“Painkiller” documentary cracks open the real-life story of tainted Tylenol murders 

Tylenol bottle on counter. The Chicago Tylenol Murders used Tylenol extra strength capsules to kill several individuals. Photo by Austin Kirk/Flickr

As we go through our day, we might not notice that inner seal on our pint of ice cream or medicine bottle. Nearly 40 years ago, seven people unfortunately died after consuming Tylenol capsules that had been tampered with before such a seal was introduced. The Panew five-part CBS documentary series “Painkiller” (TV-14) retells the story of the murders and ongoing investigation with witnesses and first-hand interviews. 

The Chicago Tylenol murders, a chilling series of poisonings that transpired in September of 1982, marked a watershed moment in product safety and public trust. The perpetrator contaminated capsules of extra strength Tylenol with potassium cyanide, a strong poison, and placed them back on the shelves. Seven people died after consuming the tainted pills, just looking for relief from a headache. 

The documentary series takes a deep dive into the subject, providing hours of archival footage and new interviews with the victims’ families and people involved. The filmmakers spoke with Helen Jensen, one of the nurses originally involved with the case, who helped play a pivotal role in determining that Tylenol was the common factor between three siblings who had mysteriously died. We also hear from the investigators and police forces involved in the ongoing search. Part of the story follows James Lewis, who originally wrote a letter to Johnson & Johnson asking for $1 million in return for stopping the killings. Lewis had been a suspect in a number of other crimes. 

Although he maintained his innocence and initially cooperated with investigators, Lewis was convicted of extortion and spent 10 years in prison. Immediately following the deaths, Johnson & Johnson and other medicine distributors invoked a major recall of all capsules available for sale, in the order of millions of lost dollars. 

Across the country, other incidents of death from tampered medicine and food occurred after the Chicago deaths. These events prompted consumers to scrutinize packaging and manufacturers to prioritize stronger protective measures. Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the crisis, emphasizing public safety over financial considerations, earned praise and became a case study in crisis management. Some of the long-lasting outcomes due in part to these killings include tamper-evident packaging and improved capsule designs. 

However, in recent years, the original Tylenol case has been reignited thanks to new forensic and DNA technology. The film explores some of the new lab techniques being used to help determine the killer, including inspection of fingerprints and microscopic cells on evidence. Part of these technologies help determine if DNA on items has become degraded with time using a proprietary process developed by a Texas-based laboratory. 

As one of the most famous unsolved murder cases, “Painkiller” presents the story and ongoing investigation of the Tylenol deaths in an engaging and informative manner supplemented with a wealth of never-before-heard information. Fans of true crime or unsolved mysteries will definitely be interested in this series. Produced by WBBM – CBS Chicago, you can watch “Painkiller” as a special on Friday Oct. 13 on CBS (local WFSB channel 3 – HuskyVision channel 3) or on-demand with a Paramount Plus subscription. 

Rating: 4/5 Stars 

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