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Brother says he raised suspicions in death of lottery winner

(MCT) — CHICAGO — About a week after the unexpected death of his younger brother, Imtiaz Khan was visiting the grave at a Far North Side cemetery, grief-stricken and bewildered.

Khan was troubled that the Cook County, Ill., medical examiner’s office had determined his brother, Urooj, died of natural causes at 46. His death seemed far too coincidental to accept, especially because his brother’s $1 million lottery win weeks earlier had created some tension within his family, according to Khan.

On the day in July that he claimed the body at the morgue, Khan had pleaded with an employee there to take another look at his brother’s death. Several follow-up calls had gone unreturned. Now as Khan stood by his brother’s grave, his cellphone went off. On the line was a forensic pathologist familiar with his brother’s case.

“I said, ‘No, my brother cannot die like this. He was so healthy. I have suspicions about this. It cannot be natural. Please go and look into more details about it,’” Khan recalled last week of the approximately 20-minute conversation with the doctor. “I’m looking at the grave. I said, ‘He should not be here. Absolutely not. He cannot die like that.’ ”

Khan said — and the medical examiner’s office confirmed — that he never specifically mentioned fears of poisoning, but his concerns led the medical examiner to reopen the case. And in a shocking turnabout, comprehensive testing on a blood sample previously taken from the body uncovered lethal levels of cyanide. Late last year, Chicago police opened a homicide investigation. A court order allowed officials to exhume the body last month, and the results of that autopsy could be made public soon.

Since the Chicago Tribune broke the story last month, the identity of the relative whose concerns had led authorities to take another look at Urooj Khan’s death has been one of the bigger mysteries of a peculiar murder investigation that has captured international media interest.

By going public about his role for the first time in a series of interviews with the Tribune late last week, Imtiaz Khan, 56, said he had only one motive all along for his actions: justice for his brother, the co-owner of three dry cleaning stores who, with the lottery win, had assets approaching $2 million, according to court records.

“Every time I’d go to work I would just keep talking about my brother and keep thinking about him as if he’s standing in front of me,” said Khan, who works at a suburban post office. “He was such an enjoyable person. He can’t go like this. … It’s my love for my brother that made me keep saying he didn’t die of natural causes.”

No autopsy was initially performed because Urooj Khan’s death didn’t appear suspicious and he was older than 45, the age at which the medical examiner’s office didn’t do automatic autopsies without some evidence of foul play. That’s now changed, with the age raised to about 50 and an evaluation of other medical factors. A sample of Khan’s blood had been taken — a standard practice at the morgue for any death — and checked for carbon monoxide, opiates and alcohol. After those results came back negative, the office ruled he died of hardening of the arteries.

With the case reopened, Imtiaz Khan said he called the morgue periodically over the next several months to check if the toxicology testing had been completed. It wasn’t until late October that Chicago police asked him to come down to detective headquarters at Belmont and Western avenues and broke the news to him and his sister, Meraj, about their brother’s death.

“The guy, he said, ‘We got the medical reports and we found that your brother was poisoned,’ ” Imtiaz Khan recalled. “I was shocked at the time. And then my sister starts crying.”

Khan said he grew despondent over the following weeks and then “blacked out” and collapsed at work in December. He ended up spending about a week in the hospital. His doctor told him he suffered a heart attack, he said.

Many factors played in to Khan’s decision to speak up about his brother’s death, he said, not the least being his suspicions about other family members.

His suspicions, though, appear to be largely based on observations and overheard comments, his brother’s complaints before his homicide, and even a nightmare from the night of the death.

His brother’s death has made Khan focus on underlying tensions in the family.

After a grocery business Urooj Khan’s father-in-law owned in New Jersey failed a few years ago, the father-in-law, Fareedun Ansari, moved in with his daughter, Shabana Ansari, and her husband in their West Rogers Park home. He has diabetes and wanted to be closer to his daughter, Imtiaz Khan said, but he had also been saddled with debt from the unsuccessful business. Court records show the Internal Revenue Service placed liens on Urooj Khan’s house in a bid to collect more than $120,000 in back taxes owed by his father-in-law, the Tribune has reported.

Neither Shabana nor Fareedun Ansari could be reached for comment Sunday, but both have denied any involvement in the homicide and have not been accused of a crime. A criminal defense attorney hired by Urooj Khan’s widow has said she fully cooperated with police while being questioned for hours as part of the investigation. Shabana Ansari told the Tribune last month that detectives questioned her about the ingredients she used in preparing her husband’s last meal — a traditional Indian meal of lamb curry — and that she believed police seized food from the family home during a search.

While a motive for Khan’s homicide has not been determined, police have not ruled out that he was killed because of his lottery win, a law enforcement source has told the Tribune. Khan died before he collected his lump-sum payment of $424,450 after taxes.

Since Urooj Khan didn’t leave a will, his siblings are engaged in a court battle with his widow over the lottery winnings and the rest of his substantial assets. Khan’s siblings have said they are trying to ensure that Jasmeen, 17, Khan’s daughter with a previous wife, obtains her fair share of her father’s estate. She is now living with Meraj Khan and her husband.

Weeks into that court fight, Shabana Ansari’s probate lawyer produced a lengthy written agreement that he said Urooj Khan signed in May giving his half of the dry cleaning businesses to his wife in case of his death. The lawyer, Al-Haroon Husain, argued that means more than $1 million of Khan’s assets shouldn’t be part of the probate court fight at all.

Imtiaz Khan wondered aloud why Husain never mentioned the agreement before last week.

The probate fight has only deepened Khan’s questions.

“The truth always prevails,” said Khan, confident that his brother will get justice.

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