SACRAMENTO, Calif. —Nearly three decades after the Chicago Tylenol poisonings changed how American products are packaged, the FBI confirmed Thursday it is taking a new look at the unsolved case and whether it was the work of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.
But a Sacramento attorney for Kaczynski questioned Thursday whether the announced probe was merely a ploy to boost attention for the government's ongoing auction of the Unabomber's possessions.
"I find it highly suspicious that the FBI has requested a sample of Mr. Kaczynski's DNA at the same time the government is attempting to generate publicity in order to maximize proceeds from the auction of his personal property," said John Balazs, a member of Kaczynski's criminal defense team who said he will represent him in the Tylenol probe.
"I am persuaded that Mr. Kaczynski had absolutely no involvement in any aspect of the events in Chicago in 1982," he added.
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In a statement issued Thursday after McClatchy Newspapers first reported the development, the FBI's Chicago division said, "As part of our re-examination of the evidence developed in connection with the 1982 Tylenol poisonings, we have attempted to secure DNA samples from numerous individuals, including Ted Kaczynski. To date, Mr. Kaczynski has declined to voluntarily provide this sample.
"The investigation into the Tylenol murders remains ongoing. No arrests have been made and no charges have been filed."
Special Agent Royden "Ross" Rice said by telephone from the Chicago FBI office that other suspects are being looked at as well, but would not elaborate.
Kaczynski, who grew up in the Chicago area, was captured in 1996, pleaded guilty two years later for his 18-year bombing campaign that killed three people and is serving a life sentence in the "supermax" prison in Florence, Colo.
He has declined to voluntarily provide a DNA sample to agents investigating the Tylenol poisonings, which left seven people dead in the space of three days beginning Sept. 29, 1982. The victims took cyanide-laced Tylenol from packages that had been tampered with.
The deaths triggered a national scare, and the case marked the first mass recall of a product because of tampering. Its maker, Johnson & Johnson, won high marks for its handling of the crisis. It also spawned the now-ubiquitous tamper-proof packaging for food and drugs.
Kaczynski has been in custody since 1996, and Rice said the FBI has had samples of Kaczynski's DNA for some time. However, he added that agents are seeking new samples because of advancements in testing and processing.
"DNA technology has grown in exponential terms, and to do a conclusive test, we need new samples," he said.
Kaczynski was approached three weeks ago. Prison officials told him the FBI wanted the sample, but Kaczynski said in papers filed last week in federal court in Sacramento that he told them he wanted time to think about it .
"Even though he's a prisoner, he still has rights," Rice said.
Kaczynski said in the hand-written court papers that he has never possessed potassium cyanide, which was found in the Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules that killed seven in the fall of 1982.
Never linked to case
Kaczynski had never been linked by law enforcement to the case, and he told prison officials last month that he did not want to provide his DNA voluntarily unless authorities decided to refrain from auctioning off materials of his that would pinpoint his whereabouts in 1982.
Federal officials took no action on that request, and a government online auction of his belongings began Wednesday to raise money for $15 million in restitution he was ordered to pay his victims.
Kaczynski said he was told the FBI may seek a court order for fresh DNA samples.
The Tylenol poisonings case has stymied investigators for nearly 30 years, and no charges have ever been filed in the deaths.
In 2009, federal agents searched the Boston home of James W. Lewis, who served more than 12 years in prison for sending an extortion note to Tylenol maker Johnson & Johnson demanding $1 million to "stop the killing." Lewis has denied involvement in the poisonings.
A friend of Lewis, Roger Nicholson, told the Associated Press early last year that Lewis and his wife had given DNA samples and fingerprints to investigators.
Helen Jensen, a former nurse who accompanied investigators to the home of one of the victims, said she hopes this latest news isn't a dead end like so many before. She said she still occasionally talks to the grandmother of a 12-year-old girl who died and that "her whole family was destroyed by it."
"It sure would be nice to finally get some end to the whole thing, for the people that are survivors," Jensen said.