Saturday, January 19, 2013

Medical Examiner - Authorities Unearth Body Of Homicide Victim And Then Perform Autopsy

Authorities hope to shed light on a mystery after unearthing the body of a cyanide poisoning victim at a Far North Side cemetery and performing an autopsy on the remains Friday.

After forensic pathologists ruled the million-dollar lottery winner's death a homicide weeks ago, the case has become a real-life whodunit for Chicago police.

Will the autopsy results help authorities figure how Urooj Khan was poisoned? Did he eat the cyanide with his last meal of lamb curry? Or was it inhaled?

After the approximately two-hour autopsy, Chief Medical Examiner Stephen J. Cina said the body was in an advanced state of decomposition but that doctors were able to gather samples for toxicological testing. Khan was buried about six months ago.

It could be several weeks before Cina and his team can determine whether the autopsy will help police unravel the mystery, he said.

"I can't really predict how the results are going to turn out," Cina told reporters in the lobby of his Near West Side office. "Cyanide over the postmortem period actually can essentially evaporate and leave the tissue. It is possible that cyanide that was in the tissues is no longer in the tissues after several months. We'll just have to see how the results play out."

As the Tribune first revealed earlier this month, the medical examiner 's office initially ruled that Khan, 46, died July 20 from hardening of the arteries after no signs of trauma were found on the body and a preliminary blood test didn't raise any questions. But the investigation was reopened about a week later after a relative raised concerns that Khan may have been poisoned.

Chicago police were notified in September after tests showed cyanide in Khan's blood. By late November, more comprehensive tests showed lethal levels of the toxic chemical, leading the medical examiner 's office to declare his death a homicide.

Khan had won the scratch-off lottery prize a few weeks before his death, but he didn't survive long enough to collect the winnings a lump-sum payment of about $425,000 after taxes.

The effort to exhume Khan's body began as scheduled at about 7 a.m. The hearse with Khan's body left the cemetery shortly before 9 a.m.

Officials later pegged the cost at $5,600. Khan's remains will be reburied Monday, said Mary Paleologos, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner 's office.

Officials erected a large green tent over the grave site, ostensibly to provide some privacy from hovering news helicopters as workers carried out the tedious task of digging up the remains. Workers used shovels and a backhoe to unearth the body. Two Chicago police evidence technicians took photographs and video as the work progressed.

An unmarked police car and two blue barricades blocked the Peterson Avenue entrance to Rosehill, keeping a slew of TV reporters and cameramen just outside the gate. Some tried to peek through fencing for a better view, while a few checked out the gangways of nearby apartment buildings for a closer look.

Cina said Khan had been buried in a wood box with a plastic foam covering wrapped in a shroud. The box sat in a concrete vault.

Following Muslim tradition, Khan's body was not embalmed, contributing to its decomposition, Cina said. Still, the medical examiner's team was able to take samples from major organs during the autopsy for toxicological analysis, he said.

"Generally, embalming preserves tissues better. It makes it easier to see things," Cina said. "However . additives in the embalming fluid can confuse some of the toxicological analysis."

The team also recovered contents in Khan's stomach, according to Cina. That could be helpful to determine whether cyanide had been in his food. Hair and fingernail samples also were gathered for testing, he said.

Authorities also collected a sample of the dirt surrounding the vault, because tiny organisms living in the soil can produce cyanide at low levels. Cina wanted to test it in case questions arose about whether the dirt could influence the laboratory findings on Khan's body.

Cina's team did not smell cyanide during Friday's autopsy, but the medical examiner said that it likely wouldn't be possible to detect the bitter-almond scent of the chemical because of the decomposition.

In court papers, Cina said it was necessary to perform a full autopsy to "further confirm the results of the blood analysis as well as to rule out any other natural causes that might have contributed to or caused Mr. Khan's death."

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