WHARTON, Texas—On the eve of the first courtroom faceoff between opposing members of a fallen firefighter’s family, his widow tearfully reiterated she did nothing wrong.
"All I have to say is I’m absolutely devastated about the loss of my husband, a fallen firefighter, Captain Thomas Araguz III, and horrified at the horrendous allegations accusing me of fraud, because they’re absolutely not true," she said at a Thursday afternoon news conference at her attorney’s office. "That’s all I have to say."
One minute later, she rushed out of the room in tears and could be heard sobbing in the room next door.
Eight days after Thomas Araguz died battling a fire in Wharton County, his mother filed a lawsuit to block Nikki Araguz from receiving any of his death benefits. Texas law and prior cases suggest Nikki is not entitled, because she was born as Justin Graham Purdue in 1975 – a man.
"The courts of appeals have looked at this issue," said attorney Chad Ellis. "And the courts of appeal has basically said that you are what you’re born as."
That argument centers on the case of Christie Lee Littleton in San Antonio, who was denied the right to sue a doctor for her husband’s death. Courts ruled she could not file the wrongful death suit, because she, too, was born a man, making her marriage of seven years invalid in Texas.
But 11 News legal expert Gerald Treece said it’s important to note that the Littleton case was never ruled on by the Texas Supreme Court. It does not necessarily sit as a precedent in this case. And there is also the issue of equal protection under the law.
"And those people are arguing they have civil rights too," said Professor Treece. "And this is going to be almost a perfect law school model testing that very premise."
It’s a premise Araguz will test with attorney Phyllis Randolph Frye, who went through the stigma that comes with becoming transgendered more than 30 years ago.
An icon in Houston’s transgender community, Frye said Nikki Araguz is more than just another client.
"I don’t want other people to put up with what I had to go through. And that’s pretty much been my life’s story since then. So it is personal," said Frye.
A hearing on the Araguz family’s request to void the marriage is scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday in Wharton County.