Saturday, May 18, 2024
Members of the media follow Tylenol poisoning suspect James Lewis after an interview Sunday in the Central Square offices of Cambridge Cable Television. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Members of the media follow Tylenol poisoning suspect James Lewis, seen in green jacket, after an interview Sunday in the Central Square offices of Cambridge Cable Television. (Photo: Marc Levy)

James Lewis, suspected of a 1982 rash of deadly Tylenol poisonings, gave away little Sunday on “The Cambridge Rag” cable-access interview show, despite the unprecedented 48-minute run time and relentless questioning from host Roger Nicholson, callers and gathered media.

Ostensibly on to promote his novel “Poison! The Doctor’s Dilemma,” Lewis, 63, sat in a tiny Cambridge Community Television studio with Nicholson, blinds drawn and door closed, while three television crews gathered in the hall that was his only way out. And the first caller to the show was Russ Ptacek, an investigative reporter for NBC Action News in Kansas City, Mo.

When the show was over, Lewis raced to a car waiting behind the channel’s studios, followed by the pack of seven camera operators and reporters asking, “Why do they want your DNA?” and “Do you have anything to say to the victims’ families?” But he was largely silent as he climbed in and the car sped away to take him to his East Cambridge home.

Such questions were also asked during the call-in show, since Lewis has been called a prime suspect in the seven Chicago killings; law enforcement officials searched Lewis’ apartment and storage locker in February and took DNA evidence from him and his wife last week. Lewis served 13 years in prison, mainly relating to extortion charges from a letter claiming responsibility he sent to Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Tylenol. He said later the letter was written to frame someone else.

Persistent allegations

He has been charged with other crimes, including sending a threatening letter to President Ronald Reagan and the kidnap and rape of a woman in 2004. Ptacek was calling about the 1978 dismemberment of Raymond West, a client of Lewis’ tax preparation business. Ptacek’s sources say the victim was butchered, and that Lewis had been trained in butchery by the 4H; and that the victim was tied up using ropes and knots identical to those found in Lewis’ car. Lewis was accused of trying to cash a $5,000 check on the day the victim disappeared. It is unknown if the victim had been poisoned as well, but there has been a request for the body to be exhumed for toxicology tests.

“Your own attorney here says he doesn’t believe you killed Raymond West, but that he does believe, his theory is, you dismembered his body to cash a $5,000 check,” Ptacek said. “I’ve been trying to reach you for months about this case.”

Nicholson eventually hung up on Ptacek.

After saying he “never was” in 4H and claiming innocence in West’s death, Lewis steered the conversation back to his novel. It’s a fictionalized take on events he saw growing up amid poverty and lead mines in southern Missouri, he said, when several people drank contaminated well water, got sick and died. The hero, Dr. Charles Rivers, takes on a villain named Agua Naranja (“orange water” in Spanish, a term for a certain kind of water contaminated by industrial runoff) and the moral question of his own father’s involvement in the deaths.

But the interview kept going other directions.

“Why would you write a book called ‘Poison’ if you were thought to be the Tylenol poisoner?” Nicholson asked, later suggesting it might be the only thing that would draw people to read the book.

“That is not any concern of mine. This book has absolutely nothing to do with that,” Lewis said. “It’s an event that I’m aware of that happened when I was a child.”

Doubts and regrets

Not everyone thinks Lewis is guilty of the Tylenol poisonings. Scott Bartz, a New Jersey resident and once a sales representative for Johnson & Johnson, has an extensive Web site called that blasts “the Tylenol mafia” and police for a cover-up and bad investigation.

Noting that Lewis and his wife were in New York City before and during the poisonings, Bartz points to Chicago survivalist Roger Arnold as the likely killer. Arnold, who died in 2008, worked at a distribution center in 1982 and had access to the Tylenol, admitted to having cyanide and manuals on poisons, made airplane reservations for Thailand for shortly after the deaths and had reportedly told a supervisor he was “mad at people and wanted to throw acid at them or poison them.”

The Daily Herald, an Illinois newspaper, reports being told the demand for the Lewises’ DNA results from a “smudge” left on a Tylenol bottle from the 1982 tampering. It “yielded no help then, but may be pertinent now that technology has advanced,” the paper said.

Dan Hausle, a reporter with WHDH-TV Channel 7, captures interview audio from a CCTV monitor before seeking to question Lewis directly. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Dan Hausle, a reporter with WHDH-TV Channel 7, captures audio from a monitor in a neon-tinged CCTV meeting room before seeking to question Lewis directly. (Photo: Marc Levy)

As media waited Sunday at CCTV, Lewis handled questions more or less stoically, sometimes looking baleful and sometimes with a glint in his eye as he jousted with Nicholson, who urged him to confess to the killings or at least address them head on — to help Nicholson’s career and because “it would be good for your reputation and your soul.” He asked if Lewis would consider him less a friend if he thought Lewis was guilty, and promised to write him in prison.

Lewis said he was not concerned about giving DNA evidence.

If Lewis thought he would do better finding callers who wanted to talk about “Poison! A Doctor’s Dilemma,” the one and a half years spent writing it or the next two novels he intends to write, he was generally disappointed.

“Hey, are you going to have a book signing anywhere?” one caller asked.

“We haven’t got everything planned yet, but there will be book signings eventually,” Lewis replied.

“Well, I’ve never had a killer sign my book before,” the caller said.

Lewis admitted regret for the letter that landed him in prison. “I was much younger then. It was something stupid and it had ramifications beyond anything that I ever thought of happening. I never dreamed it would get the publicity that it had, never dreamed it would have any kind of impact on victims. If I had, I would never have written it,” Lewis said.

But Lewis told a caller it would be wrong for him to contact the families of the Tylenol victims, even to apologize.

“I would like to communicate and say kind things to them and help them commiserate with the problems and miseries they’ve gone through. I know the loss of their family members has tortured them for their entire lives, but for me to directly contact them I think is entirely inappropriate,” he said.

He let out little about his day-to-day life, beyond saying he was poor. “I have very little to live on,” he said. “I have very little income, it’s very fixed, very limited.”

“There’s probably a lot of things from my life I would change, but I’m not going into them here,” he said. “They’ve followed me around for 30 years … If I live to be 90, they’ll probably still be making up these silly stories.

Nicholson wrapped up the show, showing the book cover a final time and telling Lewis, “You’ve been a good sport.”

Lewis stayed in the booth for several minutes before emerging to face the media.