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    Chicago Can't Shake Its Poison Curse

    Written by

    Brian Anderson

    Features Editor

    The latest victim in the Windy City's dark history of poisonings

    Had it happened anywhere else, it would've been a far less bitter pill to swallow.

    When autopsy results came back late last year on Urooj Khan, a resident of Chicago's far north side who fell dead in July just weeks after winning a $1 million lottery jackpot, medical examiners and city officials were stunned. The culprit? The Chicago Tribune, which recently broke the story, offers a grim reveal: Cyanide.

    It's not everyday that you hear about a cyanide-linked death in the US. Why? The stuff is really, really hard to procure here, even as precursors. "It’s used in some industrial processes, in some pesticides (more commonly abroad than here), in some pharmaceutical work," as Wired reports. "It’s kept under lock and key in many university chemistry laboratories."

    One does not simply drop by the bodega, in other words, to acquire lethal amounts of cyanide, a crippling nitrogen-carbon combination that gained notoriety in Nazi suicides after WWII. To hear that one night Khan just suddenly keeled over in his home, blood frothing from the mouth, only to be pronounced dead mere minutes later--classic signatures of cyanide's grip--raises the likelihood of a calculated killing. Who was behind this? And how'd they get their hands on the nasty stuff?

    It's still far too early to say. Shabana Ansari, Khan's wife, is denying all claims of involvment, notably that she fed her husband ground beef curry to throw off the hounds--cyanide is known for its distinct almond smell. "She's got nothing to hide," her attorney told the Tribune. 

    Ansari or not, there's a decent chance that the cyanide trail will eventually wind back to the perpetrator. The sheer public scarcity of cyanide--most anyone with ready access to the compound is likely on some sort of list, so to speak, that's known to officials--together with today's advanced forensics has me hardpressed to think this case will go cold, or that the cyanide's origins will remain a total mystery.

    It could well be that the poison was smuggled in from India. Having gained a bit of a reputation as a hub for cyanide trafficking, the country has a history of lax oversight and restrictions when it comes to selling cyanide. It's an unfortunate and shocking tendency, one that was profiled a few years back in the Times of India:

    The 'buyer' walked into the shop and asked: "I want cyanide." The only question that was asked was "small or big?". The reply given was "both." The shopkeeper then took Rs 50 and handed over two large pieces of cyanide packed in a piece of paper. In another scrap of paper, he packed a handful of napthalene ball sized cyanide tablets and handed them over after placing the two paper packets in a polythene cover. No questions were asked who the buyer was, what the purpose was and no bill was given.

    Not to say India is, in fact, Point A here. But it's all enough to stir up old, dark clouds that have hung over Chicago for decades. Even if it proves to be a one-off case, Khan's curious death raises the specter of the infamous 1982 Tylenol murders, a week-long spree of poisonings that left suburban Chicago--and by quick turns, the international community--in outright panic. The killings left seven dead after ingesting Tylenol capsules that had been laced with cyanide before being placed inconspicuously onto store shelves.

    The tragic "thrill-kill" style murders have gone down as not only one of the first instances of something like domestic bio or chemical terrorism (even that's a stretch, as there proved absolutely no rhyme or reason behind the poisonings). They sparked a swell of legislation that completely overhauled American food and drug packaging standards, which were to that point nonexistent. 

    "This became a shining moment for the manufacturer," Howard Wolinsky, a veteran Chicago-based science reporter, tells me, "who stood up and explained what they were going to do to prevent this sort of thing. Textbook case now of how companies should respond to crises." 

    Wolinsky would know--he was there. He published the first piece on the case for the Chicago Sun-Times, the Tribune's main rival. He recalls rushing to an emergency press conference shortly after the dots began connecting, after it dawned on puzzled officials that what looked like a few random poisonings were all related. It was there that he was able to get as close to the spiked capsules as one could without keeling over himself. 

    "I smelled them," he told me over email. "My nose was better then. I smelled the bitter almond. Some people can't smell it."

    The murders remain unsolved to this day.

    Meanwhile, Khan's body is set to be exhumed. Samples will be extracted from his stomach in a bid to further sniff off the cyanide. "I feel that a complete autopsy is needed for the sake of clarity and thoroughness," Medical Examiner Stephen J. Cina told the Tribune.

    Even still, there's a sense that Chicago's stop on the cynanide trail will never fully be explained, fluke or otherwise. It's a stark reality best summed up by Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who told reporters last week that in 32 years on the force he's never seen anything like this.

    "So I'll never say that I've seen everything," he said. 

    Reach Brian at brian@motherboard.tv. @thebanderson