Kathy Augustine was a controversial two-term Nevada State Controller. In 2003, her husband Chuck died of an apparent stroke. Only a month later, she married Chaz Higgs, an ER nurse who, it was later revealed, had attended to her late husband just before his death.
Three years later, fifty-year-old Kathy died after a heart attack—the result, her family and friends believed, of a stressful political campaign. But when an autopsy of Kathy's body revealed no signs of heart disease, investigators dug deeper into Kathy's case…only to find the presence of a powerful, paralyzing emergency-room drug in Kathy's system. A jury would later charge Nurse Chaz with murder in the first degree. But could Kathy's first husband also have been the victim of Chaz's treachery? And just how much did Kathy know? This is the shocking true story of a family torn apart by lies, medical crime, and POISONED LOVE.
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By 6:30 the first rays of the morning sun were well over the rim of the Shadow Hills, the eastern, desert-starting side of the lush mountain valley known as Truckee Meadows.
At 4,400 feet above sea level, the valley floor was still cool from the overnight chill, and as the early light crept up the eastern wall of the small house at 9673 Otter Way, it seemed like the dawn of just another beautiful summer day in the one-time "Biggest Little City in the World," Reno, Nevada.
To the west, the peaks of the Sierras towered over the city, clad with evergreens along the ridges, guarded by rocky spines higher up, already golden in the unfiltered glow from the east. The Truckee River, the jewel of the Meadows, rushed down its gorge from Lake Tahoe through the city, rolling north to its disappearance in Pyramid Lake, sunk in the desolation of northern Nevada. The town that had begun 150 years before as a rickety bridge across a fast-running stream had turned into a fine place to live for more than 350,000 people.
At 6:43, one of those people, William Charles Higgs, known to his wife, his friends and his co-workers as "Chaz," punched 911 on a telephone in the same Otter Way house, and calmly requested medical assistance.
"It’s my wife," Higgs told the 911 dispatcher, George Reade. "I don’t know what’s happened to her. She’s not breathing." He’d attempted CPR, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, Higgs said, but he couldn’t get a pulse.
Higgs gave Reade detailed instructions on how to get to Otter Way—what streets to take, where to turn.
"How long do you think you’re going to be?" Higgs asked. "She’s not responding at all. I don’t know what happened to her. I came back in the room and she was sleeping. She has a mitral valve prolapse, was feeling really stressed the last month or so." As far as Reade could tell, it didn’t sound as though Higgs was actually doing any CPR— usually he could hear callers gasping between delivering bits of needed information. The telephone went silent—not disconnected, just put down unattended.
Within six minutes an emergency team from the Reno Fire Department had arrived at the house, followed seconds later by two paramedics from the Regional Emergency Medical Ser vices Authority, also known as REMSA. The REMSA paramedics saw a man outside, waving them on. Braking to a stop, they rushed inside, where they encountered four firemen in a small master bedroom. There, lying on her back in the bed, a woman in a tank top and pajama bottoms appeared to be dead. The firemen removed her from the bed and put her on the floor, where paramedics Ben Pratt and Manny Fuentes began resuscitation attempts.
Pratt saw that the woman was not breathing, and had no pulse, just as he’d been advised by the 911 dispatcher—in fact, her heart had stopped, and her pupils were fixed and dilated. But Pratt refused to give up. He inserted a plastic intubation tube into her throat to make sure the airway was clear, while his partner Fuentes began artificial respiration with a hand bellows—"bagging," it was called. Pratt put an intravenous line into the woman’s right arm and injected her with epinephrine, and started a second line in the left arm for atropine, two drugs which had the effect of stimulating the heart muscle. Then Pratt began a series of chest compressions in a desperate effort to get the woman’s heart and lungs going again.
At about 6:50 A.M., Kathy Augustine, the Nevada state controller, and one of the Silver State’s most colorful and controversial political figures, came back to life; or at least, her heart began to beat once more, although she remained unconscious. Her husband, William Charles Higgs, himself a critical care nurse by occupation, stood in the doorway of the bedroom and watched stoically as Pratt and Fuentes accomplished the seemingly impossible. Kathy Augustine was alive; barely, it was true, but nevertheless a living person once again.
At 7:10 A.M., a comatose Kathy Augustine was wheeled into Washoe Medical Center’s South Meadows hospital emergency room, less than three miles from the Otter Way house. In fact, Chaz Higgs had specifically asked that his wife be taken to the same emergency room where, up until that week, he had been employed as a specialist in emergency medicine. While South Meadows was a well-equipped, modern medical facility built to accommodate the recent population growth of the south Reno area, it was still a satellite facility of the main Washoe Regional Medical Center, known colloquially as Washoe Main, located in downtown Reno.
The emergency room crew on shift that morning was composed in part of nurses Marlene Swanbeck and Kristy McCabe, admitting nurse Cindy Baker, and Dr. John Ganser. By 7:25 A.M. they had surmised, based on the paramedics’ initial description, that they were dealing with the victim of a heart attack. They had no idea of their patient’s identity. All they knew was that she was a woman who was comatose and breathing with artificial respiration.
Somewhere around 7:20 A.M., Chaz Higgs arrived at the emergency room. He brushed back the privacy curtain that screened Kathy from the rest of the area and made eye contact with Swanbeck.
"What are you doing here?" Swanbeck asked, thinking that it was odd to see Chaz in so early on a Saturday morning if all he wanted was to find out next week’s work schedule.
"That’s my wife, Kathy," Chaz said, nodding at the supine figure in the bed, and that was when, for the first time, most of the emergency room crew at South Meadows knew that their patient was the same woman that they had all come to despise, even if very few of them had actually met her.
At 7:35, at a loss to explain what was wrong with Kathy—she didn’t seem to be responding to the usual cardiac care measures—Swanbeck inserted a catheter and drew Kathy’s urine. Packaging it with blood taken at 7:25, the samples were sent to the hospital’s lab, where tests were conducted; a test on the blood soon produced a positive result for barbiturate, a central nervous system depressant and occasional drug of abuse known as a "red," a "downer" or a "black beauty," at least when not prescribed by a physician. At that point, with a high-ranking state politician having been admitted to the hospital with a possible illicit drug overdose, the hospital decided to throw a publicity blanket over the proceedings by assigning a false name: "Sarah Lambert." It would later be determined that this result was a "false positive," that is, a mismea sure ment by the laboratory, but at the time, no one knew that.
Just after 8 A.M., it was decided more information was needed. Chaz wasn’t very helpful; apart from mentioning that Kathy had a congenital heart "murmur," the mitral valve prolapse, all he could tell them was that he’d been out in the garage early that morning, working on his car. When he’d come in to rouse Kathy, he’d found her comatose in their bed, and not breathing. He’d attempted CPR, he said, but couldn’t get any response, so he’d called 911. He had no idea of how long she’d been lying in bed without breathing. That was ominous—more than four minutes without oxygen meant brain damage; and the damage increased exponentially
with every minute above that. If Kathy Augustine had been without air for nine minutes or more, there was no hope— she was already in the realm of the living dead.
Cardiac specialists at Washoe Medical Center downtown suggested to their South Meadows colleagues that an angiogram would determine if there was a blockage of the arteries leading to Kathy’s heart. After all, at five feet nine inches in height, and at 189 pounds, Kathy was a large woman, slightly overweight, and the prospect of an occluded blood vessel couldn’t be discounted. The angiogram would give the doctors literally a moving picture of Kathy’s heart and its arteries.
At 8:45 A.M., Pratt and Fuentes wheeled Kathy out to their ambulance for the trip to downtown Reno and Washoe Main. Pratt climbed into the back of the ambulance, Fuentes took the wheel, and Chaz jumped into the front passenger seat. As the ambulance made its way north to the main medical facility, Chaz picked the day’s newspaper off the dashboard and began to peruse it.
Chaz and Kathy were barely out of the South Meadows emergency room when tongues there began to wag. Was that really Chaz’s wife, the fabled Kathy Augustine, the only statewide elected official ever to be impeached? The same woman who had twice been a finalist for the job of United States treasurer, but whose candidacy had been ruined by that impeachment? The self-same, never-say-die Republican candidate for state treasurer in that year’s election? The colorful politician who had once infamously suggested that a subordinate euthanize her pet cat so she’d have more time to work on Kathy’s political campaign? The woman who had repeatedly excoriated the ER staff for ignoring her when she wanted to speak to her husband, Chaz, and who had threatened to use her political influence to have them fired from their jobs? The same person who, when frustrated, had so often demanded of them: "Don’t you know who I am?"
Few were the people in the emergency room who hadn’t tangled with Kathy by telephone the previous year or so. Kathy never seemed to get it: the ER people were busy seeing patients, sometimes saving lives, when she called demanding to speak to Chaz, as if Chaz had nothing better to do than exchange idle chit-chat with his wife. When she was put on hold and forgotten in the midst of a crisis, she often lost her temper. On more than one occasion, Kathy had threatened to use her political influence to punish those at the hospital who thwarted her; and in fact, on one occasion—or so it was widely believed—she had caused an admitting clerk to be fired, simply because Kathy had caught Chaz sending her flirtatious emails.
Kathy, it appeared, was intensely jealous. She was certain that Chaz was playing around on her behind her back, and the principal suspects were the ER nurses with whom Chaz spent so much time. Hence the frequent telephone calls, demands to speak to Chaz, to know exactly when he would be home, to know his schedule, or alternatively, complaints about the schedule, which prevented Chaz from being with her. To the ER crew, Kathy Augustine was a pain, and not one that could be treated with any known medicine.
And Chaz himself seemed to agree: his wife the politician, he would tell anyone who would listen, was "a bitch," and worse. He was apologetic to his fellow ER workers— they had to understand that Kathy was "crazy," even if she was one of the biggest wheels in the state. And sometimes, when a nurse asked Chaz if he needed any help—the ER crew tended to bond together the same way cops and combat soldiers do, shared trauma having that effect—Chaz would facetiously reply, "Yeah—you can get rid of my wife for me." People laughed—then.
But now, there was Kathy Augustine, 50 years old, one of only six officials elected by all the people of the state of Nevada, comatose and on her way to intensive care at Washoe Main, brought back from the dead, but probably
still on her way to the Other Side, judging from her vital signs that morning.
And there also was her husband Chaz, the same man who’d so often complained about "the bitch," displaying a weird mixture of technical medical expertise and dispassionate theorizing in the ER. To Swanbeck, at least, he seemed unnaturally calm.
All of which made Swanbeck and others in the South Meadows ER wonder: had Chaz done something to the wife he had claimed to detest so much—if, having failed to convince someone to get rid of her for him, he’d decided to do the job himself?
Across town that same morning of July 8, a woman named Jeannine Coward awoke from a strange dream. Two years before, Jeannine had been instrumental in initiating the investigation that had led to Kathy Augustine’s impeachment. While Jeannine was convinced that she had done the right thing, she was still troubled by the personal unpleasantness that had then developed with Kathy. In her dream, she saw Kathy standing across from her in the state Capitol Building in Carson City. Jeannine knew she was going to have to walk past her, and she had an idea that Kathy might lash out at her.
"I was afraid she’d start yelling at me again," Jeannine said later. "But instead she came up to me, smiled and put her arms around me." It was only later that Jeannine realized that she’d been having this dream at almost the same moment Kathy Augustine was getting ready to die.
At 8:30 A.M., on the other side of the Sierras in the central California town of Turlock, not far from the city of Modesto, 41-year-old Phil Alfano, Jr., took a telephone call from his mother, Kay Alfano, a resident of the Orange County suburb of La Palma, located midway between Los Angeles and Santa Ana.
"It’s Kathy," Kay told her son. His sister, Kathy Marie Alfano Augustine, was in intensive care in a Reno hospital, the victim of an apparent heart attack.
"You’ve got to be kidding me," Phil said. The idea of his older sister suffering a heart attack at the comparatively young age of 50 seemed incomprehensible to him. The high-energy, striving Kathy seemed, at least to him, impervious to illness. But Phil knew his mother wasn’t kidding— that was only a figure of speech to cover his shock.
Kay told Phil that she’d just received a call from Chaz, informing her that Kathy was unconscious, and on her way to the hospital’s ICU. Kay had then told Chaz that she and Kathy’s father, Phil Alfano, Sr., would immediately fly to Reno.
Chaz had told her it wasn’t necessary—there was nothing the Alfanos could do for their daughter at that point, he said; it was all up to the doctors. Kay thought that was odd. Didn’t Chaz understand that Kathy’s mother and father would want to be at her side as she fought for her life?
Phil Jr. and Kathy had traits in common. Both were very smart, and could be quite intense when their attention was focused on something. Both had a strong sense of humor, as well as an appreciation for dry wit. Confronted with foolishness or posturing, each could be acerbic. But where Kathy tended to be somewhat flamboyant, emotionally volatile and certainly socially adept, Phil was more like his father: phlegmatic, mentally disciplined and conservative, both socially and politically.
Moreover, as a high school administrator in Modesto, Phil had of necessity and training developed some acute skills for observing and evaluating individual motivations and behavior—not one of Kathy’s stronger suits. As the next few weeks unfolded, Phil Alfano, Jr., was to employ those observational skills with great effect. Chaz’s advice to Kay Alfano to stay away from Reno seemed as strange to Phil as it had to his mother.
Chaz was being dense and insensitive, Phil now told his mother. Of course they should go to Reno. They should all go to Reno, no matter what Chaz thought. Phil made arrangements to pick up his parents at the airport in Sacramento that same afternoon. They would drive over the mountains to Reno that evening to be with Kathy in her struggle to live.
Ten minutes later that same morning, a woman in Phoenix, Arizona, received a similar call from Kay. This was Dallas Augustine, Kathy’s estranged 26-year-old daughter, and a rather colorful personality in her own right; apart from her alternative lifestyle, Dallas was a veteran professional football player, having played on the offensive and defensive lines of professional women’s teams in southern California and Arizona in 2004 and 2005.
At five eleven and 180 pounds, Dallas was a large, powerful woman, not only physically, but in her personality, which tended toward the combative and confrontational. She and Kathy had not been getting along that spring. Where the Alfanos, including Kathy and her brothers, Phil and Tony, derived their strength from the closeness of their family ties, Dallas seemed to be in a stage of rebellion against family togetherness, and especially against her mother. In fact, the more successful Kathy became in her political career, the more unpredictable Dallas became in her own life, at least as far as her conservative Uncle Phil saw such matters. To Phil, Dallas saw Kathy as controlling and reveled in smashing her mother’s expectations for her, no matter how destructive it was to their relationship.
Others saw this differently: to some, Kathy had used her only child as a "whipping girl" throughout her life.
Still, after getting this call from her grandmother, and learning that her mother was in the hospital with a heart attack, Dallas immediately called Chaz at the number Kay had given her, which was Kathy’s cellphone. No one answered, so Dallas left a message. Forty-five minutes later, Chaz called back to confirm that Kathy had indeed suffered a heart attack, and that she was in a coma in the hospital. Dallas at once made arrangements to fly to Reno from Phoenix. She got there in the early afternoon, accompanied by her significant other, Jessie.
That same morning, Chaz made numerous cellphone calls to Mark Taylor, an official in the Nevada State Controller’s Office. As assistant controller, Taylor worked closely with Kathy, and in fact, often handled her relations with the news media. Chaz thought Taylor should be notified so he could respond to the press inquiries that were certain to come, once the word got out that Kathy Augustine had collapsed.
Chaz called Taylor at 7:32 that morning, while still at South Meadows, and left a message. He called again at 8:12, then 9:28, 10:30, at 2 P.M. and again at 7 that night. Taylor did not answer or return any of the calls, for the simple reason that he was boating on a lake in the mountains with his family, and therefore out of cellphone range, a fact that Kathy knew but hadn’t previously conveyed to her husband.
Chaz made other calls as well: a minute-long message for his identical twin brother, Mike, in Virginia; another one-minute message to his father, William Higgs, in North Carolina; and altogether, two calls totaling forty-seven minutes to his mother, Shirley, also in North Carolina. The first call to Shirley was interrupted by a two-minute call from Dallas, apparently to say she’d just arrived in Reno, and that she was on her way to the Washoe Main intensive care unit. After taking this call, Chaz had called his mother back for another twenty-minute conversation. Just what mother and son said to one another was never made clear. But it was only a little more than a week after this that a prominent lawyer was retained by Chaz’s family to represent him.
That evening, the South Meadows admitting nurse, Cindy Baker, arrived at the Washoe Main ICU, hoping to see Kathy and Chaz. When she arrived, Chaz and Dallas were in the ICU room. Kathy was on her back in the hospital bed, connected to a respirator, IV lines and various monitors. Her sightless eyes were blinking incessantly. Cindy Baker had only worked in the South Meadows emergency room for six months, and she considered Chaz her "mentor." On seeing him there that morning, Cindy concluded that he was in shock, based on his placidity. She’d even called a social worker to see if he needed assistance. Now she wanted to make sure he was okay. She hugged him, and Chaz hugged her back, telling her it was "all right." Cindy turned to Kathy, with whom she’d exchanged sharp words in the past.
Excerpted from Poisoned Love by Carlton Smith.
Copyright © 2008 by Carlton Smith.
Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.