DA credits medical staff with preserving Augustine evidence
Washoe District Attorney Dick Gammick Monday credited the medical staff at Washoe Medical Center for preserving key evidence in the death of former State Controller Kathy Augustine.
Augustine’s husband, Chaz Higgs, has been charged with first-degree murder in her July death. Higgs, a critical-care nurse, is accused of injecting Augustine with succinylcholine, a drug used in emergency rooms to paralyze muscles – most commonly so that a breathing tube can be inserted in a patient. When injected, it paralyzes the muscles needed to breathe.
But Gammick and Reno Police Chief Mike Poehlman said the substance is difficult to detect because it washes out of the human body in less than two days.
They said the hospital’s medical staff, who was suspicious when Augustine was brought in on July 8 comatose and not breathing, took blood and urine samples and froze them.
It was in the urine sample, Poehlman said at a Monday press conference, that the FBI’s toxicology lab found the paralyzing drug.
He said medical examiners also found a needle mark on Augustine’s buttocks, which they believe is where the drug was injected into her system.
Poehlman said, however, the drug has no effect on a person’s consciousness, “so they will be paralyzed and awake when they are dying.”
Augustine never regained consciousness, but the autopsy showed no sign of heart disease or any other physical reason why she died.
Higgs waived extradition in Hampton, Va., Monday morning, and Poehlman said he will be returned to Reno to face charges in the next few days.
Gammick said his office has not yet decided whether to seek the death penalty in the case.
“It’s way too premature in the whole process to even talk about the death penalty,” he said.
Police began working on the case as a possible criminal act even before Augustine died July 11 after receiving a “telephone tip that her death might not be accidental.” An anonymous caller quoted Higgs as allegedly saying just the day before Augustine was hospitalized that if he wanted to kill someone, he would use succinylcholine because it is undetectable.
Poehlman said, in fact, the technology to detect the drug is less than five years old, and only a few laboratories in the country have that ability. Adding to the evidence, he said, is literature about the drug found in Higgs’ car after his arrest.
He also said Higgs, who made an attempt at suicide by cutting his wrists, has been put on a suicide watch.
• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 687-8750.