January 8, 2013

Jackpot winner's death now a cyanide homicide

New tests show the man who won $1 million did not die naturally, but was he killed for his money?

Jason Keyser / The Associated Press

CHICAGO — Urooj Khan had returned to Chicago from the hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia inspired to lead a better life and had sworn off buying lottery tickets — except just this once.

click image to enlarge

Urooj Khan, 46, of Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood, poses with a winning lottery ticket in this undated photo. The Cook County medical examiner said Monday that Khan was fatally poisoned with cyanide July 20, 2012, a day after he collected nearly $425,000 in lottery winnings.

Illinois Lottery / AP

To his astonishment, the scratch-off ticket was a $1 million winner. But just as he was about to collect his money, Khan died suddenly. There were no signs of trauma and nothing suspicious, and the Cook County Medical Examiner's office said he died July 20 of natural causes.

Now, authorities have determined that Khan, 46, ingested a lethal dose of cyanide. The finding, spurred by a relative's pleas for an expanded screening, has triggered a homicide investigation, the Chicago Police Department said Monday.

"It's pretty unusual," said Cook County Medical Examiner Stephen Cina, commenting on the rarity of cyanide poisonings. "I've had one, maybe two cases out of 4,500 autopsies I've done."

Khan, who owned a number of dry cleaners, stopped in at the convenience store near his home in the West Rogers Park neighborhood on the city's North Side in the summer and bought a ticket for an instant lottery game.

Convenience store clerk Ashur Oshana told The Associated Press on Monday that Khan had gone on the pilgrimage and told him he was done gambling. But Khan couldn't resist and scratched off the winner in front of Oshana.

"Right away he grabbed my hand," Oshana said. "He kissed my hand and kissed my head and gave me $100. He was really happy."

At an Illinois Lottery ceremony days later, Khan recalled that he jumped up and down in the store and repeatedly shouted, "I hit a million!"

"Winning the lottery means everything to me," he said at the June 26 ceremony, also attended by his wife, Shabana Ansari; their daughter, Jasmeen Khan; and several friends. He said he would put some of his winnings into his businesses and donate some to a children's hospital.

Khan opted for a lump sum of slightly more than $600,000. After taxes, the winnings amounted to about $425,000, said lottery spokesman Mike Lang. The check was issued from the state Comptroller's Office on July 19, the day before Khan died. It was cashed Aug. 15, Lang said, explaining that if a lottery winner dies, the money typically goes to his or her estate.

Calls to Khan's family went unanswered Monday. A knock on the door at the family's small, two-story house late Monday afternoon wasn't answered.

Khan was pronounced dead July 20 at a hospital, but Cina would not say where Khan was when he fell ill, citing the ongoing investigation. The external exam showed no signs of trauma on Khan's body.

No autopsy was done because, at the time, the Medical Examiner's Office didn't generally perform them on people 45 and older unless the death was suspicious, Cina said. The cutoff age has since been raised to age 50. After the basic toxicology screening for opiates, cocaine and carbon monoxide came back negative, the death was ruled a result of the narrowing and hardening of coronary arteries.

Cyanide can be inhaled, swallowed or injected. Deborah Blum, an expert on poisons who has written about the detectives who pioneered forensic toxicology, said using cyanide to kill someone has become rare partially because it's difficult to obtain and easy to detect — often leaving blue splotches on a victim's skin.

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