Last month, James W. Lewis died in Cambridge, Mass., of natural causes. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the former tax preparer was a suspect, though never officially charged, in the infamous Tylenol poisoning murder cases. Seven people died from taking cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules in September of 1982.
The case captivated the country and forever changed how over-the-counter medicines are packaged and sold in the U.S. In response to the deaths, Johnson & Johnson
ordered a nationwide recall of 31 million bottles of Tylenol. The company pulled its television commercials off the air and offered a reward for information related to the crimes.
No one was ever confirmed to be the killer but leads kept pointing to Lewis, who repeatedly denied involvement.
Federal Crimes And Allegations
On Oct. 1, 1982, Lewis sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson, the parent company of McNeil Consumer Products Company which makes Tylenol, promising to “stop the killing” if he were paid $1 million. He signed the letter “James Richardson.” After his arrest, he continued to deny that he was responsible for the killings but was charged and convicted of extortion as a result of the letter. In 1984, he received a ten-year sentence to run consecutively to two concurrent sentences for other federal crimes, including tax fraud.
At the time of his sentencing, Lewis was already in prison for a mail fraud conviction. In that scheme, he had been convicted on six counts of mail fraud—he had used information from his tax prep clients to apply for credit cards. According to investigators, Lewis would fill out the applications and use fake addresses along rural routes. He would then install a new mailbox and wait for the new credit cards to arrive. His five-year sentence for tax fraud ran concurrently.
On Dec. 4, 1981, Lewis’ home—where he ran his tax business, Lewis & Lewis, with his wife—was raided for evidence in the scam. Investigators found the home packed with phone books and papers, as well as two large loose-leaf binders with instructions on committing various crimes, including how to disguise handwriting and commit travel agency fraud. They also found extortion letters addressed to local banks but never sent.
“It was almost like the kind of place where a pack rat would live,” U.S. Postal Inspector Richard Shollenberger said. “There was so much stuff, you could hardly walk through a room without bumping into something. It was surprising someone could run a business out of a house that had that much of a mess. Maybe he knew where everything was, but it took us a long time to sort through everything.”
That scheme wasn’t the first time Lewis had been accused of a crime. In 1978, Lewis was charged with murdering Raymond West. West had allegedly hired Lewis to do his taxes. West’s dismembered body was found in his attic on the same day Lewis attempted to cash a $5,000 check from Mr. West’s account. Lewis claimed the money was a loan, but the check was alleged to have been forged—West had never previously written a check for more than $100. Lewis was never brought to trial in the murder. In 1979, the case was dismissed because of procedural issues, including the fact that Lewis had not been informed of his rights when he was arrested. In 2007, Kansas City authorities declined to reopen the West case.
Before that, Lewis had been accused of attacking his adoptive mother with an axe. In 1966, he was voluntarily committed to a state mental institution.
In 1989, as part of efforts to keep Lewis in prison, prosecutors released a letter written by Lewis to President Reagan in Oct. of 1982, threatening, among other things, to plant more cyanide capsules and track Reagan down if he didn’t change his tax policies. When the threat was initially made, prosecutors merely noted that it “related to a complaint Mr. Lewis had relating to certain policy positions taken by the White House. It did not demand any money.”
The letter stated, “I understand that you are planning to change tax laws in a way that would cause me to pay more income tax.” He then referenced the Tylenol killings and detailed his plans, adding, “I will cease these killings if you will not let the taxes increase. Also, I want all past due payroll taxes for all employers abated.” It was signed “Fred M.”
Lewis was released from prison in 1995. But he didn’t stay out of trouble. He was arrested in 2004 on six charges, including aggravated rape. He was held for three years without bail but never went to trial—in 2007, the victim declined to prosecute.
Legacy And Reputation
Lewis wrote a book in 2010. His bio notes that he “studied at Missouri Southern Junior College and the University of Missouri-Kansas City for 6 years” and that he “also studied at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachussetts.[sic]”
While he owned a tax business and had been described as a tax consultant and accountant, there is no mention in his bio or on his website (where he claimed he had been framed) of any experience or interest in tax.
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeremy Margolis, who prosecuted Lewis for extortion, said, “I was saddened to learn of James Lewis’ death. Not because he’s dead, but because he didn’t die in prison.”