Power, Passion And
A Rising Political Star Dies Under Mysterious
(Page 1 of 6)May 4, 2007
Kathy Augustine (CBS)
(CBS) Kathy Augustine was a rising star in the Nevada
Republican party, known for both her ambition and
controversial tactics, when she mysteriously died in
Correspondent Troy Roberts reports on the investigation
into Augustine's sudden death.
In the days after Kathy's death, her husband Chaz Higgs
says he was so despondent, he locked himself in the
bedroom of their Las Vegas home and slashed his wrists.
"I actually did it over and over, because I wanted to
make sure," he tells 48 Hours. "I laid down and said,
'Good, now I can be with my wife.' And that was the last
thing I remember."
Higgs was rescued the next morning by Kathy's adult
daughter, who found him unconscious and called
paramedics. "I was hurting. I just couldn't handle the
pain anymore," he says. "I loved my wife. And I just
couldn’t believe that she was taken away from me."
For Kathy's parents, Kay and Phil Alfano, the loss of
their only daughter is, at times, too much to bear. "I
keep thinking of Kathy as my angel in heaven looking
down at me," her mother says.
Kathy's passion for politics began in high school, when
she won a coveted internship in Washington, D.C. When
she came back, Kathy's mother says her daughter was
She was a typical "Type A" personality, according to
close friend Nancy Vinnick. "Everything in her whole
life was organized," Vinnick remembers. "That was just
Kathy. All of her clothes were all color coordinated.
All of her suits were in order. She was a perfectionist
to the T in everything that she did."
A perfectionist in everything, except picking her
husbands: there were two brief marriages, and a child
before she was 30 years old. "She was so intelligent. So
smart. But when it came to men she had a soft spot. She
could not make good decisions," her mother Kay explains.
"Except for Charles."
Charles Augustine, Kathy's third husband, was an airline
pilot 16 years her senior. "He used to refer to her as
'She who must be obeyed.' And, you know, had a sense of
humor about it. And, so I think that made the
relationship work very well," remembers Kathy's brother
But as Kathy's political career took off, winning seats
in the state legislature, then becoming controller, her
ambitions grew, and so did the tensions at home. "He let
it be known he wasn’t going to be part of the political
limelight," says Greg Augustine, Charles' son from his
By 2003, after years of leading separate lives, the
marriage was over. But before the separation agreement
was finalized, Charles suffered a stroke. He died five
weeks later, with Kathy by his side.
Kathy retreated to Hawaii where, three weeks later, she
stunned family and friends by getting married again. She
married 39-year-old Chaz Higgs, her fourth husband.
Eight years her junior, he was a registered nurse living
To many, they seemed an unlikely couple. "He just didn't
seem like her type at all," says Kathy's friend Nancy
Vinnick. "He had curly hair and it was bleached on top
and he was real, like buff and it just didn't seem like
they went together."
It was three years after they fell in love, when Chaz
found Kathy unconscious in their bed. In a matter of
days, she was dead.
As Kathy was laid to rest, suspicion was growing about
the cause of her death. In fact, the 50-year-old had
just been given a complete physical, and her mother says
Kathy was a picture of health.
In fact, the preliminary autopsy found no evidence of a
heart attack, and no other obvious cause of death.
But the medical examiner did find an unexplained mark on
her buttocks. And Reno police had received a tip
suggesting Kathy may have been poisoned.
Detective Dave Jenkins launched an investigation. "It
would have necessitated someone who could have access to
Kathy in the moments before she lapsed into
unconsciousness," Jenkins says.
But Jenkins needed evidence that a crime had been
committed. Urine samples taken when Kathy arrived at the
hospital were sent to the FBI. Two months later,
toxicology reports confirmed the presence of a powerful
paralytic drug called succinylcholine. Proof, Jenkins
says, that Kathy had been murdered.
Asked who killed Kathy, Det. Jenkins tells Roberts, "I
believe to the core of my being it was Chaz Higgs."
Chaz Higgs, the same man who was so distraught over his
wife’s death that he attempted suicide, was immediately
arrested and charged with first degree murder.
"I said, 'You've gotta be kidding me,'" Higgs remembers.
"It’s just incredible what has happened."
Asked if he killed his wife, Higgs says, "No, no. I
wouldn't kill anyone, it's just not in my nature. I
wouldn’t do that."
Higgs believes investigators are ignoring other possible
suspects. After all, Kathy was known for being a
controversial politician, with a lot of enemies. But
were they deadly enemies?
Depending on your point of
view, Kathy was either a brilliant politician or a
cold-blooded opportunist. "If she was a guy, she
would've been the brightest thing that ever walked the
face of the earth. But since she was a woman, she was a
bitch," says Republican operative George Harris, one of
Kathy's closest allies.
Political analyst Jon Ralston says that beneath Kathy's
smiling demeanor was a ruthless politician. "I think
people really, really despised Kathy Augustine because
of the tactics she used," he says. "She really hit
people below the belt. And she really used the most
divisive wedge, personal, emotional, inflammatory issues
to get ahead."
Case in point was her campaign against Dora Harris.
Harris had been leading Kathy in a 1992 race for state
assembly. "I was about 53 to 47 per cent ahead in the
polls and that Saturday Kathy came out with a hit
piece," Harris remembers.
"She ran a picture of Dora Harris, an African-American
woman, next to her picture, clearly just saying, 'I'm
the white women running. She's the black woman. Vote for
me. It was seen by many, many people as very, very
racist," explains Ralston.
"That was Kathy's style. She would do whatever she
needed to do to get what she wanted," Harris says.
Kathy went on to beat Dora Harris by 700 votes. Kathy
rode her "take no prisoners" style to the statewide
office of controller in 1998. When she was re-elected,
word spread that her star was on the rise at the
"She was being looked at for a position in the U.S.
Treasury," Vinnick remembers. "And I think there were
some good ole' boys that didn't like that. That's when
all the troubles in her life really, really started to
She was hit by a political lightning bolt. "Some of her
employees, two or three of them, went to the ethics
commission and said, 'Our boss, Kathy Augustine, is
making us do campaign work,'" Ralston explains.
Kathy became the first person in the history of Nevada
politics to face impeachment for using her staff and
state owned office equipment in her re-election
campaign; Nevada's Republican leadership told Kathy that
her political career was over.
Her impeachment ordeal went on for weeks. In the end,
Kathy was found guilty only of using state-owned
equipment in her campaign, but she was censured by the
She refused to quit, and showed up on Ralston's
television program to defend herself. Asked if she ever
considered resigning, Kathy told Ralston, "When you know
that what you did did not rise to level of impeachment,
then it was a matter of staying there and fighting for
something you truly believed in."
Kathy launched a politically explosive investigation
into financial misdeeds within her own party, and then
announced she would run for the powerful job of state
treasurer; Republican party leaders were stunned by what
they felt was her betrayal.
"I think they were flabbergasted. I think they were
upset," Ralston says. "I think they didn't know exactly
what to do because some thought, 'You know what? She
might have a chance.'"
Some people wanted to frighten Kathy out of running,
according to her brother Phil. "She did tell me that
several people had warned her to be careful," he tells
Roberts. "There were threats made to her."
48 Hours wanted to ask Chaz Higgs about all of this, but
lead defense attorney Alan Baum told his client to watch
what he said.
But Barbara Woollen had plenty to say. She was running
for lieutenant governor in the Republican primary, when
Kathy confided in her. "She told me that she had
information that she thought I needed to know about.
Involving political corruption," Woollen recalls.
"Misappropriation of funds, slush funds."
She says Kathy knew that her investigation into
corruption had put her in danger. "She said that a
prominent Republican figure had thrown her against a
wall. And said the following to her: 'What are you
doing? You're going to f--- it all up. If you know
what's good for you, you'll drop out of this race and go
away. Otherwise, you better watch your back,'" Woollen
Defense attorney David Houston says Woollen's story was
not the only one that police ignored. "They had a number
of different threats that were reported to them," he
says. "Serious threats against Kathy Augustine, and to
her health and safety. And, they didn't even bother to
But Reno detective Dave Jenkins makes no apologies for
his investigation. He acknowledges Kathy was a
controversial and polarizing figure in Nevada state
politics and that she had political enemies, but says he
doesn't believe anyone else is responsible for her death
but Chaz Higgs.
Kathy may have had a lot of
political enemies, but it’s her husband Chaz Higgs, the
critical care nurse, who has been charged with her
murder. At this preliminary hearing, Higgs will hear,
for the first time, the state’s evidence against him.
Washoe County District Attorney Tom Barb will try to
convince the judge he has enough evidence to take Higgs
to trial. "We know that the drug that was in her urine
was toxic and killed her," Barb says. "How it got there
is what we're trying to prove."
The prosecution believes Higgs injected his wife with a
lethal dose of succinylcholine, waited until she lost
consciousness, then called the paramedics and tried to
pass the incident off as a heart attack.
"Succinylcholine killed Miss Augustine," Barb tells the
court. "He was the only one around at the time the drug
would have had to have been administered … you've got a
victim that died of poisoning and two people were
present, the victim and the spouse."
But Higgs' attorney David Houston says that "absolutely"
didn’t happen. "This case against Chaz is what we call a
circumstantial case," he tells the court. "The question
is number one, was a crime committed because that still
hasn’t been established? And then, number two, if a
crime was committed the question is the obvious – who
"There are people that think that it had something to do
with Kathy's political controversial career. There are
people who think that it was, she died of natural
causes," defense attorney Alan Baum says. "If somebody
did kill Kathy Augustine, it sure wasn't Chaz."
But at this pre-trial hearing, only evidence tying Higgs
to the crime will be heard; he can only mount a defense
if this case goes to trial.
No one is closer to Chaz Higgs than his twin brother
Mike. Seeing his brother in handcuffs and a prison
uniform saddens him. "I think there's a big injustice
that's been done," Mike Higgs tells Roberts.
Mike has flown across country with his mother to support
Chaz in court. "The hardest thing for me is just not
being able to go up and talk to my brother and have a
conversation with 'em," he says.
Their father was a Marine, and the twins grew up near
Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
After high school, Chaz joined the Navy, becoming a
hospital corpsman. "I deployed with Marine Corps units,
Navy ships, Seal teams, you name it," Chaz Higgs
recalls. "I went wherever I was deployed, and I was
their only medical person."
He left after 16 years, for a new career as a critical
care nurse. Chaz says he loved his work, that he was
very good at it, and that it was his passion.
It was in Las Vegas where Higgs met Kathy. "As two
people, we clicked. We just hit it off," he says. "We
fell in love with each other."
His family embraced the couple, but Kathy’s family
wasn’t so happy. "I didn't like him. And I told her so,"
says Kathy's mother Kay Alfano.
Asked if she grew to like him, she says, "No. …None of
us liked him."
And when Kathy died, Kay didn’t suspect her daughter’s
political enemies were involved—she immediately focused
on her son-in-law. Asked how she can be so certain Higgs
killed her daughter, Kay says, "By the way he acted."
She says Higgs didn't behave like someone whose wife was
in an irreversible coma. "He showed no emotion. No tear.
Nothing. When she died, he just sat down. He just sat
there. Didn't say a word," Kay says.
"Did you go to police with your suspicions?" Roberts
asks Phil Alfano.
"We didn't because we had nothing to go on. We didn't
know, were we just overreacting? Was this just all in
our head?" he says.
But Kathy's family and friends say she had long been
confiding in them about her troubled relationship with
her husband. "He was always broke. Always asking her for
money," Kay says.
"He became very verbally abusive towards her," says
And Phil says Higgs was unfaithful.
But Higgs says he never cheated on Kathy. "I'm not that
kind of person, I wouldn’t do it to her."
And Higgs' attorney, Alan Baum, says he hasn’t found any
evidence to the contrary. "There's no one that has come
forward or that we've found that has indicated that they
had any kind of a romantic relationship with Chaz."
But these stories resonate
with Kirstin Lattin. In 1990, she was married to Chaz
Higgs. She tells Roberts Higgs become unfaithful very
soon after they married. "Very quick. Absolutely killed
me. When I tried to talk to him about it, of course he
denies it," she says.
"He also was a really serious steroid user," Lattin
says. She accuses Higgs of steroid fueled rages. "He
would just get nasty mean. Start a huge fight," she
But Higgs says he never abused steroids.
The marriage lasted less than a year. For Chaz Higgs, it
was one of four troubled unions. In fact, at the time of
Kathy's death, their marriage was on the rocks as well.
"We had our share of problems," Higgs tells Roberts.
"So there was some discussion of divorce?" Roberts asks.
"Yes," Higgs replies. "I just couldn’t handle the stress
anymore, I couldn’t handle what it was doing to her."
Higgs blames the stress on Kathy's political career. "It
was tearing her apart, mentally, physically," he says.
"That was a major thing."
"Frankly, that was what led to problems in the marriage.
Which clearly they were having," says defense attorney
Alan Baum. "But it had nothing to do with them not
loving one another."
Why would Chaz want Kathy dead? "Well, if you take the
stand that every murder has to be rational, I think
you'll be disappointed," Det. Dave Jenkins says. "All we
know for sure is that there was a failing relationship,
a lot of acrimony between the two of them and some
allegations of infidelity. That's the ingredients, many
times, for violence. "
"They don’t have a case," says defense attorney David
Houston. "What they have is rumor, innuendo and their
But the prosecution does have a witness: Kim Ramey.
Succinylcholine, called "Sux" for short, is normally
given to patients to ease insertion of a breathing tube.
"It's a drug that has been used, still is used, to
immobilize muscles. It just paralyzes the muscles," D.A.
Tom Barb explains.
It also acts fast, and nearly vanishes from the system
in minutes, making it extremely difficult to detect.
At first, there was no reason to suspect succinylcholine,
until a tip came into police. It was a phone call from
Ramey, who, like Higgs, is a critical care nurse.
"She had some very serious concerns that Miss
Augustine's medical condition may have been the result
of someone having intentionally administered a drug to
her," Det. Jenkins explains.
Ramey told police that she and Higgs had talked at work
just a day before Augustine was rushed to the hospital.
At the preliminary hearing, Ramey said Higgs had
mentioned a well known local murder case involving a man
who had stabbed his wife to death.
"He said, 'That guy did it wrong.' He said, 'If you want
to get rid of somebody,' and he made a gesture like this
(holding a needle), 'You just hit her with a little Sux,
because they can’t trace it post mortem,'" Ramey told
the court. "I looked him at the face and I said, 'Chaz,
that’s too much anger to carry around.' And the hair on
my arm arose."
Based on Ramey's telephone tip, the frozen sample of
Kathy's urine was immediately sent off for testing.
Defense attorney David Houston dismisses Ramey’s
account. "It, in no way implicates any kind of motive,
anger or reason why Chaz Higgs would do the same thing
to his wife in a very short period of time thereafter.
It's almost absurd," he says.
But prosecutors point out that when Higgs was arrested,
police found handwritten notes about succinylcholine in
his car. "I'm sure I probably did have some literature
on succinylcholine, along with about a thousand other
drugs too," Higgs says.
In Higgs' defense, Houston will challenge all of the
prosecution's scientific evidence, starting with that
needle mark on Kathy. "That is about the size of a
needle on an insulin syringe," he explains. "If you were
to administer the amount of succinylcholine contained in
an insulin syringe, you would not even receive a numb
hip, let alone a catastrophic consequences of
respiratory failure or heart failure."
And he argues the amount of succinylcholine detected by
the urine test is inconsequential. "What they're talking
about from the prosecution's stand point is finding what
they euphemistically refer to as traces. Well, I'm not
really sure what a trace is, but it's certainly not
enough to convict somebody beyond a reasonable doubt of
a murder," Houston says.
John Hiatt is a
forensic chemist who is not involved in the Higgs
investigation. Asked how difficult it is going to be for
the prosecution to prove that Higgs injected his wife
with succinylcholine, Hiatt tells Roberts, "That will
really depend upon how good the evidence is with regard
to the succinylcholine in the urine sample."
Higgs admits that during his career as a nurse, he had
administered the drug and that he had access to it,
along with lots of other drugs, in the months leading up
to Kathy's death, but he says he was not in possession
of succinylcholine during that period.
"Succinylcholine is not a recreational drug. If that's
present, somebody put it in her, and the only one that
had the opportunity to put it in her was her husband,"
argues Tom Barb. "I guess it's just pretty
straightforward. It's murder by injection, as opposed to
Higgs' alleged use of succinylcholine in Kathy's death
may turn out to be only the tip of the iceberg. Now
Charles Augustine's sons have suspicions about their
father's death years ago and suspicions about both Chaz
and about Kathy.
After Higgs was charged with murdering his wife Kathy,
her stepsons, Greg and Larry, began raising questions
about their father’s death. "Kathy told me that he
suffered from massive organ failure and has passed away.
And I, instantly my gut feeling was, 'That's not
right,'" says Greg.
Asked what they think happened to their father, the sons
tell Roberts they think he was murdered. The brothers
believe they have good reason for their suspicions: Chaz
Higgs was one of Charles Augustine's critical care
"I was assigned to his care for one or maybe two
shifts," Higgs acknowledges.
Although it was only a couple of days, it was long
enough to catch Kathy’s eye. "We went out for coffee,
and hit it off. We just connected," he recalls. "One
thing led to another and we fell in love with each
"You weren’t conflicted about dating Kathy Augustine
while her husband was recovering from a stroke?" Roberts
"Well no, not based on their relationship at the time,"
Higgs replies. He says Kathy told him she’d been
separated from Charles for five years.
Greg Augustine says he knew his father’s marriage was
ending, but was still astonished by his stepmother’s
behavior. "At that point i thought it was completely
inappropriate and you know was kind of, 'How dare you?'
He's right here and can you just maybe not do this in
front of us? And I lost a lotta respect for her then,"
In the days following Charles Augustine's death, the
brothers say Kathy's behavior got worse. "And a lot of
strange things happened. We were kicked out of the
house," Greg tells Roberts.
"This was extraordinarily bad, even for Kathy, by
Kathy's standard," Larry says. "Removing the whole
family from the house at a time where we were all
grieving and trying to come … to a point of letting my
But the brothers were even more flabbergasted when they
learned their stepmother had married Higgs, just three
weeks after their father died.
"Didn't she care about appearances?" Roberts asks Higgs.
"She didn't care," he says. "I mean, you have to
understand, she looked at herself as a single woman."
Greg and Larry Augustine believe Higgs may have poisoned
their father with help from an accomplice.
Asked if he thinks Kathy played a role in his father's
death, Greg Augustine tells Roberts, "We're speculating
at this point but I think she did. It was very
convenient for my dad just to kinda slip away."
The motive? According to
Greg, with no signed divorce agreement, Kathy stood to
inherit his father's million-dollar estate. "If he dies
now she's a living heir. She gets everything. I'm not
talkin' about a whole lotta money, but it's enough when
you're, I should say going into an impeachment, being
investigated, you need money for counsel and I think it
was convenient for all the parties involved," he says.
Greg says neither he nor his brother have received a
penny of their father's estate.
And Greg has a theory what happened when Higgs' and
Kathy's marriage fell apart. "I think that Chaz decided
to take matters in his own hands and make sure that the
only other person that knows he was involved in my dad's
death isn't around anymore. That's what I think. I don't
know," Greg says.
But Higgs says the notion that he and Kathy may have
conspired to kill Charles Augustine is "completely
outlandish" and "crazy."
"Have you ever contemplated the notion that Kathy
Augustine and Chaz Higgs plotted together to kill
Charles Augustine?" Roberts asks Det. Jenkins.
"I have certainly heard that theory advanced," the
detective replies. "It’s interesting speculation. I'm
not sure at this point that we'll ever know for sure."
At the time of Charles Augustine's death, there was no
autopsy. But last October, three months after Kathy's
death, the Las Vegas coroner’s office opened an
investigation and ordered Charles' remains exhumed.
Tissue samples were tested for succinylcholine, the same
drug investigators believe Higgs used to kill Kathy.
"Knowing what I know about that drug now, I don't think
they're gonna find anything. I can't see that that drug
will still exist in his body, three and a half years
later. So we may never know," Greg Augustine tells 48
On Tuesday, May 1, 2007, the toxicology results were
released. According to the coroner's office there is no
evidence Charles Augustine was poisoned by any drug,
But as Greg Augustine told 48 Hours, after hearing the
news, with succinylcholine, there is no 100 percent
certainty. "I'd like concrete proof and I don't think
they can ever prove a murder happened. They can't prove
a murder didn’t happen," he says.
Officially, Charles Augustine died of complication from
a stroke, not foul play. As a result, Las Vegas police
have closed that case.
But at the preliminary hearing in the death of Kathy
Augustine, a decision has been made. "I do believe,
based on the testimony presented thus far, that there is
probable cause to bind over the defendant on the charge
of murder," the judge announced.
Higgs will stand trial for his wife's murder.
Kathy's family will be there. "It isn't gonna bring her
back. But it will give me the satisfaction," Kay says.
So will Higgs' mother, Shirley. "We just know he would
never do anything like this. We just want to see him
come home. "
Higgs has been released on $250,000 bail. As he enjoys
freedom once again, he knows it may be only temporary.
Asked what, in his mind, is the best-case scenario,
Higgs tells Roberts, "The best case is the truth is told
and I'm vindicated."
Asked what the truth is, Chaz Higgs says, "That's
something I wanna save for the trial."