Latest autopsy reveals no new details in lottery winner's death

The body of poisoned lottery winner, Urooj Khan, is exhumed at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago on Friday, Jan. 18, 2013. (John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune)

Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Stephen J. Cina said today that the exhumation and autopsy of Urooj Khan’s body revealed nothing new to help Chicago police in the investigation of the million-dollar lottery winner’s cyanide poisoning death last summer.

At a press conference at the medical examiner’s West Side office, Cina said the body was badly decomposed and the autopsy could not confirm how the cyanide entered his body.

Cina said no cyanide was detectable in Khan’s body tissues or in the “small amount” of contents in the stomach because of the advanced decomposition.

"Cyanide has a short half-life and may be lost over the postmortem period unless tissues are adequately preserved," he said. "In this case, due to advance putrefaction of the tissues, no cyanide was detectable in the tissues or small amounts of gastric content recovered following exhumation of the body."

The medical examiner said pathologists could not tell what Khan had last eaten, saying there was only “residue” left in the stomach.

"I can't say whether it (cyanide) was ingested or not," Cina said.

The autopsy did reveal 75 percent blockage in one of Khan’s coronary arteries, but the medical examiner still ruled that Khan died of cyanide toxicity -- with heart disease as a "contributing factor." The manner of death was homicide, he said.

"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," Cina said.

Cina said he was limited in what he could tell reporters because of the "ongoing police investigation."

When a reporter asked if Khan could have died of a heart attack, Cina said, "As a pathologist you have to look at the totality of the evidence. And I don't see how I can ignore a lethal level of cyanide in the blood."

Authorities hoped to shed light on the mystery after unearthing Khan’s body at a Far North Side cemetery on Jan. 18 and performing an autopsy on the remains that same day.

After the approximately two-hour autopsy, Cina said the body was in an advanced state of decomposition but that doctors were able to gather samples for toxicological testing. The body was reburied three days later at Rosehill Cemetery.

As the Tribune first revealed earlier in January, the medical examiner's office initially ruled that Khan, 46, died July 20 from hardening of the arteries after no signs of trauma were found on the body and a preliminary blood test didn't raise any questions. But the investigation was reopened about a week later after Khan’s brother, ImTiaz, raised concerns that Khan may have been poisoned.

In an interview last month with the Tribune, Imtiaz Khan said he was visiting his brother’s grave site about a week after his death with the medical examiner’s office returned his call.

"I said: 'No, my brother cannot die like this. He was so healthy. I have suspicions about this. It cannot be natural. Please go and look into more details about it,' " Khan said. "I'm looking at the grave. I said: 'He should not be here. Absolutely not. He cannot die like that.' "

Chicago police were notified in September after tests showed cyanide in Khan’s blood. By late November, more comprehensive tests showed lethal levels of the toxic chemical, leading the medical examiner's office to declare his death a homicide.

Khan had won the scratch-off lottery prize a few weeks before his death, but he didn't survive long enough to collect the winnings -- a lump-sum payment of about $425,000 after taxes.

At the time of the autopsy in January, Cina said Khan had been buried in a wood box with a plastic foam covering wrapped in a shroud. The box sat in a concrete vault.

Following Muslim tradition, Khan’s body was not embalmed, contributing to its decomposition, Cina said. Still, the medical examiner's team was able to take samples from major organs during the autopsy for toxicological analysis, he said.

"Generally, embalming preserves tissues better. It makes it easier to see things," Cina said. "However ... additives in the embalming fluid can confuse some of the toxicological analysis."

The team also recovered contents in Khan’s stomach, according to Cina. Hair and fingernail samples also were gathered for testing, he said.

Authorities also collected a sample of the dirt surrounding the vault, because tiny organisms living in the soil can produce cyanide at low levels. Cina wanted to test it in case questions arose about whether the dirt could influence the laboratory findings on Khan’s body.

Cina's team did not smell cyanide during the autopsy, but the medical examiner said that it likely wouldn't be possible to detect the bitter-almond scent of the chemical because of the decomposition.

In court papers, Cina said it was necessary to perform a full autopsy to "further confirm the results of the blood analysis as well as to rule out any other natural causes that might have contributed to or caused Mr. Khan’s death."

Khan’s widow, Shabana Ansari, who has hired a criminal defense lawyer, told the Tribune in January that she had been questioned for more than four hours by detectives and answered all their questions. She said the detectives had asked her about the ingredients she used to prepare the final meal that her husband ate.

The Tribune also has reported that Ansari's father, Fareedun, who also lives in the family home, had owed more than $120,000 in back taxes, leading the Internal Revenue Service to place liens on Khan’s West Rogers Park residence.

According to court records obtained by the Tribune, Imtiaz Khan has squabbled with Shabana Ansari over the lottery winnings in probate court. The brother raised concern that because Khan left no will, Khan’s daughter from a previous marriage, Jasmeen, 17, would not get "her fair share" of her father's estate. The couple did not have any children together.

An attorney for Ansari in the probate case said the money was all accounted for and the estate was in the process of being divided up by the court. Under state law, the estate typically would be split evenly between the spouse and Khan’s only child, he said.

Fareedun and Shabana Ansari have denied involvement in Khan’s death and neither has been accused of a crime.

But last month, Ansari’s lawyer contended that weeks before his death, Khan had inked a deal with a business partner to ensure that his share of several dry cleaning stores went to his wife in the event of his death.

The business contract means that Ansari owns half the dry cleaning operation and its real estate, valued at more than $1 million, instead of those assets being divided among heirs in probate court, according to Ansari's lawyer, Al-Haroon Husain. The lawyer acknowledged he expects the dispute over the assets to be fought in court.

"It's a bit unusual," Husain said of the contract. "I just think he wanted to make sure his wife had a business and had attachment to the commercial property if something happened to him." Although a motive has not been determined, police have not ruled out that Khan was killed because of his lottery win, a law enforcement source has told the Tribune. 

In addition, a real estate agreement Khan signed with his wife in 2007 entitles her to sole ownership of their West Rogers Park home, which is valued at almost half a million dollars, Husain said.

Kahn’s sister, Meraj Khan, told the Tribune her suspicions of Ansari's motives intensified after learning of the business agreement.

"Things are getting more clear about why my brother is gone," the sister said. "Out of nowhere she's the beneficiary for ... the business?"

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