Noticing a toxic similarity

SUN JOURNAL

Probes: Experts see parallels between the 1982 Tylenol cyanide poisonings and the anthrax mailings. One, they fear, may be never finding a solution.

April 29, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

First there was a child with a cold. Twelve-year-old Mary Kellerman took a pain reliever early on a Wednesday morning in 1982 in her home in Elk Grove Village, Ill. Minutes later, she lay dying on the bathroom floor.

Doctors thought she might have suffered a stroke. But within two days, six more people in the Chicago area had died, and the murder weapon was identified as Tylenol capsules whose burnt-almond smell revealed they had been opened and packed with cyanide.

The investigation that followed was one of the biggest in U.S. history, involving hundreds of agents from the FBI, the Illinois State Police, and police departments in Chicago and a half-dozen suburbs. But 20 years later, no one has ever been charged with the killings.

Now, with the anthrax investigation at seven months old, some investigators and scientists who have followed its progress say Americans must consider the possibility that this one could end the same way.

"There are lots of parallels," says Lawrence G. Foster, a former corporate vice president at Johnson & Johnson who oversaw the company's widely admired public relations response to the poisonings. "The thought goes through your mind: `Will they ever find out who sent the anthrax when they never solved the Tylenol murders?'"

Richard J. Brzeczek, who was police superintendent of Chicago at the time of the poisonings, recalls setting off a furor six months into the Tylenol investigation by saying publicly he believed the case would never be solved. "I guess history has proven me correct," he says.

It's hard to know whether the FBI has made progress in finding the person whose anthrax letters killed five people and sickened at least 13 others last fall, because the bureau is revealing little. Agents have interviewed dozens of scientists at U.S. labs, notably the Army's biodefense lab at Fort Detrick in Frederick. But last month, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told a congressional committee that investigators had "not excluded any possibility at this point," including foreign terrorists.

That's not a good sign, Brzeczek says. "When someone comes forward and says, `We're not ruling anything out,' that's often a euphemism for `We don't have anything to go on,'" he says. "Maybe it's time for them to start saying whatever novenas they say and hope for a lucky break."

There are striking similarities between the current case and the hunt two decades ago for the person the media called the "Tylenol terrorist."

In both cases, a small number of poisoning deaths transfixed the nation and caused huge economic disruption. This time the U.S. Postal Service watched revenues plummet while incurring huge expenses to decontaminate mail sorting centers. In 1982, Johnson & Johnson made the costly decision to pull from the shelves 31 million containers of the nation's best-selling pain remedy.

Both cases, too, prompted radical measures to prevent a recurrence. The Postal Service is paying millions to irradiate mail, while the government spends billions more to prepare for future bioterror attacks. Tylenol's maker took the lead in placing safety seals on all medications - an expensive measure to combat a rare, but devastating, problem.

"It triggered a whole revolution in packaging," says Foster, the former Johnson & Johnson executive.

The damage to Americans' feeling of security in both cases was far-reaching. Tylenol was a trusted, familiar remedy; two victims popped Tylenol in the stressful hours after the sudden death of a relative - who they didn't realize had been poisoned by capsules from the same jar. In the weeks after the seven deaths, another 250 deaths were initially suspected - and often announced in the media - to have been linked to Tylenol, because such pills are often present at the bedside of the dying.

The mail, with its daily arrival at every home in America, was an even more insidious choice of weapons. "In both cases, it's what you least suspect will be dangerous," Foster observes. "You think if you're in your home and the doors are locked, you're pretty safe."

In both cases, investigators tried to use scientific analysis to trace the poison. But Illinois police were never able to find the source of the cyanide. In the current investigation, genetic and chemical analysis of the anthrax has so far not come close to the investigators' goal of pinpointing the laboratory it came from, government scientists say.

Some sense a resemblance between the criminal minds involved. Dr. Robert A. Reifman, who in 1982 headed the Chicago courts' psychiatric service, says that when the anthrax story broke, he thought immediately of the earlier case.

"I'd be inclined to feel the two perpetrators may be rather similar," he says.

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