The Philadelphia Inquirer
September 15, 1986
Hundreds of leads
going nowhere in cyanide deaths
YONKERS, N.Y. - Diane Elsroth's
killer left no traces, other than a few capsules of Extra Strength
Tylenol, each packed with 450 milligrams of potassium cyanide.
Since Feb. 8, when the 23-year-old woman died at her boyfriend's home
here, a team of investigators systematically has explored thousands of
leads in the hope of finding the person who turned an innocuous pain
reliever into a merciless weapon.
They have found only dead ends.
They examined the smallest abnormalities. The FBI even compiled a
dossier on a Tylenol assembly-line worker solely because he called in sick
on the day that the news broke of Elsroth's death.
"I think it's safe to say we're no closer today than we were on
Feb. 9," said Owen J. McClain, the Yonkers deputy chief of
investigations. "We've eliminated a lot of people, that's all."
Now detectives from this community on New York City's north edge are
looking to Camden County, where Louis Denber died on Sept. 1 after
swallowing several spoonfuls of cyanide-laced Lipton Cup-a-Soup. Denber's
death was the 11th homicide caused by a cyanide-tainted product in the
United States. All of the killings are unsolved.
So far, the Yonkers investigators have not learned much from Denber's
death. The cyanide that killed Denber was chemically different from the
cyanide that killed Elsroth, a Westchester County prosecutor said last
week. The method used to introduce the cyanide into the Cup-a-Soup was
dissimilar as well.
In fact, the only similarity in the cases is the absence of details.
Investigators in both cases believe the killers did not know their
victims, made no threats and left no trails.
What Camden County investigators can learn from their colleagues in New
York is the daunting task they face, a challenge not unlike searching in a
crowd for a stranger, without the benefit of a description.
"When you have a serial rapist, when you have a serial murderer,
you have all sorts of profiles you can draw on, all sorts of evidence that
is left behind," a federal investigator said.
"But here, you have somebody anonymously poisoning products. We're
up against someone different, a different crime that we have to learn
Diane Elsroth's death on Feb. 8 was the first by consumer-product
tampering since seven people died in Chicago in September 1982. Like the
Chicago victims, Elsroth ingested cyanide-tainted Tylenol capsules.
Elsroth was a fetching woman with anthracite eyes who recently
graduated from the C. W. Post Center of Long Island University, where she
met Michael Notarnicola.
Both Elsroth and Notarnicola were from Westchester County - he lived
with his family in an affluent section of Yonkers, and her family lived in
Peekskill, in the rural, northern end of Westchester. They had been dating
for three years when she died while staying at Notarnicola's house.
"Automatically, you assume it has to happen in the house,"
said McClain, the Yonkers deputy chief.
Police were immediately besieged with theories from numerous tipsters
of dubious credibility, including "fortunetellers and psychics,"
"Everyone said the mother did it, or the father did it or the son
did it," he said. "They said the mother was jealous of the son,
the father had it out for the mother, the son wanted to kill the girl
because she was pregnant."
Television crews camped out in front of the Notarnicola home while FBI
agents questioned the family. A headline in the next day's newspaper said
"Police Interview Yonkers Family," and the story stated that
investigators had "focused their attention" on the Notarnicolas.
Police discovered that John and Harriet Notarnicola, Michael's parents,
had argued several days before Elsroth died, but they discounted the
dispute as minor. They found that the victim was not pregnant. None of the
theories checked out.
Elsroth, who worked as a receptionist in New York City, often stayed in
a spare bedroom at the Notarnicola home on weekends. At 1 a.m. on Feb. 8,
a Saturday, she complained of a headache. Michael opened a new box of 24
Extra Strength Tylenol capsules that his mother had bought a few days
before from an A&P in Bronxville, a cozy village next to Yonkers. He
gave Elsroth two capsules. She went to her bedroom.
About 12 hours later, the Notarnicolas became concerned that Elsroth
had not awakened and found her dead in her bed. Harriet Notarnicola was so
distressed at the discovery that she took a Tylenol capsule - without ill
effect. Investigators later found three other tainted capsules in the
Police investigated the backgrounds of anyone who knew the Notarnicolas,
said McClain. They also investigated the Elsroth family.
"They have gone through everything," said Felicia Elsroth,
Diane's mother. "Everybody who was a friend - everybody - was
Five days after Elsroth died, technicians at a U.S. Food and Drug
Administration laboratory discovered the same type of cyanide in another
bottle of Tylenol capsules, one that had been recalled after Elsroth's
death from the F. W. Woolworth store in Bronxville, several blocks from
the A&P where Harriet Notarnicola had bought the tainted Tylenol.
So investigators focused their full attention on the theory that the
Tylenol contamination was a case of random product tampering. They said
they never thought the Notarnicola family was involved.
"Unfortunately," McClain said, "as long as this remains
unsolved, we may never absolve them."
Likewise, investigators in Camden County discounted suicide or any
family connections to Louis Denber almost immediately after the
27-year-old died from eating the contaminated Cup-a-Soup. Investigators
made their decision on the basis of gut instinct - the absolute lack of a
motive, along with what they viewed as the family's genuine reaction of
Denber lived in Runnemede with his fiancee, Patricia Buhl, 25. He had
life insurance, but Buhl was not the beneficiary, investigators said. The
couple had a prenuptial agreement that would have divided their property
after the marriage. She had a child by a previous marriage whom Denber had
agreed to adopt.
"She had nothing to gain and everything to lose by his
death," said one detective.
Denber's mother, Maureen, had purchased the soup for her son at the
Clements Bridge Shop 'n Bag in Runnemede. But investigators found no
reason why she or anyone else would want to harm her son.
In addition, Denber's mother reacted to her son's death in a manner
that authorities say is not uncommon for the bereaved relative of a victim
- she became a detective. She began calling RCA officials to inquire about
Denber's co-workers at the same time that FBI agents and Camden County
investigators were interviewing them.
Investigators say they will interview an expanding circle of Denber's
acquaintances on the faint possibility that some enemy may turn up. But
like the Yonkers investigation, most of their effort is now directed at
identifying the cyanide that was found in another packet of Cup-a-Soup in
Based on an analysis of the cyanide found in the unused capsules of
Tylenol, investigators in Yonkers were able to conclude that it was
different from that used in the Chicago killings. The cyanide contained
trace amounts of silver that investigators said could have derived from
the container that held it, or the cyanide could have been used in a
manufacturing or photographic process.
Beyond that, they were unable to identify the manufacturer or the
distributor of the cyanide.
Investigators interviewed retailers of cyanide and manufacturers who
use it and compared hundreds of cyanide samples without a positive result,
McClain said. "We tried that, but we gave up because it's so
prevalent," he said. "There's no control on it. It's like buying
a loaf of bread."
The FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission compiled elaborate
graphs of recent trading in the stock of Johnson & Johnson Co., the
parent company of McNeil Consumer Products Inc., but found no significant
trades that might indicate someone was trying to profit from the death by
manipulating stock prices.
Because investigators did not immediately detect that the bottles of
Tylenol containing cyanide had been disturbed - ever since the Chicago
deaths, the manufacturer had been sealing the neck and the opening of the
bottles - the investigation initially focused on the distribution process
"It's not like a normal case where you'd ask a guy to establish
his alibi," said Bruce P. Bendish, an assistant district attorney in
Westchester County. "In this case, we don't know quite when it
Tracking McNeil's internal trail of records, investigators said they
examined hundreds of people who could have come into contact with the
Tylenol. The FBI ran background checks on employees at each point in the
distribution chain, along with the truck drivers who transported the boxes
The two bottles of tainted Tylenol were manufactured two months apart
in two different McNeil plants - one in Fort Washington, Pa., and the
other in Las Piedras, Puerto Rico. Investigators closely regarded workers
at a McNeil warehouse in Montgomeryville, Pa., through which the bottles
passed within two weeks of each other.
The FBI conducted a thorough exam of an employee at the Fort Washington
plant who called in sick on the day that Elsroth's death was announced, on
the hunch that he suffered from guilt. Likewise, they investigated a
chemist at that plant who had been reprimanded two weeks before the
capsules were made. They interviewed an assembly-line worker with a minor
criminal record at the Puerto Rican plant.
At one point investigators discovered that a group of about 20
corporate McNeil employees had visited the two plants, two months apart,
on the days when the Tylenol capsules were manufactured. All of the
employees came up clean, Bendish said. None of them had been near the
"I don't think there was anything we ever had when we thought we
were well down the road to solving it," he said. "The
investigators were so thorough, that as fast as something appeared, it was
ruled out because of their investigations."
In their foraging, investigators pursued the remotest hunches.
For instance, authorities briefly considered James E. Lewis a suspect.
Lewis was serving a prison sentence for sending an extortion note to
Johnson & Johnson in the Chicago Tylenol deaths, but was not charged
with the killings. Investigators said Lewis' wife lived in Boston, and
they considered whether the contaminated Tylenol might have been meant for
her. But they quickly dismissed the idea.
Then, a few days after Elsroth's death, police arrested a 21-year-old
New Rochelle, N.Y., man on charges of credit-card fraud and stumbled upon
an extortion letter in which he claimed he was "Tylenol Killer No.
2" and sought $2 million. The letter had not been mailed. Bendish
said investigators dismissed the man as a suspect after concluding he was
not intelligent enough to commit the tampering.
"We never close an investigation," McClain said. "We
just inactivate it, which is just a semantic difference. We've pretty much
exhausted all avenues."
McClain initially assigned 30 of the 50 Yonkers detectives under his
command to the federal task force investigating the Tylenol tampering, but
that number has dwindled. He said he would decide this week if the two
remaining detectives investigating Elsroth's murder should be reassigned.
the Yonkers case nor the New Jersey case were ever solved.