Nevada politician’s death turns into murder mystery saga
Los Angeles Times
LAS VEGAS – Kathy Augustine was a flight attendant, but everybody knew that wouldn’t last.
She had big dreams, and knew how to work a room. She jumped into Nevada politics and rose to statewide office with a single-mindedness that left her with more admirers than friends.
That promising career, though, would end prematurely.
Her husband, Charles, had a stroke. She spent long hours at the hospital, where she leaned on one of the nurses, a former Navy corpsman named Chaz Higgs.
Police are still piecing together what happened next. But this much is clear: Both Augustines are dead, Higgs is in jail, and a gravesite has been torn up.
Even in Nevada, where the standard for spectacle and scandal is high, the saga has mesmerized the political class.
confident and demanding
Kathy Augustine, the oldest of three siblings, grew up in Southern California; her parents still live in La Palma, in northern Orange County. She built a resume with the distinct aroma of ambition – a bachelor’s degree in political science, a master’s in public administration, a congressional internship, a chamber of commerce leadership program.
She moved to Las Vegas in 1988 and soon became a top Republican, elected to the Assembly, then the state Senate, then as controller, making her Nevada’s chief financial officer.
Her success in Nevada’s good-old-boy network made her a hero among Republican women. She joined all 18 Republican women’s clubs in Nevada and traveled to remote areas to attend their functions. Her brisk walk, bright blazers and polished brooches projected an air of conservatism and competence.
“She would walk into a room and light it up,” said her brother, Phil Alfano, a high school principal in Modesto. “She had that kind of charisma.”
But she was also a demanding perfectionist – and that’s how her friends put it. One former aide testified that she was “a screamer and a yeller and a pounder on the desk.” Another said Augustine told her to kill her diabetic cat because its illness had become a distraction at the office.
During one election, critics labeled her a bigot after she sent voters a mailer showing a side-by-side comparison of the candidates – on one side, a crystalline photo of Augustine, blond and shiny-toothed, and on the other, a dark, grainy photo of her opponent, who was black.
“There is a difference,” the mailer said. Augustine won.
In her next election, Augustine said her opponent, Democratic state senator and teacher Lori Lipman Brown, “opposed prayer.” In fact, Brown, who is Jewish, had asked for a nondenominational approach to the Senate’s opening prayer. Her request was rebuffed, so Brown would step outside the chambers during the prayer.
Augustine later admitted publicly that her ads had been false. But by then she had won the race.
“Politics was a game for her,” Brown said. “Anything you had to do to win an election was all right.”
Widow to bride
Her 17-year marriage, meanwhile, was fraying, according to her associates.
As a flight attendant, she had met Charles Augustine when he was flying commercial airplanes. Charles Augustine – who adopted her daughter, Dallas, from a previous marriage – had come to resent politics. The couple had discussed divorce.
He had a stroke in 2003, and Augustine appeared devastated. She spent long hours at Sunrise Hospital & Medical Center in Las Vegas.
“She would call in tears,” her brother Alfano recalled. “She said it was so sad, because he clearly knew she was in the room, but he couldn’t communicate.”
Charles Augustine’s health had seemed to be improving, but he died abruptly that August. Doctors concluded he had died from stroke complications.
Within three weeks, Kathy Augustine remarried in Honolulu. The groom was Higgs, a critical care nurse who had helped in the treatment of Charles Augustine.
Family members didn’t know about the marriage. Weeks later, when they flew to Las Vegas for an event honoring Kathy as Italian American of the year, Higgs was by her side.
“We thought he was her date,” Kathy Augustine’s brother said. “We find out that they had been married.”
Friends were mystified by the relationship. Higgs was something of a wanderer whose life had been marked by serial marriages and bankruptcies. He was a fitness buff who fussed over his hair; he had spent much of his life in the Navy, training briefly as a SEAL and receiving an honorable discharge after 16 years as a corpsman, his lawyer said.
Kathy Augustine had homes on a swanky Las Vegas cul-de-sac and in Reno; Higgs recently had been living in a trailer park. At political events, she showed up in a suit and worked the room; he wore a T-shirt and jeans and showed no interest in meeting her acquaintances – or in conversation.
“He didn’t talk,” Bing said. “He didn’t have a lot of class. She was a professional woman, and he was not a professional man. She did not strike me as a woman who needed a man on her arm, and he was not an asset to her in any way. I figured the two of them must have been good in bed.”
Kathy Augustine’s relatives couldn’t understand it, either.
“Kathy used to say that he was an angel, that he had swept her off of her feet,” Alfano said. “We felt like she had rushed into things when she had been vulnerable. But we did our best to support her.”
For Augustine, things began to unravel in 2004, when state officials accused her of using her state office to conduct her re-election campaign for controller.
Jerry Bing, 63, of Reno, a friend of Augustine’s and an old hand in Nevada politics, calls the issue “small potatoes” and says all politicians face it: “You’re in your office and get a phone call and it happens to be about the campaign. And you take it.”
But state officials took the charges seriously. Augustine was fined by the state Ethics Commission and impeached by the Assembly, but was allowed to remain in office. The state Republican Party effectively disowned her, withholding support when she decided to run for state treasurer this year.
This year, she told friends that she felt she had made a mistake. Then, early one morning in July, Higgs called 911 in Reno to report that he had found her unconscious in their bed.
He told authorities – and reporters, after calling a news conference – she had had a heart attack. But paramedics and doctors had their doubts. She was 50, but “had the heart of a 20-year-old,” said Reno Police Lt. Jon Catalano.
Comatose, Augustine died three days later. Shortly afterward, a nurse who worked with Higgs called police to report a strange conversation the day before Augustine’s collapse.
Higgs described how he was unhappy in his marriage, the nurse told police. He also mentioned the recent case of a Nevada man accused of stabbing his wife to death. Higgs told the nurse that the husband had been stupid, Catalano said. If you want to kill someone, Higgs told her, inject them with succinylcholine. “It can never be detected,” he told her, according to Catalano.
Investigators found an unexplained injection site on Augustine’s buttock. Autopsy results were sent to the FBI lab in Quantico, Va., where it was determined that Kathy Augustine had succinylcholine in her system when she died.
Succinylcholine is often used during surgery to prevent movement by the patient. A person injected with the drug would soon become paralyzed and, without a breathing tube, suffocate without losing consciousness until the end.
The drug is readily available to medical professionals. Authorities have alleged its use in other killings, but have found the charges difficult to prove because reliable tests have only recently been developed.
“As a weapon of poison, it is an insidious compound,” said Robert Middleberg, a director at NMS Labs in Pennsylvania, which has worked with the drug.
Higgs, 42, was arrested in late September and charged with first-degree murder in Kathy Augustine’s death. He is being held in the Washoe County Jail without bond.
Alan Baum, Higgs’ Los Angeles attorney, said his client was innocent. He said Higgs would have had no reason to kill his wife; he was well aware, Baum said, that Kathy Augustine’s estate had been left almost entirely to her daughter.
“There are two big factors in cases like this: motive and opportunity,” Baum said. “To say that he had no opportunity is absurd. But to say that he had a motive is equally absurd.”
The remains of Charles Augustine rested in peace for three years in Paradise Memorial Gardens, a tidy cemetery on the outskirts of Las Vegas.
On a recent evening, his headstone was upended and the lid of his crypt splayed on the cemetery grounds. Plywood had been placed over his grave. His corpse was gone, exhumed by law enforcement officials.
Authorities want to know whether Charles Augustine might have been killed with succinylcholine. “We would be negligent if we didn’t at least look into that avenue,” said Las Vegas Police Lt. Lewis Roberts.
Attorney Baum said Higgs had nothing to do with the death of Charles Augustine. He said Higgs wasn’t working as Charles Augustine’s nurse when he died.
Investigators expect to have answers within weeks. Charles Augustine’s body was in “remarkably good condition,” said Michael Murphy, the Clark County coroner. “We were very pleased.”