Photo: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune
It sounds like the setup for a hardboiled detective story: A man plays an Illinois Lottery scratch card and wins a prize worth $1 million. The day after the state cuts his check, he collapses and dies. Then an investigation begins to see if he died because he was poisoned—by cyanide.
The case keeps popping up in the news on and off. On Monday, the Chicago Police Department told the Chicago Tribune that the case of former West Rogers Park resident Urooj Khan “remained an active homicide investigation.” Meanwhile, family members continue to squabble over Khan’s estate. So while we wait for the whole thing to shake out, it's worth just looking over the stunning details we've learned so far.
Urooj Khan, 46, was an Indian immigrant who moved to Chicago in the late 1980s and began working at a dry cleaners. In 2004, he opened up his own business, Style Dry Cleaners, on Devon Avenue. He’d later set up additional shops on nearby Western Avenue and in Edgewater, as well as purchase several properties to rent. Khan's wife, 32-year-old Shabana Ansari, described him as generous and “a workaholic.” He had sworn off gambling after he took his hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in 2010.
But for some reason, the Tribune reports, he decided to take a chance on two $30 scratch tickets one day last summer while standing at the counter of a 7-Eleven near his home:
But then he changed his mind and bought the two tickets, the clerk said last week while working at the same store. Moments later, Khan grabbed [Ashur] Oshana's hand and kissed it on winning the million-dollar prize. Khan then handed him a $100 bill out of gratitude, apologizing that he didn't have more money on him, Oshana said.
"Take this $100 and I promise I'll make you happy (later)," Oshana recalled Khan telling him. "He was jumping up and down … by his car."
Illinois requires most winning ticket holders to appear for a news conference, in part to prove the state actually pays out its prizes. On July 19, 2012, Khan accepted an oversized check at the store location where he bought the ticket, flanked by his wife and 17-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. Khan took his winnings in one lump sum; after taxes, the total came out to $424,449.
At the sparsely attended presser, he spoke excitedly about plowing the winnings back into his dry-cleaning business, and possibly donating money to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. That night, at home, his wife prepared a traditional Indian lamb curry to celebrate. Khan ate the meal with Ansari, his father-in-law Fareedun Ansari, and his daughter Jasmeen.
Hours later, police documents say the businessman was found screaming in his bedroom. He was rushed to St. Francis Hospital in Evanston and pronounced dead the next day.
[Stephen J.] Cina, the medical examiner, said each death is handled on a case-by-case basis, but no autopsy was performed on Khan because his death didn't appear suspicious and he was older than 45, the age at which the office didn't do automatic autopsies without some evidence of foul play.
The forensic pathologist who handled the case checked the body from head to toe and found no signs of trauma, Cina said. She also took a sample of Khan’s blood—a standard practice at the office for any death—and checked for carbon monoxide, opiates and alcohol. The results came back negative. As a result, the office ruled that Khan had died of natural causes: hardening of the arteries.
The potential for foul play wasn’t acknowledged until ImTiaz Khan, Urooj’s brother, petitioned Cina’s office to take a closer look at his sibling’s death. (Why he did this is still unknown.) Cina took the familial plea seriously and reopened the case.
On September 11, the examiner’s office contacted Chicago police and alerted them that tests revealed cyanide in Khan’s blood. By early December, after performing more comprehensive toxicological exams, Cina declared Khan’s death a homicide.
Cyanide is difficult to procure, and it's used rarely as a weapon in the 21st century. Cina told the AP that in 4,500 autopsies, it was just the second incident of cyanide poisoning he’d ever seen. Still, as NBC News reports, it’s a potent drug when ingested or inhaled:
“It’s basically a poison that impedes your body’s ability to use oxygen,” David Benjamin, a professor of biomedical forensic sciences at Boston University, said. “It blocks the ability of your blood to circulate oxygen throughout your body, and you basically die from suffocation.”
Cyanide poisoning would probably feel “like someone had wrapped your face with Saran wrap,” he added.
By early January, after the Tribune and other media outlets first learned about the investigation, Cook County prosecutors had successfully petitioned to have Khan’s body exhumed. At Rosehill Cemetery on January 18, Khan’s body was loaded into a hearse and sent away to the lab. Dr. Marta Helenowski, the forensic pathologist who originally handled Khan's case, took samples of lungs, liver, and spleen for further testing. The results, released in early March, were inconclusive:
While earlier toxicology tests revealed a lethal dose of cyanide in Urooj Khan’s peripheral blood, the chemical was not detected in his tissues or digestive system, Cook County Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Cina told reporters Friday. All that was found in the decomposed Khan’s stomach was a “non-specific residue,” Cina said, reiterating that the 46-year-old’s death remains classified as a homicide.
“Cyanide has a short half-life and may be lost over the postmortem interval unless tissues are adequately preserved,” Cina said. “In this case, due to advanced putrefaction of the tissues, no cyanide was detected.”
The family’s response to the tragedy has added another layer of intrigue. (This AP account is the best summation of the “convoluted family saga.”) Here's the rundown.
Two years ago, the Internal Revenue Service placed liens on Khan’s residence in an attempt to collect $120,000 in back taxes from Fareedun Ansari, Khan’s father-in-law. Then, after Khan was allegedly murdered, his brother ImTiaz—suggesting daughter Jasmeen might not get “her fair share” of her father’s assets—entered into a probate court battle with the widowed Ansari over the estate. (Khan had no will.)
And as if things couldn’t get any messier, next, Khan's ex-wife and Jasmeen's mother emerged out of the blue:
Now remarried, living in South Bend, Indiana, and going by the name of Maria Jones, she told the Chicago Sun-Times she last saw her daughter 13 years ago, when she says Khan took the girl to India. The distraught woman said she didn't know the girl was in the U.S. and she hoped to reconnect with her.
"I don't know if she knows I'm still alive," she told the newspaper, sobbing during a phone interview. "I thought she was in India all these years."
On Monday, a Cook County probate court froze Khan’s business assets, pending a hearing next month.
It’s just the latest wrinkle in a case with plenty of them.