Higgs states innocence

RENO -- Chaz Higgs told jurors Monday that he loved state Controller Kathy Augustine, did not kill her and had no access to the drug that prosecutors allege was the murder weapon.

Higgs, 43, testified he told Augustine he wanted a divorce July 7 when he returned to their Reno home from his new job as a critical care nurse at Carson-Tahoe Hospital. He said she told him she did not feel well and wanted to put off talking about the divorce until the morning.

That next morning, he said, he found Augustine lying cold in their bed without a pulse or a heartbeat. He said he gave her CPR, then called an ambulance. Paramedics did revive her but she died three days later in Washoe Medical Center when family members decided to disconnect life support systems.

"She had been receiving death threats for the last month or so," said Higgs, who added that he initially feared for his own life.

His attorneys did not ask him who made the threats. Higgs testified that Augustine was investigating possible financial wrongdoing by then-state Treasurer Brian Krolicki and Bob Seale, a former state treasurer.

At the time of her death, Augustine was running for treasurer. Seale and Krolicki, who is now lieutenant governor, wanted one of their cronies, Mark DeStefano, to become treasurer so they could continue with their financial deals, Higgs testified. DeStefano lost to Democrat Kate Marshall.

Seale, according to Higgs, told Augustine that she was going to "(expletive) it all up" if she won and interfered in their relationship with Atlanta financial companies.

Krolicki has categorically denied he did anything wrong and has emphasized that all contracts executed by his office with companies represented by Seale were approved by the state Board of Examiners, chaired by the governor.

Earlier this year, legislative auditors found Krolicki broke three state laws by allowing $6 million of state money to remain in hands of private contractors, including some with a company represented by Seale. The attorney general's office is investigating the findings.

In a suicide note written on July 12, Higgs had sarcastically thanked Krolicki, Seale and former Republican state Chairman Paul Adams for causing the stress that Higgs said led to Augustine's death.

Higgs tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists in the couple's Las Vegas home. Augustine's daughter, Dallas, broke down the door and paramedics revived Higgs.

"I loved Kathy more than anything in this world," Higgs wrote in his suicide note.

Higgs testified that he had felt guilty and wanted to die because he had asked for a divorce and had told her he was leaving her the evening before she was hospitalized.

"I blamed myself for her death," he said. "Here I was telling her I wanted a divorce, and she already had all this stress going on in her life."

Higgs became a suspect after Kim Ramey, a fellow nurse at Carson-Tahoe Hospital, called police and said Higgs told her on July 7 that succinylcholine was the perfect way to kill someone because it could not be traced in post-mortem tests.

But on Monday Higgs said he could not have ever said that because he did not know about post-mortem effects of succinylcholine.

He said he had just met Ramey that day and she had listened as he and Augustine argued during a phone call about him leaving her, looking for his own apartment and establishing his own bank account.

After the call, he said Ramey became a chatterbox, telling him about her own bad marriage and desire to have a divorce. Ramey was put off when he refused her request to meet him for drinks that night, he said.

Higgs said he was in training at Carson-Tahoe Hospital at the time of Augustine's death and did not have access to succinlycholine, the powerful drug used by nurses in hospital emergency rooms.

He was charged with murder in September after the FBI's crime lab found traces of the drug in Augustine's urine.

His lawyers have challenged the tests and maintained Augustine died of a sudden heart attack. She had been diagnosed in 1995 with mitral valve prolapse, a condition in which blood can leak from the heart. In rare cases, according to doctors who testified during Higgs' trial, it can result in a heart attack.

Higgs said he repeatedly asked Augustine to see a cardiologist because of her condition and the stress she faced.

Higgs' testimony came after his lawyers had called only two other witnesses -- Higgs' twin brother and a doctor who testified about how Higgs had dealt with his grief. Higgs was to be the last witness before the case goes to the jury, which could be as soon as today.

District Judge Steven Kosach warned Higgs that by testifying he was opening himself to intense cross-examination from prosecutors. Their cross-examination will begin proceedings today.

Earlier Monday, a former clerk at Washoe Medical's South Meadows branch hospital testified Higgs wrote her numerous e-mail love letters over an extended period when he worked at the hospital.

"It was just a flirtatious relationship," said Linda Ramirez, who now lives in Los Angeles.

"You touched my heart, I feel so much for you. I want to give you the world," Higgs wrote to the then-21-year-old Ramirez.

In another, he wrote of Augustine: "It is my quest in life to make this bitch crazy, and it is working. I have things in motion."

In May 2006, he wrote that he was working on getting out of his marriage. "In June it's all going to happen," he told Ramirez, according to documents and testimony.

She contended they met outside work only twice and never were physically intimate. Higgs kissed her once when she saw him at a gas station, she testified.

Ramirez added she invited Higgs to meet her at a motel, but he refused to respond to that e-mail.

Augustine found out about their e-mail relationship and complained to Ramirez's bosses, who fired her, she said.

For 11 months after she was fired, Ramirez and Higgs did not communicate, she said. She then wrote Higgs again in November 2005 and they began exchanging additional love notes. Higgs asked her to move with him to San Diego in an e-mail sent a few weeks after Augustine's death.

Higgs said he started the e-mail relationship with Ramirez after his wife rejected his repeated requests that she quit politics.

They had married in Hawaii, less than a month after Augustine's third husband, Charles, died of complications from a stroke in Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas in August 2003. Higgs served as his critical care nurse.

Augustine sent thank you notes to all the nursing staff, according to Higgs, but forgot him. When she realized her omission, she asked him out for coffee, he said.

"It was almost instantaneous," he said about their falling in love. "You could feel a chemistry. We hit it off. I followed my heart."

Augustine's friends were upset by the marriage and considered him "eye candy," according to Higgs. They believed he was after her money, but he earned only $9,000 a year less than her $80,000 state salary and did not want her money, he testified. He said that it was at his urging that she created a trust that left everything to her daughter.

But their relationship started to change in 2004 when Augustine was offered the job of U.S. treasurer but did not get it, according to Higgs.

He testified political enemies intervened and she lost the position. Later that year, Augustine paid $15,000 for ethics violations and was impeached by the state Assembly. Although she was convicted by the state Senate, she was allowed to remain in office.

Higgs said Augustine told him she was leaving politics, but then filed her candidacy for state treasurer.

When he could she see would never quit, he said he started his e-mail relationship with Ramirez. He said he regretted their relationship.

"I'm ashamed," he said.