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Grand jury possible in Tylenol killings — 30 years later

Bottles Extra-Strength Tylenol are tested with chemically treated paper thturns blue presence cyanide October 1982 Illinois Department Health Chicago.

Bottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol are tested with a chemically treated paper that turns blue in the presence of cyanide in October 1982 at the Illinois Department of Health in Chicago. | John Swart~AP file photo

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Updated: October 26, 2012 2:23PM

Thirty years after seven people died from ingesting poisoned Tylenol capsules , state prosecutors are weighing whether to commission a grand jury to compel witness statements in the case, sources tell the Chicago Sun-Times.

The evidence investigators presented to prosecutors so far remains circumstantial, but it could be bolstered by statements from potential witnesses who have declined to sit for interviews, according to sources close to the investigation.

So far, however, no decision has been made on whether to give the grand jury a green light. Sources say both state’s attorneys from Cook and DuPage counties have been briefed on the evidence. The investigation, handled by an FBI-led task force of law-enforcement agents, still centers on the same man: James W. Lewis, sources tell the Sun-Times.

“The task force was charged with looking at all aspects of the long dormant investigation, including the re-interview of witnesses, computerizing all documents and exhibits, and subjecting physical evidence to new and previously unavailable forensic examinations,” FBI spokesman Ross Rice said in a statement. “To date, hundreds of interviews have been conducted and several thousand pieces of potential evidence re-examined.”

But are they any further along?

“You’re either at the point where you can charge someone or you’re not. We are obviously not in the position to charge right now but we are farther along,” Rice said. “The task force is still in place, they’re still actively reinvestigating the case. “

Even the “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski was swabbed for DNA at one point — but sources said that was done to exclude him as a suspect.

In 2010, Lewis and his wife were ordered to submit a DNA sample, fingerprints and palm prints to investigators.

“There are things they uncovered that you’d want to take a second look at forensically,” one law enforcement source said.

In 1982, seven Chicago area residents — five in Cook and two in DuPage — died after taking Extra Strength Tylenol capsules, which later were found to have been laced with cyanide, touching off a nationwide scare that led to new packaging for medicines and food. Various theories have been put forth over the years.

Lewis has remained the chief suspect for investigators.

He was never charged with the murders, but in 1983, he was charged with extorting the drug maker’s parent company, Johnson & Johnson, in a letter demanding $1 million to “stop the killings.” Lewis served 13 years in prison.

The Tylenol investigation remained dormant until 2009, when FBI agents — citing advances in forensic technology and new tips on the cyanide poisonings — raided Lewis’ Boston-area home and storage lockers. At the time, the FBI said there was probable cause to believe the locations contained evidence related to the murders.

In 1978, Lewis was charged with the murder of Raymond West, an elderly former client of Lewis’ accounting business. West’s body had been dismembered, stuffed in a plastic bag and hoisted to an attic ceiling in West’s home. Charges were dismissed after a judge ruled that Lewis’ arrest and the search of his home were improperly conducted. He later moved to Boston, and in 2004, he was was charged with kidnapping and raping a woman. He was in jail for about three years awaiting trial, but the charges were dismissed in 2007 after the victim refused to testify against him.

In recent years, Lewis wrote a book, “Poison! The Doctor’s Dilemma,” which he describes as a “twisted and surreal” fictional story about random poisonings. Lewis did not respond to a request for comment, but on his website, he called Johnson & Johnson the “prime murder suspect.”

Contributing: Dan Rozek

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