National Clothesline
Death of lottery-winning Chicago cleaner surrounded by mystery
In a bizarre crime case that has played out like a CSI: Crime Scene Investigation episode filmed in Chicago, a drycleaning plant owner ran the gamut from being a lottery winner to an official homicide victim in half a year’s time.
One day last June, Urooj Khan was on top of the world.
After scratching off the second of a pair of instant-game lottery tickets in a 7-Eleven near his home in West Rogers Park, the 46-year-old man jumped up and down repeatedly shouting: “I hit a million!”
Less than a month later, he was dead with no signs of trauma. A basic toxicology screen showed negative results for opiates, cocaine and carbon monoxide. The death was ruled the result of natural causes — heart disease — and he was buried at Rosehill Cemetery.
If the story had ended there, it would have been labeled simply as a darkly ironic twist, a triumph-turned-tragedy in the blink of an eye.
But, it was only just beginning.
An anonymous relative of Khan pressed the authorities to delve deeper into the investigation.
In November, a more expansive toxicology was performed which revealed that Khan had died from lethal levels of cyanide, prompting a murder investigation under suspicion that he was somehow poisoned.
It was an odd fate for an Indian immigrant who looked for a better life when he moved to America with his mother and five siblings in the late 1980s. Eventually, he invested in real estate and opened Style Dry Cleaners on Devon Avenue in Chicago in 2004, a business he expanded to include two other locations.
He has been described by those close to him as a kind and generous workaholic who would answer phone calls and provide service for customers around the clock.
Khan was popular as a boss, too. In addition to running the day-to-day operations of his plant, he supervised ten employees and often filled in for delivery drivers or cleaning staff who called in sick.
Oddly enough, winning the lottery should not have even been a possibility for him. Previous to buying the fateful lottery ticket, he had vowed to give up gambling after taking a trip to Saudi Arabia for a Muslim hajj pilgrimage.
His momentary lapse from that promise proved to be quite profitable. He ended up winning just over $600,000 and chose to receive the money in a lump sum, amounting to about $425,000 after taxes.
During an Illinois lottery ceremony held days after he won, Khan declared: “Winning the lottery means everything to me.”
His plan was to invest some of the winnings into his business and donate money to a children's hospital, but he never had the opportunity. He was dead before he could spend a dime.
Now, it looks like he won’t be able to rest in peace either. Based on the findings from more expansive toxicology tests, a judge approved the order to have Khan’s body exhumed so that authorities can search for additional evidence.
In the meantime, new details surrounding his death have arrived almost on a daily basis, including many wrinkles that would make Agatha Christie envious.
While police have yet to name any official suspects in the case, it seems safe for them not to rule anybody out.
As part of the ongoing investigation, the police did question Khan’s widow, Shabana Ansari, 32, who is currently running her husband’s drycleaning plant. In particular, they were curious about Khan’s final meal.
Ansari claimed to have cooked a lamb curry meal for the family dinner on the last night of her husband’s life. He woke up later in the evening screaming and was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.
While Ansari has claimed that the whole family ate the meal—including Khan’s daughter from his first marriage, Jasmeen, and Ansari’s father, Fareedun Ansari—that testimony conflicts with later statements from Khan’s sister, Meraj Khan, and her husband, Mohammed Zaman. They told reporters that Ansari was a vegetarian who would not have eaten the lamb curry she had prepared.
Adding another layer of intrigue, Jasmeen opted to move out of her step-mother’s house and live with Khan’s sister after her father’s death. Meraj Khan has since successfully petitioned for legal guardianship rights of her 17-year-old niece.
It seems the household contained its fair share of tension before Khan died, as well. Ansari’s father had come to live with her and her family a couple of years ago in less-than-ideal circumstances.
Cook County Recorder of Deeds records showed that Fareedun Ansari owed the IRS over $120,000 in back taxes and had two tax liens filed against him.
Adding fuel to the fire, not to mention more speculations and accusations, some reports have indicated that Fareedun opted out from eating the potentially lethal curry meal citing he was on a diet. Regardless, at this time police have not officially said how they believe Khan was poisoned.
With such a myriad of conflicting details and testimonies, the case has remained a baffling mystery capable of captivating the public’s attention.
In early January, the high profile nature of the case lead to another surprising turn-of-events when Khan’s first wife, Maria Jones, resurfaced saying she hadn’t seen Khan or Jasmeen in 13 years.
Jones had claimed Khan had abused her while filing for divorce in 1998. When she last saw her daughter and her ex-husband, they were heading to India where she believed they still lived.
Meanwhile, there is still the matter of the lottery winnings and where they will go. Since he did not leave behind a will, the courts have been embroiled in the process of deciding how to divide Khan’s estate.
Khan’s brother, ImTiaz, filed documents in court claiming that his brother and Ansari were never married; however, Ansari offered proof to the court, which ruled to make her administrator of his estate, though she has yet to determine how to divide the assets.
The estate does not include the jackpot winnings. That money has been frozen for the next couple of months, giving family members time to plead their case in court proceedings for how the funds should be appropriated.
Typically, half would go to Khan’s widow and half to his daughter, but this case has been anything but typical so far.