Higgs murder case reads like a spy thriller | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Higgs murder case reads like a spy thriller

Scott Sonner

RENO (AP) — It sounds like something out of a spy thriller — part Tom Clancy, part “CSI.”

A once-powerful female politician attempts a comeback after being impeached as state controller. Portrayed as a tyrant by her enemies, her run for state treasurer causes a rift within the state’s Republican Party.

Suddenly, just months before the primary, she suffers what her husband — an emergency room nurse — calls a heart attack. She’s rushed to the hospital, where she falls into a coma and dies three days later.

Meanwhile, police are tipped that the victim’s husband told another nurse just days before that he intended to divorce his wife. According to the tipster nurse, the unusually chatty, soon-to-be widower also mentioned another pending Reno murder trial — that of Darren Mack, accused of stabbing his wife to death and shooting the judge handling their divorce through a courthouse window. She says he told her Mack “did it wrong.”

“If you want to get rid of somebody … hit them with a little ‘succs’ because they can’t trace it post-mortem,” she quoted him as saying while he gestured as if squeezing a syringe.

Every nurse knows “succs” is succinylcholine, a drug used to temporarily paralyze a person before inserting a breathing tube, she later testified at a preliminary hearing.

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Suspicious, police shipped blood and urine samples from the victim to an FBI lab in Virginia for toxicology tests, and months later, the tests detected a drug in her system — succinylcholine.

“It’s almost like television,” said Steven Kosach, the Washoe County District Court judge who will preside over the real-life drama scheduled to get under way in his courtroom today.

After hearing a series of motions, jury selection is to begin for Chaz Higgs’ trial on charges he murdered Kathy Augustine by injecting her with the paralyzing drug.

“There’s overwhelming evidence Kathy Augustine was murdered and Mr. Higgs was the murderer,” said Christopher Hicks, an assistant district attorney.

Higgs pleaded not guilty in December. If convicted, he faces up to life in prison without parole. He’s been free on $250,000 bail since March, partly because his lawyers convinced the judge there’s been no evidence introduced that the drug killed Augustine and prosecutors can’t prove that it wasn’t paramedics who injected her with it.

David Houston, his lead attorney, argues the wound the prosecution calls the injection site in her buttocks was only one-fourth inch deep, incapable of causing her death from a drug that normally is injected intravenously. He said he’s found no medical research that speaks to administration of the drug through injection.

“You’d have to be Tom Clancy writing a novel for effect, because scientifically and medically there’s no way to tell what would happen,” Houston said in an interview Friday.

It was at a bail hearing that the author of spy thrillers first became a trial topic. Reno Police Detective David Jenkins mentioned the use of the untraceable poison in the novel, “The Teeth of the Tiger.” He said he had no scientific knowledge of how quickly the drug would paralyze someone but that Clancy’s book addressed the matter in detail.

Houston shot back, “You don’t regard Tom Clancy as an expert for an investigation, do you?”

Jenkins said the novel “puts it out in public.”

“And certainly Tom Clancy is regarded as someone who does substantial fact-checking,” Jenkins said.

Houston expects the trial to last two weeks, partly because of the amount of scientific testimony scheduled about the drug and the condition of Augustine’s heart.

“There are witnesses who have some general agreement. But there’s still a lot of questions, and you don’t guess at a conviction,” Houston said.

“It is a completely unrealistic notion to believe that Tom Clancy’s methodology could be effective in the real world,” he said.

“The prosecution wants you to believe that (Higgs) is some very intelligent, very sinister individual who figured out this plot. But they can’t have it both ways. You either are or you aren’t. And for someone who is very intelligent and familiar with the medical profession and familiar with the drug, it makes no sense.”

Houston said he expects jury selection to stretch into Tuesday because it may be difficult to find unbiased jurors after the significant publicity the case received.

“I think it’s unrealistic to think you’ll have a jury pool that goes, ‘Chaz who?'”