Exhumation starts for lottery winner poisoned by cyanide

Several helicopters hovered over Rosehill Cemetery on Chicago's North Side this morning as police exhumed the body of a West Rogers Park man who died of cyanide poisoning last summer after winning a million-dollar lottery.

A throng of trucks and police vehicles were gathered around the grave site just north of Peterson Avenue, where a beam of light can be seen shining over Urooj Khan's headstone.

A hearse was being opened in front of a green tent set up in the area as Khan's body was being loaded into it. An evidence technician snapped a photo of it before the hearse's rear doors were closed up.

The hearse then began driving away across the grass on the cemetery.

A Chicago police evidence technician squad car led a procession of the hearse and several other marked and unmarked police vehicles out of the cemetery. They exited west onto Peterson Avenue. The whole exhumation process lasted about two hours.

A medical examiner's office spokeswoman, Mary Paleologos, said if Khan's body is frozen, his autopsy will be performed at 7 a.m. Saturday. If not, the autopsy will be today. Paleologos also said Khan's body will be buried again on Monday.

A few medical examiner's office personnel were on hand for the exhumation, including Dr. Marta Helenowski, the forensic pathologist who originally handled Khan's case.

A backhoe and three or four pickup trucks were stationed at the grave site in the middle of the northern section of Rosehill earlier this morning, and the backhoe began its work digging into the ground at the grave site. In addition to the backhoe, one or two workers were seen helping dig up the body with shovels.

A large tent was set up at the site where some two dozen police officers were gathered. Among the officers are two Chicago police evidence technicians, Paleologos said. One was taking still photos of the exhumation, while the other was shooting video.

An unmarked police car and two blue barricades blocked off the Peterson Avenue gate to Rosehill, the only entrance and exit in the northern section of the cemetery.

Four TV trucks sat parked along the fence about 100 yards west of the grave site along Oakley Avenue, the designated staging area for the media. A group of about a dozen photographers, a videographer and TV reporters stood along the Peterson Avenue fence, next to where traffic moved along the busy thoroughfare like any normal morning rush hour.

A few passersby gazed at the police activity at the grave site from Oakley Avenue. One, curious about large presence inside the cemetery, was surprised to learned from a Tribune reporter that it was Khan's body being dug up. Another thought someone was having a funeral.

The exhumation of Khan's remains – scheduled to begin at about 7 a.m. – will come about six months after he was buried at Rosehill. In court papers last week, Chief Medical Examiner Stephen J. Cina said it was important to exhume the remains "as expeditiously as possible" since Khan's body was not embalmed.

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."

A pathologist will take samples of Khan's stomach contents to try to determine how the cyanide was ingested, Mary Paleologos, Cina's spokeswoman, has said. They will also look at other organs such as the lungs to make certain the cyanide wasn't inhaled, she said.

The exhumation comes after the Tribune broke the story on Jan. 7 about Khan's mysterious death, sparking international media interest in the case.

The medical examiner's office initially ruled Khan's July 20 death was from hardening of the arteries when there were no signs of trauma 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 suggested to authorities that Khan's death "may have been the result of poisoning," prosecutors said in a court filing seeking the exhumation.

The medical examiner's office contacted Chicago police Sept. 11 after tests showed cyanide in Khan's blood. By late November, more comprehensive toxicological tests showed lethal levels of the toxic chemical and the medical examiner's office declared his death a homicide.

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 had fully cooperated.  She said the detectives had asked her about ingredients she used to prepare his last meal of lamb curry, shared by Ansari, her father-in-law Fareedun Ansari and Khan's daughter from a previous marriage, Jasmeen, 17.

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. He died before he could collect the winnings – a lump-sum payment of about $425,000 after taxes.

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, Jasmeen Khan would not get "her fair share" of her father's estate.

Khan and Ansari did not have children together. Since her father's death, Jasmeen Khan has been living with Khan's siblings.

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.

In addition, almost two years ago, the Internal Revenue Service placed liens on Khan's residence on West Pratt Boulevard in an effort to collect more than $120,000 in back taxes from his father-in-law,  Fareedun Ansari, who still lives at the home with his daughter.

Fareedun and Shabana Ansari have denied involvement in Khan's death.


Twitter: @ChicagoBreaking

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