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Mystery In Lottery Winner's Death May Lead To Exhumation

Authorities in Chicago on Friday will seek permission to exhume the body of a million-dollar lottery winner who ended up dead before he could cash in his winnings.

Forensic pathologists first ruled that Urooj Khan, 46, died last summer of natural causes but after further investigation, that ruling was changed to death by cyanide poisoning.

Jimmy Gorell, the owner of a 7-Eleven in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood, says Khan was a regular 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 the convenience store to buy lottery tickets before or after work.

After taking a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia with his wife, though, Khan apparently swore off buying lotto tickets.

That changed last June. Khan bought a couple of instant lottery tickets and ended up a big winner. At the news conference announcing his win, Gorell says, Khan celebrated with his wife and daughter, a couple brothers and his father-in-law.

"He was [a] very happy, very down-to-earth person," Gorell says, adding that Kahn wanted to help the needy with his winnings.

Lottery spokesman Michael Lang says Khan decided to take his winnings in a lump sum. After taxes the actual check amount was close to $425,000.

It was money that Khan never got to spend. The check was issued on July 19; 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 a body and run standard toxicology tests looking for drugs like cocaine and opiates or carbon monoxide. Medical Examiner Stephen 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 the office with a request to "look into it a little bit closer, maybe do some additional studies," Cina says. "We always are open to listening to new information."

Cina would not identify the relative, but 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.

"Cyanide deaths, although they do occur, are pretty rare," Cina says.

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

"Anything I can do to get a more complete picture," he says.

Khan shared his Rogers Park home with his wife of 12 years, Shabana Ansari, 32, and his teenage daughter from a previous marriage. Police reportedly questioned Ansari, but authorities have not indicated whether she or anyone else is a suspect.

On Thursday, 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.

Khan did not have a will, and Ansari is 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. During all of his time as a police officer in New York, New Jersey and now Chicago, he says, he's never encountered a case quite like this one.

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

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.

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