By LEONARD BUDER
Published: October 21, 1982 (2 months before Lewis was arrested)
A fugitive Missouri couple identified as ''one of the more substantial leads'' in the investigation into the deaths of seven persons from cyanide-filled Tylenol capsules were living at a New York City hotel at the time of the deaths in the Chicago area, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said yesterday.
Kenneth Walton, deputy assistant director of the bureau's New York office, said that the suspects, James W. Lewis and his wife, Leann, stayed at the Hotel Rutledge, 161 Lexington Avenue at 31st Street, from Sept. 6 until last week. Mr. Lewis, he said, was seen last Thursday, and Mrs. Lewis was seen last Saturday when she turned in her room key.
The poisonings took place in Chicago from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, and the authorities believe that someone in Chicago at that time placed the poisoned capsules in the stores where they were bought.
''We don't think they were traveling back and forth during the period of time they were known to be in New York,'' James T. Sullivan, the New York City Chief of Detectives, said. He said that Mr. Lewis usually met his wife each day after she finished work as a bookkeeper at a midtown real estate office and walked home with her.
They Have No Direct Link.
Mr. Walton emphasized that there was no evidence that directly connected the Lewises to the murders. They have been charged with attempting to extort $1 million from Johnson & Johnson, the parent company of the manufacturer of Tylenol, which had been the most popular over-the-counter medicine for pain relief.
However, in Chicago, Tyrone Fahner, the Illinois Attorney General, said that Mr. Lewis remained ''a prime suspect'' in the murders, ''He is one of the more substantial leads or persons we are looking at,'' Mr. Fahner said, ''He is not the only one. But it's an important one for all the reasons we have reviewed in the past.'' These have included his record of previous fraud and extortion schemes and his link, through fingerprints, to the death of an elderly Kansas City man. Photo Still Being Examined
The authorities in Chicago continued to examine a picture obtained from a drugstore surveillance camera that showed one poison victim making a purchase with a man in the background who some people thought resembled Mr. Lewis. However, the authorities now seem to be attaching little significance to the picture.
At a news briefing in Chicago, Mr. Fahner was asked about the possibility that Mr. or Mrs. Lewis could have made the two-hour trip to Chicago and returned to New York. ''That is one of the options,'' the Attorney General said. ''Obviously, if they were there the whole time, they could not have been here. But they have been seen at least in some reports to have moved around. That's why it's important to find out which ones are real and which are imagined or fictitious.''
Then Mr. Fahner added: ''We obviously have not confirmed that they have been there, in New York, every minute during the time span involved here. And we will work that backward to find out.'' 'A Prime Suspect or Lead'
Mr. Fahner emphasized that Mr. Lewis, who had a history of mental treatment, remained ''not the, but a, prime suspect, subject or lead.'' He added, ''We have other prime leads we are pursuing concurrently.''
Mr. Fahner, who along with his chief aides has shown strong reluctance to describe any leads outside the confines of their headquarters, has followed a strict policy of discussing only those leads that emerge publicly, generally through often incomplete or misleading reports in the Chicago media.
This can give the impression that the leads highlighted on hourly newscasts or presented in late-night editions of Chicago's highly competitive newspapers and relayed by news agencies are the only ones or even the most important in the bizarre medical mystery. However, there are many other equally promising leads that investigators are quietly following and often discarding throughout the country. City Police Comb Hotels
Mr. Walton, the F.B.I. official, and Mr. Sullivan, the detective chief, spoke at a news conference held at the New York offices of the bureau as more than 100 bureau agents and 35 New York City detectives, carrying photographs of the couple, combed hotels and rooming houses in Manhattan in an effort to find them.
Some 1,500 uniformed police officers were shown the photographs before the start of the 4 P.M. tour of duty yesterday and officials said that the procedure would be repeated for subsequent tours.
Chief Sullivan said that a desk clerk at the Palmer Hotel, 33d Street and Eighth Avenue, told investigators last night that he had refused to rent a room earlier in the evening to a man who resembled James Lewis. Asked why the clerk had turned the man away, Mr. Walton replied: ''He didn't like his looks.'' They Used Name of Richardson
Mrs. Lewis registered the couple at the Hotel Rutledge as Mr. and Mrs. Robert Richardson, aliases they had previously used in Chicago, Mr. Walton said, and were assigned to Room 200.
At the hotel yesterday, Jess Parker, 34, an unemployed messenger who lives there, said: ''I would see them leave at 7:30 in the morning and they would come back after 11 at night.'' He said that he looked into their room while Federal agents and detectives were there Tuesday evening, and saw two white paper packets on their beds that he said resembled ''drug packets.'' Chief Sullivan said that investigators found fingerprints in the room and a map of New York City.
''We have no evidence that they tampered with any Tylenol capsules while in New York,'' he said. On the couple's stay here, Mrs. Lewis, under the name of Nancy Richardson, worked at Abrams, Benisch & Riker, a real estate company at 6 East 43d Street. She got the job on Sept. 20 through the Robert Half Accountemps agency, which was technically her employer. On Oct. 14. she called in sick to the Half agency. Mr. Walton said yesterday that Mrs. Lewis suffered from a kidney ailment.
On Tuesday, workers at the real estate company noticed her photograph in a newspaper. ''I looked at it and there was no question at all - it was her,'' said William Ballard, the controller. He described her as ''perfectly friendly'' and said her work was ''satisfactory.'' Date of Mailing Is Uncertain
Chief Sullivan said that the extortion letter to Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, N.@J., had been mailed from Manhattan. The mailing date was unknown because the postmark was not clear, he said, but Johnson & Johnson received it Oct. 6.
Mr. Walton said investigators were looking for a brown 1969 AMC station wagon with Missouri plates, EPX 042, that the couple might have used.
More than 100 Federal, state and local detectives continue to work over 12-hour days in Chicago, exploring leads uncovered by colleagues or received on the information line (312-827-9770). They meet each evening to discuss their leads. They also still maintain a shifting list of eight or nine ''potential suspects'' based on the information gathered. But every day information sheds new light on old suspects, with some persons being dropped from suspicion and others added. Sometimes word on the change does not overtake the news media in time.
This pattern was well illustrated in the case of the fuzzy photo from the drug store surveillance camera. The photo was broadcast by a local Chicago television station, WBBM, on Monday as if it was just discovered. But Chicago detectives had uncovered the picture nearly a week ago after going through boxes of film. Examination of the photo continues, but there were few professionals who ever thought the man was Mr. Lewis.
Mr. Fahner said there was no substantiation that Mr. Lewis carried a grudge against Johnson & Johnson, over the death of his daughter, Toni, in 1974. The girl, 5, suffered from Downs Syndrome and died some weeks after heart surgery. ---- Woman Questioned in Boston
BOSTON Oct. 20 (AP) The police said tonight that they had taken a woman into custody at the midtown Park Plaza Hotel and questioned her in connection with the Tylenol case because she had some resemblance to Leann Lewis and had some Illinoiis identification.
The woman was arrested on charges of passing a false check. The police had been called in by the hotel because of a suspicious check. A police spokesman, Tom Santry, declined to identify the woman, who was taken to police headquarters for questioning. Mr. Santry said the Boston police were talking to Federal and Illinois investigators ''to find out if she matches the description even further.''
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