag, a local access television show, said yesterday that Lewis got in touch with him again after authorities rekindled the investigation and complained that they were pursuing him.

Lewis insisted that he did not kill anyone but said, “They’re just going to keep coming after me,’’ said Nicholson, 38, who added that Lewis regards himself as a “huge victim.’’

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 drugstores and grocery stores in the Chicago area. Someone had opened the capsules, replaced some of the acetaminophen with cyanide, and returned them to the shelves.

The killer was never identified, but the deaths caused widespread panic and led to use of tamper-resistant wrappings on food and medical products.

Lewis, an unemployed accountant at the time of the killings, was widely described as a prime suspect. He consistently said he had nothing to do with the product tampering and said he was living in New York City at the time.

Lewis 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. Lewis admitted sending the letter demanding money, but said he never meant to collect it.

In 2004, he was arrested on charges of rape, kidnapping, and other offenses in an alleged attack on a woman in his Cambridge apartment.

After he had been jailed for three years, prosecutors dropped the charges the day Lewis’s trial was supposed to start in July 2007 when the victim refused to testify, according to Middlesex prosecutors.

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.