Investigators today began checking their first "good leads" in the Tylenol cyanide poisonings and have come up with "at least two dozen potential suspects," Illinois Attorney General Tyrone Fahner said.
Potential suspects include "malcontents . . . and weirdos who don't act right or did something extremely out of the ordinary," Fahner said. A number of potential suspects have been interviewed and cleared, he added.
In a late news conference tonight, Fahner reviewed what evidence is available to his task force of more than 100 investigators and experts and said that the 24 persons are "not hard suspects . . . these are only possibilities . . . only people we want to talk to."
"We are making progress in narrowing the investigation," Fahner said.
Investigators said they are questioning a number of what they described as "disgruntled workers" from stores connected to the tainted Tylenol deaths and went from door to door with police sketches of suspicious persons seen near the stores.
Since last Wednesday, seven Chicago-area persons have died from taking red-and-white "Extra-Strength Tylenol" capsules that contained the poison cyanide.
Large batches of "Extra-Strength Tylenol" capsules have been recalled as a precaution and the government has warned consumers against buying and taking them.
Fahner said that although his task force has six bottles of "Extra-Strength Tylenol" planted by the killer, "there are not any latent fingerprints we can discuss yet." One Food and Drug Administration official said the bottle most likely to contain fingerprints was one found by investigators in a suburban store and not purchased by one of the seven victims.
Even this bottle, the FDA official said, had no prints.
Because cyanide is not a substance controlled by the government and is readily available from chemical supply houses or even high-school chemistry labs, there is virtually no way to trace cyanide purchases, Fahner said.
"It is an act of a random murderer who filled the capsules with cyanide and then placed them in the stores," said Fahner, who is heading a task force made up from 15 federal, state, and local agencies including the FBI. Forty-three state chemists are working round-the-clock in the investigation.
Fahner said the team believes that the killer or killers bought some cyanide, stole or bought some bottles of "Extra-Strength Tylenol" capsules and, then, working at home, loaded the cyanide into from four to a dozen emptied capsules per bottle. The bottles were replaced in their individual boxes and distributed randomly, one to a store, around the northwest area of Chicago and its suburbs on Tuesday, investigators believe, the day before the first four victims died.
"He put them in the front of the shelves so they would be the next one purchased," Paul Zemitzsch, spokesman for Fahner, said.
Fahner said it is possible that more than one killer is involved, because some of the capsules had been neatly and almost undetectably opened, packed with potassium cyanide, and closed, while others had been done clumsily, making the tampering obvious.
He said the difference could indicate more than one killer, or perhaps one who got tired of doing the job carefully.
According to George Masters, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration official, cyanide is readily available to anyone who wants to buy it because there are no federal controls on the chemical and many states, including Illinois, do not require buyers to register their purchases.
Masters said that it might even be obtained from chemical suppliers by mail, and is not uncommonly found in a number of industrial plants.
Fahner disclosed that two police officers became ill after picking up what appeared to be "Extra-Strength Tylenol" capsules from a parking lot near a suburban Howard Johnson's restaurant Tuesday, the day before the first victims died. "They found these red capsules all over the parking lot" and "manually and physically picked them up," Fahner said.
"The next day, the officers were ill."
Cyanide starves the body of oxygen, and once ingested, it can kill within minutes.
Symptoms include fast breathing, decreased blood pressure, convulsions and sudden coma. The victim's eyes become fixed and the heart stops beating.
Police said today that a fourth batch number of the "Extra-Strength Tylenol" capsules was involved in the deaths. A woman who died in Winfield, a far western suburb of Chicago, had capsules from lot MB1833.
The first two batches of 50-capsule bottles implicated, lots MC2880 and 1910MD, were recalled nationwide by the manufacturer, McNeil Consumer Products Co., a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.
The most recent victim, a 35-year-old flight attendant Paula Prince, was found dead Friday night in her Chicago apartment, a few steps from a 24-capsule bottle of "Extra-Strength Tylenol" she bought at a nearby drug store. Authorities believe she died Wednesday. The pills in her apartment were from a third batch, lot 1801MA. Neither that batch, nor lot MB1833, has been recalled.
FDA spokesman Bill Grigg said the agency has not asked the manufacturer to recall the last two lots "because all 'Extra-Strength Tylenol' was ordered recalled from the Chicago area, followed by a nationwide advisory not to use 'Extra-Strength Tylenol' at all."
In another development today, Illinois officials said they were drafting legislation to require seals on all over-the-counter medication sold in the state in an attempt to prevent the type of tampering believed to have led to the Tylenol tragedy.