Thursday, June 13, 2024

James Lewis holds up a bumper sticker on Dec. 1, 2021, in East Cambridge, thinking it is referring to Donald Trump. (Photo: Roger Nicholson)

The East Cambridge resident suspected in a 1982 rash of deadly Tylenol poisonings in Chicago was found dead Sunday in his Gore Street condominium.

A Cambridge firefighter crew responded at 4:04 p.m. to the home “for a medical assist” and found James Lewis, 76, dead of cardiac arrest, scanner reports suggest. Lewis’ wife, Leanne, asked for someone to check on him after she was unable to talk with him during an out-of-town trip, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Cambridge police superintendent Fred Cabral is quoted as saying there was “no reason to believe there was anything suspicious” about the death, and that James Lewis had been in poor health.

After the poisonings, which killed seven people and changed medication packaging to make it harder to tamper with, Lewis served 13 years in prison – not for the poisonings, but relating mainly to extortion charges from a letter he sent to Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Tylenol, claiming responsibility. He said later the letter was written to frame someone else, but he had motive to seek revenge on the company: A J&J subsidiary made sutures used in an operation to correct his 5-year-old daughter’s heart defect in 1974. She died after the sutures tore.

No one was ever charged in the Tylenol deaths.

Lewis has been charged with other crimes, including sending a threatening letter to President Ronald Reagan and the drugging, kidnapping and rape of a woman in 2004, for which he spent three years in jail before the charges were dropped. He was also suspected in the 1978 dismemberment of Raymond West, a client of Lewis’ tax preparation business.

There were resurgences of interest in the Tylenol poisoning case in 2009, when FBI agents searched Lewis’ condo; in 2015; and 2022, on the 40th anniversary of the killings. In 2015, James and Leanne Lewis – who were together in Chicago at the time of the deaths – provided DNA samples and fingerprints to investigators, said former Cambridge resident Roger Nicholson, who has been working since 2007 to try to catch James Lewis out as a killer.

“He better have prayed to god there is no afterlife,” Nicholson said Monday, after learning of his death.

In Cambridge since 1995

Nicholson

In Cambridge, where James Lewis joined his wife after being released from prison, the Lewises ran an esteemed accounting firm, Nicholson said. Lewis also had a Web design and software company called Cyberlewis.

Two documentaries about Lewis are in the works, Nicholson said Monday by phone from Los Angeles. He has been talking with producers at both for months, he said, as someone who has gathered material on Lewis – and acted as his friend.

“He got out of jail in 1995. It was on the front page of the Boston Herald. And two weeks later, I’m walking out of Albert’s convenience store in East Cambridge and it’s Jim Lewis,” said Nicholson, recalling how he then watched Lewis walk into a condo across from the Twin Cities Plaza. “He moved in right across the street from me.”

Inspired by the books of FBI serial killer profiler John Douglas, Nicholson decided to go after Lewis. At first that was with the help of Neil McCabe, who ran a weekly paper called The Alewife in North Cambridge and set up an interview with Lewis at Andy’s Diner near Porter Square, Nicholson said. Though Nicholson was just supposed to film the interview, he said he couldn’t hold back. He jumped in “and started going after Jim. And I think he liked being challenged by me.”

Lewis promotes “Poison!”

Dan Hausle, a reporter with WHDH-TV Channel 7, captures audio from a monitor at CCTV as Roger Nicholson grills James Lewis on air Jan. 10, 2010. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Nicholson had Lewis on his Cambridge Community Television interview show “The Cambridge Rag” twice – in 2007 and 2010, when Lewis was trying to promote a novel he’d written called “Poison! The Doctor’s Dilemma” and found himself in an ambush set up by Nicholson with investigative reporters and other members of the media.

“Why would you write a book called ‘Poison’ if you were thought to be the Tylenol poisoner?” Nicholson asked on air.

The two had a twisted, transactional friendship, Nicholson said, as he tried every angle to get Lewis to admit his guilt. He said he called Lewis randomly after the older man’s release from being jailed for the rape charges, and Lewis said his wife had thrown him out. He was homeless around Christmastime and camping down by the Charles River – until, Nicholson said, he allowed Lewis to stay with him for three days.

“I have been working this motherfucker for a long, long time. We stayed in touch for years, talking politics,” Nicholson said. “We texted a lot.”

“A weird dynamic“

As recently as December 2021, Nicholson met with Lewis in East Cambridge, he said. While they talked, Lewis agreed to hold up an anti-Donald Trump bumper sticker saying “Lock him up” without seeming to understand the joke – that Nicholson believed Lewis himself to be a killer who should be locked up. “I really don’t think he really got what I was doing,” Nicholson said. “Why would he agreed to it?”

Now Nicholson said he has extensive filmed conversations to share with producers at Showtime and for a separate documentary program by Chicago news anchor Brad Edwards. His own attempt to work with Lewis on a project fell through, he said – enraging him after his long efforts. “He agreed to do the goddamn movie with Showtime and didn’t do it with me when I asked him,” Nicholson said. “This was a few months ago, and I think my last text was ‘Fuck you, you fucking piece of shit.’ And then we stopped talking.”

“I wanted to get the story, and he needed someone to talk to so he could sound professorial and smart,” Nicholson said, describing their relationship.

“Friendship is not the right word, because I was helping the FBI” try to catch him, Nicholson said. “I liked him, but I also knew he was a murderer. So it’s weird. It’s a weird dynamic.”