Several months have passed since the suburban detective made his pitch to the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.
Nothing has come of that January 2022 meeting. The 40-year-old Tylenol murder investigation remains at a standstill.
A long-planned meeting with DuPage prosecutors also was pushed back in the spring.
Investigators express frustration, anger even.
Finally, in late July, officials from both Cook and DuPage gather for a video conference. Members of the Illinois State Police join, as well.
Each participant has a packet of information that authorities use to explain their findings.
And everyone in the meeting is aware of one undeniable truth: There is no physical evidence linking a suspect to the poisonings.
Investigators, however, are prepared should that question arise.
Records show law enforcement has spent the past several years dealing almost entirely with forensic evidence. With absolute certainty, they can say the following:
There are fingerprints. There is DNA.
Records show at least four fingerprints were found during the initial investigation. And, in the decades since, scientific advances have allowed investigators to detect DNA profiles on at least three of the tainted bottles and the capsules inside.
The prints, however, don’t match the prime suspect. And neither does the DNA.
But that’s not a problem, the investigators say. They can account for the differing DNA profiles.
They can do it, in part, by revisiting the earliest days of the Tylenol investigation, a time when evidence was not always handled according to today’s careful standards.
It didn’t take long for the Tylenol murders to become national news.
Within hours of finding cyanide in the capsules that killed three people in the northwest suburbs, the Cook County medical examiner’s office held a news conference on the morning of Sept. 30, 1982, to warn people about the potential poison in their medicine cabinets. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration then cautioned the public against taking the pain reliever in capsule form.
In Illinois, some towns began pulling bottles from the store shelves and sent police officers down the street with bullhorns encouraging people to throw out their Tylenol. Police departments and fire stations began collecting bottles, as well.
“We were getting flooded with calls,” said John Fellmann, an Arlington Heights detective assigned to the case. “We had an absolute tsunami of Tylenol bottles. Our property guy, he couldn’t keep up with it.”
The Tylenol investigation began as a loose collaboration among detectives in Arlington Heights and Elk Grove Village, the towns where the first three deaths were identified. By day’s end, however, tainted capsules would be blamed for two deaths in neighboring DuPage County, broadening both the scope of the investigation and the threat to the public.
Things were chaotic. There was no clear leader. And lives were at risk.
That evening, Illinois Attorney General Ty Fahner sat on a dais listening to stump speeches at the Kane County Republican Organization’s annual dinner.
He needed to be there, no matter how much he hated campaigning. The latest Tribune poll showed he was down by about 20 points in the upcoming election. If Fahner had any chance of keeping his office in November, he had to build enthusiasm among conservative voters in the suburbs.
Or, at the very least, get them to remember his name.
Halfway through the speeches, an aide tapped him on the shoulder and told him he needed to take an important call. Fahner looked at all the power brokers on the platform — U.S. Sen. Charles Percy, Gov. James Thompson, Illinois Secretary of State James Edgar — and shook his head. These other men were all worried about his chances. He couldn’t leave.
“I don’t want to get off here,” he quietly said.
“I think it’s pretty important,” the aide replied.
Fahner stepped off the stage and ducked behind a blue velvet curtain, where a state police officer briefed him. Several people had died within the last day in the Chicago suburbs after ingesting Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide — and the situation needed attention.
The poisonings spanned multiple towns and two counties. Police departments were working the murders in relative isolation, and each county had its own state’s attorney to oversee the case.
The attorney general had no authority to intervene, but Fahner had been an outstanding federal prosecutor, a well-liked director of the state police and an effective leader of major criminal investigations. The Illinois Department of Law Enforcement, now called the Illinois State Police, wanted him to help.
“Nobody knew what to do with (the investigation) because it was all over the place,” Fahner said. “I knew how to organize things.”
Fahner left the dinner immediately and made calls throughout the drive home, taking advantage of his position as a statewide official with access to a car phone, then a relatively rare piece of technology. By the time he reached his house in Evanston, he was the de facto leader of what had quickly become the country’s highest-profile murder case.
The evening marked an important shift in the tragedy, moving from a swiftly solved medical mystery into a massive criminal investigation. Forty years later, these earliest days remain a point of pride for some and a source of frustration for others.
Wherever they stand, everyone wishes they had achieved a different result.
Fahner ordered his staff to work through the night, calling local police, sheriffs, coroners, the FBI, the FDA, prosecutors and public health officials. He also laid the foundation to get Extra-Strength Tylenol off store shelves statewide, going beyond the single batch the pain reliever’s manufacturer had recalled that day.
Over the next several months, Fahner’s task force would do groundbreaking police work, generate 19,000 pages of investigative reports, be accused of playing politics and, ultimately, fail to hold anyone accountable for the murders.
“I stepped off that dais,” Fahner told the Tribune this year. “And it took over my life.”
As Fahner’s team made calls, a DuPage County deputy coroner named Pete Siekmann sat in an office at the Illinois Department of Public Health’s toxicology lab in Chicago and waited to see if the Tylenol capsules taken by Mary “Lynn” Reiner and Mary Sue McFarland were poisoned.
Authorities already considered the women’s deaths to be cyanide related by the time they contacted Fahner during his campaign event. The bottles, however, needed to be tested before they could say with certainty.
Siekmann, who had been working since 8 a.m., believed some capsules were tainted from the first time he laid eyes on them. While acetaminophen — the active ingredient in the top-selling pain reliever — was a fine white powder, these were filled with a grainy, translucent substance.
The results came back positive for cyanide at 1:30 a.m. The death toll now stood at five: Reiner, McFarland, Adam Janus of Arlington Heights, his brother Stanley Janus of Lisle and 12-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village.
Later that morning, Siekmann drove to the northwest suburbs to share what he had learned with a group of law enforcement officials assembled by Fahner’s team.
It was standing room only inside the Arlington Heights Police Department for the first meeting of what would become the Tylenol task force. Every agency imaginable attended, many of them represented by their top leaders. In fact, so many big dogs were present, Fellmann said he couldn’t find a free chair inside his own 60-seat roll call room.
In the years that followed, Fellmann would rise through the ranks of the Arlington Heights Police Department and eventually become police chief of far north suburban Island Lake. But on Oct. 1, 1982, he had been a detective for only a year. His boss assigned him to the Janus murders two days earlier because the department’s more seasoned detectives were working the fatal beating of a homeless man in a local park. He received the assignment by default, and then it became part of a national news story.
It didn’t take long for Fellmann to recognize the pressures and expectations under which the newly formed task force would operate.
“I realized I was in the deep end of the pool,” he said.
Illinois state police and FBI supervisors did most of the talking at that first meeting, several attendees told the Tribune. The FBI’s involvement puzzled some because, as far as anyone knew, the federal agency didn’t have jurisdiction in the case.
As a state crime, murder fell under the purview of local law enforcement. Product tampering would become a crime in 1983 as a result of these murders, but in 1982 there was no federal law against it.
The White House, however, had ordered the FBI to find a way into the case amid growing public panic. Tylenol’s parent company, Johnson & Johnson, also saw its stock price drop after the news about the tainted capsules broke.
“President Reagan wanted the FBI in the investigation,” retired FBI Special Agent Roy Lane Jr. told the Tribune. “And so the Department of Justice just looked up a law and by a little bit of a hook and a crook said the FBI has jurisdiction because of an FDA law (about) truth in labeling.”
The FBI put about three dozen agents on the case, under the premise that the agency needed to determine whether Johnson & Johnson had violated federal law by failing to list potassium cyanide among the active ingredients in Tylenol. Simply put, the feds’ entry into the investigation hinged on the admittedly preposterous notion that the manufacturer intentionally put poison in the pain reliever and then committed a misdemeanor crime by not including it on the label.
The agents didn’t bother to pretend that labeling rules were their true motivation for getting involved.
Among them was Lane, a well-respected federal agent who would help put away all kinds of criminals during his nearly 30-year career, including mob boss Sam Carlisi, former Illinois Gov. Daniel Walker and several Chicago aldermen convicted in Operation Silver Shovel.
The Tylenol case, however, would loom largest over his professional life. Even after he retired from the FBI in 1996, he didn’t let it go.
But on this unseasonably warm October morning, during a separate meeting between the FBI and state police, Lane was one of several investigators who gathered to brainstorm possible motives behind the crime.
“So as we organized, there were about 10, 15 different avenues of investigations to pursue, like disgruntled employees, former employees, lawsuits,” Lane said. “Customers who had a problem, anybody that could make some money out of it.”
In the end, it was decided that the state police would take the lead among the agencies and that investigators would be divided into nearly four dozen teams. Eight of them would be three-member squads composed of a federal agent, a state investigator and a suburban detective from one of the towns where the victims lived or tainted bottles were discovered. Reports would be written in triplicate so each member would get a copy.
In theory, the plan would prevent anyone from griping about being kept out of the loop. In reality, some task force members still accuse their colleagues of secretive behavior 40 years later.
The task force opted to work out of an Illinois state police bunker in Des Plaines, a central location that would be home to a tip line, twice-a-day investigator briefings and news conferences for the scores of reporters camped outside the building.
As everyone left that first meeting Friday morning, DuPage deputy coroner Siekmann, who hadn’t slept in more than 24 hours, looked around the room and wondered how it would all work.
“I thought, well, this is rather impressive,” Siekmann said. “And my next thought was that there are too many cooks in the kitchen.”
The task ahead was difficult. There was little evidence to go on, no inkling of a motive and five people dead.
And that death toll was soon to grow.
On Friday afternoon, doctors removed Stanley Janus’ wife, Terri, from life support. The 20-year-old would be buried alongside her husband and her brother-in-law Adam in a triple funeral made even more heartbreaking when relatives had to pull Terri’s mother off her daughter’s casket before it was lowered into the ground.
And by day’s end, flight attendant Paula Prince’s body would be discovered and tests would show that a Tylenol bottle inside her home contained four cyanide-laced capsules. She would be the seventh — and final — person to die from taking the poisoned medication.
Details about the seven victims, how they obtained the tainted bottles and their final moments were outlined in a confidential police memo obtained by the Tribune. The 18-page investigative summary also provides key evidence, including the names of the three main suspects, during the first seven months of the case.
Written by a high-ranking Illinois state police supervisor in April 1983, the document describes the wide net authorities cast in the hopes of solving the mystery. The Tribune interviewed nearly two dozen members of the task force, many of whom confirmed the report’s veracity and added their own perspective.
“The effort was Herculean,” said Jeremy Margolis, a former U.S. attorney who was assigned to the task force. “We used every single technique available to us. And you had a lot of very experienced, very intelligent, very resourceful people thinking about this all the time, thinking about angles, thinking about ideas, testing them and implementing them wherever we possibly could. … You know, it’s a hackneyed phrase, but we left no stone unturned.”
The task force met each morning at the Des Plaines headquarters to discuss leads and get their assignments. The investigators would then return around 5 p.m. to update everyone on the day’s developments.
FBI agent Shari Kouba, one of the few women on the task force, ran the tips desk. The operation was primarily staffed by female agents who answered phone calls and assessed information while their male counterparts worked in the field. The tip line received more than 6,000 calls within the first few weeks.
The tips were written up on 3×5 index cards. Kouba reviewed each as it came in, deciding which needed a field agent’s attention and which could be placed in a bin with other ludicrous claims. She rarely heard how the tips panned out.
“Only really frivolous things went in that other pile,” she said. “And you know, some agents are better than other agents and can really do a good job. And then there are agents who don’t. Some of those interviews may have gone to an agent who didn’t do a good job.”
Among the earliest priorities was 24-hour surveillance outside the victims’ homes, on the assumption that someone who killed anonymously would want to see the results of their work and might drive by the house. Following the same theory, investigators took pictures of everyone who attended the victims’ funerals and set up time-lapse cameras at grave sites to see if they could capture anyone acting unusual.
“We felt kind of creepy doing it,” retired FBI agent Bob Gibson said of his graveyard duty. “We were looking for somebody that really looked like they didn’t belong. … I don’t think that bore fruit at all.”
Investigators took the funeral guest books and jotted down license plates, then entered names into a newly developed computer program that allowed them to cross-check for anyone attending multiple memorials, according to the state police report. The program went far beyond any database previously used by law enforcement in Illinois. In the first year alone, the task force used it to track more than 35,000 individuals and 15,000 companies contacted as part of the investigation.
Agents interviewed the victims’ families, neighbors, co-workers and friends about any known enemies. Each person underwent a rigorous background check. Relatives, including two who took polygraph tests, were quickly eliminated from suspicion.
Several victims’ families told the Tribune they didn’t hear much from investigators after those initial interviews. Elk Grove Village Detective Michael Severns said investigators were so intent on chasing leads that they at times lost sight of the grieving families.
Severns worked on the case for three days before he realized no one had offered an update to young Mary Kellerman’s grieving parents. Forty years later, it still bothers him.
“So I stopped by the house on the way home, introduced myself and tried to answer any questions they had,” he said. “They had a lot of questions and I didn’t have any answers at all.”
He said Mary’s mother, Jeanna, asked him if she should have noticed that someone had tampered with the bottle. Severns, who had two young children, heard the undeserved guilt in her voice. He told her no, then carried the memory of the Kellermans’ anguish with him for the rest of his time on the task force.
“Every night, I would come home after my kids were in bed,” he said. “And I would wake them up just to say good night, you know?”
Investigators quickly dismissed the possibility that the killer was targeting a single victim and the other bottles were contaminated to make it harder to solve that murder. Authorities were convinced the killer didn’t know any of the victims.
In keeping with that theory, the task force contacted hospitals to ask about anyone treated for poison burns or symptoms, in case the killer became ill or injured during the spree. Investigators pulled library records to see who had checked out books on cyanide. And they talked to veterinarians about any unusual animal poisonings, thinking the murderer may have tested the chemical on pets first.
The task force questioned stock boys, managers, disgruntled former employees and problematic customers at the “hot locations,” the team’s name for the stores that sold the tainted Tylenol. They looked at accused shoplifters, including a man charged with attempting to steal 28 Tylenol bottles from a Wheaton pharmacy in August.
Security cameras were scarce in suburban Chicago in 1982, but investigators checked the images that existed. Most came from a banking service that snapped a photograph of anyone writing a check.
The FBI’s counterintelligence unit even reached out to their Soviet counterparts to see if they had any spy satellite images that could help, according to former FBI agent Grey Steed. The Soviets were willing to assist, but their satellites weren’t trained on the Chicago suburbs at the time.
“It was so Dick Tracy to me,” Steed said. “We didn’t get anything, but we were kicking around ideas like that.”
Investigators also collected more than 200 cyanide samples from Chicago-area businesses, facilities and institutions and sent them to an FDA research laboratory in Cincinnati. There, research chemist Karen Wolnik and her colleagues established a trace element pattern — a sort of chemical fingerprint — for each sample to determine whether it was identical to the poison used in the Tylenol killings. In work that would later be heralded in scientific journals, the scientists also tested the cyanide kept at the Tylenol plant to see if it somehow got into the production process.
There were no matches.
“They were particularly concerned that something happened during the manufacturing or the shipping or storage,” Wolnik said. “And we were able to analyze the cyanide and show that it was not the same (cyanide at the plant) as cyanide in the capsules.”
According to the state police memo obtained by the Tribune, the FDA’s work traced the cyanide from the tainted capsules to Fisher Scientific, a Massachusetts-based lab supply company, which distributed that particular batch in 1978. The batch contained more than 1,800 pounds of cyanide, divided into packages of various sizes.
The company, however, did not keep records of where the products were shipped.
The trail went cold.
“That’s because nobody was keeping track of who was buying cyanide,” Wolnik said. “And there were a lot of bottles to come out of that lot.”
Police reports mention several former Johnson & Johnson employees, though none was ever considered a serious suspect. Among those questioned was a clerical worker who was fired for repeatedly missing work. She told investigators that, in retrospect, she deserved her termination and swore she would do better at her next job.
Elmhurst police Detective Herb Hogberg interviewed a chemist who had been laid off from the company in recent months. The man shrugged off his dismissal when investigators asked, saying it was the nature of the business. He already had a new job.
“He didn’t fit that profile,” Hogberg said.
Investigators assumed the culprit was a man, though records indicate they didn’t automatically rule out anyone based on gender. Studies have found women who kill use poison more often than men do, but they typically target people they know. Male murderers are more likely, in general, to kill randomly and on a large scale.
In an attempt to paint a more detailed portrait of the killer, the FBI turned to a relatively new technique at the time called criminal profiling, in which agents try to identify the personality and behavioral characteristics of an offender based on an analysis of the crime. The Tylenol case marked one of the earliest uses of the approach. Some investigators on the case, including a few still involved with it, considered the rendered profile too vague to be of any real use.
But others, including Lane, found it immensely helpful and — from his perspective — ultimately accurate.
The profilers predicted the culprit’s past likely included treatment for mental health issues and an attack on his parents. He also would have a history of animal cruelty, Lane told the Tribune.
“And the last point that they wanted to strike home was that the person who committed this is enjoying the attention right now and the fact that he or she had outsmarted the law enforcement,” Lane said.
That thrill, however, would eventually diminish over time and the killer would seek more excitement, according to the profilers. When that happened, the suspect would make contact with an investigator and offer to help solve the case.
He would gravitate toward someone with a blue suit and red tie, the quintessential 1980s-style power suit. It would likely be someone with gray hair.
“I always wear the blue suit and the red tie,” Lane said. “But I didn’t have the gray hair yet.”
Lane would think of that line a year later when, without prompting, a suspect called him and offered to help solve the case.
In those early days, the best leads came from the Tylenol bottles themselves. Authorities believed they offered clues about who could — and who could not — have poisoned the capsules.
Investigators first considered whether the tampering could have occurred at the manufacturing plants. Every Tylenol bottle had a lot number that offered specific details about the batch those capsules came from. The Kellerman and Janus bottles contained Tylenol from lot MC2880, manufactured in Pennsylvania on April 26, 1982. The bottles traveled to various warehouses, including a final storage stop at a Jewel facility in suburban Franklin Park, before being delivered to different grocery stores on different days before the poisonings.
The lot numbers for the McFarland, Reiner and Prince bottles indicated they were manufactured in Round Rock, Texas, and went to different warehouses in the Chicago area before ending up on store shelves. Within 48 hours of the murders, the task force used this information to conclude publicly that the pills could not have been poisoned during production.
“Obviously, Johnson & Johnson didn’t put cyanide in their own product. That’s clear,” Margolis told the Tribune. “The likelihood that the same person could have put cyanide into different batches manufactured at different times in different places was logistically zero.”
Early on, the task force decided to instruct the public to get rid of their Tylenol by either turning it in to police departments or throwing it away. Johnson & Johnson initially recalled only those products with the same batch number as the Janus and Kellerman bottles. Though the company expanded the recall the same day to cover the batch involved in Reiner’s death, the piecemeal approach troubled Fahner.
Fahner thought state officials needed to be even more aggressive, despite the consequences for the investigation. If people threw out their Tylenol, authorities would never know the full extent of the tampering. But if they kept the bottles in their medicine cabinets, more people could die.
“People were terrified,” Fahner said. “And as soon as we got the word out that Tylenol had been laced, people said, ‘What do we do?’ I said, ‘Well, if you’ve got any in your medicine cabinet … either put it in a plastic bag and keep it or throw it away. Do not use it.’”
With fears mounting, Johnson & Johnson recalled all over-the-counter Tylenol products on Oct. 5, nearly a week after Mary Kellerman’s death. It marked the first mass recall in U.S. history, involving more than 31 million bottles.
The decision cost the company more than $100 million, an enormous amount in 1982. Bottles that weren’t tossed out were sent to J&J, the FDA and various government laboratories for testing.
That testing uncovered three more poisoned bottles: two turned in by customers in Wheaton and Chicago and one found on a Schaumburg pharmacy shelf.
In all, the task force had only eight bottles to offer clues to where and when the tampering could have taken place.
“The task force knew the mechanism behind the murders,” Fellmann said. “They knew the weapon. They knew the locations. And they had a very good theory as to when they were placed. The task force didn’t know who or why.”
After eliminating the possibility that the poisonings happened at the plant level, investigators scoured the backgrounds of workers at trucking companies and storage warehouses involved in the distribution of the tainted bottles, as well as other company records. They came up with nothing.
“So, the theory was the tampering took place at the store,” said FBI agent Lane. “Because all the other possibilities had been eliminated.”
The Tylenol murders would soon spur the development of plastic seals and tamper-evident packaging. But before Sept. 29, 1982, consumer products had few defenses against a person bent on sabotage. Extra-Strength Tylenol bottles, for example, came in a paper box with an unglued lid. The red cap was easily flipped open, with nothing but a little piece of cotton left to cover the capsules.
The killer may have salted the bottles with cyanide-laced capsules while standing in the store aisle, investigators thought. Another theory was that whoever poisoned the medication did it at home or in a car, then placed the bottles back on the shelves.
Forty years later, investigators still can’t say with certainty.
See where the eight tainted Tylenol bottles were purchased or discovered
Despite the passage of time — and, in a way, because of it — the bottles still may offer clues as to who poisoned the capsules. The state police memo indicates fingerprints were found on at least one of the bottles, as well as a full print on the inside of a different bottle’s box.
That box had been turned in, along with an unused bottle, a couple weeks after the murders by the wife of a DuPage County judge. The 50-count bottle, which the woman told police she purchased at Frank’s Finer Foods in Wheaton, contained seven capsules filled with potassium cyanide, records show.
Everyone who had access to the box — including the judge and his wife — provided fingerprints for comparison. Several suspects did too. None matched.
The tainted bottle from the Schaumburg pharmacy contained three partial prints on the capsules, “but (they) were not suitable for comparison,” the memo states.
DNA evidence wasn’t part of police work at the time, but it would become a factor in the case a quarter-century later. In 2010, DuPage County prosecutors filed a sealed affidavit stating investigators had found DNA on three bottles and the capsules inside, according to documents obtained by the Tribune.
The discovery, so far, has been more of a curse than a blessing for present-day investigators, who have spent years obtaining DNA samples from investigators, public health officials, scientists and medical professionals who came in contact with the poisoned Tylenol.
Many people who handled the evidence in 1982 told the Tribune they didn’t wear gloves because it wasn’t part of their agency’s protocol at the time. Some expressed surprise at how casually other people treated the poisoned bottles.
Deputy coroner Siekmann recalled going to Winfield to pick up the Tylenol collected from Reiner’s house a few hours after her death.
“Here, you go, Pete,” the police chief said, passing the bottle to him without the type of evidence bag that would now be standard in any investigation.
Siekmann drove to a state laboratory in the city with the bottle on the seat next to him. It was the first of two such trips he made that day, initially with the Reiner bottle and later with the one that killed McFarland.
Siekmann didn’t wear gloves. Neither did the chemist who performed the cyanide test.
“It was 1982. I’m just being honest,” Siekmann said. “We had gloves in our car and basically used them on decomposed bodies. But for something like this, for looking at a pill, it never would even cross our mind.”
The Tribune has spoken with several people who have been asked to provide DNA samples within the last decade — all men who had access to poisoned bottles found in Cook County. Some worked at the medical examiner’s office, which played a key role in figuring out the cyanide connection.
Chicago police Detective Charlie Ford, assigned to the Prince murder, recalled being stunned when Cook County Medical Examiner Robert Stein showed up at the victim’s Old Town condo and immediately asked to see the Tylenol. Six suburbanites had already died from cyanide poisoning by that time, but this was Chicago’s first — and, in the end, only — victim.
Ford said he told the renowned pathologist the bottle was on the vanity, and Stein, who wasn’t wearing gloves, went to grab it. Ford and his partner Jimmy Gildea both said they tried to stop him because evidence technicians hadn’t been to the scene yet, but Stein brushed off their concerns.
“And he grabs the pills, picks them up in his hand, dumps a whole bunch of them in his hand and starts sniffing,” Ford recalled. “He goes, ‘It smells like burnt almonds.’ ”
Ford said Stein encouraged him to smell the pills, but the detective refused and pushed away the pathologist’s hand.
“You shove those up my nose again, you’re going to get socked in the face. You understand?” Ford said he told Stein.
Forty years later, Ford shook his head at the memory.
“I tell you, this wasn’t a CSI show,” he said.
In those early days, there were so many agencies involved, so many people desperate to solve the case. Tensions flared, even among law enforcement personnel sincerely dedicated to the job.
Many of the task force members interviewed by the Tribune recounted difficulties as more than 100 people tried to work as a team. They told stories of information hoarding, turf wars and glory seeking — even when there was none to be had.
“I mean, it just got to me,” Severns said. “Not just the hours, but the frustration. Nothing was being solved.”
Fahner, as head of the task force, quickly became the public face of the investigation. He held news conferences, sometimes twice a day, to meet the insatiable media demands. As weeks went by without an arrest, detectives started using different doors to avoid the cameras.
They also started grumbling about politics overshadowing their work.
Fahner had worked for James Thompson in the U.S. attorney’s office, handling some of the city’s biggest federal corruption cases. When Thompson, a Republican, became governor in 1977, Fahner followed him to Springfield to lead the Illinois state police. And when the sitting attorney general was indicted on tax fraud charges, Thompson appointed Fahner to fill the post.
Now Fahner had to win the job for himself, and he faced a formidable opponent in Democrat Neil Hartigan, a vote magnet from Chicago’s North Side.
Fahner’s critics accused him of milking the Tylenol tragedy for his own benefit, and his opponent’s camp worried that he knew who the killer was and would make an arrest right before the November election.
The attorney general largely stopped campaigning after joining the task force, but his face was on TV every night. He had never been better known in Illinois and was inching up in the polls too.
“A lot of people who didn’t like me or didn’t like Thompson or my association were taking shots,” Fahner said. “It wasn’t a grab for authority. I had people dropping dead all over the place.”
Members of the media — the same people who were constantly pestering him for information — nicknamed Fahner “Tylenol Ty.” It stuck. Some of the investigators started using it privately, too.
“Tylenol Ty,” Ford said. “I have no idea who gave that one, but it was perfect.”
Given the totality of the circumstances, some thought it unusual for the Illinois attorney general to lead the investigation. Others found Fahner the obvious choice. And wherever they fell on the issue, that position hasn’t changed much over the past four decades.
Former Chicago police Superintendent Richard Brzeczek told the Tribune he believed Fahner’s selection was purely political, done specifically because of the November election. He believed Thompson was behind the move, though Fahner denied it.
“If you stopped a thousand people on the street, you’d be lucky if one of them could tell you who Ty Fahner was. You know, because Ty was just a classy lawyer, and he never was a politician,” he said. “Thompson put him in charge of the investigation to get TV time. You know, boost exposure and stuff like that.”
Joe McQuaid, a task force investigator with the state police who had worked for Fahner when he was director, acknowledged it was an unorthodox setup. Still, in his opinion, Fahner was exactly what the task force needed.
“I think he’s nothing but a class act,” said McQuaid, a retired state police captain. “He brought personal knowledge (as the former state police director) and experience regarding a criminal investigation. … He didn’t get in our way. I thought he was perfect.”
And Fahner wasn’t the only source of tensions. The agencies, at times, clashed with each other.
Nearly three weeks after the murders, for example, the FBI asked Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene to write a column about Mary Kellerman and include specific details such as the family’s home address and the location of the little girl’s grave, with her parents’ permission. The profilers believed the killer was likely to visit one of those named places to see the heartbreak he had caused.
“If you are the Tylenol killer, though, you may be harboring just the vaguest curiosity about the people on the other end of your plan: The people who were unfortunate enough to purchase the bottle you had touched,” Greene wrote. “If you are curious, come to a small house on a quiet, winding street in Elk Grove Village. Come to 1425 Armstrong Lane.”
When the column ran, Severns knew instantly that the authorities had planted the story. His task force partners — the FBI and state police — had blindsided the Elk Grove Village detective, and he was angry.
Severns confronted people at both agencies, who blamed each other for keeping him in the dark. They apologized, he said, but the trust had been broken.
“I’m not saying that the task force didn’t work or that’s why the case was never solved,” Severns said. “I do think it created a lot of problems because you’re always thinking there’s somebody doing something behind your back.”
The Chicago detectives shared that worry. Their department’s relationship with the FBI had been rocky for decades, but it was at a particularly low point in September 1982. Three months earlier, 10 Chicago officers from the city’s West Side were convicted of taking bribes to protect heroin rings. The arrests came as the result of an undercover FBI operation, and The Marquette 10 — as the disgraced officers came to be known — remain an enduring symbol of police corruption in Chicago.
“Most working detectives really don’t trust the FBI, and the FBI doesn’t trust us,” Ford said. “It’s a one-way street for information back and forth. It all goes to them, and you get nothing in return.”
Other task force members, it should be noted, weren’t particularly fond of Chicago’s efforts either. They understood the tension between the FBI and local law enforcement — some of them shared those same resentments — but they thought Chicago didn’t even try to be team players.
“Pain in the neck,” Hogberg said of his CPD counterparts. “I think after a day or two, the state police realized they’re on their own. Chicago’s doing what they want, so let’s just give them something minor to do.”
Four decades later, task force leaders downplay accusations of tensions among the agencies, suggesting history has been revised in an effort to explain why no one has been charged with the murders.
“There wasn’t that much tension,” Fahner said. “That’s being made out of whole cloth all these years later. The coppers and the FBI guys that I knew all worked together. … I’m absolutely sure about that. So whatever fits or doesn’t fit the storyline, that didn’t happen. That wasn’t there.”
Margolis, who later became director of the Illinois State Police, says multiagency efforts always endure allegations of infighting and spotlight stealing. The Tylenol task force may be no exception, he said, but the tensions didn’t affect the overall effort.
“Look, like any other series of government bureaucracies, there’s always tension between agencies,” he said. “Marquette 10 is one of a thousand reasons why there’s tension, personal jealousy, personal ambition, jurisdictional turf fights. I mean, there’s 10,000 reasons why people compete with each other. … That’s just human nature. What happens in most cases, and certainly what happened here beyond any question, was a 100% selfless, unified devotion to a very important mission.”
Pursuing the mission, however, eventually sent the FBI and the Chicago Police Department in two different directions.
From the start, Detectives Ford and Gildea didn’t understand the purpose of driving out to Des Plaines each day in rush hour traffic when they had a murder to solve back in the city.
Their opinion soured even further at their first meeting, when one of the lead investigators asked for a briefing on the Prince murder. An FBI agent stood up and started to give a rundown of Chicago’s case. Ford said he quickly interrupted.
“I said, ‘Excuse me. Whoa, whoa,’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘Agent, agent. I was the detective at the scene. You weren’t there. What the hell is this? What are you giving this story for?’ So they ran him off the stage and I got up there.”
After just one or two task force meetings, Ford and Gildea told their boss they weren’t going back. They would work the case in Chicago and send someone else to Des Plaines to play nice with the others.
The CPD set up its own tip line and organized 35 detectives to work out of what was then Area 6 Headquarters at Belmont and Western. J.J. Bittenbinder — a tough-talking, mustachioed detective who would later gain fame as a TV safety expert — served as a liaison to Fahner’s task force in Des Plaines.
The first few days were spent talking to people closest to Prince and sifting through the many tips they received.
The most promising leads involved people doing curious things with chemicals. In one instance, someone reported that a chemistry professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago had been bragging about access to labs with cyanide. Ford and Gildea arrived at the campus with hopes of a break in the case, only to find out the so-called professor was a high school boy pretending to work at UIC so he could pick up college girls.
Another tip involved a man who was threatening to poison Hormel food products. When Ford and Gildea arrived at the North Side flophouse where the man lived, he was still on the phone with a company operator and was promising to punish Hormel just like he had in the Tylenol case.
Hearing that threat, the detectives said, they banged on the door and announced themselves as police. The man hurriedly told the Hormel operator that he had to go and he would call her back later.
“He hangs up, opens the door and we come in like gangbusters,” Gildea said. “What’s going on? He bought a rancid ham at Jewel and when he opened it, it was spoiled. So he thought he’d … maybe get a lifetime supply of ham. I don’t know what he thought. We locked him up.”
Ford, a Vietnam veteran with a classic Chicago accent and an Irishman’s love of storytelling, died of a heart attack a few days after speaking with the Tribune. He regaled reporters with all kinds of stories during that final interview, but none seemed to amuse him more than the unhappy Hormel ham man.
“I think we ended up charging that guy with a misdemeanor, some disorderly conduct or some nonsense,” he said. “The guy was a little wimpy, but his ham did stink.”
The FBI and Chicago police performed separate, but largely parallel, investigations until Oct. 6.
On that day, two unrelated things happened: A pub owner made a phone call to police, and an extortion letter arrived at a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary.
The investigation would fork, taking the FBI and Chicago police down vastly different paths.
And they would remain apart for the next four decades.
Next week: Police investigate a “poor man’s James Bond,” and an eighth person dies.