Grieving daughter confronts speculation, sensation of Augustine case
In a world where almost everyone loves a mystery, it would have made a more sensational story if nurse Chaz Higgs had been linked to two suspected homicides instead of just one.
Not only is Higgs charged with murder in the death of his wife, state Controller Kathy Augustine, but he was one of the nurses who attended to her ex-husband, Charles Augustine, during his final days.
The fact that the nurse and the politician married just three weeks after Charles’ death only fueled speculation: Did they conspire to end Charles’ life so that they might begin a new life together?
When Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy announced May 1 that an exhaustive autopsy and tissue testing of Charles Augustine determined the 63-year-old had died of natural causes linked to a stroke and heart disease, you might think that would have ended the pulp fiction plotting and barroom speculation. Medical Examiner Gary Telgenhoff’s expert opinion was clear and resounding.
Sensational mystery stories aside, there was a very real murder investigation pending against Higgs. Sullying Kathy Augustine’s reputation wasn’t only disrespectful to her memory but potentially detrimental to the case.
It was with that in mind that Dallas Augustine, Kathy’s daughter from a prior marriage, met with me last week at a downtown office. At 27, the Las Vegas resident finds herself in the unenviable position of defending the memory of her late mother while reminding skeptics that Kathy Augustine wasn’t part of some murder conspiracy straight out of a James M. Cain novel.
To make matters much worse, Dallas recently endured a “CBS: 48 Hours Mystery” episode that not only raised an accusing finger at her mother, but openly speculated that perhaps a Republican political rival, and not Higgs, had administered a lethal injection of the potent muscle-relaxing drug succinylcholine.
“I had expected a statement of fact,” Dallas said. “I didn’t expect it to be as sensational as the whole thing has become.”
Ratings are one thing, but Kathy Augustine’s critics – Charles Augustine’s sons Greg and Larry chief among them – essentially called her a murderer in a conspiracy with Higgs.
“Speculating at this point, but I think she did,” Greg said on the program.
Further fueling the conspiracy theory were the inflamed comments of former lieutenant governor candidate Barbara Lee Woollen, who essentially said she believed unidentified higher-ups in the Republican Party might have had the controversial politician bumped off.
“My immediate reaction (after Augustine’s death) was, ‘They killed her. They killed her,'” said Woollen, who was able to recall more than one conversation with Augustine in which supposed death threats were discussed.
There was talk of political corruption, a misappropriation of funds and the sort of stuff that could ruin careers.
Augustine supposedly told Woollen, “They will do anything to keep me from getting into that office.”
But for all her tenacity and political savvy, after her impeachment, 50-year-old Kathy Augustine’s public life was devastated. For all her threats of exposing her critics’ ethical lapses, the only career that lay in ruins was her own.
The impact of the broad-ranging speculation made for intriguing television, but Augustine’s daughter believes it clouded the case against Higgs, who became a prime suspect because of his proximity to the deceased, his familiarity with and access to the drug, and the presence of a small needle mark found on Augustine after her death.
All the cloak-and-dagger intrigue juiced up the story, but the only murder suspect in this tortured tale remains Chaz Higgs.
“There’s so many rumors running around, I felt people needed to know my side of things,” said Dallas, who made the decision to take Charles Augustine’s name as a sixth-grader and to this day considers him “my dad, too.”
“I’m not out for the publicity of it. I’m not after my 15 minutes of fame. I want to seek justice for my mom and move on with my life.”
That’s the question she asks as she watches the case against Higgs unfold and approach a summer trial date with more delays anticipated: When the storytelling and finger-pointing are finished, will justice be served for the late Kathy Augustine?
“To hear her bashed and degraded after her death, it hurts,” Dallas said.
It’s not just a good mystery. It’s a person’s life.
• John L. Smith’s column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal’s Opinion page. E-mail him at email@example.com or call (702) 383-0295.