The body of Urooj Khan, a poisoned lottery winner from Chicago who lost his life on July 20th, 2012, shortly after learning of his good fortune, was exhumed Friday morning from Rosehill Cemetery on Chicago’s North Side for a follow-up autopsy. Khan’s body was not frozen nor embalmed, therefore the exhumation process took approximately two hours. Forensic pathologist Dr. Marta Helenowski, initially assigned to the case last year, performed the autopsy this morning, with a goal to collect samples from the lungs, liver and spleen and to take a look at the contents of Khan’s stomach and intestines. She also took bone, nail and hair samples for further testing, all in order to investigate how the cyanide that likely killed him entered his body. The medical examiner’s office told media that Khan’s body will be re-buried on Monday through spokeswoman Mary Paleologos, who also warned that the quality of the samples and condition of the body would determine whether the autopsy results provide significant insight. It is necessary to rule out natural causes of death, of course–despite the obviously suspicious circumstances of a lottery winner dying with cyanide in his blood shortly before collecting a lump-sum payment of about $425,000 after taxes.
Unfortunately, Chief Cook County Medical Examiner Stephen J. Cina told media that it will take several weeks for officials to make the call as to how Urooj Khan was poisoned, because the body was in an advanced state of decomposition due to not having been embalmed. He added, “I can’t really predict how the results are going to turn out. Cyanide over the postmortem period actually can essentially evaporate and leave the tissue. It is possible that cyanide that was in the tissues is no longer in the tissues after several months. We’ll just have to see how the results play out.”
Poignantly, the media presence surrounding the exhumation led passersby to believe they were witnessing a funeral, adding an extra element of pathos to what is already a deeply tragic story. The preliminary blood test upon Khan’s death raised no questions and there were no signs of trauma to the body, so his death was initially attributed to a hardening of the arteries. However, a family member tipped off the authorities a week later that Khan may have been poisoned, and the investigation was re-opened. On September 11th, Chicago police were informed that cyanide had been found in the poisoned lottery winner’s blood, and the medical examiner’s office set about performing more toxicology tests that by late November showed that the cyanide levels were lethal. The death has since been ruled a homicide. Khan leaves behind a widow, Shabana Ansari, who has hired a criminal defense attorney and been very open with the Chicago Tribune, stating that she cooperated with authorities and was questioned for four hours. She explained in great detail how she cooked her husband’s final meal of lamb curry, which she herself consumed along with her father Fareedun Ansari and her stepdaughter, Khan’s 17-year-old daughter, Jasmeen.
Police have not officially confirmed that Khan’s lottery winnings were the motive for his death, but Khan’s widow and brother have been fighting over the money in probate court. The brother, ImTiaz Khan, is claiming that Jasmeen will be cheated out of her fair share of the winnings due to her father’s lack of a will, but Illinois state law dictates that the money be split evenly between Khan’s widow and his only child, rendering the brother’s argument both moot and strange. Fareedun and Shabana Ansari have both denied involvement in Khan’s death, but it is worth pointing out that “two years ago, the Internal Revenue Service placed liens on the Khans’ residence on West Pratt Boulevard…to collect more than $120,000 in back taxes owed by his father-in-law…who still lives at the home with his daughter.”
The fact that a relative of the deceased knew about the poisoning indicates that someone in the family is responsible, but so far there appears to be no person of interest.