Monday, September 26, 2011

The Tylenol Mafia

Posted By on 09.26.11 at 01:30 PM

[Joy Bergmann wrote a November 2000 Reader story called "A Bitter Pill," about the unsolved Tylenol murders. Here's a follow-up.]

No one has ever been charged as the perpetrator of the 1982 Tylenol murders in which seven Chicago-area residents died after consuming cyanide-laced Extra Strength Tylenol capsules.

No one has ever been charged as the perpetrator of the 1986 Tylenol murder of Diane Elsroth, who died after consuming cyanide-laced Extra Strength Tylenol capsules purchased in Westchester County, New York, despite the triple-sealed, tamper-resistant packaging instituted following the 1982 deaths.

In a new self-published book, The Tylenol Mafia, author Scott Bartz says he knows why these crimes continue to confound investigators: authorities were steered toward an erroneous madman-in-the-drug-store theory of the crime. A crime Bartz believes never occurred in retail stores. He says the evidence shows the culprit put the poisoned capsules into bottles somewhere along the repackaging and distribution links in Tylenol’s supply chain. A distribution system the police did not understand and the media did not investigate. A multiparty, multifaceted distribution system closely guarded by the makers of Tylenol and Bartz’s former employer, Johnson & Johnson.

Bartz, 50, is a pharmaceutical industry insider and a whistle-blower. He worked for several J&J companies from August 1999 until his dismissal in March 2007. The United States of America, 22 states including Illinois, and Scott Bartz are plaintiffs in an ongoing qui tam and employee retaliation lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries. Bartz’s whistle-blower suit is not related to the Tylenol murders. The 145-page third amended complaint alleges (among other things) that the J&J Defendants defrauded Medicaid and Medicare through price manipulation and overcharges. In the course of his regular sales analyst duties Bartz discovered various pricing errors, brought them to the attention of his superiors in an attempt to correct the situation, and—despite his positive performance reviews and promotions—soon found himself out of a job.

Bartz remains unemployed, but he has not been idle. He created two blogs focused on the pharmaceutical industry and started working on a book about the history of Johnson & Johnson. He abandoned that project in favor of an in-depth examination of the Tylenol murders. During the past three and a half years, Bartz has analyzed over 8,000 documents, met with victims’ family members, and talked with FBI agents and Chicago-area police officers. He has also spoken with James Lewis.

James Lewis has long been a suspect in the Tylenol murders. Lewis was convicted in 1983 of writing an extortion letter to J&J referencing the crime. In a 2000 profile published in the Reader, I wrote about Lewis’s troubled past. There was no substantive evidence, however, to connect Lewis to the 1982 cyanide poisonings.

Investigators have continued to pursue Lewis. In 2009 the FBI and Illinois State Police executed a search of Lewis’s apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 2010 Lewis and his wife LeAnn provided DNA samples at the request of investigators. No charges have been brought. Bartz calls Lewis a “scapegoat” and a “red herring.”

I tried to look into why these Lewis searches were executed, only to discover the warrants and the affidavits were “impounded” by the court. The public could not examine the court filings. Now, with the Tylenol murders case reactivated, no one outside of the case can examine investigators’ records from 1982, 1986, or currently. Active investigations are exempted from Freedom of Information Act compliance rules.

I discovered Scott Bartz’s Web site in February 2010 and met him for breakfast in Manhattan the same week; I found his demeanor and story to be rational and credible. I interviewed him in his suburban New Jersey home in March 2010, and again via Skype on last week after I finished reading The Tylenol Mafia, all 513 pages of narrative text plus 104 pages of source citations.

Bartz is a stickler for details. In the book Tylenol lot numbers, warehouses, repackaging facilities, distribution channels, and manufacturing processes get traced and tracked. Bartz pays close attention to the exact terminology used by J&J, the FDA, and the FBI. Inconsistencies of statements are noted; what is said—and not said—is important. He also describes the personal and professional allegiances between key players. And he reveals allegations about the current reactivation team that—if even partially true—call the entire endeavor into question.

The following Q&A is an edited portion of my conversations with Bartz and our e-mail correspondence.

Q: What would you say are the biggest mistakes investigators made? And how easy would it be to correct those errors now?

A: 1. Instead of confiscating and inspecting the Tylenol capsules from Chicago area stores, investigators turned them over to J&J. They treated it like a product recall, not a crime scene. In addition, all of the capsules that Chicago-area residents turned over to local police departments were then shipped to J&J. Less than 1 percent of the Extra Strength Tylenol capsules in the Chicago area marketplace at the time of the poisonings were inspected. This mistake cannot be corrected because J&J destroyed the capsules.

2. Investigators immediately targeted about two dozen people (including victims’ family members) as suspects and then set out to build cases against them. Investigators should have followed the leads that would have led them to legitimate suspects. It’s too late now to correct this error. The damage to the falsely accused has been done, and most of the physical evidence has been destroyed. Any potential DNA evidence was contaminated in 1982 by bare-handed lab workers who handled the contaminated bottles and capsules over and over again.

3. Investigators initially misinterpreted the relevance of the cyanide-laced Extra Strength Tylenol capsules in Mary Reiner’s bottle of Regular Strength Tylenol. At some point investigators must have realized that they had screwed up, but they kept that knowledge to themselves. This error can be corrected if officials admit that they made a mistake, and release all documents related to the Reiner case.

Q: We know Mary Reiner purchased a bottle of Regular Strength Tylenol—her usual brand—at Frank’s Finer Foods in Winfield the day after she came home from Central DuPage Hospital’s maternity ward.

A: Yes, but she swallowed two Extra Strength Capsules shortly before her death. They found six other Extra Strength Capsules in that new bottle of Regular Strength.

Q: One smoking gun you offer in this book is a purported unit-dose package of Extra Strength Tylenol capsules that you think Mary Reiner received in a goodie bag given to new mothers upon leaving the hospital after childbirth. When did the possible existence of these capsules Reiner may have received from Central DuPage Hospital come to light?

A: In 2009 I spoke with Mary Reiner’s daughter, Michelle Rosen (who was eight years old at the time of her mother’s death). This is my analysis of where those poisoned capsules could have come from. If she had received a unit-package dose of Extra Strength Tylenol from the hospital, that would’ve been a one-day dosage of eight capsules. She took two; six others were found in the Regular Strength bottle.

Q: You believe Mary Reiner opened a freebie pouch of poisoned Extra Strength Tylenol capsules, took two, then poured the rest into her newly purchased Regular Strength bottle, consolidating her Tylenol supply. This would mean that poisoned capsules were in a hospital supply chain, not just at retail stores, which calls into question the whole theory that a madman placed the poison capsules on store shelves.

A: Correct. Police have never said her Extra Strength Tylenol came from the Regular Strength Tylenol lot number. And the FBI and J&J never warned the public that Regular Strength Tylenol might be contaminated. It was always about Extra Strength.

Q: In August 2010 you and Michelle Rosen met with Scott Watkins. In 1982 Watkins was a rookie Winfield police officer and went to the Reiner home to retrieve any Tylenol that was in the home, bottled or unbottled.

A: I asked him, “You guys must have investigated Central DuPage Hospital as the source. She’d just been in the hospital having a baby. How’d you find out the lot number for that Extra Strength Tylenol? (A lot number, 1665LM, that Bartz says was broadcast on WMAQ TV and published in the Daily Herald as part of the danger list, a number that did not appear on subsequent lists.) He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know.”

Q: He didn’t confirm or deny any unit-dose package possibility or any investigation of the hospital supply?

A: Correct. He told Michelle, ‘Sorry we targeted your dad, but those red and white capsules in a bottle of grey and white ones stood out like a sore thumb.’ Yeah, they did and they were important. But investigators misinterpreted that evidence.

Q: You point out a number of inconsistencies and, in your estimation, absurdities that have been perpetuated since the 1982 and 1986 poisonings.

A: Number one would be the madman-in-the-retail stores hypothesis. My findings debunk this hypothesis, and point instead to a repackaging facility in the channel of distribution as the location where the tamperings occurred.

Q: What’s a repackaging facility?

A: Most people are unaware of how drugs move through the supply chain. With Tylenol, for example, acetaminophen powder can be manufactured in one plant, with a lot number assigned to the batch, then shipped out as bulk powder in fiber drums. That powder may be encapsulated, bottled, and packaged at another location. Huge pallets of boxes can be broken up into smaller shipments at any number of warehouses along the way. “Repackaging” is a term that can be variably applied. The repackaging industry is not talked about; it’s hard to get information about. But all manufacturers contract with repackaging facilities, distributors and warehouses.

Q: In the 1986 case local police did not accept whatever J&J told them about the manufacturing and distribution process. Westchester County D.A. Carl Vergari said in a story I read, “In any criminal investigation, you don’t accept the statements of a witness who has an interest. And Johnson & Johnson in this case is certainly not a disinterested party.”

A: There aren’t too many people that would do what he did and speak out.

Q: Vergari also refuted the FDA’s evidence about how long it would take for cyanide capsules to corrode and show evidence of tampering. I also read in the early reports that said there was absolutely no evidence that any of the tamper-resistant packaging had been violated, which would indicate the poisoned capsules had been placed inside before the bottle and box got sealed.

A: Yes. But as Vergari got closer to the truth, the FDA and FBI closed ranks. The FBI issued a statement saying “sophisticated scientific” techniques had revealed tampering had indeed occurred.

Q: And that was pretty much the end of it. Carl Vergari never commented again from what I saw. And he died in 2006.

A: What could he do? He could take his investigation no further. He needed the FBI. He wanted his career to go on; he had to shut up.

Q: What do you want to accomplish with The Tylenol Mafia?

A: I want the lies to stop. I want to set the historical record straight about the initial Tylenol murders investigation and expose the current investigation as the fraud that it is. I don’t want James Burke (J&J’s CEO in 1982) and his handling of the Tylenol poisonings to be held up as the gold standard of crisis management as it’s now taught in business schools around the country. I hope to persuade Congress to convene public hearings to investigate the Tylenol investigation. I want the State of Illinois to release all documents related to the investigation. Most of all, I want the general public to understand how powerful corporate interests have taken control of the justice system. I want people to know the truth.

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