A Cyanide Murder in Chicago
The two things that every would-be killer should know about cyanide are these: It works. Incredibly well. And it works incredibly fast. These are not especially new insights, of course. A 1923 forensics book calls cyanide poisons “one of the most rapidly fatal poisons known.” The victim’s good health, the text continues, offers no protection at all: “… in many cases of poisoning the victims have been found dead within a very short time after they had been seen perfectly well.”
One of the editors of that book, Legal Medicine and Toxicology, was Walter Haines, of the University of Chicago. Haines was one of the country’s foremost toxicologists in the early 20th century and he and his colleagues had a profound respect for the ability of cyanide compounds to do their lethal job. If a half-ounce of a two percent cyanide solution was added to food or drink, they warned, “death occurs in from two to ten minutes.”
It’s this potency that draws killers to cyanide. And it’s this same quality, as history also tells us, that increases the likelihood that the killers will be caught, caught in the web of evidence that a powerful poison leaves behind. Not always, of course. And Chicago’s history tells us that as well.
Some notable unsolved serial poison murders occurred in this city some 30 years ago. These were the so-called Tylenol murders that began and ended in the fall of 1982. The investigation suggested that the killer injected cyanide into Tylenol gel capsules, resealed the packaging, and slipped the painkillers back onto pharmacy shelves to be sold. Seven people died, most of them in one week. The victims included a 12-year-old girl, a postal worker, and a United flight attendant, and the random nature of those deaths both slowed and confused the investigation.
Eventually police recognized a thrill killer at work, someone who mostly murders for the theater of the deaths themselves. Despite some suspicions, no arrest was ever made, partly because of the lack of any finger-pointing motive. That was far less true for the British woman who laced her husband’s Excedrin with cyanide some six years later, tried to conceal it by also putting poisoned painkiller onto store shelves, and was convicted in short order. But both of the cases, woven into the long and genuinely dark history of cyanide poisons, offer some perspective on Chicago’s most recent cyanide murder mystery. And on whether this latest killer is likely to be caught.
I’m talking of course, about the murderer of dry-cleaning owner Urooj Khan who died on July 20, just one day after the Illinois lottery issued him a check for some $425,000.
The Chicago Tribune broke the poison news last week. Khan’s death was first judged a natural one. He had died unexpectedly during the night. Yes, he was only 46 but he was overweight, imperfectly healthy, and the cause of death was given as heart disease. The standard toxicology screen, which checked for common exposures such as narcotics and carbon monoxide, was clear.
And there it might have stayed except that Khan’s family, especially his brother and sister, didn’t buy that story at all. Their brother hadn’t been particularly unwell. They’d heard that a bloody froth had dribbled out of his mouth, hardly a symptom of heart disease (but, in fact, a symptom of poisoning by some of the corrosive cyanide salts). It was too much of a coincidence to believe in this abrupt death that followed a sudden increase in wealth. They (reportedly his brother) demanded further investigation. Cook County authorities agreed to run a more expansive series of toxicology tests.
And to the country’s real shock, last month those tests showed that Khan’s blood was loaded with a lethal amount of cyanide. Last week, county officials announced they would exhume his body to look for further evidence. This is a months-old body but, following his family’s request, no embalming chemicals were used so there is unlikely to be interference from some of these toxic compounds used in that process. Further, we have known for decades – at least since New York toxicologist Alexander Gettler published his classic paper, “The Toxicology of Cyanide” in 1938 (paywall), that decomposition does not really alter the presence of cyanide in the body.
But as we wait for the upcoming autopsy, the rather unusual choice of cyanide as a murder weapon does offer some ideas worth considering. Today – unlike in the era of Haines and Gettler – cyanide is very difficult for the average citizen to acquire. It’s used in some industrial processes, in some pesticides (more commonly abroad than here), in some pharmaceutical work. It’s kept under lock and key in many university chemistry laboratories. One of the most notorious murder cases in the history of Madison, Wisconsin, where I live, is the late 1970s conviction of a biochemistry student who purportedly stole her cyanide from the University of Wisconsin’s chemistry department.
In other words, accidental exposure is unlikely in the average American home. And no one casually grabs up some cyanide today – this has to be a carefully planned death.
And a killer using cyanide is not messing around. It has a wonderfully precise lethal action, disabling the body’s ability to metabolize oxygen cell by cell, a kind of chemical suffocation that sets off a spreading cell-death meltdown. People who do survive cyanide poisoning first recall that desperate gasp for breath. But they are a limited number. In a review of 40 high dose cyanide poisonings, described in the Haines book, mortality was 95 percent. But although it’s a near perfect killer, it’s not a near perfect tool for homicide.
Unlike some of the other famous homicidal poisons (I’m thinking arsenic here) cyanide does not go down unnoticed. It’s better known as a strong, bitter poison – noticeable when swallowed. One of the reasons that the Tylenol killer’s strategy was so effective was that the gel-casings of the capsules blocked the taste of the poison. A doctor in Ohio tried the same technique on his wife a couple of years ago, giving her “special calcium supplements” that he’d carefully laced with cyanide. She died but he went to jail, trapped in an unmistakable chain of cyanide evidence.
I was slightly suspicious when Khan’s wife, Shabana Ansari, told reporters that the family had harmlessly dined on a lamb curry for dinner that night because strong spices can mask bitter tastes. But then Khan’s family countered by saying that he was a vegetarian and he wouldn’t have eaten a lamb curry. And the more I thought about it, the curry story just seemed like a diversion. Cyanide is such a fast-acting poison that he would have started getting sick by the time he left the table. And his wife said he became violently ill much later that night. If she’s right about the timing, then it raises questions about the delivery method.
According to news reports, Khan’s wife first realized he was ill when he emitted a loud scream. Interestingly enough, that tends to be a classic symptom of cyanide poisoning, an almost involuntary response to the internal collapse. Gettler once described this as a “death scream.” The description of Khan’s death has him screaming, staggering to a chair, and dying as he sat there. In other words, cyanide killings tend to set a very specific range for actual time of death.
So what is the most likely method for such a poisoning? I’ve received a number of queries about this, largely due to the fact that I did an interview with Jason Keyser at Associated Press last week. One person wrote to ask if it was possible that the killer had acquired or kept one of the old bottles of cyanide-laced Tylenol. “I just read a book about the case last week,” he explained. As I wrote back, it’s kind of fascinating to connect these cases. But this is an unlikely scenario because it would be impossible to know if your aging Tylenol capsule was poisonous without first testing it on other some living body. Unless, of course, you were just trying your luck. On the other hand, could this killer have been inspired by that old case?
Again, it’s a fascinating and entirely unproven scenario. There are plenty of other ways to swallow cyanide. And the police haven’t mentioned finding any contaminated capsules. They have, on the other hand, uncovered a host of possible motives, as detailed in this AP story titled “Family Quarrels Add Intrigue to Lotto Winner’s Poison Death.” All of which brings us back what that long-awaited autopsy might tell us.
Cyanide poisons actually derive from naturally occurring plant alkaloids. They concentrate, for instance, in the pits of peaches and apricots, in bay laurel leaves, in apple seeds. The Haines book recounts a case where a young woman committed suicide by eating 20 peach pits. But that’s an unlikely scenario for sneaking a poison into someone’s food or drink. The basis of the most commonly used cyanide poisons is a very poisonous liquid, hydrocyanic acid.
This can be brewed and heated into a notoriously lethal gas, hydrogen cyanide (HCN), which the Nazis infamously used for gas chambers in their concentration camps. But because it’s nearly impossible to control the drift of a gas in a more open setting, it makes a risky murder weapon. There are many other compounds that include cyanide but the best known homicidal forms are two corrosive salts, sodium cyanide (NaCN) and potassium cyanide (KCN). Those formulas tells us that basic cyanide formula is a carbon atom bonded to a nitrogen atom and that the cyanide couplet really likes to attach itself to other atoms.
But they also can tell us something about the source of the cyanide. Potassium cyanide, for instance, has long been used in the process of electroplating metals. Sodium cyanide (a little more poisonous) has been used for decades in gold mining and other metal extraction processes. If Chicago medical examiners can figure out the type of cyanide used here, they should be able to develop a fairly short list of sources for the poison. Interestingly enough, both Khan’s family and his wife’s family are from India, where cyanide tends to be easier to purchase than in the United States. Some years ago, in fact, The Times of India did an investigation focused specifically on the ease of buying cyanide compounds in that country.
All of which reminds us that cyanide is a fascinating poison with a very twisted history, one of the reasons that murder mystery writers like Agatha Christie – think Sparkling Cyanide – used it so often. That it’s a terrible poison, painful and murderous and that we should mind very much when someone uses it to kill. And that people who choose to use cyanide as a murder weapon almost always get caught. So here’s hoping for very good results from that autopsy – and the right ending to this story of murder in Chicago.
Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer and the author of five books, most recently the best-seller, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. She writes for a range of publications including Time, Scientific American, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times (and even the literary journal, Tin House). She is currently working on a sixth book about poisonous food.
Follow @deborahblum on Twitter.