Three members of Kasia Janus’ family were killed in a notorious string of poisonings 40 years ago. She’s trying to learn more about their lives as the anniversary nears.
Madison, Wisconsin — Kasia Janus stares at newspaper clippings spread across her dining room table.
There’s so much here, but still, it feels like so much is missing.
For years she never read these articles, or even knew many of them existed.
Her mom hid them in storage boxes, hoping to give her kids a normal childhood, as far as possible from headlines warning of fear, poisoning and death.
Now those headlines are here on Kasia’s table — a reminder of a tragedy that tore through her family, and of the missing pieces in a puzzle she’s determined to solve.
7 deaths, uncounted fears
Killer probably not psychotic, doctor believes
Close-knit family waiting for justice
Every time she flips through these files, Kasia sees something new. But she also sees with glaring clarity what isn’t there: her story.
For decades, Kasia avoided telling it. She kept her own feelings and memories about what happened boxed up like these newspaper clippings.
She was just a 4-year-old preschool student in suburban Chicago when someone slipped cyanide into Extra-Strength Tylenol bottles across the city’s metro area.
Seven people were killed in what has since become a notorious unsolved murder case. The poisonings terrorized greater Chicago, sparked nationwide panic, inspired a troubling string of copycats and prompted one of the largest product recalls in history.
It’s been nearly 40 years since September 29, 1982, the day authorities documented the first victims’ deaths. No one has been charged in the killings. Police say they’re hoping advances in DNA technology may help them uncover new evidence, but there’s been no public sign of any leads in the investigation for years.
The Tylenol poisonings are the reason there’s now tamper-proof packaging on many medicines and foods, but the case that once panicked the country has faded from the spotlight.
Kasia, now 44, thinks about it every day. As the 40th anniversary nears, she’s a woman on a mission — not trying to crack the case, but searching for answers of her own.
Of the seven victims in the Tylenol killings, three were members of her family.
Kasia lost her dad, an uncle and an aunt in a matter of days. Now, decades later, she’s trying to do everything she can to find them.
“What was my dad’s favorite color? What was he like in school? What was he like as a boss? … Good and bad, I want to hear those stories, because it’s a reflection of who I am.”
There’s still so much she doesn’t know about who they were, and so much she’s struggling to understand about what happened 40 years ago. One thing she does know: She’s ready to share her story.
Her interviews with CNN, conducted on the phone and in person over the last several months, are Kasia’s first time ever speaking to a reporter about the case.
The legacy of the killings, she says, shouldn’t be forgotten.
“It is something that altered the life of every person in the world. … And I want people to know that, yeah, this was my family,” Kasia says, “and it has changed all of us.”
She remembers whispering in her dying father’s ear
Kasia was with her father the moment he bought the cyanide-laced Tylenol that killed him.
On that September day, the postal worker picked his daughter up, as he often did, from preschool at Our Lady of the Wayside in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, Illinois.
They stopped by a nearby grocery store on the way home.
Kasia always loved running errands with her dad. She wanted to go everywhere he did.
She remembers walking with him down the aisles of Jewel-Osco that day. He picked out a bouquet of gladiolus for her mother.
Kasia paused to point out a travel-sized bottle of mouthwash. She loved how it fit in her hand so easily.
That’s when her dad picked up the bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol.
They headed home together. She didn’t know then it would be the last time.
Her dad wasn’t feeling well when they got home and took the Tylenol before heading to bed.
Kasia remembers hearing her mom scream for help when he wouldn’t wake up. And she’ll never forget how she stood beside the bed while they waited for the paramedics to come and whispered in her dad’s ear.
“Tata, it’s me. I know you’re playing a game. Just wake up.”
For years, Kasia blamed herself.
The family had gathered to mourn when tragedy struck again
Paramedics rushed Adam Janus to Northwest Community Hospital, only a few blocks away. Within hours, he was gone.
At first, doctors suspected he’d had a heart attack.
To his family and friends, it didn’t make sense. Adam Janus was 27 years old — in the prime of his career as an up-and-coming postal worker who’d ascended the ranks from mail carrier to supervisor in just a few years. In his spare time, he tinkered in a basement workshop in his Arlington Heights home, making pieces for grandfather clocks.
He was a devoted father to Kasia and her younger brother, Tom. And a loving husband who’d started wooing his wife, Teresa, in Poland and kept sending romantic letters for years to convince her to join him in America.
His death devastated and shocked his close-knit Polish immigrant family, who quickly converged on the Arlington Heights home to offer their support.
His younger brother, Stanley Janus, came to the house to mourn with his new bride, Theresa Tarasewicz Janus. They’d recently gotten married and went to Hawaii for their honeymoon. Stanley told Adam’s wife they’d do anything they could to help her.
Kasia remembers how they came and sat beside her that day as she curled up on a cushion in her favorite corner of the living room.
“What happened?” they asked.
Kasia described how her dad wouldn’t wake up, even when she whispered in his ear. She didn’t know why.
Adam Janus immigrated to the US from Poland. A framed citizenship certificate and a pipe her dad once smoked are among the keepsakes Kasia cherishes.
Kasia still has the uniform her dad wore when he worked for the post office. His name is sewn inside. Sometimes she puts on his coat and imagines him wearing it.
“They were so grief-stricken that they had a headache,” Kasia recalls. “They needed something to calm themselves down.”
So both of them took Extra-Strength Tylenol from the bottle her dad had bought earlier that day.
Her uncle collapsed on the kitchen floor of Kasia’s home. Her aunt collapsed in the living room soon afterward.
The next thing Kasia remembers, she was behind the steel bars of a hospital room crib, covered in monitors. Her uncle was dead. Her aunt was in a coma. And no one knew why this was happening to her family.
Kasia, her mom and her brother were quarantined in the hospital.
Investigators combed their home.
“They took a lot of stuff — the coffee grounds, the flowers,” recalls Teresa Janus, Kasia’s mother.
Teresa Janus says she can still see the scenes of that week playing vividly in her head like a movie. But she’s long steered clear of media attention, preferring to stay focused on being strong for her family and moving forward.
Over the years, some members of the Janus family have spoken with reporters about the case. Teresa Janus says she and her son are more private people.
She asked not to be photographed but told CNN she was open to sharing some recollections because she wanted to be supportive of her daughter’s efforts to open up and tell her story.
“I think she got this from her father,” she says, smiling.
Even as she avoided the spotlight for years, Teresa Janus says she saved all the related newspaper clippings because she wanted her children to have a chance to see them, and to know that “it was a big, big thing.”
“Sometimes you have to have a tragedy to change something,” she says.
It took authorities less than a day to connect the dots between what had happened to three members of the Janus family and the case of 12-year-old Mary Kellerman, who died suddenly on September 29 in the nearby Chicago suburb of Elk Grove Village, Illinois. All of them had taken Extra-Strength Tylenol. And investigators discovered cyanide inside the capsules.
“We’re not going to give up hope on this case, even after 40 years. … This is not on a shelf collecting dust.”
Within days, three more victims — Mary Reiner, Mary McFarland and Paula Prince — were linked to the case.
Less than a week later, Tylenol manufacturer Johnson & Johnson recalled 31 million bottles.
The next year, Congress passed a bill that made tampering with medications and other consumer goods a federal crime.
And before long, every over-the-counter medication and many food products would be sold in sealed packaging.
Investigators say they haven’t given up trying to solve the case
In the early days after the poisonings, police seemed close to cracking the case.
“Investigators have ‘principal suspects’ in cyanide manhunt,” the front page of The Daily Herald proclaimed on October 5, 1982.
But promising leads swiftly fizzled into dead ends.
As the 40th anniversary looms, the case has gone on for so long that many of the detectives who worked on it have since retired. A state law enforcement agency that investigated in the early days now no longer exists. Task forces have disbanded. And possible breaks in the case have come and gone without any visible results.
But Arlington Heights Police Sgt. Joe Murphy says the case remains an “open and active investigation.”
He says investigators from different jurisdictions are still coordinating their efforts. And the FBI is keeping all the physical evidence in one place.
“We’re not going to give up hope on this case, even after 40 years. … This is not on a shelf collecting dust,” he says.
Murphy says he can’t comment on any specific pieces of evidence, theories or suspects investigators now have in mind. But he says they’re hoping advancements in the forensic technology used to analyze DNA could lead to a break in the investigation — something that is happening more often with cold cases around the country.
“We still have all the capsules, all the bottles, the boxes that they were in, things along those lines. So that’s kind of what we’re focusing on right now, because advances are considerable since the last time they were examined, so we want to make sure that no stone is left unturned,” he says.
In 2009, FBI agents searched the home of James Lewis, a Massachusetts man who served time for extortion after sending Johnson & Johnson a letter in 1982 vowing he’d stop the killings if the company gave him a $1 million payout. Lewis was convicted in the extortion case, but has denied he was responsible for the poisonings. Investigators seized a computer from Lewis and collected a sample of his DNA. The Chicago Tribune recently reported that some investigators are still pushing for him to be prosecuted in the killings, and that Lewis says he’s been treated unfairly and continues to deny involvement.
In 2011, the FBI requested a DNA sample from Ted Kaczynski — the Unabomber — as investigators took a fresh look at the unsolved case. Kaczynski denied any connection with these killings and stated that he’d never possessed potassium cyanide.
Over the years, some victims’ families have questioned authorities’ conclusions in the case. Others have said living with the specter of an unsolved murder only deepens the tragedy their families are facing.
For her part, Kasia says she’s not focused on the murder investigation.
There was a time in her life when she says rage over what happened to her family consumed her.
The past is still something she lives with every day. She never takes Tylenol. Whenever she’s in a store, she checks to make sure a product is sealed properly before she buys it. And sometimes, the sadness is still overwhelming — when she thinks of the graduations her dad couldn’t attend, or how he never got to know his grandson.
But she says years of therapy and yoga helped her let go of anger and guilt.
She lives by a mantra that’s hanging on the wall of her office, beneath an old photo of her dad: “Today I choose happiness.”
She feels whoever’s responsible will be brought to justice someday – in this life or the next.
A 40-year-old photo became a window back in time
Kasia was speechless when she stumbled upon the photo in her grandmother’s house a few years ago. There she was, as a little girl with a mushroom haircut, peeking out between her mom and uncle’s legs, looking so innocent and lost.
Somehow amid the throngs of people at Maryhill Catholic Cemetery on the day her father, aunt and uncle were buried, photographer John H. White had seen her and shared the image with the world.
It ran on the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times, accompanied by a headline. “She mourns for her father.”
There are several copies in the box of newspaper clippings, and Kasia treasures each one.
Looking at it is a window back in time through her own eyes. She sees how the moment shaped not only her family, but the world.
“What you see is a little girl who has no idea what’s going on. I’m curious. I’m lost. I’m scared. All these emotions are wrapped up in this photo. … My face just says, ‘Our lives are all about to change. We’ve lost our innocence.’”
Finding the photo decades after it was taken has propelled Kasia on a new leg of her journey to understand what happened that day and document it. She’s decided to write a book about her family’s experience – not just the tragedy they lived through and all they lost, but how they’ve found strength and survived. And as part of her research, she’s been reaching out to White and other photographers who covered the funeral, trying to track down more images and ask for their reflections.
To this day, she’s grateful that White zoomed in on her.
“I felt like I was an invisible person,” Kasia says. “But he didn’t focus on everybody else. He just saw me and he captured it. … In the chaos, someone found me.”
Now she’s bringing relatives and friends together to share stories
So much about Kasia’s life has changed since that moment when White’s shutter clicked.
The uncertainty of that day is far behind her. But she says it took her years to find the strength and support she needed to share her story.
One day in elementary school, she remembers a classmate told her to “get over it.” In high school, another classmate told her “nobody wants to hear your story” when Kasia wrote a poem about feeling lost as she dealt with her grief.
The words stung so much that for many years Kasia stayed silent.
She didn’t mention it in 2014, when she went on her first date with Jason Iverson, the man who would eventually become her second husband.
It wasn’t until nearly a year into their relationship that it came up.
“It was September,” Jason recalls.
Kasia, he says, was acting strange.
“I couldn’t figure it out,” he says.
“Here’s why Septembers are hard,” Kasia told him.
The anniversary month has always been particularly painful. But over the years, Kasia has used it as an opportunity to honor her loved ones’ lives.
Often in September she goes through the boxes her mom saved, reading the newspaper clippings and pulling out her dad’s old things. Sometimes she travels. One year she went skydiving.
She thought of her loved ones as she prepared to jump.
“What if they wanted to do this and they just didn’t get the opportunity?” she wondered. “I’m going to do this for them.”
Kasia shows a photo of a day she went skydiving to commemorate the anniversary of her loved ones’ deaths. “Strength” and Courage” are tattooed on her arms — words she keeps in mind as she faces challenges in life.
Kasia’s dad bought a bouquet of gladiolus for her mom the same day he bought the bottle of tainted Tylenol. This year Kasia grew the flowers in her garden. She says they symbolize the strength of her parents’ love.
Septembers can be an emotional roller coaster, Kasia says. “I’m kind of up and down.”
“You haven’t been the last couple years,” Jason interjects. “Because you own it. It’s yours now.”
He’s been encouraging Kasia to share her story more ever since he first heard her tell it. And he’s seen how opening up has helped her heal.
This year, to mark the milestone anniversary, Kasia’s planning a memorial Mass and a celebration of life luncheon at a park.
“It is something that altered the life of every person in the world. … And I want people to know that, yeah, this was my family, and it has changed all of us.”
She’s gone from shying away from even mentioning what happened to planning a major event to commemorate it.
She’s invited dozens of family members, former neighbors and others who knew her loved ones to attend and share memories about their lives.
“I want to hear stories and connect with people, and I want to document this,” she says. “What was my dad’s favorite color? What was he like in school? What was he like as a boss? … Good and bad, I want to hear those stories, because it’s a reflection of who I am.”
She’s searching for answers at the post office where her dad worked
Time after time, Kasia has tried to call the Arlington Heights Post Office. She enters the number into her phone, but something stops her before she hits the green button.
It seems like a long shot that anyone there will remember her dad 40 years later.
And explaining the backstory of how her loved ones died to strangers still makes her uncomfortable.
But today she’s back in Arlington Heights, showing a team from CNN where she grew up. And as she stands outside the post office where her father once worked, she decides to push her fears aside.
She cherishes her dad’s old post office uniform and other mementos from his years working there. She’d love her dad’s former coworkers to come to the celebration of life. The sympathy cards they sent after his death have been bringing her comfort for years. And she’s read that his supervisors were pallbearers at the funeral. There are so many questions she’d love to ask them.
Kasia takes a deep breath and power walks through the post office doors. She walks up to the counter and explains she’s looking for people who knew her dad.
“What was his route?” the clerk at the counter asks.
That’s another detail Kasia wishes she knew.
“What was your dad’s name?”
“Adam Janus,” Kasia tells her.
The woman pauses for a moment, then repeats his name and shakes her head.
Kasia tries to jog her memory. She tells her the years her dad worked at the post office.
“He’s from…” she says, then lowers her voice to almost a whisper, “the Tylenol case.”
The woman nods, but looks puzzled.
“So he left here in 1982?” she asks.
“He died,” Kasia says.
This is what she was afraid of. People are forgetting what happened.
The woman says she only started working at that post office in 1986, but she gives Kasia the names of two mail carriers who’ve been there more than 50 years and might remember.
Kasia leaves her contact information and asks the woman at the counter to share it with anyone who could have answers.
“I’m just trying to find out more about my dad,” she says as she heads out the door.
The tragedy transformed her family’s neighborhood
The three-bedroom house where the Janus family lived is on a tidy suburban street only a few miles from the post office.
Standing with Kasia on Mitchell Avenue as a school bus rumbles by on a sunny September morning, it’s hard to imagine the chaos that unfolded here 40 years ago.
For Kasia, being back on the street where she grew up brings back a flood of memories — many of them positive. Yes, this is the place where her dad, uncle and aunt took the poisoned pills that killed them. But Kasia sees so much more here.
The house of the nurse who heard her mom screaming and came running to try and help that day before the paramedics got there.
The home of the woman who taught her mom how to balance a checkbook when she suddenly found herself on her own.
The neighbors who enveloped her family with love and support at a time when their world was spinning.
“They were like our second family,” Kasia says.
She lights up when she sees a former neighbor walk out her front door.
“Pat?” she shouts. “It’s Kathy Janus.”
Patti Netzel, 64, tears up as soon as she sees Kasia — who went by Kathy when she was a kid growing up in Arlington Heights.
For years, Kasia babysat her daughters. She remembers watching them splash together on the Slip ‘N’ Slide.
“What are you up to now?” Patti asks.
Paramedics carried three members of the Janus family out of this Arlington Heights home on September 29, 1982.
Patti Netzel still lives in a neighboring home. She remembers the frantic screams for help when Adam Janus would not wake up.
Kasia says she lives in Madison and works as a compliance specialist at the University of Wisconsin. She tells her former neighbor about her “Brady Bunch family,” which includes her son and husband, and also a stepson and step-grandson.
“Are you coming to the celebration of life?” she asks.
Patti says she’ll try to make it.
“I’m hoping it will be like a reunion,” Kasia says.
Patti and her family moved into the house next to the Janus family in 1981.
The following year, they watched in horror as paramedics arrived next door and brought Kasia’s father out on a stretcher. They were devastated for their neighbors, and feared others on the street could also be in danger.
“The next day the detective came to my door,” Patti recalls. “I asked him, ‘Do you know what happened? Do I need to move? Do I need to turn off my water?’”
The detective was tight-lipped. She says she ended up learning later from a newspaper reporter that tainted Tylenol was to blame.
Like many, she’s frustrated no one has been charged in the killings, and that questions about what happened and why remain unanswered. But she’s certain of one thing.
After the tragedy, she says, the neighborhood changed – for the better.
“It brought us all closer,” she says, “and taught us to appreciate life more.”
A recent moment renewed her resolve
Kasia sits cross-legged beside her father’s grave and runs her fingers over words etched in stone.
“NAJDROŻSZY MĄŻ I TATUŚ.” Dearest husband and father.
She’s come to this suburban Chicago cemetery many times since the funeral.
When she was in high school, she practiced driving on the cemetery’s roads. When she was going through a difficult divorce, she came here and prayed for guidance and strength. More recently, she’s brought her son and tried to teach him about his family’s legacy.
Kasia sees this cemetery as a safe and peaceful place where she can talk about anything and her dad will listen.
She knows she was lost when she stood here on October 5, 1982, in the moment that ended up on the front page of a Chicago newspaper.
Now, despite all the answers she’s still searching for, she’s certain she’ll find her way.
The last time she came to this cemetery, she asked her dad for advice.
She told him about the celebration of life she was planning, and about how she wants to share her story.
“Am I doing the right thing?” she asked. “Is this something you want?”
In that moment, she felt content and calm, and she sensed she knew his answer.
Since then, she says, more things have started to fall into place.
Kasia recently had a chance to meet with John H. White and talk with him about his photos. And she just received an email from one of her dad’s former post office coworkers who wants to connect.
She’s long thought of her dad as a guardian angel. And sharing her plans with him at the cemetery solidified her determination to press on.
“I feel like everything that’s happening to me,” she says, “is happening because of that moment with him.”
Telling her story still isn’t easy. She and her family suffered unimaginable heartbreak. But with each word she speaks out loud, she feels stronger.
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