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Nevada official's widower guilty

A jury convicts Chaz Higgs in the poisoning death of his politician wife and recommends a life sentence.

June 30, 2007|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

Chaz Higgs, a former Navy medic and critical-care nurse, was convicted Friday afternoon of first-degree murder in the poisoning death of his wife, Nevada state Controller Kathy Augustine. The jury later recommended a sentence of life in prison.

The Washoe County jury returned the verdict in a Reno courtroom after less than nine hours of deliberations.

Given Augustine's political profile in Nevada -- and the drama of the accusation itself -- the case had been closely followed. The reading of the verdict was carried live over Reno television stations and streamed on KRNV.com.

Higgs stood as the court clerk read the verdict, and could be seen to sag slightly as the word "guilty" was pronounced. Otherwise, he showed no reaction.

Under the sentence recommended by the jury, there is the possibility of parole after 20 years.

Higgs, who had been free on bail, slashed his wrists Tuesday morning -- the second apparent suicide attempt since his wife's death. He was then placed in custody under a suicide watch.

Higgs had taken the stand Monday and was questioned by his defense team. After the suicide attempt, Judge Steven Kosach suspended the trial until Thursday. Higgs resumed the stand and was cross-examined. He explained that he had attempted suicide because he believed he had exonerated himself in his testimony Monday, and was ready to die.

Augustine died when life support was removed last July 11, three days after Higgs told investigators he discovered her barely breathing and unresponsive in their home. He said he presumed she had suffered a heart attack.

But an autopsy determined Augustine had died after being injected with a powerful muscle relaxant called succinylcholine, or "succs," which medical personnel use to immobilize patients as they insert breathing tubes.

Higgs was arrested in September in Virginia after the test results were known, and returned to Reno for trial.

The case hinged on the testimony of Higgs' fellow nurses at Reno-area healthcare facilities.

The nurses testified that before her death, Higgs had used disparaging terms to refer to his wife, and that he talked of plans to leave her. Kim Ramey, the prosecution's first witness, testified that she and Higgs talked July 7 about the Darren Mack case. Mack is accused of killing his wife and shooting and wounding the Reno judge handling their divorce.

Ramey testified that Higgs said Mack had handled the killing incorrectly. "If you want to get rid of someone, you just hit them with a little succs, because you can't trace it post-mortem," she quoted Higgs as saying.

Suspicion about the cause of Augustine's death was first raised after Ramey saw news reports of the politician's hospitalization and told police about Higgs' comments. Doctors then tested Augustine for the presence of the drug.

Higgs' defense lawyer, David Houston, sought to convince the jury that Higgs had no reason to kill Augustine because he was in the process of leaving her. He also tried to raise doubts about the medical evidence, including the site of the injection, which was in the muscle of the buttocks. The drug works fastest if delivered intravenously, and Higgs would have known that, Houston argued.

Higgs and Augustine met in 2003, when Higgs was among the medical personnel treating her then-husband, Charles Augustine, after he suffered a stroke. Charles Augustine died that August, and Higgs and Augustine quickly became romantically involved. During a trip to Hawaii three weeks later, they married.

The unusual start and seemingly fast pace of their romance led to speculation that Higgs -- as well as Augustine -- might have been involved in Charles Augustine's death.

Authorities exhumed the body, but test results in May determined he had died of complications from the stroke.

Kathy Augustine was a controversial figure in Nevada politics. A hard-edged campaigner, she had just begun a comeback campaign for state treasurer after becoming the first state official in Nevada history to be impeached.

She had barely retained the elected controller's position when the state Senate opted in 2004 to reprimand her rather than remove her for using state employees and equipment in her 2002 reelection campaign.

scott.martelle@latimes.com

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