Judge freezes death benefits for family, transgender widow of Wharton firefighter

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by Kevin Reece / 11 News

khou.com

Posted on July 23, 2010 at 1:35 PM

Updated Saturday, Jul 24 at 11:10 AM

WHARTON, Texas—A judge in Wharton County has frozen all death benefits for the family and widow of a fallen firefighter until the court decides if his marriage to a transgender woman was legal.

Nikki Araguz faced the family of her late husband, Thomas Araguz III, in the Wharton County courthouse Friday. Araguz also faced hecklers as she left the courthouse for a noon lunch break.

"Nikki you’re fake," some of them yelled.

‘How’s it feel to be a man," taunted another.

"I hope that she gets out of Wharton," said Leticia Humphries, who identified herself as a former friend.

Emotions ran high in the courtroom of Judge Randy Clapp, as well.  Nikki Araguz often cried during rapid-fire questions from attorney Chad Ellis, who is representing Simona Rodriguez Longoria, Thomas Araguz’s mother.

"I promised my husband I would help take care of the children," she said in response to questions about the two young boys from Thomas Araguz’s previous marriage. The boys would receive at least 50 percent of any state and federal death benefits. 

"I love those kids.  Shame on you," Nikki Araguz said to attorneys questioning if she intended to share any money with the children.

Death benefits from several different sources are estimated to be $600,000.  But in court Friday, Araguz revealed she received $60,000 Thursday from the Texas Emergency Services Retirement System, a fund for the families of volunteer firefighters, and had already spent close to $2,000. She said it was all the money she had to live on.

"I am grieving the death of my husband," Araguz said on the witness stand. "I can’t even wrap my mind around work."

The judge ordered the remaining $58,000 be included in the freeze of funds and placed in a trust with Nikki Araguz’s attorney. He ordered both sides to refrain from receiving or spending any death benefit funds without prior court approval.

Distribution of the death benefits to surviving family members is now in limbo while both sides prepare for the real argument.  Attorneys for the mother of Thomas Araguz cite Texas law that says a man cannot marry another man.  Nikki Araguz was born a male, Justin Purdue, in California in 1975.  She claims her husband was fully aware of her sex change.

"My husband, Thomas Araguz, III, I have been completely honest with him about my entire history, legally, financially, physically, medically in every way 100 percent honest," Nikki Araguz said.

"She’s just a liar," said Raquel Araguz, the fallen firefighter’s younger sister who claims her brother was devastated when he found out about his bride’s sex-change history.  "Everything she said was a lie. She just disgusted us and it was funny to me because she’s just pathetic."

Additional court dates have not yet been set.  Legal experts expect this to be a lengthy fight that might finally prove worthy of an ultimate decision by the Texas Supreme Court.

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