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Injection Killed Nev. Controller, Police Say

The official's husband is charged with murder. Her death had been blamed on heart attack.

September 30, 2006|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

The husband of late Nevada State Controller Kathy Augustine was arrested Friday and charged with murdering her by injecting her with a paralytic drug, Reno police said, the latest in a series of wild developments that has riveted the state.

Chaz Higgs, 42, a bodybuilder turned nurse, was arrested near his father and stepmother's home in Hampton, Va., said Reno police spokesman Steve Frady.

A first-degree murder warrant for Higgs' arrest had been issued late Wednesday after an FBI toxicology test found a paralytic drug in Augustine's body.

Augustine, 50, died July 11 from what Higgs, who was a critical-care nurse at Washoe Medical Center in Reno, said was a massive heart attack three days earlier.

But authorities found no evidence of heart disease in an autopsy, and many of her friends and family members had suspected Higgs.

"Ever since this happened, we have been cautiously suspicious of Chaz," said Larry Augustine, the controller's stepson and the son of her second husband, Charles Augustine.

"His explanation didn't make sense," Augustine said by telephone from his brother's home in Thousand Oaks. "This was a healthy, vibrant woman, who actually thrived on the stress of her job."

A release issued by the Reno police said that the drug found in Augustine's body, succinylcholine, "paralyzes muscles in the body within several minutes, including the muscles used for breathing.

"It has no effect on consciousness or pain perception," the release added, "so unless sedatives are also introduced, an individual given succinylcholine will be paralyzed and awake while they are dying."

Augustine, a onetime flight attendant who became an assemblywoman and state senator from Las Vegas and then controller, was censured by the Legislature after her 2004 impeachment and conviction for using state resources to campaign.

Resisting calls from the governor and other fellow Republicans to step down, she planned to serve out her term and announced a run this year for state treasurer. In the GOP primary last month, after her death, she received more than 26,000 votes, coming in second.

News of the arrest, Larry Augustine said, was a "punch in the gut" to the family, but it also "confirmed our suspicions."

Charles Augustine died several weeks after he suffered a stroke in 2003. One of his critical care nurses was Higgs.

Charles Augustine's family had believed he was recovering from the stroke and had expressed suspicions about Higgs having had a possible role in the death.

Just three weeks after he died -- leaving Kathy Augustine a Las Vegas home and a $1-million life-insurance policy, according to news reports -- she took a trip to Hawaii and brought Higgs along. Friends were surprised when she returned and announced their marriage -- her third, his fourth.

Higgs had blamed what he termed Augustine's heart attack on the corruption ordeal -- a theory offered just before he slit his wrists in an unsuccessful suicide attempt shortly after her death.

He was released from the hospital the same day but did not attend his wife's funeral the following day.

Kathy Augustine's brother, Phil Alfano, told the Associated Press on Friday that family members were "saddened but not surprised" to hear of the arrest.

"There were a lot of things that we saw in terms of his behavior during her hospitalization ... that made us very suspicious," Alfano told AP, referring to the three-day period between her sudden collapse at home and her death.

"At this point," Alfano said, "we just hope that he does the right thing and cooperates with police and spares us any additional grief."

sam.howe.verovek@latimes.com

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