The Fireman's Wife

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

By Craig Malisow

published: August 12, 2010

The gusting winds and raging flames may be his final fate

But with God's help, I can remain my fireman's faithful mate

— The Fireman's Wife's Prayer

Captain Thomas Araguz was about 150 feet into the building when he became separated from the other two men on his team, trapped as the structure burned around him.

The falling, flaming beams of the Maxim Egg Farm processing center drove a wedge between Thomas and the men, a dividing line between who would die and who would make it out with minor burns. The others would be able to claw their way through the wall of smoke, far enough away for rescue teams to drag them to safety, but Thomas was too far in. Either blinded by the smoke or pinned in by blazing debris, he could not find his way out.

The fire, which would later be ruled accidental, caused by resistance heating in a light fixture, had been reported to the Wharton Police Department around 9:40 p.m. When Wharton County firefighters arrived at the site ten minutes later and saw what they were up against, they called for assistance. Multiple structures were ablaze, including a 25,000-square-foot, 250-foot-long building where eggs were put into cartons.

Each time the Rapid Intervention Teams charged the building, the intensifying heat and smoke drove them back. Temperatures inside could have been anywhere from 1,600 to 2,100 degrees. The fire simply would not give. With no hydrants near the sprawling egg farm in rural Boling, tankers had to haul water from as far as 11 miles away.

Outside the inferno, Thomas's uncle, firefighter Arthur Araguz, knew he had to make a phone call he'd give anything not to. It was about 10:30 when he called his brother, Thomas's dad. Big Tom was at home, about 20 miles away from where his only son would lose his life.

When Big Tom answered, all Arthur could say was: We're missing one person.

"Don't tell me who it is," Big Tom said. But of course he knew.

He called his ex-wife Mona, Thomas's mom, and his daughter, Raquel. Big Tom and Mona rushed to his mother's house, where they could follow the fire on a police scanner. They huddled around the black box all night, listening as calls went out for help from other departments. All told, 31 departments — 150 firefighters — had to take down the fire that took down their boy.

At first light, Big Tom and Mona sped to Maxim, where crews were still fighting the flames after nearly nine hours. It would be another hour before searchers would find Thomas. His helmet, adorned with Thomas's customary shamrock stickers, was in one place; his body, another.

When his comrades had lost sight of Thomas, he would have had about 15 minutes of oxygen left. If by some miracle the flames hadn't immediately consumed him, he had a long time to think about what he was leaving behind. Two beautiful boys. A sister who was about to be married.

And a wife, who at that moment was in her car on her way to California. Nikki Araguz wouldn't find out about Thomas until another fireman's wife called her a little after five in the morning, around the time she hit Las Cruces. No one from Thomas's family had called her, and the reasons why would be laid out in a lawsuit filed by Thomas's ex-wife, Heather Delgado, and served to Nikki the day after she buried her husband.

Incredibly, for a man who lived check to check, Thomas's death benefits totaled $600,000, to be split between his wife and a trust for his sons. His ex-wife's lawsuit, which was quickly followed by an identical suit filed by his mom, laid it out for the world to see: Nikki Paige Araguz, wife, stepmother, magazine publisher, former Wharton mayoral candidate, was born a man.

According to the lawsuit, whatever face Nikki presented to the community, whatever a surgeon and scalpel rendered below, Nikki was really Justin Graham Purdue, a two-bit con in disguise. She was a he who lured a God-fearing heterosexual into a marriage that should never have been recognized by the state of Texas. The suits claimed that Thomas didn't find out the truth until April 2010.

Both suits rely on a 1999 case, Littleton v. Prange, in which a state appeals court ruled that Christie Lee Littleton, a transgender woman, was legally a male and therefore her marriage to Jonathan Mark Littleton ten years earlier was invalid under Texas law.

However, Nikki's attorneys argue that a 2009 Texas statute that became law after the couple was married renders Littleton moot. That legislation expanded a marriage license applicant's proof of identity to include "a court order relating to the applicant's name or sex change."

In the days after they filed their suits, Thomas's ex-wife and immediate family would tell the media how the revelation drove Thomas into despair; how the couple separated; how he would have wanted all the money to go to his boys.

As of early August, there is no way to tell how long the litigation will last. Both sides say that, as long as they have to fight in court over what they believe Thomas would have wanted, neither will be able to properly mourn.

Whatever the plaintiffs' true intentions, once they filed the lawsuits, they ensured that Thomas's sacrifice would be forever linked to questions about his romantic life, about secrets he may have kept from his family, about whether he was a stooge or a man who, because he was tested, truly understood what it meant to love someone without condition.
_____________________

As different as their lives were, Nikki's and Thomas's backgrounds were both tremendously influenced by the same thing: trucks.

Nikki pinpoints the exact moment in 2007 she won over Thomas's four- and six-year-old sons to her expert manipulation of Optimus Prime, the 18-wheeled king of the Transformers which, in a sort of cosmic joke, was the first movie the four of them saw together.

The boys had been struggling to convert Optimus back into his tractor-trailer form when Nikki, who grew up playing with Barbies, successfully completed the task. It surprised her as much as it did them.

The boys' dad used to drive a truck, as did his dad. Big Tom often took Thomas on his route, and if he had to stop and get out of the cab to check on something, he'd look back up and find Thomas in the driver's seat, his little hands on the giant wheel, pretending to drive.

Nikki's grandfather was a truck driver, and her mother was made a widow on June 20, 1976, when Christin Wayne Purdue's car was struck by a semi in Bryan, Texas.

A specialist in the Army, Purdue had been stationed with his wife, Sheri, and infant son Gary in Fort Ord, Monterey County, California. On June 4, 1975, the day his second boy, Justin Graham, was born in Carmel, Purdue was ordered to a base in Germany.

Sheri and her two young sons moved into her parents' house in Bryan while Purdue was away. He returned in December 1975 and had only one month to be with his second son before he was killed.

That morning, before the accident, when the day was still like any other, Sheri noticed something unusual in her year-old son's mouth. It looked like Justin had two tongues. Sheri summoned her stepmom, and the two women stood there, exploring Justin's mouth for clues.

"Enlarged saliva glands," the pediatrician told Sheri.

Satisfied it wasn't anything more serious, Sheri moved on. In 1978 she married Chuck Bockelman, and the couple had a baby girl, Vanessa. All should have been well, but Sheri once again became concerned about a part of Justin's anatomy.

She believed that, by age two, his penis had not developed in proportion to his age. In fact, she believed, it had not grown at all. Once again, she shared her worries with a pediatrician.

"Some have it, some don't," the doctor told her. But Sheri didn't buy it.

She told the Houston Press that she had a real reason to be concerned: The women in her family have passed down a "rare reproductive problem." Her mother, Sheri says, had uterus didelphys — two sets of female reproductive organs and one kidney. Sheri's mother passed along similar abnormalities to two of her six daughters, according to Sheri.

But Justin's situation was not merely anatomical — even at two, his whole demeanor seemed to tilt toward the female. By age four, he showed an interest in dolls, and instead of playing outside, he preferred to help Sheri clean and decorate the house. Soon, he was begging for a Barbie.

"We always played Barbies," says Nikki's sister Vanessa. "We always did girl things. She hung out with my girlfriends. We talked about boys. It was never like I had a brother, it was always like I had a sister."

The pediatrician suggested Sheri buy Justin an action figure to steer him toward traditional boy behavior. Sheri hit the toy store and came home with The Six Million Dollar Man, hoping Steve Austin's bionic arm would whip Justin into proper boy shape.

"I brought that Six Million Dollar Man home and that child's face fell," Sheri recalls. Justin went back to hogging his sister's Barbies, and Steve Austin was relegated to the dustbin.

Sheri described Justin's elementary school experience in her personal writing in 2003: "We increasingly worried about Justin's social and emotional well-being. The other boys in our neighborhood were ruthless, teasing and calling him a 'sissy.' Teachers expressed concern that he socialized only with girls, avoiding boy activities and friends. In 2nd grade, an elementary school counselor began an attempt to 'conform' Justin's effeminate manner through behavior modification. For example, she instructed him to sit on his hands instead of using them to gesture while talking — a common female trait. She directed him to walk more like a boy — discouraging the sway of his hips and spring in his step."

In middle school, classmates bestowed many new names upon Justin. Fag. Gay. Queer. (It may not have helped that Sheri encouraged Justin to model — as a boy — for a Foley's spring fashion show.) Justin's older brother Gary would often have to roll up his sleeves and teach the boys some manners.

"I got into some fights over her, because...I was defending my little brother," Gary says. "...I didn't even have any concept of homosexuality or transsexuality or anything like that, you know — all I knew was somebody was calling my little brother a faggot."

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.

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.

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."

Nikki was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance and given two years' deferred adjudication; she successfully complied with the terms of her probation, so the charge was subsequently dropped.

After Larry's, the two spent virtually the next 72 hours on the phone. She met his boys. She cooked for them — almond-crusted pork chops were a favorite — and she tried Thomas's inimitable barbecued brisket.

Nikki says that, after two weeks of dating, she told Thomas about her past. His response, according to Nikki, was that he didn't care. He loved her.

They rented a house on two acres and threw up a tent so they could camp with the boys. They spent many nights gathered around a campfire, roasting marshmallows. Before long, Thomas and Nikki were looking at wedding rings. Thomas bought one and left the unopened gift box in the living room for a month.

"I never knew when to expect him to propose to me, and he liked it that way," she says. "We were so into surprising each other."

She says she encouraged Thomas to quit his truck-driving job and pursue his goal of working in public safety. Before long, he enrolled in the police, and then fire, academies. Shortly before his death, Thomas was sworn in as a reserve sheriff's deputy.

"He had so much more potential," Nikki says of his truck driving. "He had this fear that was instilled in him, by his parents, that he couldn't do it, and he didn't have the support of anyone else, either mentally, emotionally, or financially, besides me, to allow him to do that."

When he at last proposed, a week after quitting his truck-driving job, it was aboard a private yacht, three hours into a Gulf cruise. She remembers dolphins swimming all around them.

According to Nikki, Thomas hadn't been too close to his family by the time of their August 2008 wedding. In fact, she says, he hadn't spoken to his mother for years, and it had been nine months since he'd last spoken to his sister. He chose, Nikki says, not to tell them about her past.

And her family emphatically denies that Thomas was ever in the dark about Nikki's past. Both Nikki and her mother say that, whenever Nikki planned on having a relationship with anyone, she always told them. And even if the circumstances were different and she was the kind of person who wouldn't tell, her brother Gary says that he would have.

"One thing I have never been cool with was Nikki hiding any of her past from anybody that she intends on having a relationship with," he says.

Gary says that Thomas knew about Nikki by the time he met him.

"We talked about it," he says. "...I can't say that we had, you know, 'Hey, how do you feel about my sister once being a guy?' We didn't have that conversation...but it was, you know, he in no uncertain terms made it pretty clear he knew exactly what was going on."

Nikki's sister Vanessa has trouble keeping it together when she thinks about what Thomas's family says about him not knowing.

"Thomas knew everything," she says. "...We're [a] very open, honest family. And you know, we're appalled. I mean, we are honestly appalled. I am heartbroken myself. He was a great family member of ours. You know, he was my brother-in-law...He's been a part of our family for almost four years, and so it's very heartbreaking to hear all this."

She adds: "We had barbecues with his family, we had family gatherings. Easter holidays...we all spent holidays together. My father had a quadruple bypass in February, and [Thomas] drove my father to the hospital...We have all had personal conversations with Thomas about this situation...and he was okay with everything. He specifically told me that he loved her, no matter what...My children and [Nikki's] stepchildren were close friends, and they were not even allowed to communicate at the funeral because his family is so hateful. How could you do that to children?"
_____________________

For Thomas to believe that his wife's past wasn't any of his family's business is one thing, but it's possible he overtly lied to his family in the beginning, and, by doing so, contributed to the wreckage left behind in the wake of his death.

When Nikki went to Colorado for two weeks in October 2008, Thomas's family believed she was having a hysterectomy.

Big Tom says his son told him, "Nikki's going to Colorado...and that she has cancer in the uterus...I didn't question it no more."

Thomas also told his family that Nikki had "cancer of the blood," Mona says. She says something like that would have really played on Thomas's ­innate desire to help people in need.

"He loves to go in there and rescue people," she says. "And he thought that he could fix her."

But Nikki explains it this way: "He was not very close to his family at the time, okay, but we had just gotten married, so for me to go away for two weeks was a big deal. And we had to explain it...without telling people we didn't want to know. He made that decision, not me. My husband made that decision to lie to them. I disagreed with it; however, I went along with it, because you know what, I respect my husband and what his wishes were. And so if he wasn't comfortable telling them at that point in time, fine."

According to Thomas's family, the cancer explanation prevented sexual intimacy for the first leg of Nikki's and Thomas's relationship. It was a perfect cover story that kept Thomas at bay until Nikki could pull off the ultimate deception. (Nikki bristles at this suggestion, saying, "I had the surgery two months after we were married. Do you think from 2007 to October of 2008 that my husband did not see me naked, did not know my body?")

Of course, Nikki did not go to Colorado for a hysterectomy. She went to Dr. Marci Bowers's sexual reassignment clinic in Trinidad, the so-called "Sex Change Capital of the World," nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains three and a half hours south of Denver. Nikki calls the procedure she had a "vaginal reconstructive surgery."

In August 2010, Nikki's attorney filed with the court what appears to be an October 2008 e-mail exchange between Nikki and Thomas, indicating that Thomas was fully aware of the situation. However, Mona's attorney questioned the e-mail's veracity, pointing out that nowhere in the exchange does it explicitly state the nature of her surgery. (The closest it comes to describing what kind of procedure Nikki had was when she wrote, "This is wild that little thing is gone....I think I am supposed to see it for the first [time] tomorrow.")

The Press also obtained another e-mail, not admitted into evidence, containing Nikki's Colorado itinerary. The e-mail address thomasaraguz@gmail.com is included among the recipients. Purportedly sent by Nikki, the e-mail ends with, "It has been a long time coming, and I am overwhelmed with joy and excitement."

However, Nikki and Sheri have been inconsistent when it comes to what they vaguely refer to as a "birth defect." Early after the lawsuits to void Nikki's and Thomas's marriage were filed, Sheri told reporters that Nikki was diagnosed with "Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome." But she told the Press weeks later that those reports were erroneous and that Nikki was never diagnosed with AIS. And Nikki's friend and publicist, Nicole Haagenson, told the Houston Chronicle that Nikki didn't have AIS, that it was actually "gender dysphoria." It's unclear whether Haagenson knew that gender dysphoria is defined as a psychological, rather than a physical, condition.

Then, in August, Nikki said in two interviews for local Fox News that she had been diagnosed with "Partial Androgen Interceptor Syndrome," which doesn't exist. When asked about the details of that particular syndrome, Sheri told the Press that Nikki must have meant to say "Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome." When the Press reminded Sheri that she had already vehemently denied that her daughter had AIS, Sheri said that it's possible Nikki could have been diagnosed with AIS without Sheri's knowledge.

Nikki also said she meant to say "insensitivity" instead of "interceptor," but neither Sheri nor Nikki had an explanation for why, in two different interviews on two different days, Nikki couldn't remember the name of her incredibly rare, life-defining medical trait.

Nikki also told Fox News that, because she was actually born female, she never identified as transgender. And despite the fact that many in the Houston transgender community are offering Nikki financial and emotional support, and despite the fact that prominent transgender attorney Phyllis Randolph Frye believes the suit against Nikki threatens every transgender person's civil rights and has taken on Nikki's case pro bono, Nikki told Fox that she should not be "lumped in" with the transgender community.
_____________________

Along with the surgery, Thomas seemed to be a stabilizing influence on Nikki — at least in the beginning.

Thomas had none of Emilio's problems. He didn't have two nickels to rub together, but he was straitlaced, devoted to his boys and had a passion for public service. It rubbed off on Nikki. She quit her job selling ads at OutSmart magazine in Houston and launched her own publication, Wharton County Living.

But according to Thomas's family, it didn't take long for the cracks to show, and for Nikki to become a malevolent presence.

Thomas's sister Raquel says, "She would always tell us that she would be a better mother to the boys than Heather would, and she would refer to Heather as the stepmom."

Big Tom says he had to go to their house three times to help Thomas calm down a drunk and out of control Nikki. The last time he went, he says, "the boys were in the next room listening, and they were getting scared."

His family says the couple fell into the pattern of fight, break up, make up, repeat. At one point, they say, Thomas discovered Nikki in a motel, getting high with Emilio. Thomas moved in with Mona. Mona confronted Nikki, who appeared contrite, and talked about going to counseling and getting help from the church.

The couple reunited, but soon Thomas's ex-wife was alleging that Nikki was a bad influence on the boys, and she told Thomas to keep Nikki away from them. Thomas paid no mind.

Inexplicably, in the midst of this, Nikki decided to run in Wharton's mayoral election.

"I loved Wharton," she says. "...I had a vested interest in making Wharton a better, more economically stable and well-represented community."

She says she didn't think it would cause anyone to dig into her past.

But her stepfather Chuck says he and Sheri were blunt: "Her mother and I both said, 'Are you out of your ever-loving mind?...This is going to open up a can of worms that's going to be a big problem.' And Nikki refused to ever back down from anything because someone might dare or threaten this would come out, or whatever."

That would be put to the test once Thomas's ex-wife found a lawyer to file a motion for modification of custody. That attorney was Frank E. Mann III, who came equipped with knowledge of Nikki from eight years earlier.

Around this time, Heather Delgado learned that Nikki Paige Araguz was the former Justin Graham Purdue. At first, she played it close to the vest.

On April 12, 2010, the ex-wife swore in an affidavit that, "My husband's wife, Nikki Araguz, is interfering with my legal rights to our children. She makes appointments with medical professionals and school officials without my consent. She will not allow me to speak...to the father of my children. She will not allow the children to talk to me on the telephone. She drinks alcohol when driving a vehicle with my children in the car, and she has a history of using illegal drugs....I am concerned for the safety of my children."

It's at this point, three months before Thomas's death, that the Rashomon effect kicks in. At this point, depending on whose historical account you believe, Thomas is the ultimate victim, or he's a man who decides it's time to finally face his family with the truth, or he's a sworn peace officer who perjures himself.

According to Thomas's family, Heather Delgado told Thomas that, even though it wasn't in her affidavit, she knew about Nikki's past. But Mona says Thomas didn't know what to believe, that he suspected his ex-wife may have been just making up extraordinary stories as part of the custody dispute.

Yet according to Nikki, as soon as the ex-wife brought up the subject, Nikki and Thomas sat down with Mona, Big Tom and Raquel and revealed everything.

"And they were in full support of Thomas and I," she says. "...It did not make a bit of difference to them at the time. They considered me his wife and...fully female."

As Mona tells it, that conversation never happened. As late as April 28, 2010, when Thomas and Nikki sat down for a deposition with Frank Mann, Thomas still doubted his ex-wife. Mona says Thomas knew what he was getting himself into with the deposition, that his ex-wife warned him it would come up — it was a last resort to get Thomas to finally open his eyes.

"Heather was trying to tell him about the stuff that she just found out about Nikki," Mona says. "...But of course [Nikki] turned him around. So Heather felt lost...[she was thinking] 'My God, what is it going to take to get Thomas to see the truth? What's it going to take?'"

Apparently, Heather Delgado believed it would take Frank Mann getting Thomas on the record.

So on April 28, the following exchange took place:

Mann: Do you know that your wife was formerly a male?

Thomas: No.

Mann: You have no knowledge of that?

Thomas: No.

Mann: Has she ever had any type of gender surgery?

Thomas: No.

When it was Nikki's turn, the attorney asked about her first marriage, her criminal record, her mayoral campaign and her health. Nikki didn't hide her contempt. (She told the Press that, were Thomas alive and aware of Frank Mann's representing Heather Delgado in a motion to nullify the marriage, "My husband would literally punch his fucking lights out.")

Mann also asked questions that were based on a conversation Heather Delgado had with Nikki's former stepdaughter:

Mann: Would you be surprised that she said that you blew marijuana smoke in her face when she was five years old?

Nikki: I would be shocked.

Mann: Would you be surprised if she said that you introduced her to smoking marijuana when she was a teenager?

Nikki: I would be shocked.

Mann: Okay. Would you be surprised if she said that you gave her a pill that made her ­hallucinate?

Nikki: I would be shocked.

Shortly after the deposition, Frank Mann e-mailed some old Wharton buddies about what he was able to coax out of their mayoral candidate.

"Occasionally you get a case that makes the papers or Jerry Springer," the attorney wrote. "...I think the citizens of Wharton, Texas should know this information...Nikki Purdue Araguz is the stepmother in a case of mine, and she gave testimony that she is a transgender. She is a he. Her birth certificate states that she is male."

He then went on to divulge aspects of Nikki's medical history; he also stated that "she has multiple felony convictions in Harris County," when Nikki in fact has never been convicted of a felony. (Nikki later filed a complaint with the State Bar, and, as of this writing, Frank Mann is facing investigation for possible ethics violations. Again raising the specter of nonexistent felony convictions, Frank Mann told the Press that he sent the e-mail because, "I think that people needed to know information about her background of felony convictions for theft...the people in Wharton, Texas, did not know anything about her background.")

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