The Fireman's Wife

Nikki Araguz, formerly Justin Purdue, clashes with family over her late husband's legacy.

Things got better for Justin when Sheri enrolled him in the Gregory-Lincoln Education Center, a fine arts magnet school.

"She was in an environment where everybody was different and unique," Sheri says.

Justin would secretly slip on his sister's or mother's dresses when no one was around; his parents wouldn't see him in a dress until his 18th birthday. Soon after, he told them he wanted to change his name. He was thinking of "Nicolette," which Sheri brushed off as over-the-top. Justin played around with it and decided on "Nikki," with "Paige" for a middle name.

Sheri said it was hard for her to do away with a name that she had picked out with Christin Wayne Purdue 18 years earlier, but she understood. Justin didn't feel like Justin. He felt like Nikki.

There was just one little ­problem: Nikki was out of control.

Justin may have been calling himself Nikki in 1994, but as far as the Harris County District Attorney's Office was concerned, it was Justin Graham Purdue who was drunk and behind the wheel.

He was granted probation, but for the next two years couldn't keep himself out of trouble. Justin racked up multiple misdemeanor convictions for theft and driving with a suspended license.

But perhaps his greatest affront to society was appearing on The Jerry Springer Show. Four times. At least two of the appearances consisted of her surprising unwitting guys she had made out with.

Quite simply, Nikki was hot. It's not like there was an Adam's apple to overlook, or a deep voice, or even a tinge of five o'clock shadow. Nikki was petite — a size two — with delicate features, and she preferred tight clothes that accentuated an amazingly feminine form. She also liked to drink. A lot. And that walk, that overproduced Marilyn sashay that women tended to pick up on, but which apparently mesmerized guys.

Apparently bent on ruling the sub-prime-time white trash TV ­universe, Nikki also graced the sets of Maury and Sally Jesse ­Raphael.

Nikki says now that she regrets those appearances, and she chalks them up to youthful indiscretions. She says she feels particularly bad for hurting any of the guys she duped.

"I was frickin' young and dumb and easily persuaded by...producers who were offering an 18- and 19-year-old child trips with all expenses paid and cash in the end," she says.

In 1996, it became official: A Harris County District Court judge granted a name change, and Justin legally became Nikki. On the application, Justin had written, "I, Justin Purdue, am a woman with male anatomy, working toward a sex change. I have been living and working as a woman for over one year and seek to make my new name legal and permanent."

Two years after the name change, while working at Journeys Shoes in Willowbrook Mall, Nikki met the man who would become her first husband.

By that time, Nikki says today, she was used to guys hitting on her in the store. But they were in their late teens and early twenties — dumb and disposable. Emilio was 18 years older than her, and, she says, too shy to even make the first move.

The first time he came in, he wandered around the store for an hour while Nikki tried selling him everything in sight, but he left without spending a cent. She says he returned the next day with photos of his four-year-old daughter; she talked him into buying a pair of socks.

"I sold him on the lifetime guarantee," she jokes.

Emilio paid for the socks and started walking out of the store, but then he turned around and just looked at her. She figured he wanted to ask her out but just didn't know how to make the first move. So she did. She gave him her number.

The 42-year-old divorcé had a decent job with the phone company, a home and a daughter. He also had six parrots and a macaw. Nikki looked at Emilio, saw a white picket-fence, tropical bird-filled existence, and loved it. But she may have only been seeing what she wanted to see. They were already together when, eight months before they married, in February 1999, Emilio was convicted of theft and sentenced to 29 days in jail. (The couple were married by Emilio's brother-in-law; they moved from Houston to Wharton, Emilio's hometown, after the wedding.)

Nikki was charged with felony theft of property in 2000 and received three years' deferred adjudication, which she successfully completed. She declined to give any details on the offense, saying only that it was unfortunate and irrelevant.

"It became very unhealthy for both of us," Nikki says. "We had dependency issues that neither one of us could deal with together."

Money was so tight that, two weeks before Christmas 2001, the credit union repossessed the couple's PT Cruiser. A few months later, the couple knew they had no choice but to file for bankruptcy. Nikki had no way of knowing that that decision triggered a meeting that would come back to haunt her eight years later.

The couple hired Emilio's high school friend, attorney Frank E. Mann III, to guide them through the Chap­ter 7 process. At the time, Mann was nearing the end of a five-and-a-half-year probation with the State Bar of Texas for, among other things, improper office supervision: One of his paralegals copied and pasted a client's signature on one form to another form without notifying that client. Mann was barred from practicing law for the first 36 months of his probation.

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