Off topic: Why Ted Kaczynski could have been responsible for Tylenol Poisonings

Back in the 1990's I was following the Unabomber case and developed a curiosity about what kind of person could be responsible for these crimes. I became particularly intrigued by the Unabomber's persistent use of symbols, such the names of people, organizations, streets or places, that were associated with his targets and seemed to suggest part of his motive. They were often words related to wood, trees or forests.

When Burson-Marsteller PR executive Thomas Mosser was killed by one of the Unabomber's devices at his New Jersey home in 1994, one thing I particularly remember reading in the aftermath was that Mosser had personally been involved at Burson-Marsteller in helping J&J in its widely praised reaction to the Tylenol poisonings in 1982. (While I have not been able to find an exact citation to confirm my memory, Burson was involved and I did come up with a quote of Mosser mentioning the Tylenol crisis in a speech). The thought was that if Mosser or his firm had been publicly identified as having helping J&J ameliorate the impact of the crisis, that could have been a motive for targeting him and a nexus between the two cases.

After Ted Kaczynski was captured in 1996 and proven to be the Unabomber, I started exploring the information publicly available about him, the Unabomber case and the Tylenol case, and saw some striking patterns. I composed a rough draft laying out the case that Kaczynski could have committed the Tylenol poisonings, that they were consistent with his modus operandi in many ways, and consistent with Kaczynski's bizzare, obsessive thought processes and the use of symbols to act out against things that angered him (including genetic engineering and mining). The draft appears to have last been updated in 2003, although for a number of reasons I was not able to pursue it further.

With the recent confirmation by the FBI that it was seeking a DNA sample from Kaczynski, among others, as part of continuing investigations into the Tylenol poisonings, I thought I would go ahead and put out my unfinished draft with all its faults. There are, hopefully, only a small circle of people in the world capable of remotely murdering multiple innocent people, and he has already been established to be one of them. Given that and the other facts I present, he should be considered a suspect in the case.

The original draft follows:

I believe that Theodore Kaczynski, the “Unabomber”, may have also been responsible for the Tylenol Murders in Chicago in the fall of 1982. This hypothesis was reached by analyzing the combination of symbols expressed by the Tylenol Murders. As a mathematician, Ted Kaczynski manipulated symbols to solve equations. This is the way he thought. As the Unabomber, Kaczynski often used symbols to express his anger at the forces that where threatening the values of the natural world that he claimed to be protecting. In carrying out the Tylenol poisonings, he was combining two such symbols: the use of the poison potassium cyanide, and the target of Johnson & Johnson, the manufacturer of Tylenol. He also had an intimate familiarity with the Chicago area where the tampered pills were planted.

Why Johnson & Johnson?

Kaczynski's hatred of biotechnology is well documented. In the early 1970s, after abruptly leaving his teaching post at Berkeley, he wrote a long essay that opposed funding for scientific research, particularly in the field of genetics. In the hope of getting his essay published, or at least publicized, he sent it to columnists around the country. As the Unabomber, several of his targets were scientists working on various aspects of biotechnology, or computers which he said would make genetic manipulation more possible. His manifesto warned of the dangers of genetic manipulation to human freedom. To this day, he continues from prison to assail the biotech industry. In a 2002 article titled “Hit Where It Hurts”, he singles out biotechnology as the key battleground for radical action against the “techno-industrial system.”

In 1982, the biotech revolution was just getting started. Endless articles extolled the discovery of recombinant DNA and the potential scientific and commercial applications of gene splicing. Much of the commercial research was taking place at smaller startup companies, but the large pharmaceutical giants were beginning to invest in and make acquisitions of these small companies. A major participant in this arena was Johnson & Johnson. Kaczynski, who kept up with the news in his frequent visits to the tiny Lincoln, Montana branch library and periodic visits to the larger Missoula, Montana library, often read The New York Times. He may have seen an article such as this, from the May 13, 1982 edition:

Johnson & Johnson In Deal With Enzo

The Johnson & Johnson Company said that it had signed a letter of intent with Enzo Biochem Inc., a genetic-engineering company based in New York, to develop and market Enzo's DNA-based diagnostic products. Johnson said it would spend $14 million to purchase 850,000 of Enzo's common shares, or 14.6 percent of the stock outstanding. It would also provide $6 million over the next two years to support Enzo's research and development. Johnson said it intended to obtain the exclusive rights to market all of Enzo's products. Securities analysts said that the arrangement was similar to others Johnson had worked out with small technology and gene-splicing companies. “Sometimes their intention is to buy out the whole company,” said Robert C. Dunne, an analyst with Simpson & Company. “But more often they're just looking to get the products. They do seem to be getting a bit more aggressive, though, particularly in the medical high-tech area.”

Thus Johnson & Johnson may have become a convenient target in Kaczynski's attack against the biotech industry. It is also interesting to note that the name of J & J's founder was Robert Wood Johnson. As the Unabomber, Kaczynski on two occasions targeted men with the name “Wood”, Percy Wood in 1980 and Leroy Wood Bearnson in May, 1982. In fact, in the bomb sent to Percy Wood references to “wood” occurred three times in addition to the victim's name: the bomb contained wood pieces, the book enclosed in the package was published by Arbor House, who's logo was a leaf, and the phony return address was Ravenswood Street. Johnson & Johnson's headquarters is in New Brunswick, NJ. Brunswick derived from German, roughly means “brown” or “wooded town.” J&J's cofounder was Robert Wood Johnson. Another tree connection; although Tylenol itself does not contain Aspirin, the chemical that was eventually synthesized as Aspirin was originally discovered in natural ingredients, most notably the bark of willow trees.

Kaczynski may have hoped to cripple, if not destroy, Johnson & Johnson and inhibit its ability to invest in the biotech area. However, due to quick work on the part of J&J to recall, repackage, and re-launch the product, Tylenol survived and quickly regained most of its former market share. And more importantly, Johnson & Johnson's image as an ethical, caring company not only survived but actually may have been enhanced. Much of the credit for this was attributed to an excellent public relations campaign. Integral to this campaign were the efforts of J&J's PR firm, Burson Marsteller. In 1994, Burson Marsteller executive Thomas Mosser was killed by a powerful bomb sent to his home on Aspen Way in North Caldwell, New Jersey by the Unabomber.

(Note: I believe that Mosser was personally involved in the J&J effort, though I have not been able to verify this. The closest I have been able to come to making the connection is this quote by Mosser from a speech he gave at his alma mater St. Bonaventure: “What is public relations?" Mosser asked in 1985, when he received the Alumni Service Award. "It's not writing press releases. It's getting people to ask 'Where's the beef,' and having an impact on Wendy's business. It's telling Johnson & Johnson how to best minimize the damage from the contaminated Tylenol. It's helping Union Carbide live through the tragedy of Bhopal, India. It's running an Olympic torch across the United States in 82 days and answering Coca-Cola when they ask 'What's next?'.”)

In a letter, Kaczynski described his motive for the Mosser slaying:

"We blew up Thomas Mosser because he was a Burston-Marsteller(sic) executive… Burston-Marsteller is about the biggest organization in the public relations fields. This means that its business is the development of techniques for manipulating people's attitudes”.

Whether Mosser was personally involved in the J&J/Tylenol effort, or whether Kaczynski knew of this, remains unclear. But Burson Marsteller's connection to Johnson & Johnson was well known.

Why Cyanide?

By the 1970's, cyanide heap leach mining was coming into widespread use as a way to mine gold. Cyanide heap leach mining involves extracting large amounts low-grade ore, and then spraying them with a sodium cyanide solution. The cyanide develops a chemical bonding with the microscopic pieces of gold in the ore, allowing the gold to be extracted. The cyanide solution is then contained in ponds with liners to supposedly prevent it from leaking out. Heap leach mining allows for the economical mining of gold that previously could not be profitably extracted.

Environmentalists, however, claimed that the liners could easily break or rupture, releasing the cyanide solution into the ground and water system. Mining companies asserted that even if this happened, the cyanide would quickly lose its toxicity and become harmless to the environment. The environmental community contested this, and pointed to various cyanide spills that had occurred as indications of the potential dangers that existed.

The town of Lincoln, Montana was a center of mining activity. The use of cyanide in mining had a long history in the Lincoln area, dating back to 1908. However, these operations were on a relatively small scale. (See for a history of mining operations in the Lincoln District.)

This article from The Missoulan in 2003 describes the impact that cyanide heap leach mining has left on the Montana:

Environmentalists say the technology leads to serious environmental problems. They say defunct cyanide heap leach mines that companies have left behind in Montana will require tens of millions of dollars to reclaim. Of the six major cyanide leach mines in the state, only one is still operating and four will require many millions of dollars in cleanup work beyond the reclamation bonds the companies have paid the state. Three were abandoned after their owner, Pegasus Gold Inc., filed for bankruptcy in 1998. Although Pegasus posted reclamation bonds for the mines, the bonds are tens of millions of dollars less than what is necessary to reclaim the mines. The state is now responsible for cleaning up the Pegasus mines.

The most notorious of those mines are Zortman and Landusky, bordering the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Indian Reservation. Those mines will require an additional $33.5 million for complete cleanup. U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., is trying to get the money from Congress, so federal taxpayers can pick up the tab.

A fourth Pegasus mine, Basin Creek, near Helena, also has been closed, but that has not yet cost the state money to reclaim. That mine will be used as a regional waste repository for other mine waste, said Warren McCullough, chief of the Department of Environmental Quality's Environmental Management Bureau.

Another abandoned mine, the Kendall mine near Lewistown, is the subject of a lawsuit brought by neighboring ranchers who say they've been harmed by the mine's waste. That mine is owned by Canyon Resources, the company that was hoping to put another heap leach mine near Lincoln when I-137 passed. The state has about $1.9 million from the company to clean up the mine; state officials are trying to determine how much cleanup will cost.

The only cyanide leach mine still operating in the state is the Golden Sunlight gold mine near Whitehall. The mine applies cyanide to rock in large, metal vats. McGee said abandoned mines like Zortman and Landusky are the kinds of mistakes he hopes Montana doesn't repeat. But he said he believes it's possible to protect the environment and have cyanide leach mining.

It is clear that Kaczynski had developed a deep antipathy towards mining and miners. In the book “Unabomber: The Secret Life of Ted Kaczynski. His 25 Years in Montana”, Chris Waits, Kaczynski's neighbor and closest acquaintance in Lincoln, recounts a litany of vicious, destructive and violent acts that Kaczynski is alleged to have committed in the Lincoln area. According to the book, Kaczynski wrote in 1975 about putting sugar in the fuel tanks of a mining truck and a diesel engine that powered a large mining drill. "Sugar in the gas is supposed to severely damage the engine because it gets in the cylinders and acts as an abrasive," Kaczynski wrote in his journal. "But I don't know if this works in diesels."

As Kaczynski said in a prison interview with Earth First, “But what first motivated me wasn't anything I read. I just got mad seeing the machines ripping up the woods and so forth..." Waits also believes that Kaczynski may have shot a miner from behind with a 30-30 rifle, which resulted in the victim's being partially crippled. While no such rifle was found when federal authorities searched his cabin, there was plenty of ammunition.

Lincoln would later become the center of a major environmental battle over the so-called “McDonald Project”. This would have been a large cyanide heap leach mine, located 8 miles east of Lincoln, that would have extracted as much as 4 million ounces of gold. To understand the significance of this location to environmental activists, one must realize that it is located at the headwaters of the Big Blackfoot River, memorialized in Norman McLean's “A River Runs Through It”. In 1998, Montana voters passed a statewide referendum banning cyanide heap leach mining, except for existing mines already using it. This law, though challenged, still stands today.

It is unknown whether the prospect of such a large-scale heap leach operation near Lincoln was known to Kaczynski back in 1982. But in that year, a large spill occurred at the Zortman Landusky mine. Some 780 gallons of cyanide-tainted solution leaked from a containment pond when a section of piping used in the mine's cyanide sprinkling system ruptured and released 52,000 gallons of cyanide solution onto lands and into creeks. Testing of the tap water revealed that there was a cyanide concentration of 3.2 milligrams per liter (mg/L), well above the drinking water standards and cyanide levels in the creek measures as high as 22mg/L. The community's local water system was shutdown.

(Note: I believe that the Zortman Landusky spill occurred early in 1982, although I still have to verify this. There were also several other smaller spills at Zortman Landusky during 1982.)

What is clear is that he hated what he perceived mining was doing to the Montana wilderness, that he on at least one occasion sabotaged mining equipment, and that he would have certainly been aware of the cyanide issue. He may have wanted to demonstrate to people just how deadly cyanide could be. The large spill at Zortman Landusky in 1982, which he would have certainly read about in the Montana newspapers, may have triggered his plan to use cyanide as a weapon.

The Tylenol Poisonings: Location and Opportunity

Kaczynski would have been very familiar with the areas in which the poisoned capsules were placed. The five known retail outlets in which the poisoned Tylenol was placed are as follows:

Jewel Foods, 122 N.Vail, Arlington Heights
Jewel Foods, 948 Grove Mall, Elk Grove Village
Osco Drug Store, Woodfield Mall, Schaumburg
Walgreen Drug Store, 1601 N. Wells, Chicago
Frank's Finer Foods, 0N040 Winfield Road, Winfield

All of the above addresses were within 21 miles of Kaczynski' parent's home on North Ridge Avenue in Lombard. It is also worth noting that for each store the address contained a bucolic, nature-evoking word, such as Vail, Elk Grove, Woodfield, Walgreen on N Wells, and Winfield. This is typical of The Unabomber's modus operandi. In particular, the selection of Elk Grove Village as a target is striking, since Kaczynski lived in the middle of a major elk population around Lincoln.

Although Kaczynski left the Chicago area to reside permanently in Montana shortly after he was fired from his father's company, Foam Cutting Engineers, in 1978, it is clear that he continued to make periodic trips back east to Chicago by bus:

“Eleanor Fulgham gave Kaczynski a ride into town to the Trailways bus stop one time in the mid-1980s. 'Ted was walking with a big backpack on his back and said he was going east to visit family,' she says”.

“Neighbors say Kaczynski's mother visited him in Montana, although she preferred to stay in a motel rather than his primitive cabin. She also wired money to her son frequently. Kaczynski apparently returned home to Illinois several times.”

The Psychology of a Killer

Most analysts of Ted Kaczynski have concluded that ultimately he was driven to kill out of anger and rage towards a society he could not fit into. The symbolism of his acts towards targets that he considered part of the “techno-industrial society” may have helped him to justify his behavior, but rage and hatred were the true motivating factors. This undated entry from his journal is very revealing of his motivations:

I intend to start killing people. If I am successful at this, it is possible that, when I am caught (not alive, I fervently hope!) there will be some speculation in the news media as to my motives for killing.... If some speculation occurs, they are bound to make me out to be a sickie, and to ascribe to me motives of a sordid or "sick" type. Of course, the term "sick" in such a context represents a value judgment.... the news media may have something to say about me when I am killed or caught. And they are bound to try to analyze my psychology and depict me as "sick." This powerful bias should be borne [in mind] in reading any attempts to analyse my psychology.

By 1982, Ted Kaczynski as the Unabomber had met with nothing but failure in his attempts to kill. His latest bombs, on May 5 and July 2, 1982, result in two wounded but no deaths. It would be three years before Kaczynski again struck as the Unabomber. Kaczynski may have wanted to speed up the timetable on achieving his desire to kill, thus planning the Tylenol Murders.

At first glance, the Tylenol Murders and the work of the Unabomber may appear to be somewhat dissimilar. But in fact, the both share one common and highly unusual characteristic: They were both “distance killings”. In both cases, the killer did not know his victims personally, nor did the killing at close range, but rather from a considerable distance. Most serial killers want to be close up to their victims, establish power over them, and see them suffer. ( news/1997/11/14news.html). Serial killing is regrettably fairly common; distance killing is relatively rare.

There is also evidence that Kaczynski may have used poison on other occasions. His friend Chris Waits believes that Kaczynski may have poisoned several of his dogs, using strychnine.


I am presenting this as a hypothesis that Ted Kaczynski had the motive, the opportunity, and the will to commit these murders. To the best of my knowledge, this possibility has not been explored publicly. I could find no mention of it in my research. Whether the FBI has considered the possibility is not known. They did look into whether Kaczynski could have committed to Zodiac Murders in the San Francisco area, and apparently concluded that he could not have. Kaczynski's unpublished Montana journals may clear him of suspicion in the Tylenol case. Fingerprints that may have been extracted from the tainted capsules and bottles would help settle this issue if they were compared to Kaczynski's prints, if this has not been done already. But the argument presented here that the Tylenol killings represented two symbolic targets that were very close to Kaczynski's thinking - mining and biotechnology - should be considered.

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