10/30/2006 at 01:00 AM EST
Two months after her husband's funeral, Kathy Augustine, Nevada's state controller, returned from a Hawaiian getaway with news that stunned her family and friends: She'd just gotten married again, to—another surprise—one of her husband's nurses, Chaz Higgs. Although family and some friends knew that Augustine, 47, had been ready to divorce her spouse of 15 years, Charles, before his stroke in July 2003, "we were not happy," says her younger brother Philip Alfano. "We didn't think it was appropriate." But, Alfano recalls, his sister told him that during Charles's month-long hospitalization, Chaz "had been her guardian angel and was very kind and had swept her off her feet." He adds, "She kept referring to him as an angel."
Reno authorities are now calling him something else: a murderer. And some of Augustine's family and friends are wondering whether he could be a double murderer. On Sept. 29, 11 weeks after Kathy succumbed to what her husband claimed was a massive heart attack, Higgs, 42, was arrested and charged with killing her with a lethal injection of a toxic substance, suspected to be the powerful paralyzing drug succinylcholine. (Lawyer Alan Baum says that his client denies any culpability in Kathy's death.) Almost immediately, one of her three stepchildren, Greg Augustine, 36, asked the coroner to exhume the body of his father, who had died suddenly while in Higgs's care. "I was suspicious then, and I'm even more suspicious now, finding out that Kathy was killed," Greg tells PEOPLE. "But nobody wants to live in a soap opera."
Kathy Augustine didn't seem overly concerned. A hard-driving perfectionist jokingly called She Who Must Be Obeyed by her late husband, she lived for politics and was never one to shy from controversy. After being impeached in November 2004 for using office staff and equipment for her reelection campaign, Augustine not only refused to step down but was running for another state office, treasurer, when she died. Says friend Sherry Dilley: "Kathy was strong and opinionated, and she had views on everything."
To even casual observers, Augustine and Higgs—who had each been married three times previously—looked like an odd couple. She favored colorful, campaign-ready St. John Knits ensembles; Higgs, a bodybuilder and former Navy corpsman, bleached the tips of his spiky do and liked to wear tight T-shirts that showed off his physique. "Chaz didn't fit into her life," says Kathy Smith, a friend of Augustine's and chairwoman of the Washoe County Republican Central Committee. "He was a stud muffin."
And, when he wanted to be, pretty irresistible, says his second wife, Kristin Lattin, 42, a fellow Navy corpsman who was married to him for a year and a half in the early '90s. "He was a smooth talker.... He had a way of getting inside my head. Sexually, he was absolutely the best partner that I think I had ever been with," says Lattin, who claims she eventually dumped him for cheating on her with various women, including her Navy roommate. "He was very much a playboy. He just saw nothing wrong with it."
During his marriage to Augustine, fidelity still appears to have been an issue. "At one point she kicked him out," says her brother Alfano. "But then she took him back in." Augustine kept telling her friend Dilley, whose husband was dying of cancer, "You will be very lonely, and that is why women get married after their husband dies," Dilley recalls. "She said, 'Don't make any mistakes and do anything too fast.' I think she was talking about herself."
According to the arrest affidavit, Higgs told a nursing colleague during a phone call July 7 that he was "having marital difficulties ... and that he intended on ending his relationship." During the same conversation—the day before Higgs would call an emergency operator claiming his wife had suffered a heart attack—he also allegedly branded a wealthy local defendant accused of stabbing his estranged wife "stupid" and said that the way to escape detection would be to use "sux"—a shorthand term for succinylcholine. When the colleague learned of Augustine's hospitalization, she tipped off authorities, who had blood and urine sent to the FBI lab. Its conclusion: Augustine's urine contained traces of succinylcholine, a fast-acting, quickly vanishing drug which paralyzes muscles, leaving victims unable to breathe. Without the tip, "we would have been guessing what killed her," says Thomas Barb, the chief deputy district attorney who will be prosecuting Higgs for first-degree murder. "It's damn near impossible to detect."
One remaining mystery: motive. It was well-known, family members say, that the bulk of Augustine's estate—including a 4,000-sq.-ft. Las Vegas home, a townhouse in Reno and a $500,000 annuity—would go to her daughter Dallas, now 27. "I think I speak for all our family members when I say we're extremely angry with him, and we just hope justice is served," says Alfano. "We just have to wait for that process to happen now."