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Mystery In Lottery Winner's Death May Lead To Exhumation

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Mystery In Lottery Winner's Death May Lead To Exhumation

Law

Mystery In Lottery Winner's Death May Lead To Exhumation

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Chicago, what once looked like a death from natural causes now looks like a murder. And the Cook County state's attorney is asking to exhume a body to investigate. The victim is a 46-year-old man named Urooj Khan. He was a million-dollar lottery winner who died last summer before he could cash in. The medical examiner now says he was poisoned with cyanide.

NPR's Cheryl Corley has that story.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That'll be lots of money.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Even early in the morning, the lottery sales at this 7-Eleven convenience store in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood are brisk.

JIMMY GORELL: We do anywhere from five to 7,000 a day.

CORLEY: Store owner Jimmy Gorell says Urooj Khan was a regular here for a couple of years. Khan immigrated from India to the U.S. in 1989. He worked at a dry cleaners and ended up with three stores of his own. He used to come by this convenience store to buy a lottery ticket before or after work and had already won a sizable amount of about $5,000. After taking a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia with his wife, though, Khan swore off buying lotto tickets.

That changed last June, though, when he just couldn't resist. Khan bought a couple of instant lottery tickets and ended up a big winner, a million dollars. Gorell says at the news conference announcing his win, Khan celebrated with his wife and daughter, a couple of his brothers, his father-in-law.

GORELL: He was very happy, very down-to-earth person. He was wishing that he could - when he collect his money that his wish is to help needy.

CORLEY: Lottery spokesman Michael Lang says Khan decided to take his winnings in a lump sum. So after taxes...

MICHAEL LANG: The actual check amount was 424,499 and 60 cents, 6-0.

CORLEY: So pretty close to 425,000.

LANG: Pretty close, yeah.

CORLEY: It was money that Khan never got to spend. The check was issued on July 19th and Khan died the following day. In Cook County, the sudden and unexpected death of an apparently healthy man falls under the jurisdiction of the Cook County Medical Examiner's office. That's where a pathologist will conduct an external exam of the body and run standard toxicology tests, looking for drugs like cocaine and opiates or carbon monoxide.

Medical Examiner Steven Cina says all those tests came back negative, so it was ruled that Khan died of natural causes. But Cina says a couple of days later, something unusual happened: a family member contacted his office with a request.

STEPHEN CINA: And asked that we look into it a little bit closer, maybe do some additional studies. So we always are open to listening to new information.

CORLEY: Cina would not identify the relative. But those new, more comprehensive tests of blood that was saved from the earlier investigation showed that Khan died from a lethal amount of cyanide - quite a surprise to the medical examiner.

CINA: Cyanide deaths, although they do occur, are pretty rare.

CORLEY: Khan's death was quickly reclassified as a homicide. Now Cina says he wants more information.

CINA: Anything I can do to get a more complete picture, I think may be or may not be beneficial to a jury. But the more data, I think, I can give them, the better it is for the legal system.

CORLEY: Khan shared his Rogers Park home with his wife of 12 years, 32-year-old Shabana Ansari, and his teenage daughter from a previous marriage. Ansari has reportedly been questioned by police, but authorities have not indicated whether she or anyone else is a suspect.

Today, Ansari was at work at one of the family's dry cleaners. A petite woman with long dark hair, a shawl over her shoulders, she stepped forward from a row of clothes draped in plastic. She said she did not want to be recorded. But as her eyes filled briefly with tears, she did say her husband was a good, kindhearted man whom she loved very much. She said nothing more.

Urooj Khan did not have a will and Ansari is now battling with Khan's siblings over control of her husband's estate, which now includes the lottery winnings.

Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy says the investigation continues. He also says that during all of his time as a police officer in New York, New Jersey and now Chicago, he's never encountered a case quite like this one.

GARRY MCCARTHY: Thirty-two years, I haven't seen it. So I'll never say that I've seen everything.

CORLEY: Officials hope now if a judge permits Khan's body to be exhumed, an autopsy will help provide more answers.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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