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PSU alumnus recalls 1982 Tylenol murders

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Posted: Friday, October 18, 2002 12:00 am | Updated: 10:24 pm, Sun Oct 20, 2013.

Long before a deadly powder spilled out of envelopes from the mail or a sniper's bullets killed random drivers pumping gas, Americans found fear inside their medicine cabinets.

Twenty years ago this fall, frightening and hideously calculating terrorism muscled its way - some say for the first time - into U.S. homes.

It was in 1982 that Jim Murray got a call he never thought he'd have to take as a spokesman at pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson.

A reporter from Chicago wanted to know basic information about a painkiller Murray knew was in millions of homes. Murray was confused and suspicious. But the reporter called him back to explain: One person, and probably more, had died after taking Tylenol spiked with cyanide.

"Nobody could be prepared for that," Murray, now retired, said recently from his home near Philadelphia. "It hit us right away - they're talking about deaths. We were immediately in action."

Murray and his colleagues in the J&J public relations operation didn't know it then, but they were caught up in what would become known as the Tylenol murders. Before it was over, a nation would change the way it packaged its food and medicine, corporations would rethink how they manage major crises, and a career would be defined for at least one executive whose sound judgment and steely presence of mind helped to reassure his company - and the nation - during a time of uncertainty as tense as today.

That executive, Murray's boss, Larry Foster, was vice president of public relations at the drug maker when the call came through.

"That was a bombshell," said Foster, also retired, and living in State College. "I never came home for two days - slept in the office, what sleep we had."

The man named in 1999 by PRWeek magazine as one of the five most influential public relations practitioners of the 20th century spoke last week with considerable ease about that frantic time. Surrounded by pastoral paintings and views of the Centre County hills from his top-floor condominium, he reiterated that the crimes of two decades ago have lost none of their terror.

"When you look at it in retrospect, everything seems to fall in place, but at the time ... nothing was falling into place," Foster said.

One major piece of the puzzle - who did it - has never been discovered.

The first victim - a 12-year-old girl with cold symptoms in Elk Grove Village, Ill. - died Sept. 29, 1982. Four other deaths in different places around Chicago followed: a 27-year-old mother with a newborn boy, a 35-year-old flight attendant, a 31-year-old woman from Elmhurst, Ill. and a 27-year-old man from Arlington Heights, Ill.

All of the victims had taken Tylenol Extra Strength capsules, but the deadly link wasn't unearthed until two area firefighters happened upon it in casual conversation.

It was too late for two relatives of the Arlington Heights victim. Distraught at having to arrange an untimely funeral, a brother and sister-in-law of Adam Janus reached for the same bottle of medicine, unaware it was poisoned, and died soon after.

Like many to hear about the case early on, Murray and Foster at Johnson & Johnson headquarters in New Brunswick, N.J., wondered how many other people would die. They wanted to get the word out - quickly and on a vast scale - to prevent consumers from ingesting any more contaminated capsules.

"We didn't know the extent of this," Murray said. "We did save a couple of lives because we went right to the press. We don't usually enjoy hearing from [the media], but we wanted to get the information out."

Amid the crisis, Foster looked to the company's mission statement - the "Credo" of Robert Wood Johnson - for his priorities. Above all else, he said, Johnson & Johnson aims to serve its customers. Next comes responsibility to its employees; to the communities where its employees live and work; and to its shareholders, in that order.

A massive recall

The first step was telling people to steer clear of their Tylenol, made by J&J's subsidiary, McNeil Consumer Products Co. of Fort Washington, Pa.

"We naturally wanted to protect the good name of J&J and McNeil, and we wanted to get the product off the market for fear that it might be a nationwide plot," Foster said.

The chairman of Johnson & Johnson at the time wanted a total recall, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Food and Drug Administration balked at the idea, afraid that such drastic action would show potential copycats how much influence they could have.

"If they thought that they could stop the wheels in this country from turning by committing that kind of a crime, then the nation would be at the mercy of criminals," Foster said.

Without knowing for sure that there weren't more poisoned pills out on store shelves, the drug maker began a massive recall of 31 million bottles of Tylenol, which cost the companies $125 million.

Meanwhile, law enforcement officials scrambled to figure out when and where the cyanide had made it into the capsules.

Only if company officials were able to disprove the theory of in-plant tampering could they be sure the act of terrorism hadn't happened on their watch. The codes marked on the contaminated Tylenol bottles indicated they had come from different plants, and the FBI and FDA scoured those locations to see how cyanide could have been mixed into the drug vats. What they found offered some relief: Any plotter would have to have dumped huge amounts of the poisonous salt into the production process for it to end up in such a high concentration in capsules on drugstore shelves.

Profiling the killer

The Tylenol task force instead turned its attention to the possibility of an ingenious and devious murderer who spiked individual red-and-white capsules - able to be separated and emptied - and then placed the Tylenol back in five stores for unwitting customers to buy.

The make-up of such a person both fascinated and horrified Wally Kowalski. Now a research associate in Penn State's architectural engineering department, Kowalski lived in Chicago at the time.

"I realized that the killer was right there in my own city, perhaps in my own neighborhood," Kowalski said in an e-mail last week.

He has posted a Web site detailing the Tylenol tragedy, focused on putting together what's known and what can be surmised about the killer and his motive.

"Unlike the FBI, I don't believe the case is unsolvable," Kowalski wrote. "The Internet provides the possibility of solving old cases like this, since it can generate new leads and information. ... I also think the evidence the FBI has, if made public, may lead to new suspects."

Late last month, bureau officials told The Chicago Tribune that any new action on the cases would be taken up by the various individual police departments around the city.

History marks the death toll from cyanide-laced Tylenol at seven that year, but the national hysteria and massive media attention had many people worried whenever someone died with an open bottle of Tylenol nearby. At least 250 deaths were initially thought to be linked to more contaminated pills, until toxicology tests ruled out cyanide poisoning.

"While these tests were being conducted, the local papers and the radio and TV were going wild with the story," Foster said.

Meanwhile, employees at Johnson & Johnson and McNeil were racing against time to prepare Tylenol for a re-launch. Video crews from the companies went out to interview people on the street, and most consumers said they were willing to buy the drug again if it came in tamper-resistant packaging.

Engineers initially thought it was going to take six to eight months to roll out a more safely packed product, but the companies impressed many by scheduling a Nov. 11 press conference that year to say that Tylenol was ready to return to market in a new type of bottle.

Within a year, sales of the drug returned to where they had been before the crisis, Foster said.

"When you take a product off the market ... you can self-destruct," he added. "We were fortunate when we came back because we had the trust of the American people. But companies are going to be very wary of taking a product off the market. Very often, that signals the end of the product."

The legacy

With so much attention detailing this case, and the food and drug industries rushing to catch up on the tamper-proof packaging front, some copycat cases were almost inevitable. But it later became hard to distinguish actual random poisonings from the targeted crimes conceived to appear like product tampering, according to the Urban Legends Reference Pages, a vast online resource compiled by Barbara and David Mikkelson.

"The 1982 Tylenol murders kicked off a lot of nastiness," Barbara Mikkelson writes in one of her reports on the aftermath. "It's as if evil-minded people were just waiting for that particular door to hell to swing open so they could rush through."

Amid the hysteria, Foster said Johnson & Johnson tried not to forget about the families of the original seven victims in Chicago, but ultimately feels that he and his colleagues didn't do as much for them as they could have.

"We wrote them letters and we expressed our great sorrow and regret," Foster said.

Originally they had considered the idea of setting up scholarships for the children affected by the deaths, but that idea fell through.

"We couldn't be as open with them as we wanted, because the lawyers held us back," he added. "They were trying to protect the company."

Lawsuits were filed against J&J but hit a wall after it was determined that the company itself had been a victim as well, Foster noted.

Overall, the retired vice president is proud of the way his staff was able to serve the public interest during those times and be upfront about what the company did and didn't know.

The case is often included in public relations textbooks as an example of the best approach to handling communication and media relations in a crisis, said Ann Marie Major, associate professor of communications at Penn State.

"Prior to the Tylenol case, many corporations had tried to handle crises behind the scenes to generate as little news coverage as possible and to reduce the likelihood of negative news coverage," Major said. "Under Larry Foster's direction, Johnson & Johnson focused on protecting the public's safety at all costs and not focusing on impact of negative news."

Prompted to compare the 1982 murders with the anthrax deaths of 2001, Foster said that while there are many similarities, it's difficult to gauge the relative anxiety registered after each tragedy, primarily because of the major effect 9/11 had on the nation's sensibilities.

But he stands by an observation made by an Associated Press reporter 20 years ago.

"It was the first time terrorism had reached into the American home," Foster said. "Before that, [such a crime] never happened. People in their homes felt very secure."

In an online entry, Barbara Mikkelson put it even stronger: "As a nation, we lost our innocence in 1982."

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