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Chicago Tylenol Murders: 3 members of Janus family died in 1982, and pain has passed on to generations

PainKiller: Trauma of 1982 Tylenol murders carries through Janus family
PainKiller: Trauma of 1982 Tylenol murders carries through Janus family 08:13

COMING SOON, 'PAINKILLER':  A multipart docuseries about the Tylenol Murders. Watch a preview and learn more about the case. 

UPDATE: This coverage was published in September of 2022. On July 9, 2023, prime suspect James Lewis was found dead in his Cambridge residence.   

CHICAGO (CBS) -- "When I see this bottle, it takes me back to the most tragic moment of my family's life," said Monica Janus.

She was only 8 years old when a killer or killers deliberately laced Tylenol capsules with cyanide and placed the tainted bottles on the shelves of stores around the Chicago area.

MORE READING: Who did it? No one has ever been charged, but questions still surround James Lewis

CBS 2 Investigator Dave Savini asked Monica's father, Joe Janus, if he thinks the crime will ever be solved.

"I hope so, before I die," Joe said as he broke down. "I hope I see the person."

A total of seven people – including Joe's two brothers and sister-in-law – were killed by the tainted Tylenol.

Tylenol discarded after the 1982 poisonings that left seven people dead in the Chicago area. CBS 2

On Sept. 29, 1982 – 40 years ago Thursday – Mary Kellerman, 12, of Elk Grove Village, collapsed and died after taking Extra-Strength Tylenol for a head cold. Six other people died within days afterward – including the three members of the Janus family.

As the body count rose, so did the fear. With no social media or easy way to mass communicate the information at the time, police officers drove around and yelled out through bullhorns, "Don't take Tylenol."

"It was everywhere, because Tylenol is a thing that everyone uses," said Monica's 12-year-old daughter, Isabel.

"It was very scary and sad to think, wow, our family is just falling and dying," Monica added. "It was just scary because everybody was sobbing and crying."

Isabel and mother Monica Janus. CBS

Isabel recently wrote an essay for school on how the Tylenol murders destroyed her family. She said only "an evil person, a person that just doesn't care about people" could commit such a crime.

Adam Janus Family Photo

Adam Janus was Isabel's great uncle. The healthy 27-year-old mailman wasn't feeling well when he woke up for work 40 years ago Thursday, so he unknowingly bought tainted Tylenol at a Jewel Osco store in Arlington Heights – and collapsed later at home.

"So when they told my family that he died from a heart attack, they couldn't believe it," said Monica. "They were like, why would he die from a heart attack?"

At first, the family was told Adam's heart failed. After they wept over his body, they left the hospital.

Stanley and Theresa Janus Family Photo

Isabel's other great uncle, Stanley Janus, then 25, and newly-wedded wife Theresa, then 20, went to Adam's house afterward. The tainted bottle of Tylenol was still there, and they weren't feeling well, so they reached for pills not knowing yet what had caused Adam's death.

"Then Stanley and Theresa took it because they had a headache - later on [they] passed," said Isabel.

Joe said his family came to Chicago from Poland for a better life.

Joe Janus (left) with his brothers, Adam and Stanley. Family Photo

"My brothers were everything to me," Joe said. "We all loved each other."

He said they all had good jobs. Joe and Stanley owned an auto parts store.

"Everything we try so hard in this country was going OK for us, and one day, everything falls apart," Joe said.

Joe was with Stanley at the home as the poison kicked in.

"He just fell down," Joe remembered, "and when he fell, his mouth – this white stuff was coming out from his mouth. His eyes turned backwards, I seen, you know – so they called the ambulance."

Joe Janus CBS

When the ambulance arrived, Theresa also collapsed.

"Just awful," said Chuck Kramer, an Arlington Heights Fire Department lieutenant at the time, who was working on Stanley when Theresa grabbed him and collapsed. "One of the worst calls I've been on in my life.

"And as soon as I turned her over – a second ago she was holding my arm, and now she's there and her eyes are fixed and dilated and unreactive to light," Kramer continued.

"The amount of cyanide she had in her would have killed 26 elephants," Monica added.

 "He's a, he's an animal," Joe said of the killer. "He kills people with no fear."

CBS 2 covered Theresa and Stanley Janus' funeral in 1982. Their caskets were carried into the same church where they had been married just three months ago, CBS 2's Camilla Carr reported at the time.

Oct. 5, 1982: Three members of one family mourned after Tylenol murders 02:33

"I remember my father approaching Adam's coffin, and he just couldn't take it. He literally threw his body on top of my uncle, and the coffin almost tipped over," said Monica Janus. "I'll never forget that. It was terrible just seeing that."

In his interview with Joe, Savini asked him what he was thinking about in the moment.

Joe's response was, "I don't feel like living anymore."

Kramer said when he speaks of the victims, he speaks of them as family.

"That was real hard," he said as his lip quivered.

Lt. Chuck Kramer CBS

Three others died in the days afterward – new mother Mary Reiner, 27, of Winfield; Lombard phone center employee Mary McFarland, 31; and flight attendant Paula Jean Prince, 35, of the Old Town neighborhood also died.

The Janus killings were the key to finding all seven deaths were caused by tainted Tylenol.

Kramer was part of a team that quickly made that historic discovery – leading to the immediate removal of Tylenol from stores and homes, and saving an unknown number of lives.

Retired nurse Helen Jensen is another hero. She worked the Janus case along with Kramer – and both suspected there was something deadly inside the Tylenol.

"I got a phone call from the fire department, from Chuck Kramer," Jensen said.

They compared notes from all three Janus deaths – and then nurse Jensen sounded the alarm at the hospital where Adam, Stanley, and Theresa all died.

 "I went back to the emergency room, presented it to the medical examiner and the police, and they laughed at me," Jensen said.

 "She was already saying, 'It's got to be Tylenol – the three people took Tylenol," Kramer said, "and they weren't believing her at that point."

 Jensen said she got so angry she stamped her feet.

 "No, I really did. I reiterated it has to be, and this is where it has to be," Jensen said, "and I can get very adamant but they did not believe me."

Retired nurse Helen Jensen CBS 2

 To prove her theory, Jensen actually went over to the Janus home to search for the original bottle of Tylenol. Each of the Januses had taken two capsules before they died.

"And I went into the bathroom and found a bottle of Tylenol, and I brought it out to the kitchen with one of the police officers. I opened it and counted the pills and there were six pills missing and then three people dead," Jensen said. "I said, it has to be the Tylenol."

Then, Jensen kept searching the home for any other kind of clues.

"I also went through the garbage and found the receipt that this is a purchased at Jewel that morning," she said. "I'm holding it - the bottle and the receipt - and I laid it out in front of the Medical Examiner, and I counted it again and told him the same thing. There are six capsules missing. There are three people dead there has to be a correlation."

 Jensen said the Medical Examiner's officer continued to be dismissive.

Meanwhile, Kramer was also still piecing together clues, and tracked down a paramedic who responded to 12-year-old Mary Kellerman's emergency in Elk Grove Village.

"He said a little girl died this morning in Elk Grove, and she took Tylenol - and it's the same symptoms – rapid, shallow breathing; fixed, dilated pupils; and unreactive." 

Kramer, like Nurse Jensen, also reported his findings to hospital officials. But no one was believing either of them.

"I was angry. I went home. I was very upset. I was teary. I had a stiff drink and talked to my husband," Jensen said, "and I finally went to bed at 5:30 in the morning. He got up really early, and he came in to me, and he said: 'Helen you're right. You're seeing it on the news. It was Tylenol."

Forty years later, Kramer, now 81, still often manages to visit the Janus family graves to pay his respects.

Chuck Kramer CBS

"I watched a family end," Kramer said. "I don't know how anybody could do anything like that."  

The killer or killers have never been caught, and the Janus family said after all these years, detectives never contacted them with updates. 

In a recent interview about the case, Arlington Heights Police Sgt. Joe Murphy would not say if the police department has contacted the Janus family specifically, but said vaguely he has spoken with family members recently. 

"With cold cases, it's a difficult balance on when to contact families and if it's appropriate. And the family's always seeking to see if there's new information out there, and there's always limited information we can provide to families," he said. "Anytime someone reaches out to myself or any other detectives, it's a priority to respond to that inquiry." 

Murphy acknowledged there may have been "communication breakdowns" with the case being passed from one investigator to another over the years.

"And that's on an agency. We're going to have to own that," he said. "But I have spoken with family members recently and try to give them as much information as I can." 

But Monica said her father deserves to have answers.

"He does deserve to know," she said. "I just see him cry all the time."

Joe  moved his family away from Chicago to the Wisconsin Dells area. He started a new life with his daughter, Monica, and now his grandchildren – including Isabel.

But the family never escapes the ongoing toll and pain from the killing of their loved ones 40 years ago.

Daughter Monica, granddaughter Isabel, and Joe Janus. Janus Family

"It's hard for me to live," Joe said. "But I still got my daughter, my son, my grandchildren. I've got to live for them."

Isabel read CBS 2 the conclusion of the essay she wrote for school:

"I truly believe justice will be served – if not in this lifetime, then the next – in loving memory of Adam Janus, Stanley Janus, and Theresa Janus."

Isabel reads her essay on the Tylenol murders and the impact it's had on her family. CBS 2
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