CHICAGO — Authorities hope to shed light on a murder mystery after unearthing the body of a cyanide poisoning victim at a Chicago cemetery and performing an autopsy on the remains Friday.
After forensic pathologists ruled the million-dollar lottery winner’s death a homicide weeks ago, the case has become a real-life whodunit for Chicago police.
Will the autopsy results help authorities figure how Urooj Khan was poisoned? Did he eat the cyanide with his last meal of lamb curry? Or was it inhaled?
Following the approximately two-hour autopsy, Chief Medical Examiner Stephen J. Cina said the body was in an advanced state of decomposition but doctors were able to gather samples for toxicological testing. Khan was buried about six months ago.
It could be several weeks before Cina and his team can determine if the autopsy will help police unravel the mystery, he said.
“I can’t really predict how the results are going to turn out,” Cina told reporters in the lobby of his Chicago office. “Cyanide over the postmortem period actually can essentially evaporate and leave the tissue. It is possible that cyanide that was in the tissues is no longer in the tissues after several months. We’ll just have to see how the results play out.”
As the Chicago Tribune first revealed earlier this month, the medical examiner’s office initially ruled Khan 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 a relative raised concerns he may have been poisoned.
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.
The effort to exhume Khan’s body began as scheduled at about 7 a.m. CST at a remote section of the Rosehill Cemetery bereft of headstones.
Officials later pegged the cost at $5,600. Khan’s remains will be reburied Monday, said Mary Paleologos, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office.
Officials erected a large green tent over the grave site, ostensibly to provide privacy from hovering news helicopters as workers carried out the tedious task of digging up the remains. Workers used shovels and a backhoe to unearth the body. Two Chicago police evidence technicians took photographs and video as the work progressed.
An unmarked police car and two blue barricades blocked off the entrance to Rosehill, keeping a slew of TV reporters and cameramen just outside the gate. Some tried to peek through fencing for a better view, while a few checked out the gangways of nearby apartment buildings for a closer look.
Cina said Khan had been buried in a wooden box with a styrofoam 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. That could prove to be helpful to determine if cyanide had in food. Hair and fingernail samples were also gathered for testing, he said.
Authorities also collected a sample of the dirt surrounding the vault, since 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 have influenced the laboratory findings on Khan’s body.
Cina’s team was unable to detect the smell of cyanide during Friday’s autopsy, but the medical examiner said that it likely wouldn’t be possible to detect the bitter-almond scent of cyanide 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 last week 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 has also 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 residence.
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According to court records obtained by the Tribune, Khan’s brother has squabbled with Shabana Ansari over the lottery winnings in probate court. The brother, ImTiaz Khan, raised concern that since 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.
Since her father’s death, Jasmeen Khan has been living with Khan’s siblings.
While 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.
Khan’s sister, Meraj, stood outside the cemetery entrance with her husband and two brothers while officials exhumed the body. She said it was a stark reminder the family’s arduous ordeal since Urooj Khan’s death, but hopes the autopsy will give them more answers.
“I hope no one has to go through this. It’s hard for me and my family,” she said later in a brief telephone interview. “I (cannot) imagine this really happening to us.”
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