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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Cyanide Poisoning of Urooj Khan: Murder, Suicide or Accident?

     Urooj Khan immigrated to the U. S. from India when he was twenty-three. He worked hard, saved his money, and by 2012, the 46-year-old owned three dry cleaning shops on Chicago's North Side where he lived with his wife Shabana Ansari and his 17-year-old stepdaughter, Jasmeen. Mr. Khan also owned five condos worth $250,000.

     In June 2012, after returning from his hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia where Mr Khan promised himself he would live a better life--and quit buying lottery tickets--he paid $60 at a 7-Eleven store near his house for two instant scratch-off cards. After scratching off the second ticket, Mr. Khan yelled, "I hit a million!"

     On June 26, 2012, at the Illinois Lottery Ceremony, Mr. Khan, with is wife, stepdaughter, and a few friends looking on, accepted the oversized mock check for $425,000. (After opting for the lump sum payment, that sum was left after taxes.) Khan said he'd donate some money to St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Chicago, and use the rest of his winnings to pay bills and grow his business.

     On July 20, 2012, the day after the Illinois Comptroller's Office issued Mr. Khan his $425,000 check, and before he had an opportunity to cash it, the lottery winner had dinner in his modest West Roger's Park neighborhood home with his wife Shabana Ansari and Jasmeen. After dinner, Mr. Khan said he didn't feel well and went to bed. A short time later, he screamed that he was suffocating. Ambulance personnel rushed Mr. Khan to a nearby hospital where doctors pronounced him dead.

     After a routine toxicological testing of Mr. Khan's blood for narcotics, alcohol, and carbon monoxide poisoning (his skin had turned pink), the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office determined his cause of his death to be heart disease. The manner of Mr. Khan's death went into the books as natural. Pursuant to an internal medical examiner's office rule that dead people over the age of 45 who do not show signs of trauma are not autopsied, Mr. Khan was buried without a post-mortem examination. (The age limit has been since raised to 50.)

     On August 15, 2012, Mr. Khan's widow cashed the $425,000 lottery check.

     Five months after Urooj Khan's sudden and unexpected passing, one of his relatives called the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office. According to this unidentified family member, Mr. Khan had been poisoned to death.

     Acting on what must have been a credible tip, Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Cina ordered further toxicological testing of Mr. Khan's blood. This led to a rather shocking discovery: Mr. Khan had died from a lethal dose of cyanide. As a result of this finding, the medical examiner's office changed Mr. Khan's cause of death to cyanide poisoning. His manner of death, however, still had to be determined through a homicide investigation conducted by detectives with the Chicago Police Department. (According to reports, investigators questioned Mr. Khan's widow for four hours.)

     Cyanide is an extremely toxic white powder that has a variety of industrial applications. It can also be found in some pesticides and in rat poison. Small doses of cyanide either swallowed, inhaled (gas chambers used it), or injected, denies the body's blood cells oxygen. Death from this poison, a form of asphyxia called histoxic hypoxia, while agonizing, is quick. To disguise its bitter taste, a cyanide poisoner would be wise to mix a small amount into a plate of spicy food.

     Poisoning, as a mode of criminal homicide, was popular in the 19th Century before the dawn of pharmacology. Because there was no way to scientifically identify abnormal quantities of toxic substances in the body, no one knows how many wives, prior to 1900, poisoned their husbands to death. (In the era before forensic toxicology, homicide cops called cyanide "inheritance powder.")

    In modern times, murder and suicide cases involving cyanide and other poisons are rare. In June 2012, the month Mr. Khan won his lottery money, millionaire Michael Markin, moments after a jury found him guilty of arson, swallowed a cyanide pill. Minutes later he died while sitting at the defense table. Markin's death was so unusual it received nationwide publicity.

     On January 8, 2013, the day Medical Examiner Stephen Cina announced the planned exhumation of Urooj Khan's remains, his wife, Shaban Ansari, told an Associated Press reporter that she wasn't the relative who had requested the more sophisticated toxicological test. She said she had no idea who that person was, and that she "...didn't think anyone had a bad eye for [her husband], or that he had an enemy." The widow refused to provide details of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Khan's death. She said talking about his passing was too painful.

     In late January 2013, information surfaced that after Mr. Khan won the lottery, his 32-year-old wife and his siblings, a daughter from a previous marriage and his stepdaughter Jasmeen, began fighting over the money. According to Mr. Khan's brother Imtiaz and his sister Meraj, after his death, Shabana Ansari tried to cash the lottery check to avoid giving Khan's daughter her fair share. In November 2012, homicide detectives had searched the West Roger's Park home for traces of the cyanide. The five month period between Mr. Khan's death and the criminal investigation made solving the case difficult.

     In early February 2013, the authorities exhumed Urooj Khan's 5-foot-5, 198-pound body from a Chicago cemetery and transported it to the Cook County Medical Examiner's office. Forensic pathologists collected samples of his hair, fingernails, stomach contents, and tissue from his major organs for tests to determine if he had been poisoned to death. Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Cina told reporters that given the length of time Mr. Khan's body had been in the ground, he was not certain that toxicological tests would produce positive results. According to Dr. Cina, "cyanide over the postmortem period can evaporate from the tissues." Dr. Cina said he remained convinced, however, that Mr. Khan had been the victim of a criminal homicide.

     A few weeks after the exhumation, Dr. Cina, at a press conference, said that while earlier toxicological tests revealed a lethal dose of cyanide in Mr. Khan's blood, the poison was not detected in his tissues or digestive system. "In this case," the forensic pathologist said, "due to advanced putrefaction of the tissues, no cyanide was detected."

     The fact Mr. Khan had died without a will led to a bitter dispute between his widow and his stepdaughter Jasmeen over his estate. In December, pursuant to a court settlement, the probate judge awarded Shabana the three dry cleaning shops, the five condos, and two-thirds of the lottery winnings. Jasmeen got a third of the lottery payoff.

     As of January 2016, no one regarding Mr. Khan's death had been charged with a crime.

      

1 comment:

  1. This is another cyanide false positive. If he had NO CYANIDE POISONING symptoms, then he did not die of cyanide poisoning. Instead, artifacts of heart attack will cross-react with the cyanide reagents, to generate a false positive. I found six of these, including the Robert Ferrante case. There are four common cyanide assays, and three of them are prone to false positives with kidney and heart failure. Only the LC-MS/MS method is reliable.

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