Nikki Araguz vs. The State

8.16.2011

By William Van Meter

Her childhood began in a welter of sexual confusion and ended when she was raped and infected with HIV. But the biggest fight of this fiesty Texan’s life is taking place in the courts, in a frontline battle for transgender rights that is reverberating through the nation.

Nikki's health declined, and, in 2000, she was diagnosed with AIDS and put on social security disability (Nikki now has an undetectable viral load). She was selling advertising for local magazines, but Emilio lost his job and the couple filed for bankruptcy in 2002. Their attorney was Frank Mann III, a high school friend of Emilio's who would later re-enter Nikki's life with devastating effects. The couple lost their house in Houston and moved in with Emilio's parents in the small farming town of Wharton, about 45 minutes away. They brought their vices with them.

Nikki racked up arrests for failure to identify herself to a peace officer, misdemeanor theft, felony theft, DWI, felony possession of a controlled substance, and passing bad checks. In 2000, she and Emilio went to a flea market drunk and high on pills. They put an antique chair worth $1,500 in Nikki's Jeep and drove away. Nikki, who was already on probation for a DWI, was arrested and sentenced to seven months incarceration. The problem was where to put her.

'They strip-search you,' Nikki says. 'There I was, with my birth defect and my breasts. They put me with the men. My nails had just been done and were the same color orange as the jail uniform.' When she showered, the jailers gathered and watched.

'There were straight men, gays, and drag queens on my floor,' Nikki says. 'I paid people to protect me. I'd cry all day long. It was the most traumatic experience of my life.'

Nikki was paroled after three months. Upon release, she and Emilio sought treatment and sobered up. Nikki began taking classes to be a chemical dependency counselor. One night, she woke up to find Emilio smoking crack in the living room. She left him for six months and returned to her parents' house in Houston. She reunited with Emilio and relapsed. In 2007, Nikki was arrested in Wharton for cocaine possession. This time, she was held in the women's population for two weeks. Her cell was furnished with cable TV and a bible. She credits this incarceration with turning her life around. 'I found God,' she says. 'I read the bible to inmates through the door. When I got out, I told Emilio I was leaving.' Their divorce was finalized in October 2007.

In the span of three months, Nikki was paroled, split from her husband, became a born-again Christian, and met Thomas Araguz III. She was waiting in the park to meet Emilio, and was struck by the handsome trucker and volunteer firefighter as he strolled by with his two sons. She later met Thomas at church and, after services, he asked her to lunch. Their rapport was instant.

Thomas didn't drink and had never done drugs. Nikki saw him as an escape. A few days later, she met up with Thomas for the talk. She told him about the 'birth defect.' She also told him about the HIV, which, after the bombshell of the initial revelation, never seemed to bother anyone. Afterward, they had sex.

A few weeks later, she made dinner for Thomas and his sons -- almond-crusted pork, green beans, mashed potatoes. As she was doing the dishes, Thomas whispered in her ear, 'I think I'm falling in love with you.' Nikki said, 'I'm falling in love with you, too.' They moved in together.

But Nikki saw another side of Thomas about a year into their courtship. She says he beat her. 'Every relationship has their issues,' she says. 'Over four years, there were six volatile arguments. Every time, he would seek counsel with the pastor.'

Thomas proposed to Nikki on a rented sailboat circled by dolphins in Galveston Bay. They married on August 23, 2008, and honeymooned in Galveston the week before a hurricane ravaged the Texas town. Two months later, Nikki went to Trinidad, Colo., for reassignment surgery. 'The next morning I had all of this gauze and packing,' Nikki says, 'but I was like, Wow! I was able to look into the mirror naked. This is how I should have been born.' She is glad she waited until she was 33 to have the procedure. 'If I hadn't, I would have been a real whore. I was unfaithful during my first marriage. I was willing to be committed to Thomas.' But Thomas hadn't come clean with his family. Some were told that Nikki had a hysterectomy, others that she was having treatment for blood cancer.

Thomas wanted the first time Nikki 'lost her virginity' to be special, so they had a second honeymoon at L'Auberge du Lac resort in Louisiana, where they played golf, had massages, and gambled. 'We made love, and I had orgasms all through my body. It was the first time my body matched my mind, and I was freed.'

Nikki started a magazine, Wharton County Living. She worked so that Thomas could quit his job and be a full-time fireman. As her profile in the community rose, Nikki thought the next logical move for her was to be mayor -- she was eager to improve her beloved adopted hometown.

'I said, 'Are you nuts?' ' Sheri says. 'They are going to search your background and will find everything. But there has never been a time in her life where you could tell her not to do something.'

During the election season, Heather Delagado, Thomas's first wife, wanted to adjust visitation and child support. Delgado equally split custody with Thomas and felt like Nikki was overstepping her boundaries. 'She was making appointments for the children without discussing it with me,' Delgado says. 'I tried to maintain a cordial relationship with Nikki for the sake of the children.'Nikki tried to initiate confrontations.'

Delgado had heard rumors. 'Nikki's transgender status was urban legend in Wharton,' she says.'Delgado hired Frank Mann III, the lawyer who handled Nikki and Emilio's bankruptcy case. He knew everything there was to know about Nikki. He also had a vested interest in Wharton politics'his father and grandfather served in various city positions. Mann has had a colorful relationship with the State Bar of Texas. In 1990, for professional misconduct, he was suspended for 5 years from practicing law (2 1/2 of those years an active suspension, the remaining probated). In 1997, he was actively suspended for another three years after his paralegal was caught forging signatures, with three more years on probated suspension. In 2006, he was convicted of a DWI.

On the cusp of the mayoral election, April 28, 2010, a custody deposition was held in family court. Nikki maintains that she and Thomas had agreed to lie if her transgender status was broached, fearing it would affect his visitation rights. Nikki submitted to Mann's questioning first. It was a volatile exchange. He slid a copy of Nikki's birth certificate across the table -- Delgado had obtained it and other medical records from a friend who worked at the health clinic where Nikki had been a patient. Mann discussed her gender, brought up each charge on her rap sheet, and revealed her HIV status. When Thomas was called to the stand, he denied knowing anything about Nikki's criminal history, her gender, or her HIV infection.

After the depositions, Mann sent out a mass email that read in part: 'Nikki Araguz is running for Mayor of Wharton. The General Election is this Saturday'.Nikki Purdue Araguz is the stepmother in a case of mine, and she gave testimony that she is a transgender. Her birth certificate states that she is a male. She'is HIV positive and is on probation in Wharton County for possession of a controlled substance.' (Mann didn't return messages left with his office for comment. Nikki filed an ethics complaint with the State Bar of Texas, who declined to pursue it.)

Nikki garnered 30% of the vote, but lost the election, the fallout wrecking the life she had created in Wharton. Her magazine quickly folded when advertisers backed out. Her personal relationships were in tatters -- some friends didn't want to be associated with her, while others were hurt that she kept it a secret from them. Her marriage also came under severe pressure, although she and Thomas decided to work through it and signed a lease on a new house in town.

On Thomas's 30th birthday, the couple relaxed at home and made love. The next day, they went to the courthouse for the verdict on the child custody dispute. Nikki and Thomas considered it a victory when the judge gave Delgado just one more day per week. They left the courthouse in Nikki's car with Thomas driving. He rammed into the curb so hard it popped the tire and dented the wheel. 'He told me he had three of my Klonopin,' Nikki says. 'He had no business driving.' They replaced the tire and returned home. Nikki went to the insurance office to discuss the accident. While waiting to speak to an agent she looked out the window and saw Thomas drive by. She ran out and followed him in her car -- and he turned around and rammed her car with his truck. Nikki called 911, and the police met them at their home, but Thomas knew the officers from the academy and charges weren't filed.

Nikki and Thomas needed time apart, and she took the opportunity to drive to her birthplace, California. It was time to finally change her birth certificate.

After 14 hours behind the wheel, Nikki checked into her hotel in New Mexico. She awoke at 4 a.m. to resume her trip and logged onto Facebook. There were posts on her wall that read 'My thoughts and prayers are with you.' Her friend Amanda called and told her to come home but wouldn't give a reason. Amanda eventually admitted, 'Thomas went into a fire at 11 o'clock last night and hasn't come out. They can't find him.'

'I was a fireman's wife,' Nikki says. 'I knew what that meant.' Thomas's company had responded to a four-alarm blaze at an egg production plant in Boling. (The state fire marshal would later declare that the command erred by sending him into an empty building.) When Nikki got to the Wharton Fire Department, they had found his body and had taken it to Austin for an autopsy.

On July 11, crowds lined the streets of Wharton to bid farewell to Thomas. Nikki read a poem from a card he had given her, and his father and a high school friend also gave eulogies. When Nikki sat down, the fire chief knelt in front of her and gave her Thomas's posthumous medal of valor and the folded Texas state flag that had been draped over his coffin at the viewing. Nikki says that Thomas's family ignored her and, contrary to earlier plans, took a separate car to the burial.

The day after the funeral, Nikki was served with the lawsuit to void her marriage and cut her out of the insurance payoff. Nikki received $60,000 from a policy designated to her, but the others (totaling about $600,000) didn't name a beneficiary. The money would be split between her and Thomas's sons, or it would all go to the children if the marriage was voided. Heather Delgado says that the suit was initiated by Thomas's mother. 'Ms. Longoria filed the lawsuit after Nikki began to remove valuables and personal effects from the residence,' says Delgado.

Nikki resumed her quest for an amended birth certificate. 'It seemed more important than ever,' she says. 'That was what they were attacking me on.' She called the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco and got on the next flight. The Center prepared the paperwork and escorted her to the courthouse. What might have taken six months happened in four days. Nikki was now deemed female on her birth certificate.

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