The Fireman's Wife

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

Nikki's stepfather Chuck says that Thomas agreed that by simply admitting in the deposition that he knew about Nikki's past, he'd completely disarm Heather Delgado. After all, Thomas never for a moment had any misgivings. But, Chuck says, Nikki foolishly believed it would be in the kids' best interest to lie; that, somehow, if Thomas said he knew about Nikki, he might lose all access to his boys.

"He agreed with me," Chuck says, "but Nikki was afraid, because of years of prejudice, years of people assuming the worst, or that she's some kind of freak, or some kind of child molester, or some kind of deviant...because of this condition that she's got. So she was afraid, and they made a bad choice, obviously."

Although what Thomas knew won't have an effect on whether or not the marriage will be determined to be legal — and ultimately, how the money is distributed — it matters to both sides.

Thomas's family says the deposition crushed him. He finally realized that his ex-wife was telling the truth. His parents moved him out of the rental house immediately, and he moved in with Mona and his stepfather.

"He apologized to me," Mona says. "He says, 'Mom, I'm so sorry that I brought this into our family. I'm so sorry.' And I said, 'Son, we all make mistakes...but I'm here for you. I'm always going to be here for you son, always.'"

If Thomas was as devastated as his family describes, it's all the more remarkable that he and Nikki signed a one-year lease on another rental home on June 1, a month after the supposed bombshell.

"I wish I could get in my son's head and know what he was thinking at that moment," Mona says. As best as she can surmise, "He was trying to provide a home for himself and for the boys, and unfortunately...he just fell right back with Nikki."

Nikki's brother Gary says he visited his family in June, and he last saw Thomas June 25, nine days before his death. It was also the day, he says, that he met Mona.

"She was hugging on Nikki and acting like, you know, everything was just hunky-dory," he says.

Unfortunately, Thomas and Nikki had another patented fight a few days later. Thomas left the house and crashed with Raquel. Whether it was because he had just found out his wife used to be named Justin, or it was the strain of an especially bitter custody dispute, everyone agrees that Thomas was in a bad place the last few days of his life.

"This whole thing has just been an absolute nightmare, you know," Gary says, "and I'm sure it was hard on him, you know, to have all this shit dragged out...Wharton is a small community, relatively...Everybody knows everybody's business down there."

His family says Thomas's mantra those last few days was, "I've hit rock bottom." Big Tom says Thomas even asked him for help in preparing a will after the July 4 holiday.

"He told me, 'If something happens to me, you, Mama and Raquel [have] to make sure the boys get it. No one else," Big Tom says.

"He was embarrassed, he was ashamed," Raquel says. "He's like, '...I'm about to be 30. I shouldn't be staying here with my little sister.'" She just told him, "How many times have you helped me out? And I'm here to help you. We'll get through this — we all will."

Raquel says that, after their last argument, Nikki printed out divorce documents she found online. Both Nikki and Thomas signed them, she says. That was the first and last time she ever saw the papers.

"And the very next day," Raquel says, "she was going around town saying, 'He left me, he left me, I'm not paying for this divorce...I hate him, I'm sick of him, I'm tired of him.'"

But Nikki says she and Thomas made amends just before he died and she left for California to finish one last piece of ­business.

California law allows a person to amend the sex listed on their birth certificate. Nikki says Thomas was well aware of Nikki's decision to make what she considers not a change but a correction. She was always female. The doctor just got it wrong.

A few hours after Nikki got the call that Thomas had gone missing, firefighters discovered his body. When she made it back to Wharton, Thomas's fellow firefighters told her that she would not want to see the body.

A better memory, though, would be of Saturday, July 3, the day Thomas died. Before he was called to the fire that night, he and the boys went with Raquel and her fiancé to Space Center Houston. The last photographs ever taken of Thomas were of him and the boys at Mission Kidtrol, with images of a space shuttle blasting off in the background.

Raquel says that Thomas was blown away by one seemingly simple aspect of the photos, considering all they'd been through in the previous months.

"Look," he kept saying. "We're all ­smiling."

craig.malisow@houstonpress.com

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