Madison woman lost dad, aunt & uncle in 1982 Tylenol murders
Kasia Novak-Janus, who lives in Madison now, sat down for her first television interview to talk about those tragic days.
MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) – Kasia Novak-Janus’ dad had just picked her up from school on what had been a beautiful early autumn day in Arlington Heights, Illinois. It was 1982, she was four years old and was like a little shadow to her father, Adam.
“Well, first of all, I was daddy’s little girl,” recalls Kasia, who now lives in Madison. “I needed to be by his side at all times.”
On that day, September 29, Adam told his young daughter they would have to stop by store to pick up some items for her mom. The pair pulled into the Jewel grocery store that was a few miles from their suburban Chicago home.
Running down the medicine aisle with Adam in tow, Kasia’s eyes were drawn, as many kids’ eyes are – to the small, travel-sized items on the shelves, particularly the bottle of Scope mouthwash. She showed her dad, showed him how cute they were, how they fit in her still-tiny hands, how she could hold them in her hand, all the while thinking how perfect it was.
They were not there for mouthwash, though, and Adam reached for the nearby Tylenol. Grabbing it off the shelf earned him a quick rebuke from his now Scope-enamored daughter.
“I remember him picking up the box and putting it in the basket,” she recounts. “And, I just remember looking at it and saying, ‘That’s not what I pointed at. That’s not what I told you to take.”
That was their last time together, she remembers.
Adam Janus was 27 years old at the time. A Polish immigrant who came to the United States as a child, he now had a job at the post office and was living the American Dream.
Several hours after Kasia and her dad returned home, she was in her room, playing with her little brother when screams filled the home as her mom tried to wake Adam.
At that point, young Kasia runs to her father and, using the Polish term for dad, whispers into his ear, ‘Tata, it’s me. You can wake up now.’
“It didn’t seem real. It was surreal,” she recalls now. “He’s just playing a game with me.”
Adam was rushed to the hospital. Paramedics rushed Adam to the hospital, but the 27-year-old father did not make it. He was one of the first victims of the Chicagoland Tylenol Murders. The Tylenol capsules he took that day had been laced with cyanide.
In all, seven people would die as a result of the tampered medication, and investigators would begin their hunt to find whoever had tampered with bottles of the popular headache medicine – as search that remains unsolved and continues to this day.
Their deaths sent shockwaves and panic through the country, led to a massive Tylenol recall, and changed the way medicine was packaged going forward.
Soon, family and friends were gathering at the Janus’ home to offer their support. Among the first to arrive were Adam’s younger brother, Stanley, and his new wife, Theresa. The newlyweds were just home from their honeymoon in Hawaii.
Kasia remembers how upset Stanley and Theresa were. The couple were enveloped in grief and developing headaches. They both took Tylenol, hoping to calm down. That’s when the unthinkable happened. Tragedy struck again – and again. The Janus house was thrown into chaos and confusion. Paramedics rushed to their home again, this time for Stanley and Teresa.
“The next thing I remember is waking up the behind, like, a stainless-steel cage, as if I was in jail. And, that is what I woke up to,” Kasia remembers. “I freaked out, and I had all these monitors on me, and I had no idea (what was going on).”
Authorities had no idea what was going on either. Was there something in the air? Carbon monoxide poisonings, maybe? A virus in the home? But, soon enough it became clear, all three family members died very soon after taking Tylenol. From there, it did not take investigators long to determine someone was pulling apart Tylenol capsules, putting cyanide in them, and putting the bottles back on store shelves.
When the news broke, the fear raced from coast-to-coast and tens of millions of bottles of Tylenol were recalled. Three days after the first deaths, all Tylenol sales were banned in Chicago and, by Oct. 5, the drug’s maker, Johnson & Johnson, was urging all stores to pull both regular-strength and extra-strength versions.
Dr. Michael Petros, who is now a clinical assistant professor at the University of Chicago-Illinois, spent nearly 40 years working in the Chicago and State of Illinois public health labs, ground zero for the Tylenol murders investigation. He estimated around 30 million bottles were pulled from the shelves, with everyone from pharmacies to retail merchants all getting on board.
“How could anybody think of that? I think it was very shocking and it was a story that was just unfolding in front of us,” he said.
Petros’ job going forward was to take recalled Tylenol and find out if there were any more cyanide-laced bottles. He noted that cyanide is listed as a ‘potential chemical terrorist agent that inhibits the cell’s ability to draw on oxygen for its metabolism.
“Essentially, when someone is poisoned with cyanide, they die at the cellular level,” he continued. “It doesn’t take much ingested. Death can occur very, very rapidly.”
Donning gloves and gowns, searchers would pull the tiny capsules apart and look for signs of cyanide, he explained. They would pour the capsules’ contents onto black paper.
The white acetaminophen, which is the active ingredient in Tylenol, would stand out and anything that was not a white powder would be a contaminant. Petros added the cyanide would be actual crystals, “and those would be easy to spot.”
His team went through thousands of bottles and tens of thousands of pills looking for this dangerous chemical. He remembers his team found one bottle with cyanide-laced capsules.
In just three days, seven people died as the result of Tylenol murders. All of them took the Tylenol on the same day, Sept. 29. On that day, Kasia’s father and uncle were two of the first three victims, along with Mary Kellerman, who was 12 years old and the youngest person to die in the tragedy.
The next day claimed the lives of Mary McFarland (pictured above) and Mary Reiner. Kasia’s aunt Theresa, who had been comatose since being taken from the Janus’ home that first day, and Paula Prince were the final two victims, when they died on October 1. The victims of Chicagoland Tylenol Murders:
- Adam Janus, 27, of Arlington Heights
- Stanley Janus, 25, of Lisle
- Theresa Janus, 20, of Lisle
- Mary Kellerman, 12, of Elk Grove Village
- Mary MacFarland, 31, of Elmhurst
- Paula Prince, 35, of Chicago
- Mary Reiner, 27, of Winfield
The Chicagoland Tylenol Murders led to massive changes in society, particularly in how people get their products. Back then, most medicine bottles did not have an air-tight seal. There was just a large wad of cotton between the contents of the bottle and the lid.
“Seven people lost their lives because there weren’t any seals at the time. There are now seals,” Kasia said. “Everything is now packaged safely and sealed so that wouldn’t happen again. So, I just hope that people would take a moment and realize people died because it wasn’t sealed.”
Petros points out the effects extend far beyond over-the-counter medications. Many pre-packaged foods like cheese and lunch meats coming double-sealed with a zip-type tear off at the top. Additionally, it is now a federal crime to tamper with a consumer product.
To this date, the crime remains unsolved. No one has ever been charged with the killings. The Illinois State Police is heading up the investigation into the case. Because it remains active, the ISP denied a request for an interview, stating, they “continue to communicate and consult with the Cook County and DuPage County State Attorneys.” One person was arrested and charged with extortion with the case.
It has been over forty years since that fall day that led to the deaths of the father Kasia used to shadow so closely along with the aunt and uncle who rushed to help when Adam was sick. She credits her husband, Jason, with being the person who taught her it was okay to tell her story.
“My approach in life is we all have stories. We all have stories to tell and that’s how we connect with people,” Jason replied, adding how proud he was of her.
The trauma she endured is very real. But, she chose now to share her story of strength so they know it is possible to get through anything.
“The past isn’t haunting me anymore. I have control at this point,” Kasia continued. “But I feel like I am at peace, I am. I own it. I just want to move on with my life and focus on the future, on the now.”
Adam and Stanley were laid to rest at Maryhill Cemetery in Niles, Illinois. Theresa was buried in a cemetery in nearby Naperville.
For Kasia, she just hopes her dad is looking over her and her family – with a smile.
“My dream is to see him again, just to give him a big hug,” she said. “I just want to ask him – first of all, I’d say ‘I love and miss you.’
“But then I just want to hear it in his own voice. ‘Are you proud of me?’
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