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Family drama, mystery, over lottery winner's death

Last updated on: January 18, 2013 15:44 IST

Family drama, mystery, over lottery winner's death

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Arthur J Pais in New York

Recent revelations have put the spotlight on the intriguing life of Indian-American businessman Urooj Ahmad Khan, who died of cyanide poisoning the day after winning a million dollars. Arthur J Pais reports.

Indian-American businessman Urooj Ahmad Khan died from cyanide poisoning at his home in Chicago's North Side neighbourhood of West Rogers Park a day after receiving a million dollar lottery cheque.

Now, his former wife, who had not seen him or their daughter in 13 years, is revealing heart-wrenching stories of deception, misinformation and betrayal.

Maria Jones, Khan's first wife, had been told after their bitter divorce 12 years ago that Khan had returned to India with their only child, Jasmeen.

When she saw footage of Khan accepting his lottery cheque, she realised that all these years her daughter, now 17, has been living, not some 10,000 miles away in India, but in the neighbouring state of Illinois.

Speaking from her home near South Bend, Indiana, Jones said: "I was told by his family in Chicago that he would not return from India. I spoke to him when he was at his home in Hyderabad and he swore he was not going to come back."

"When I had seen my daughter at the time of the divorce, she was around 6," she said.

"Just over a week ago, I got a call from a friend in Chicago who said, 'Turn on your television -- I think they are talking about your ex.'. And that is when I realised he had been in America. There was also a picture of my baby (daughter), looking happy and beautiful."

"The image I had in my mind all these years was that of a very small girl. When I watched the footage, I thought he had died recently, but then the news came that he had been poisoned in July. He was a cruel man, but nobody deserves to be murdered."

"I do not know if my daughter knows I am alive or if she has been told anything about me."

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Image: Urooj Ahmad Khan
Photographs: Courtesy: Illinois Lottery

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Maria Jones, a native of Mexico City, met Urooj Khan while working with him at a laundry that serviced a Chicago hospital.

She married him according to Islamic rites in 1991. At the time of the marriage, that lasted around five years, he had told her: 'I will have my own religion and you can go back to yours.'

Soon he was -- possibly pressured by his family -- asking her to convert.

"I refused. And that was one of the biggest issues in our marriage. He was abusive -- mentally, verbally. He made me terrified of him."

"I believe my daughter is going to a Catholic school. I am thinking, Urooj was against my religion, but he sent his daughter to a Catholic school."

Court papers, Jones said, would confirm her claims of abuse.

When she sought divorce, she said she did not have money to hire a good lawyer.

"I had visitation rights, but he cheated me," she said.

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Image: Jasmeen, centre, with her aunt Meraj Khan, right
Photographs: Courtesy: Facebook

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Maria Jones is not surprised to hear that Urooj Khan, who was 46 at the time of his death last July, had told his family soon after returning from the Haj that he had given up gambling, and he was never going to buy a lottery ticket.

"He would not keep up simple promises," she claimed.

Jones, who is remarried, says she does not want to shock her daughter by seeking to connect with her immediately.

Jasmeen, who used to live with her father and step-mother Shabana Ansari, a native of Hyderabad, has moved from the family home to paternal aunt Meraj Khan's home in Chicago.

Meraj Khan, who was granted custody of her niece after Urooj Khan's death, told the media that Jasmeen is devastated and having a hard time dealing with her father's death.

Court documents reveal that Rabadan (Maria Jones) alleged that Urooj Khan had threatened to kill her and their daughter if she sought a divorce.

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Image: The Khan home in Chicago's North Side neighbourhood of West Rogers Park.


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Maria Jones alleged in the court papers that Urooj Khan physically abused her son from a previous marriage. She had to send her son away, she said.

"He was very cruel to my son," Jones said. "A friend offered to take care of him."

Urooj Khan's July 20 death was initially termed as due to natural causes, but further toxicology examination -- requested persistently by a relative whose name has not been revealed -- led the authorities to conclude a few weeks ago that he was poisoned by cyanide.

The youngest of seven children, Urooj Khan followed his mother and five siblings to America following their father's death in Hyderabad. He studied for a degree at a community college in Illinois.

The Chicago Tribune, which broke the story of poisoning, interviewed many of Khan's relatives who recalled how he had worked for several hours at a gas station, earning $7 an hour, and had worked for several years for hotels like the Hilton.

He then saved and borrowed money to buy a small laundry business. At the time of his death, he was considered a relatively wealthy man.

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Image: Urooj Ahmad Khan


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Urooj Khan's story was not always a rags-to-riches fable. His road to the American dream was not un-pebbled.

Chicago media published reports this week about his legal problems -- he was arrested and charged with felony theft and credit card tampering at the gas station. He pleaded guilty in March 1999 and was sentenced to 30 months of probation and ordered to pay $3,200 in restitution, newspapers and television reports said, quoting court records.

"When he went to India, he had these felony charges against him," Jones said. "I do not understand how he was allowed to leave the country."

Court records reveal Khan had completed his probation before he left for India.

An hour after she heard about Khan's death and that her daughter Jasmeen lived in neighbouring Illinois, Jones recorded a message on her phone: 'If this is Jasmeen, please leave your number. I will call you. I have been waiting to hear from you. I love you.'

Jones hopes for a reunion with her daughter.

"We are Catholics," she says. "We believe in miracles."


Image: One of the stores Urooj Khan owned.


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