updated 7/21/2006 5:00:09 PM ET 2006-07-21T21:00:09

In a state where sin, debauchery and corruption are commonplace, it takes a lot to get people talking.

The case of the seemingly healthy state controller who died suddenly and the attempted suicide of her husband has generated a lot of chatter — and caught the attention of law enforcement.

Kathy Augustine had the unfortunate distinction of being the only constitutional officer in Nevada history ever to be impeached and convicted.

She kept her job as Nevada’s top finance official, but her misconduct cost her the support of many colleagues and the state Republican Party. Still, she seemed to be in good spirits and was even campaigning for another office.

So when she died unexpectedly July 11 at age 50, friends and family didn’t know what to make of it. She had seemed healthy and vibrant.

Perhaps a sinister explanation?
Her husband, Chaz Higgs, said it was a heart attack and chalked it up to the stress of an uphill election battle for state treasurer. But just days after her death, Higgs tried to kill himself by slitting his wrists.

A distraught widower too lonely to live?

Maybe. But friends and family are wondering if there’s a more sinister explanation, especially considering Augustine’s first husband died while Higgs was his hospital nurse.

Augustine had a reputation for being overbearing and heavy handed. She had a lot of staff turnover, made plenty of people unhappy and often overstepped social boundaries.

State archivist Guy Rocha said he was once at a reception where Augustine was speaking to an official from Bulgaria. She came over to Rocha, grabbed the lapel of his coat and started removing his Nevada state flag pin.

“I want to give it to the minister of finance,” Rocha quoted Augustine as saying. “You know, I sign your paycheck.”

Rocha was appalled.

“She made you feel as if you were going to be in a hell of a lot of trouble if you didn’t do what she told you to do,” Rocha said.

Disgruntled staff, impeachment
As state controller, Augustine was responsible for administering the accounting system and debt-collection program. She was the first woman elected to that position, and before that she was in the state Assembly and Senate.

Augustine was impeached and convicted in late 2004 for using state equipment on her 2002 campaign. She was censured, but not removed from office, something Rocha said many people at the state Capitol thought should have been done. When she wasn’t, she became the elephant in the middle of the room.

“I think she felt she wasn’t doing really much more than anybody does in their office,” Rocha said. “The difference was she had disgruntled staff and they outed her.”

Political leaders, including Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn, called for her to step down, but she refused.

Her biggest supporter seemed to be her husband. Last year, Higgs even filed a complaint against one of his wife’s biggest critics, accusing state Sen. Steven Horsford of violating campaign contribution laws.

Higgs, 42, was a critical care nurse who also happened to work at the hospital where Augustine’s previous husband was taken after a stroke. The couple had been married for 15 years.

Charles Augustine, 63, an airplane pilot, died in August 2003 of complications from a stroke, according to his death certificate.

Higgs attended the wake, then he and Augustine were married just three weeks later in Hawaii.

‘She had a political future’
By most accounts, Kathy Augustine was in good health and had not let her troubles get her down.

She had decided to run for state treasurer even though the Republican Party had disavowed her, and many others thought she should give up politics altogether.

“She still believed she had a political future,” Rocha said.

Then Higgs said he found her unconscious on July 8 in the bedroom of their Reno home. She died three days later of what Higgs called a massive heart attack.

Just a day before the funeral, Higgs slit his wrists at the couple’s other home in Las Vegas. He was released from the hospital later that day, but did not attend the funeral.

That got people wondering whether Higgs had anything to do with Augustine’s death. And what about Charles Augustine? Did he die naturally?

“I think many Republicans and Democrats decried some of her campaign tactics,” said Assembly Majority Leader Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas. “But I think everyone — Republicans and Democrats — is disturbed at her passing.”

‘What is this all about?’
Reno police and state investigators are looking into Kathy Augustine’s death. Police searched her home, and the FBI’s crime lab in Virginia is analyzing autopsy results.

Calls to the couple’s homes in Las Vegas and Reno went unanswered Friday.

The night before Higgs attempted suicide, he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he welcomed the police investigation into his wife’s death.

“I loved this woman who died, and now there is all this (expletive) coming up,” Higgs told the newspaper. “It is just crazy for people to assume I had something to do with it.”

Higgs said he asked for an autopsy, which, according to police, found no indications of long-term heart disease.

“My wife was a healthy 50-year-old woman who dropped dead. I want to find out what happened,” he said. “People don’t know what went on in our home. She was frazzled and stressed out.”

To family and friends of Kathy and Charles Augustine, it may all add up to foul play. Charles Augustine’s children plan to ask Las Vegas police to exhume their father’s body if it turns out Kathy Augustine did not die of natural causes.

The minister at Augustine’s funeral seemed to sum up the mystery best. “Why God?” the Rev. Michael Keliher asked. “What is this all about?”

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