Coroner: No Poison in Body of Augustine's Former Husband

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No evidence of foul play was found in the exhumed body of slain Nevada state Controller Kathy Augustine's former husband, the Clark County coroner said Tuesday.

Charles F. Augustine died of natural causes in August 2003 at age 63, Coroner Michael Murphy said in a statement, dispelling the theory that Kathy Augustine's husband, Chaz Higgs, might have killed both Charles Augustine and Kathy Augustine.

Higgs, 42, a former critical care nurse, faces trial June 18 on charges including first-degree murder in Kathy Augustine's death. Prosecutors allege he administered a powerful muscle relaxant to kill her last July. He could face life in prison if convicted.

"The cause of (Charles) Augustine's death is a stroke," Murphy said, noting that Charles Augustine also had heart disease and a severe case of pneumonia.

"This determination is consistent with the original death certificate," Murphy said.

Higgs' lawyer, David Houston, characterized Higgs as "extremely happy" about the autopsy findings.

"I know a number of the investigative agencies in this case had attempted, at least by inference, to tie Charles's death to Kathy Augustine's on the theory this was some sinister plan by Chaz Higgs
to eliminate the husband, woo the grieving widow, marry her and carry her riches off into the sunset," Houston said.

"It is a relief to note this theory is as faulty as the prosecution is in its entirety," he said.

Kathy Augustine's daughter, Dallas Augustine, released a statement saying the coroner's ruling gave the family "some measure of closure."

"They now know that Charles died of natural causes and not at the hands of a criminal," Dallas Augustine said of her stepfather. "Charles was a good man. I hope this brings some measure of peace to the family."

Kathy Augustine's brother, Phil Alfano, a high school principal in Modesto, Calif., also expressed relief at the coroner's ruling. But Alfano said he believes prosecutors have a solid case that Higgs killed his sister.

"I'm relieved that Chaz didn't murder Chuck as well as Kathy," Alfano said. "That would have been just another blow."

Murphy said his ruling came after a "complete and exhaustive" review of samples taken from Charles Augustine's body, which was exhumed Oct. 10. Las Vegas police had said they wanted to determine if Chaz Higgs had any role in Charles Augustine's death.

Higgs cared for Charles Augustine in a Las Vegas hospital and married Kathy Augustine three weeks after Charles Augustine died.

Gary Telgenhoff, the county medical examiner, found no evidence of succinylcholine, heavy metals, strychnine, cyanide "or common drugs of abuse," the coroner said.

Authorities have reported the powerful muscle relaxant succinylcholine was in Kathy Augustine's body when she died July 11 at a Reno hospital at age 50.

Prosecutors blame Higgs for administering the drug. He was arrested Sept. 29 in Hampton, Va., and was freed on bond from a Reno jail in March.

Chief Deputy Washoe County District Attorney Tom Barb said evidence in Kathy Augustine's death clearly points to Higgs, and called the investigation of Charles Augustine's death a separate matter.

"That was always a Clark County case," Barb said. "Their result doesn't affect our case at all."

Doctors initially believed Kathy Augustine suffered a massive heart attack before she was taken to the hospital July 8. She lapsed into a coma and died.

Acting on a tip, doctors took samples from Augustine before her death that were later tested by the FBI toxicology lab.

Higgs attempted suicide in Las Vegas three days after Augustine's death. He was released from a hospital the same day and didn't attend his wife's funeral.

He was arrested after toxicology tests were complete.

Kathy Augustine had a rocky political career, and was impeached by the Nevada Assembly. She was convicted and censured by the Senate for using state equipment in her 2002 campaign for state controller, but not removed from office.

When she died she was running for state treasurer because she was term-limited as controller.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)