‘Painkiller’ docuseries a valuable reminder of the 1982 Tylenol murders’ toll

Sobering, at times heartbreaking report on Paramount+ honors the 7 Chicago area people poisoned in cruel, still unsolved attack.

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Chicago City Health Department employees test Tylenol capsules for cyanide at a city laboratory on Oct. 4, 1982.

Chicago City Health Department employees test Tylenol capsules for cyanide at a city laboratory on Oct. 4, 1982.

Charlie Knoblock/AP

The breakable plastic ring on water bottles and containers of milk. The plastic “shrink bands” around pickle jars and eye droppers. The lidding film over your container of yogurt. The induction seals, aka the lid underneath the lid, you have to peel back when you open a can of chips or a half-gallon of orange juice.

Or a bottle of Tylenol.

Hardly a day goes by when we don’t encounter some sort of tamper-evident packaging, and for anyone under 50, it’s pretty much always been a part of life — a part of life we almost never stop to ponder, unless it’s to curse the minor inconvenience. It’s just what we do. But if you’re a true-crime buff or a student of Chicago history or you’re old enough to remember the Tylenol Murders that shook the area to its core and made national and international news in the fall of 1982, you know there was a time when such safety measures were essentially non-existent, when someone could lace capsules of Extra Strength Tylenol with cyanide and place the boxes on random shelves in the Chicago area, an act of unspeakable monstrosity that left seven innocent people dead.

‘Painkiller: The Tylenol Murders’


A five-part docuseries available Tuesday on Paramount+

In the well-researched, thoroughly reported, sobering and at times heartbreaking five-part docuseries “Painkiller: The Tylenol Murders” premiering Tuesday on Paramount+, WBBM Films/CBS Chicago and See It Now studios revisit the tragic events that took place more than 40 years ago, expertly weaving archival footage with new interviews with a handful of witnesses and family members whose lives were greatly and forever impacted by killings. While the case remains open, the series leaves little doubt who most investigators and many journalists believe was the murderer. (It’s a name known to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the case.)

“Painkiller” does an impressive job of laying out the story in a way that will jog the memories of those of who were in Chicago in 1982 and are old enough to remember the chilling and shocking news, and viewers who might have at best a passing familiarity with the case. The premiere episode establishes the period-piece tone, as we see clips from 1982, including Frank Sinatra singing “My Kind of Town” at Chicagofest on Navy Pier. We hear the story of the Janus family, who lost three members, each of whom took Tylenols from a single bottle. On Sept. 29, 1982, 27-year-old postal worker Adam Janus was rushed to Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, where he was pronounced dead at 3:15 p.m. Even though Adam was a healthy young man with no known heart problems, doctors logically assumed he had died of a heart attack.

Stanley Janus and wife Theresa Janus both were killed by contaminated Tylenol.

Stanley Janus and wife Theresa Janus both were killed by contaminated Tylenol.

Sun-Times file

Charles Kramer, an Arlington Heights Fire Department lieutenant at the time, remembers being called to Adam’s home where the extended Janus family had gathered, including Adam’s 25-year-old brother, Stanley, and Stanley’s 19-year-old wife, Theresa. “There was a young man … on the floor. … This is Stanley. The paramedics were working on him. … A young girl came up, she was hysterical, her newlywed husband was on the floor … and she was grabbing onto my arm, and the next thing I knew, she groaned and collapsed right next to me …”

Stanley died that day. Theresa died two days later.

Retired nurse Helen Jensen, now 85, recalls, “The only commonality between these three people was Tylenol.” Six pills were missing, three people were dead. Jensen took it upon herself to play detective, finding a receipt for the bottle of Tylenol in the garbage. She went to the emergency room and presented the evidence to police and the medical examiner, and says, “They laughed at me. … These dumb young men who don’t know beans from apple butter. … I said this is it, this is what is causing these people to die. They’re not going to listen to me, I’m a nurse, a woman.”

When it was learned 12-year-old Mary Kellerman from Elk Grove Village had died earlier that morning after taking an Extra Strength Tylenol, the connection was undeniable and shocking. Over the next few days 35-year-old Mary McFarland of Elmhurst, 35-year-old Paula Prince of Old Town and 27-year-old Mary Weiner of Winfield died suddenly after taking Tylenol.

“This was a stone-cold mystery,” says retired WBBM-TV producer Ed Marshall. “It was a terrifying moment.”

Over the course of the five-episode run, we hear from former and current law enforcement personnel involved in the investigation, as well as iconic Chicago media figures such as John “Bulldog” Drummond and Chinta Strausberg as they recall the investigation. In present day, reporter Brad Edwards tries to track down James Lewis, who was convicted of extortion after he sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson, demanding $1 million to stop the killings, but was never charged with the deaths of the seven victims. (The search takes place before Lewis died last July at 71.) A handful of other suspects were in play, but investigators always came back to Lewis, who steadfastly maintained his innocence in the actual killings.

Isabel Janus, 13, reads a report on “Painkiller” about the crime that killed her aunt and two great uncles.

Isabel Janus, 13, reads a report on “Painkiller” about the crime that killed her aunt and two great uncles.

WBBM/Courtesy of Paramount+

“Painkiller: The Tylenol Murders” serves as a valuable piece of solid, fact-based journalism, but it’s also a moving reminder of how these utterly random and terribly cruel crimes robbed seven good people of their lives and caused heartbreak for hundreds of loved ones. An incredibly impressive Isabel Janus, who is just 13 and lost her aunt and two great uncles, reads from a report she has written, saying, “The world now has new packaging [and] safety seals for protection. … I will continue to try to find answers to this horrible tragedy. I truly believe that justice will be done, if not in this lifetime, then in the next. In loving memory of Adam Janus, Stanley Janus and Theresa Janus.”

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