Tylenol murder investigators order new DNA tests on key evidence from 1982
WHEATON, Ill. — Beginning on Sept. 29, 1982, and over the next week, seven people were murdered in the Chicago area after unknowingly taking Tylenol pills that were spiked by a killer. Now, investigators are turning once again to DNA evidence to try to identify the person or people who did it, report CBS Chicago's Dave Savini, Samah Assad and Rebecca McCann.
Laura Morgan was only 3 years old in 1982 when her mother, Linda Morgan, bought a bottle of Tylenol from her local grocery store to ease the pain of an aching leg.
Like several others, Linda didn't know the bottle she purchased contained pills poisoned with cyanide. But unlike the others, she survived.
"Now that I'm old enough to understand – I have a child of my own – knowing that my life could have been forever altered without my mom or dad," Laura said, "I don't know why we were spared, but we were."
But when she opened the bottle, then-35-year-old Linda sensed something was off and decided not to take the Tylenol.
"I had the bottle open. I looked at one of the capsules," Linda, now 75, told Savini in her first interview since the events. "And then I thought, no, I'll just take aspirin instead. I could have been the eighth victim."
On Oct. 28, 1982, CBS Chicago's Terry Anzur reported that Linda and her husband, DuPage County Judge Lewis Morgan, both touched the bottle. Authorities took the judge's fingerprints to eliminate him as a suspect.
"I don't think it's really hit yet how fortunate we were," Judge Morgan said at the time. "I think the first feeling we both have is a feeling of extreme sympathy, now that it's touched us so closely, for the people that weren't so fortunate as we."
Now, with the case still unsolved, new documents obtained by CBS Chicago reveal an intense effort to use advanced DNA technology to identify the killer. And 40 years later, the Morgan family still finds itself a piece of that puzzle.
The Arlington Heights (Illinois) Police Department (AHPD) is initiating much of the DNA testing and collection as it continues to investigate the deaths of three members of the same family – Adam Janus, Teresa Janus, and Stanley Janus. They all were killed in Arlington Heights after taking poisoned Tylenol.
Joe Janus, who lost his two brothers and sister-in-law, said he hopes DNA will help police arrest the killer. It's something he wants to see before he dies.
"He's an animal," Janus said. "He kills people with no fear."
The AHPD records were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Those documents, along with interviews with the Morgan family, show the police department collected a swab of DNA from Laura on Jan. 14, 2020 – 38 years after the murders.
That same day, Laura also provided to police one of her dad's old smoking pipes to obtain his DNA. He died in 2018.
"I'm assuming there's got to be some other DNA on that bottle," Laura said of the bottle her mother purchased in 1982. "They have something. If they need DNA, if they need my cheek swabbed, if they need evidence from the past people, from the past DNA, they must have something that they are running or retesting."
AHPD said in a statement that the recent DNA testing done on the Morgan family was to eliminate their DNA, and officials continue to review and submit elimination prints for people they know handled evidence. The agency would not comment on what specifically prompted investigators to take another look at the Morgan family's DNA, and why it wasn't until 2020 that they took Laura's DNA, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.
"Elimination prints and/or DNA elimination of those individuals who are known to have been in possession of contaminated bottles has been an ongoing and important effort," the statement said. "The department was able to conduct this necessary process in 2020."
It was also 2020 when the police department began working with Houston-based company, Othram, in hopes of leveraging advanced forensic DNA technology to solve the case, records show.
Kristen Mittelman, the chief development officer at Othram, agreed to an interview on the condition that she would not discuss cases the company is working on, like the Tylenol murders.
"There are cases that we've completely solved – notorious cases we've completely solved – that we cannot speak of until law enforcement comes out and speaks of them or announces it themselves," Mittelman said.
Othram uses specialized technology to extract trace amounts of human DNA from items and analyze them, even if they are old or degraded.
The goal, Mittelman said, is to find distant relationships to the person police are trying to identify, such as a victim or a killer, through thousands of markers in the human genome. She also said Othram can analyze DNA smaller than the top of a pin needle.
It's less about identifying a person, and more about excluding other possibilities.
"And when we look at all these markers … we're able to get really distant relationships," she said. "So we can get a fifth cousin here or a fourth cousin here and a third cousin here. Not the relatives you see or you know, but all these really distant relationships. And then you can figure out how far this piece of the puzzle is from all these relationships and fit it onto a family tree exactly where it belongs."
Working with Othram can cost between $6,000 and $10,000 due to the amount of sequencing of the DNA needed to solve a case. The cost depends on how difficult it is to read the DNA. However, the company also crowdsources cash to waive fees for agencies that need funding, such as in AHPD's case.
In conversations with several police agencies across the country, officials told CBS Chicago they often turn to private companies like Othram when they feel they've done the most they could with state crime labs.
If Othram uncovers a lead, the company shares it with police for investigators to contextualize in the criminal investigation. Mittelman said the company has returned investigative leads in thousands of cases, including identifying a murder victim from 1881.
The technology has also helped produce leads for cases in Illinois. In 2021, the Will County Coroner's office sent Othram a young woman's remains that were found in New Lenox 1981. The company developed a comprehensive DNA profile for the remains, built family trees, and searched family records – which ultimately led to the woman's identification.
The woman, Brenda Sue Black, likely died a year before she was discovered, and was 26 years old at the time she died and was reported missing.
Othram's DNA analysis also helped lead to the identification of a suspect in the murder of Carla Walker, who was 17 when she was abducted in Fort Worth, Texas.
"People think they got away with it," Mittelman said. "And every time we catch one of those perpetrators, they're living a normal life."
The police investigation into the Tylenol murders has centered around prime suspect James Lewis for decades. It started in 1982, not long after the murders. Later, Lewis was arrested, charged, and convicted for writing extortion letters in whihc he threatened the killings would continue unless $1 million was wired to a bank account.
DNA samples from Lewis were collected by investigators in 2010, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Last summer, Lewis refused to talk to CBS Chicago's Brad Edwards when he traveled to the Boston area in an effort to interview him. In September, law enforcement investigating the case went to Lewis' home to question him again.
Officials are mum about what was discussed with Lewis recently in Boston. But in a previous interview, AHPD Sgt. Joe Murphy said the agency believes following the evidence is key to making an arrest. He said they are relying on new DNA technology, like Othram's.
"The technology is here," Murphy said. "DNA technology has advanced … to the point where we're confident that this technology will assist this investigation moving forward."
Records show law enforcement has retained a multitude of evidence, including the 40-year-old bottles and contaminated pills. But Othram and the police department would not comment on what pieces of evidence in the Tylenol case are specifically being tested there.
When asked generally how a person could leave DNA on a pill bottle or bills, Mitelman said: "If you're asking me, can you touch something and then get enough DNA to identify somebody? Yes. It doesn't matter if it's a pill bottle, a gun, a bullet, anything. You can. And it's been done."
Much of the evidence in the Tylenol murders is decades old and has been tested for DNA and fingerprints multiple times since 1982. The process of repeatedly testing evidence can cause it to degrade over time.
While Mittelman acknowledged that fact generally, she asserted her company's technology is "completely insensitive" to degradation.
"If there is DNA that is found, then we're likely to identify you," Mittelman said. "Even if it was degraded, even if it was mixed. Even if there were contaminations, even if you tried to wash it off."
In September of 2020, Othram submitted a document called a genotype kit report to the AHPD. An assessment appears to have been done on some evidence, but the details are unclear because the document was nearly fully redacted before it was provided to CBS Chicago.
Additional documents the station obtained include summaries titled, "Cradle to Grave." They were compiled by the FBI in 2007 when the agency launched a second task force to revisit the case. The purpose was to create timelines and track testing for key evidence, like bottles and capsules purchased by the victims.
CBS Chicago created its own database from those records to trace how and where the evidence was handled. The station found that, over the last four decades, Tylenol bottles, their boxes, and pills were shipped and handled by at least a dozen different governmental agencies, police departments, and private labs. That included the state police, the Federal Drug Administration, and a private lab called Bode Technology.
In 2007, all the evidence was sent to and re-examined by the FBI in Quantico, Virginia.
And as recently as September of 2022, records reveal, investigators submitted something to the state crime lab for testing. But information on what was tested and the results were redacted. Police haven't said publicly whether the findings, if any, were valuable to the investigation.
Forty years later, Linda Morgan still feels lucky she ultimately decided not to take the Tylenol she purchased that day in 1982.
"I could have been one of them," she said. "I came so close."
Her daughter, Laura, frequently thinks about the families whose loved ones were killed. She hopes the ongoing DNA testing will help progress the case.
"I hope families like the Januses, whose lives are wrecked by this, find some kind of peace," Laura said.