Jul 25, 2017, 8:21 am
Urooj Khan couldn't believe his luck in spring 2012 when he scratched off a second lottery ticket at a 7-Eleven near his home on Chicago's Far North Side and realized he had won $1 million.
When he accepted an oversized promotional check from Illinois Lottery representatives with his wife and teenage daughter at his side, he spoke of how his winnings would help him grow his dry-cleaning business.
But weeks later, before he had collected the actual winnings, Khan died unexpectedly at 46.
The Cook County medical examiner's office ruled that he died of natural causes since no signs of trauma were found on his body and a preliminary blood test raised no questions.
But after a grieving relative persuaded the office to take a closer look, further testing revealed that Khan had been poisoned with a lethal dosage of cyanide. Chicago police launched a homicide investigation.
Lottery Post reported the details of Khan's death in January 2013, amid an international media storm for a murder mystery that one police official at the time compared to an Agatha Christie novel.
Now, with the passing of the fifth anniversary of Khan's July 20 death, Chicago police continue to have little to say about their investigation. But no one has ever been charged with one of Chicago's strangest killings in years.
Khan's loved ones are frustrated, waiting for answers from police that may never come.
"I keep getting the same answer — they are looking for a witness. How long is it going to take?" Khan's older brother, Imtiaz, said in his thick Indian accent during an interview last week at his west suburban home. "Who could be the witness?"
A police source familiar with the case said the investigation remains at a standstill because people close to Khan who might have information about his death have not been forthcoming with detectives.
Khan, a native of India, moved to Chicago in the late 1980s, eventually dabbling in real estate and operating several dry-cleaning businesses with his second wife, Shabana Ansari.
Khan enjoyed occasionally buying lottery tickets, but after he made hajj — the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia required of all able Muslims — he tried to give up gambling to live a more virtuous life.
But that day in 2012, he abruptly changed his mind and bought two tickets.
"I hit a million!" Khan shouted repeatedly after scratching off his second ticket, according to the Illinois Lottery.
Khan opted for a lump sum payment of about $600,000 — lowered to about $425,000 after taxes. But he died after falling ill at home before collecting his check.
With no evidence of foul play, the medical examiner's office did not perform an autopsy. A forensic pathologist, though, took a sample of his blood — a standard practice in any death — and checked for carbon monoxide, opiates and alcohol. When those results came back negative, the office ruled that Khan died of hardening of the arteries.
Imtiaz Khan said he wouldn't accept that finding, especially after his brother's lottery win created some tension within his extended family. In several phone calls, including one while he visited his brother's grave, he pleaded with the medical examiner's office to take a closer look.
"I kept saying, 'He didn't die by heart attack. It was a murder,'" said Khan, sitting at his dining room table by a wall adorned with framed text from the Koran. "'Can you please check more into it?'"
The office put the blood sample through more comprehensive toxicological testing, checking it for a number of potentially harmful substances, including amphetamines, PCP, fentanyl and barbiturates. In a surprise, the tests not only uncovered the cyanide but lethal levels of the substance.
Detectives interviewed Khan's widow, Ansari, for more than four hours in late 2012. At the time, her criminal defense lawyer, Steven Kozicki, said she answered all their questions.
According to Kozicki, authorities also executed a search warrant at the home in the West Rogers Park neighborhood that she shared with Khan; his daughter from a previous marriage, Jasmeen; and Ansari's father.
Shabana Ansari could not be reached for comment last week despite repeated attempts. But days after the story broke about her husband's death, she told reporters that detectives had questioned her about the ingredients she used in preparing what turned out to be her husband's last meal, a traditional Indian lamb curry dinner.
In addition to Khan, Ansari and her father, Fareedun Ansari, said they and Jasmeen all shared the same meal.
Both Ansari and her father denied to reporters any involvement in the death.
"He was such a nice person," Ansari said. "No one would dare kill him."
As it turned out, a little more than a year before Khan's death, the Internal Revenue Service placed liens on the family residence in an attempt to collect more than $120,000 in back taxes owed by Fareedun Ansari.
The medical examiner's office, under fire for its handling of Khan's death six months earlier, exhumed his body later from Rosehill Cemetery on Chicago's Far North Side to perform an autopsy.
Stephen J. Cina, then chief medical examiner, later told reporters it could not be determined how lethal levels of cyanide entered Khan's body because of its advanced decomposition. Following Muslim tradition, the body had not been embalmed, contributing to its condition.
Cina also said forensic pathologists found only "residue" in the stomach, leaving them uncertain what Khan had last eaten.
The autopsy, however, revealed that one of Khan's coronary arteries was 75 percent blocked, a fact highlighted at the time by Shabana Ansari's criminal defense lawyer as evidence that his death might have still have been from natural causes. Indeed, the autopsy noted that coronary artery disease was a contributing factor to Khan's death.
"Since cyanide affects oxygen utilization in the tissues, it follows logically that a natural disease process that already limits blood flow to the heart could render an individual particularly susceptible to death due to this toxin," said the final autopsy report issued in February 2013.
In a brief telephone interview last week, however, Cina said the toxicological results showing the lethal dosage of cyanide made the homicide finding "pretty straightforward."
"Probably the most controversial cases are suicides when the family doesn't want to accept the ruling," said Cina, who now practices forensic pathology in Colorado.
Khan had no suicidal ideations, Cina said, and "there was no evidence that he accidentally ingested the cyanide."
Cina said the case ranks "probably in the top 10" of the most memorable he's seen in his 26 years as a forensic pathologist, but mostly because of the intense media attention it received.
After her father died, Jasmeen left the family home, moving in with Khan's sister and her husband. Jasmeen, who could not be reached for comment, is now studying at Loyola University Chicago, her family said.
Since Urooj Khan left no will, the survivors battled over his assets in Cook County probate court before reaching a settlement.
In the end, his daughter was awarded some condominiums said to be valued at a combined $250,000 and one-third of the lottery winnings, about $140,000, court records show. His widow kept the dry-cleaning businesses valued at a little more than $1 million and two-thirds of the lottery money, about $280,000, according to the records. Some of the estate went toward attorneys' fees.
As part of the agreement, both sides were barred from pursuing wrongful-death lawsuits unless the criminal investigation into Khan's death turned up new evidence.
Al-Haroon Husain, Ansari's attorney in the matter, said he's never handled a more competitive probate case.
"It wasn't just a matter of money," Husain said last week during an interview at one of his suburban offices. "It was a matter that one side believed the other side murdered (him). ... I don't know if there is any harder emotion to overcome, to say that you've murdered my family member."
Imtiaz Khan, who pressed the medical examiner to take a closer look at the death, said he used to call Chicago police for updates on the investigation more frequently.
He said he still visits his brother's grave at Rosehill Cemetery.
"Where is the justice?" he said. "I want who did this to be behind bars."
At Rosehill, lightly overgrown grass surrounds Khan's headstone. About 80 feet away sits a dampened mound of dirt with a bouquet of flowers resting atop it — where Khan's father-in-law, Fareedun Ansari, was buried after he died at 75 of cancer earlier this month, according to public records.
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