Autopsy conducted on body of poisoned lottery winner
BY LISA DONOVAN AND RUMMANA HUSSAIN Staff Reporters January 18, 2013 6:59AM
Crews broke ground at Rosehill cemetery Friday morning to exhume the remains of poisoned lottery winner Urooj Khan. A hearse took the West Rogers Park man’s body to the Cook County medical examiner’s office so testing can be done to determine just how the cyanide that killed him got into his system. | John H. White~Sun-Times
Updated: February 20, 2013 6:10AM
It took just under 90 minutes for the crew at a North Side cemetery to exhume the remains of Urooj Khan who died from cyanide poisoning six months ago — after winning a $1 million lottery jackpot.
His remains were autopsied Friday — an examination that involved taking samples of the lungs, liver and spleen, as well as the contents of Khan’s stomach and intestines to determine whether he inhaled or ingested the cyanide that killed him back in July.
In addition, testing will be done on samples taken of hair, bones, nails and dirt from the grave site, said Dr. Stephen Cina, the chief medical examiner.
Cina won a court order for the exhumation. He recently told the Sun-Times that further testing on the remains may help prosecutors if anyone is ever charged in Khan’s death.
No one has been named a suspect.
At a news conference Friday afternoon, Cina said test results would not be available for the “next few weeks.”
But after the several hour autopsy, Cina said he didn’t see anything that would change his conclusion that Khan’s death was a homicide.
“The body was in a state of advanced decomposition. We were able to identify the major organs and take samples,” he said.
The medical examiner also said cyanide in the post-mortem period can “essentially evaporate and leave the tissue, so it is possible that cyanide that was in the tissue is no longer in the tissue after several months.”
Khan’s body had been buried, wrapped in a shroud, inside a wooden box with a Styrofoam lid, inside a concrete vault with a hinge on it, Cina said.
“No dirt came into contact with the body,” he said.
Khan, 46, a Muslim, was buried per Islamic tradition in a simple cotton cloth called a “kafan.”
As in most Muslim burials, the body had not been embalmed.
“Generally, embalming preserves tissues better and makes it easier to see things,” Cina said, although he added that embalming fluid also can confuse the toxicological analysis.
An “external” examination — not an autopsy — was initially conducted on Khan because official protocol in July dictated that if someone was over the age of 45 and there appeared to be no suspicious circumstances or evidence of external injuries, cause of death could be determined without an autopsy, Cina reiterated.
The medical examiner had determined Khan died from the hardening of arteries. But when a concerned relative called, more tests were done, revealing Khan had been poisoned.
With at least one of Khan’s family members — a brother — and investigators with the Chicago Police Department and Cook County medical examiner’s office looking on, the remains were removed from a grave in Rosehill Cemetery early Friday. An imam was present to offer prayers during the exhumation.
Crews began working in earnest about 7:30 a.m., with a backhoe operator and staffers shoveling the cold earth to get to the burial vault.
A green tent was erected over the gravesite at one point to allow the remains to be raised from the ground out of view of throngs of news media, who were not allowed to get close to the scene.
By 8:50 a.m., Khan’s body was loaded into a hearse. Minutes later, a procession including marked Chicago Police squads — blue emergency lights running — exited the cemetery for the medical examiner’s office.
Law enforcement on hand for the exhumation included three Chicago Police evidence technicians — including one who videotaped the exhumation and another who took still photos — along with at least one detective. The deputy chief investigator, a staff investigator from the county medical examiner’s office and assistant medical examiner Dr. Marta Helenowski, who conducted the original exam — and conducted the follow-up autopsy – also observed the exhumation, medical examiner’s office spokeswoman Mary Paleologos said.
Khan’s remains will be re-interred Monday, according to the medical examiner’s office.
The county will pay the entire $5,000 cost of the exhumation.
Khan’s death came on the heels of winning a $1 million state lottery jackpot.
In recent weeks, Khan’s widow Shabana Ansari, told the Sun-Times she fully supported the exhumation.
She said she hopes the follow-up exam will reveal “the truth.”
“I really want them to go for it because I really want to know what exactly happened,” Ansari told the Sun-Times. “I wish God will reveal the truth — the sooner the better.”
The night before his death the family sat down for a meal in their West Rogers Park home. Ansari said she had prepared a traditional Indian kofta — a meal that would be his last. She denies having anything to do with her husband’s death.
“No, I loved him to death,” the 32-year-old said. “I loved him and he loved me the same way.”
Attempts to reach Ansari Friday at her home and the family’s dry cleaning businesses were unsuccessful.
A staffer at one the family’s Rogers Park dry-cleaning stores said Ansari was spending the day “making the rounds” at the businesses and rental property the family owns.