Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Toxicology

Product Contamination

Mind Hunter
Mind Hunter

Former FBI profiler, John Douglas, was involved in a 1982 case that got national attention and spawned a few copy cats.   He describes the case in Mind Hunter.  In the Chicago area, people suddenly began to die in a mysterious manner.  There were seven victims in all, and one of them had lingered in agony for two days before finally succumbing. 

Tylenol box
Tylenol box

The police eventually discovered the connection: the victims had all purchased a bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol and had consumed capsules that had been laced with cyanide.  That meant a sudden death—especially since none of the victims knew what they had taken.  Apparently the killer had placed the substance by opening the Tylenol capsules and inserting it.

The Tylenol manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, immediately recalled all packages of their product around the country, at great cost to them.   The country was witnessing a form of terrorism—someone, somewhere, could contaminate almost anything they bought and they would innocently consume it and die.  People wanted this perpetrator found.

In the FBI code language, Douglas says, the case became known as "Tymurs."

The problem that faced them, he adds, was the random nature of the product tampering.  No specific person had been targeted, or any specific store, and there appeared to be no motive.  No one was using it to blackmail a company into paying a ransom.

Douglas interpreted it as an act of anger, with no specific need to see a victim or to be present at the murder.  It was a crime involving psychological distance.  "Our research had shown," he writes, "that subjects who kill indiscriminately without seeking publicity tend to be motivated primarily by anger."  He also believed the person would have periods of depression and hopelessness.  He was like an assassin, a white loner who hated society and sought some expression of power.

Douglas offered a profile that indicated that this person would probably have a record of complaints of injustices against him (he did not consider that the person might be female), and that he'd have a psychiatric record.

He had  likely experienced some stressful event around the time when the first deaths had occurred late in September.  He would also be talkative about the news to anyone who would listen. 

Douglas suggested articles that humanized the victims and he thought it might be wise to hold graveside vigils at night for at least a week, in case the perpetrator wanted to venture close to relive his sense of power. 

Despite all efforts, the identity of the Tylenol Killer was never revealed.   To this day he remains unidentified and unapprehended. Yet as suddenly as they had begun, the cyanide poisonings stopped (though other cases of product tampering occurred in other places).

Criminal Poisoning
Criminal Poisoning

According to Trestrail in Criminal Poisoning, this case changed forever the manner in which over-the-counter drugs were sold in this country.   Now we have tamper-proof seals and warnings of all kinds not to take drugs in which the seals have been broken.

Some drugs are still difficult to detect, but sometimes forensic science catches up in ways a murderer does not expect.


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