James W. Lewis, accused of attempting to exort $1 million from the maker of Extra-Strength Tylenol after seven Chicago-area residents were killed last year by Tylenol capsules tainted with cyanide, never intended to profit from the tragedy, his attorney argued here today in U.S. District court.
In opening arguments after two days of jury selection in Lewis' trial, defense attorney Michael D. Monico conceded that Lewis "wrote the letter" to Johnson & Johnson, parent company of McNeil Consumer Products Co., which makes Tylenol.
The deaths last September and October caused a nationwide scare and led to a recall of the best-selling pain-relief medicine and all other Tylenol, subsequently made available in tamper-proof packaging.
The handwritten letter, read today to the 14 jurors and alternates, said that "if you want to stop the killing," payment must be made to the bank account of a defunct travel agency owned by Frederick Miller McCahey, a wealthy Chicagoan described in court as a member of the Miller brewing family.
U.S. Attorney Dan K. Webb set a 3-foot-high enlargement of the letter on an easel before the jury. After a few minutes, Monico silently removed the exhibit.
Monico said Lewis wrote the note because he harbored a grudge against McCahey. Lewis' wife, LeAnn, had worked at McCahey's travel agency and, after the agency went out of business, her final paycheck bounced, Monico said.
When LeAnn Lewis lost a pay appeal in a state hearing, McCahey "became a bigger and bigger enemy" in the couple's mind, Monico said. He said Lewis wanted to attract law-enforcement attention to his wife's former employer.
Despite a massive investigation that still keeps federal and local law officers busy, no one has been charged with the murders. Lewis, the only person facing any charges in connection with the Tylenol deaths, is not charged with the killings.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Giacchetti told the jury that "extortion means to twist the victim. The hand of the extortionist is the hand of the author of this letter . . . , the defendant."
Lewis, 36, a gaunt man with thinning, dark-blond hair, sat impassively throughout the session. Jailed here under high bond since his arrest in New York last December, he also has been convicted of unrelated mail fraud charges in Kansas.
George Frazza, legal counsel for Johnson & Johnson, said the company had been ready to pay the $1 million but did not do so on advice from the FBI. He said that the company had lost $100 million because of the poisonings and its 35 percent share of the market dropped to about 9 percent after the poisonings.
He said there were about 250 reports of "copycat" incidents in the United States after the deaths. The poisonings prompted the drug industry to redesign medicine packaging to preclude tampering.