Authorities investigating after tests reveal Chicago lottery winner died of cyanide poisoning
Published January 08, 2013
Chicago authorities are searching for answers after tests revealed a man who died after winning $425,000 in the lottery was killed by cyanide poisoning.
The sudden death of 46-year-old Urooj Khan was initially ruled a result of natural causes because there were no signs of trauma and no suspicious circumstances surrounded his death.
MyFoxChicago.com reports Khan was rushed to a local hospital July 20 after he became violently ill at home, and later died. He had discovered he had won the lottery just days before.
"In this case, the initial investigation had no indication of foul play, there were no suspicions, he didn't have any obvious injuries or trauma," Cook County Medical Examiner Dr. Steve Cina told MyFoxChicago.com.
However, nearly six months later one of Khan's relatives called the medical examiner's office and begged them to take a second look at the case.
"They suggested there may have been something more to it than a natural death, which prompted the doctor in the case to reopen it," Cina told MyFoxChicago.com.
Medical examiners did an expanded screening and determined that Khan 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," Cina said, 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.
He scratched off the ticket, then jumped up and down and repeatedly shouted, "I hit a million," Khan recalled days later during a ceremony in which Illinois Lottery officials presented him with an oversized check. He said he was so overjoyed he ran back into the store and tipped the clerk $100.
"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.
Instead of the full $1 million over installments, Khan opted to take his winnings in a lump sum of just over $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, but was cashed on Aug. 15, Lang said. If a lottery winner dies, the money typically goes to his or her estate, Lang said.
No signs of trauma were found on Khan's body during an external exam and no autopsy was done because, at the time, the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office didn't generally perform them on those 45 and older unless the death was suspicious, Cina said. The cutoff age has since been raised to age 50.
A basic toxicology screening for opiates, cocaine and carbon monoxide came back negative, and the death was ruled a result of the narrowing and hardening of coronary arteries.
Cyanide can get into the body by being inhaled, swallowed or injected. Deborah Blum, an expert on poisons who has written about the detectives who pioneered forensic toxicology, said the use of cyanide in killings has become rare in part because it is difficult to obtain and normally easy to detect, often leaving blue splotches on a victim's skin.
"The thing about it is that it's not one of those poisons that's tasteless," Blum said. "It has a really strong, bitter taste, so you would know you had swallowed something bad if you had swallowed cyanide. But if you had a high enough dose it wouldn't matter, because ... a good lethal does will take you out in less than five minutes."
Only a small amount of fine, white cyanide powder can be deadly, she said, as it disrupts the ability of cells to transport oxygen around the body, causing a convulsive, violent death.
"It essentially kills you in this explosion of cell death," she said. "You feel like you're suffocating."
The full results came back in November. Chicago Police Department spokeswoman Melissa Stratton confirmed the department was now investigating the death and said detectives were working closely with the Medical Examiner's Office.
Investigators will likely exhume the body, Cina said.
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.