x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Poisoned $1m lottery winner's death a riddle

Suspicious relative asked for further tests after death was initially blamed on natural causes.

Urooj Khan, 46, of Chicago, poses with a winning lottery ticket. He died a day after collecting his cheque.
Urooj Khan, 46, of Chicago, poses with a winning lottery ticket. He died a day after collecting his cheque.

CHICAGO // The widow of an Indian-born lottery winner who died of cyanide poisoning said she cannot believe her husband had any enemies.

Shabana Ansari also said she had no idea who in their family had asked authorities to reopen the investigation into the death in July last year of 46-year-old Urooj Khan, which was initially blamed on natural causes.

Prosecutors, police and the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office are now treating the case as murder after a more detailed post mortem revealed Khan, who lived in Chicago, has ingested cyanide shortly before he died, but they have not given any further details, announced any suspects or given any possible motive.

The identity of the relative who asked for an expanded screening after the initial cause of death was announced has not been revealed.

Ms Ansari said on Tuesday that she had spoken to police about the case but that she had not made the request for it to be reopened and did not know who had. She would not talk about the circumstances of her husband's death, saying it was too painful to recall. She said only that he had fallen ill shortly after they ate dinner together.

"I was shattered. I can't believe he's no longer with me," the short, soft-spoken Ms Ansari said tearfully, as she stood in one of three dry-cleaning stores her husband opened after immigrating to the United States from India in 1989.

Ms Ansari described Khan as a hard-working and generous man who sent money to orphanages in his home country.

"I don't think anyone would have a bad eye for him or that he had any enemy," said Ms Ansari. She has continued to work at the dry cleaner out of a desire to honor her husband and protect the businesses he built, she added.

She said Khan has planned to use the lottery winnings to pay off mortgages, expand his business and give a donation to St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

He did not have a will, she added, and the money is tied up in probate.

She said she hoped the truth about her husband would be revealed but could not recall anyone unusual or suspicious approaching them after the lottery win became public.

Kahn's death was initially ruled a result of narrowing and hardening of coronary arteries, after a basic toxicology screening for opiates, cocaine and carbon monoxide proved negative.

Authorities plan to exhume his body in the coming weeks in hopes of testing additional tissue samples to bolster evidence if the case goes to trial.

Stephen Cina, the Cook County medical examiner, said he did not believe any additional testing would change the conclusion that Khan had been posioned.

"Based on the investigative information we have now and the [toxicology results], we're comfortable where we are right now," he said.

Ms Ansari, 32, moved to the US from India after marrying Khan 12 years ago. They were both born in Hyderabad and their story is a typical immigrant's tale of settling in a new land with big dreams and starting a business. Their daughter, Jasmeen, now 17, is a student.

"Work was his passion," Ms Ansari said of her husband, adding that she planned to stay in the US and keep his businesses running.

"I'm just taking care of his hard work," she added.

She recalled going on Haj with her husband in 2010. She said he had returned from it even more set on living a good life and had even stopped his habit of buying the occasional lottery ticket.

Nonetheless, he couldn't resist buying one for an instant lottery game in June while at a shop near his home. It turned out to a US$1 million (Dh3.67m) winner.

Khan opted to take a lump sum of slightly more than $600,000 rather than the full $1m in installments. After taxes, it amounted to about $425,000, said Mike Lang, a lottery spokesman.

The checque was issued on July 19, the day before Khan died.

Some other states allow winners to remain anonymous, but Illinois requires most ticket holders to appear at a news conference and related promotions, in part to prove that the state pays out the prizes. Khan's win did not draw much media attention, and Mr Lang noted that press events for $1 million winners were fairly routine.

"We do several news conferences a month for various amounts," he said.