Syringe, 911 call top trial in Augustine death
June 19, 2007
RENO – Prosecutors on Tuesday described Chaz Higgs as a “calculated” murderer who openly disdained his wife, former Nevada Controller Kathy Augustine, and used his medical knowledge to kill her with a paralyzing drug to be rid of her.
Defense lawyers countered that while the couple’s marriage was destroyed by Augustine’s political ambitions and turmoil, Higgs had no motive to kill the woman he deeply loved.
Much of the first day of testimony was filled with technical testimony, though jurors heard a tape of Higgs’ call to 911 which prosecutors say helps prove he poisoned Augustine and the jury saw a syringe that defense lawyers say helps prove he didn’t.
Higgs, 42, is charged with murdering Augustine, who fell into a coma last July and died three days later at a Reno hospital. Authorities allege that Higgs, a critical care nurse, injected her with a lethal dose of the drug succinylcholine. If convicted, he faces up to life in prison without chance of parole.
In his opening statement, Deputy Washoe County District Attorney Christopher Hicks described what he called “devastating” effects of the drug, normally used to paralyze a patient’s muscle reflexes before inserting a breathing tube.
It leaves a person “totally paralyzed,” Hicks told the eight-woman, four-man jury. “They cannot move. They cannot breathe. They can’t even blink their eyes.”
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Defense lawyer David Houston urged jurors to analyze the testimony they will hear over the next two weeks.
The prosecution’s medical evidence will not hold up, he said. “When that happens, the state’s case will collapse.”
Higgs called paramedics July 8 and said he found Augustine unconscious and not breathing. She died July 11 at the age of 50.
Doctors initially thought Augustine had a heart attack, but an autopsy found no signs of heart disease. Higgs was arrested in September at his brother’s house in Virginia after FBI toxicology tests found succinylcholine in her system.
Houston said defense experts found Augustine had a heart condition that could have led to a heart attack.
“You will learn the list for heart failure is too numerous to mention,” Houston said in his opening statement.
Hicks said Higgs openly spoke about his troubled marriage and desire to leave. Whenever anyone asked if they could help, Higgs would say, “‘you can get rid of my wife,”‘ the prosecutor said.
A fellow nurse, Kim Ramey, told detectives that the day before Augustine was hospitalized, Higgs commented on another murder case and said a man accused of stabbing his wife had done it wrong.
Ramey testified Tuesday that Higgs told her, “‘If you want to get rid of someone you just hit them with a little succs, because you can’t trace it post-mortem.”‘
“I got goose bumps,” she said.
One of Higgs’ supervisors also told police that Higgs said if it wasn’t for his daughter, he would kill Augustine and throw her down a mine shaft, the prosecutor said.
Evidence, Hicks concluded, “will show that Chaz Higgs is a calculated murderer who used his trade to accomplish his goal – get rid of his wife.”
Higgs’ lawyers set out to disprove the poisoning theory.
With the assistance of an anesthesiologist testifying for the prosecution, Houston used a syringe to show how much of the drug would be needed and how long it would take – more than 10 seconds – to inject her with enough to paralyze her with the medically recommended dosage.
The anesthesiologist, Dr. Paul Mailander, agreed an unwilling patient would resist, something Houston said would leave a tear wound that the autopsy doesn’t show.
Under cross examination, Mailander said a much smaller dose could result in severe weakening of the patient, short of paralysis.
Later, jurors heard Higgs’ 911 call – a call the prosecution says shows Higgs was calmer than he should have been.
The dispatcher taking the call said he’d never heard someone so calm in such a situation who could give such detailed directions to the home and carry on such a lengthy conversation.
“There’s typically a great sense of urgency, pretty much a panic at a different level,” said George Reade, a communications supervisor for a local emergency response agency who estimates he’s taken about 37,000 emergency calls. He said paramedic on scene sounded more panicked than Higgs.
In the call, Higgs talked at a normal pace in almost a monotone as he began, “This is an emergency.”
“Something is wrong with my wife. She’s not moving. I’m a critical care nurse and I’ve already started CPR,” he said.
A bit later Higgs said she had no medical problems he was aware of.
“She’s been really stressed over the last six months or so. Hey, I’m going to keep doing CPR, OK?”
Under cross-examination, Reade said he didn’t know Higgs had been a medic in the military for 15 years.
Reade acknowledged such medical personnel undergo extensive training to remain calm, but added, “when it comes to loved ones, it tends to be different.”
In other testimony, Madeline Montgomery, a chemist in the FBI toxicology lab in Quantico, VA., said she ran three tests on Augustine’s urine for succinylcholine and three for a related chemical succinylmonocholine and got positive results each time.
She acknowledged the lab does not have standard operating procedures for succinylcholine testing. She also said she’d never done a test to determine if three drugs that were in Augustine’s blood from emergency room treatment might affect the presence of naturally occurring “succs” in Augustine’s system.
Higgs cared for Augustine’s previous husband, Charles, when he suffered a stroke and was hospitalized in 2003 in Las Vegas. Higgs and Augustine married three weeks after Charles Augustine’s death.
But their relationship began to crumble the following year, when Augustine, serving her second term as state controller, came under investigation for campaign abuses. She was impeached by the Nevada Assembly and convicted by the Senate for using state equipment on her 2002 campaign. Augustine was censured but not removed from office.