The Fireman's Wife

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

Mann had also been disciplined by the State Bar in 1990, for "misrepresentations of fact concerning the dates of his hospitalization for alcohol and substance abuse in an affidavit offered in support of a motion to retain." (Mann's bio on his firm's Web site states, "I am known as an honest, straight-talking lawyer.")

A Wharton native with a friendly country drawl, Mann came from a proud family. His grandfather was heavily involved in Wharton politics, and his father was a veterinarian whose prowess in the microscopic examination of bull semen was a boon to the area's Brahman breeders, especially following the advent of the electroejaculator.

Frank Mann Jr. also served four terms each on the Wharton City Council and the Wharton Planning Commission, presided over the local Lions Club and the Jaycees and was deacon of his church.

Nikki says her family has always supported her.
Courtesy of Nikki Araguz
Nikki says her family has always supported her.
Thomas (pictured with his sister Raquel) loved riding in his dad's truck growing up.
Courtesy of Raquel Araguz
Thomas (pictured with his sister Raquel) loved riding in his dad's truck growing up.

And now Frank Mann III sat down with his clients, a 45-year-old man with a lot of parrots, and his 27-year-old pre-op transsexual wife, and listened as they opened up their finances and their lives.

Thomas Araguz married his high school sweetheart, Heather Delgado, in 2003.

The young couple soon had two boys who, by all accounts, were the center of ­Thomas's world.

Friend and fellow firefighter Jason Wester described it this way: "His love for his family and two boys was amazing. It would not be a surprise to see him come out of a fire, pull his phone out of his bunker gear and call to see what his boys were doing. His love for them was like nothing I have ever seen before...I hope one day, I can be half the father he was."

He was an altar boy, a Boy Scout and a magnet. His mother Mona recalls how she'd see Thomas go outside to play in the yard by himself, but when she'd look through the window not five minutes later, it seemed like every kid in the neighborhood was in the yard.

He played trumpet in his high school band and got so good that Big Tom, an ex-Marine, would often tell Thomas he would be honored if his boy played "Taps" at his funeral. Thomas would always change the subject.

An honest, selfless boy, it was only natural that he'd want to be part of the Wharton County Volunteer Fire Department. Although he wouldn't enroll in Wharton County Junior College's fire academy until 2008, he began volunteering at the firehouse when he was 18.

Firefighter Vivian Garza, who started around the same time, considered Thomas a friend. She recalls in an e-mail that she, Thomas and another firefighter "were almost always at the scenes together and backed each other up. We were all [partners]. I remember him picking me up one time when one of the hurricanes hit. My car washed away with me in it. I managed to get out, into chest high water. He came by, and we trudged through the water together to the fire station. I remember, here we were trying to get to the station, it was raining like the devil, we were in waist high water trying not to get washed away or worse, snake bit, my new car was on its way to the river, and he could still make me laugh. He was just that way."

Unfortunately, Thomas's happy disposition was ruptured in 2007 when he and Heather Delgado decided to separate after nearly 12 years together. Thomas's family says the couple just grew apart; his ex-wife did not respond to interview requests.

Thomas moved into a garage apartment and looked forward to the days when he'd have the boys. He liked taking them to parks, especially to the west end of Riverfront Park, where a gigantic brontosaurus sculpture overlooks barbecue pits and picnic tables.

It's there, by the dinosaur, that Nikki says she and Thomas first met. They spoke only briefly. It wasn't until a short time later, when they locked eyes at Grace Community Fellowship, that the relationship began in earnest. Nikki says Thomas asked her to breakfast after the service; the two wound up at Larry's Mexican Restaurant, talking and laughing for nearly three hours.

"It was like we had known each other instantly, forever," she says.

Like Thomas, Nikki was separated from her spouse. She and Emilio weren't exactly able to bounce back from the bankruptcy. At that point, Nikki says, the couple was about as stable and healthy as Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface.

By 2006, Emilio had racked up charges for theft and drug possession. In 2005, Nikki spent time in jail for a second DWI and for issuing bad checks. Then, in June 2007, the same month she met Thomas, Nikki was detained at a Wharton Walmart after she tried passing two counterfeit $100 bills within 24 hours.

When Wharton police arrived at Walmart, they asked to search Nikki's purse and car, but they didn't find any more counterfeit bills. But after receiving Nikki's permission to search the motel room where she was staying, officers found crack and powder cocaine, as well as a syringe and a baggie crusted with what appeared to be cocaine residue.

According to the arresting officer's report, "I asked [Nikki] where she got the money and was the cocaine hers. [Nikki] started to cry and explained she was an addict and the crack was hers. She cried some more and said she stole the money from a man in Houston...she said she had sex with him and stole his wallet with the money and a small portion of powder cocaine."

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