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48 Hours 05.04.07 Power Passion And Poison

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05.04.0748 Hours  Power Passion And Poison

Power, Passion And Poison
A Rising Political Star Dies Under Mysterious Circumstances

(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 2006.

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 hooked.

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 Phil.

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 first marriage.

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 in Nevada.

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 national GOP.

"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 happen. Politically."

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 state legislature.

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 says.

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 pursue it."

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 did it?"

"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 Phil.

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 says.

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 own suspicions."

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 a gunshot."

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 nurses.

"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 other."

"You weren’t conflicted about dating Kathy Augustine while her husband was recovering from a stroke?" Roberts asks.

"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," he explains.

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 dad go."

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 Hours.

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, including succinylcholine.

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."












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