CHICAGO — With no signs of trauma and nothing to raise suspicions, the sudden death of a Chicago man just as he was about to collect nearly $425,000 in lottery winnings was initially ruled a result of natural causes.
Nearly six months later, authorities have a mystery on their hands after medical examiners, responding to a relative’s pleas, did an expanded screening and determined that Urooj Khan, 46, died shortly after ingesting a lethal dose of cyanide. The finding 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.”
In June, Khan, who owned a number of dry cleaners, stopped in at a 7-Eleven near his home in the West Rogers Park neighborhood on the city’s North Side and bought a ticket for an instant lottery game.
Convenience store clerk Ashur Oshana said Monday that Khan had just gone on a hajj, a Muslim pilgrimage, in Saudi Arabia and wanted to lead a better life and not gamble. But Khan bought the tickets anyway and scratched off the winner in front of Oshana.
A relative came forward days after the initial cause of death was released and asked authorities to look into the case further, Cina said. He refused to identify the relative.
“She (the morgue worker) then reopened the case and did more expansive toxicology, including all the major drugs of use, all the common prescription drugs and also included I believe strychnine and cyanide in there just in case something came up,” Cina said. “And in fact cyanide came up in this case.”
Moments after the court hearing, Urooj Khan’s sister, Meraj Khan, remembered her brother as the kind of person who would’ve shared his jackpot with anyone. Speaking at the Cook County Courthouse, she hoped the exhumation would help the investigation.
“It’s very hard because I wanted my brother to rest in peace, but then we have to have justice served,” she said, according to ABC News station WLS in Chicago. “So if that’s what it takes for him to bring justice and peace, then that’s what needs to be done.”
Khan reportedly did not have a will. With the investigation moving forward, his family is waging a legal fight against his widow, Shabana Ansari, 32, over more than $1 million, including Urooj Khan’s lottery winnings, as well as his business and real estate holdings.
Khan’s brother filed a petition Wednesday to a judge asking Citibank to release information about Khan’s assets to “ultimately ensure” that [Khan's] minor daughter from a prior marriage “receives her proper share.”
Ansari may have tried to cash the jackpot check after Khan’s death, according to court documents, which also showed Urooj Khan’s family is questioning if the couple was ever even legally married.
Ansari, Urooj Khan’s second wife, who still works at the couple’s dry cleaning business, has insisted they were married legally.
She has told reporters the night before her husband died, she cooked a traditional Indian meal for him and their family, including Khan’s daughter and Ansari’s father. Not feeling well, Khan retired early, Ansari told the Chicago Sun-Times, falling asleep in a chair, waking up in agony, then collapsing in the middle of the night. She said she called 911.
Imtiaz Khan told the Sun-Times of his suspicions over his brother’s untimely death after winning a $1 million lottery jackpot.
“Shabana said Urooj had no enemies. That’s because they were in the house. She was his enemy No. 1,” Imtiaz Khan, 56, said.
When told Tuesday afternoon of the allegations made by her late husband’s brother, Shabana Ansari said, “I really don’t care what he’s saying. … No comment.”
Shabana Ansari prepared the last Indian-style meatball meal her husband ate. Her father, Fareedum Ansari, could not be reached for comment. Both their lawyers dismissed Imtiaz Khan’s allegations and said their clients have been “devastated” since Urooj Khan’s death in July.
Imtiaz Khan is involved in litigation with Shabana Ansari over her late husband’s estate.
In the interview, Imtiaz Khan repeatedly declined to say if he was the grieving relative who called authorities.
However, he told the Sun-Times he vividly remembers the death of Fareedun Ansari’s first wife in Hyderabad, India, 40 years ago.
“There was a bottle of sleeping pills next to her. They said she overdosed,” Imtiaz Khan said.
Fareedun Ansari’s second wife died naturally a few years ago, but he had left her and his five children in India to fend for themselves when he arrived in the United States decades before Shabana Ansari married Urooj Khan, Imtiaz Khan said.
Fareedun Ansari moved to West Rogers Park with the couple and Jasmeen, Urooj Khan’s teenage daughter from his first marriage, when his business flopped and he complained of his failing health less than a year ago.
Shabana Ansari has been under her father’s spell ever since, Imtiaz Khan said.
Before lottery officials presented Urooj Khan with his ceremonial check at a local 7-Eleven last summer, Imtiaz Khan recalls watching the elderly man pacing back and forth, muttering: “That lottery ticket was mine.”
That’s when he saw Shabana Ansari sidle up to her father to console him. “Don’t worry, Baba [father]. It will be yours,” Imtiaz Khan said he overheard his sister-in-law say.
“When people meet Shabana, they think she is so soft and so nice. But they don’t know the other side. … She is a like poisonous snake.”
The curse of the lottery winners continues.