Firefighter's widow born a man has criminal history

HOUSTON We first brought you the exclusive interview with Nikki Araguz on Monday. Her husband was killed in a fire earlier this month. She told Eyewitness News her husband was well aware of her operation, despite a lawsuit from his mother and ex-girlfriend that claims otherwise.

This case has raised a lot of questions about how law enforcement classifies inmates, particularly here at the Harris County Jail, where the firefighter's widow was booked seven times since the early 1990's - sometimes as a man, others as a woman. But even when classified as a woman, she was apparently held in a male cell.

In a mug shot taken in 1996 of the person we now know as Nikki Araguz, although looking female at the time, she was booked into the jail at the time as a man with the name Justin Graham Purdue, the name she says was on her original birth certificate.

"Unless we have reason to doubt what your gender is, we will go with what you appear to be," said Christina Garza of the Harris County Sheriff's Office.

The sheriff's office says it determines gender classification based on what a person says and what they look like upon booking, but they told us each inmate is also screened by medical personnel. The classification we're told will be changed if what's found is not what was initially thought.

Since 1992, Justin Purdue, also known as Nikki Paige Purdue Mata, was booked seven times in the Harris Co. Jail - four times as a man and three as a woman.

In 1992, as man, he was given probation for theft.
In 1994 as a man, there was another year of probation for theft.
In 1995, he was sentenced to 20 days in jail for theft.
In 1995, he was sentenced to four days in jail as a man for driving with a suspended license.

According to court documents, he legally changed his name to Nikki Paige Purdue in 1996.

Then in 2000, she was booked as a woman for theft and given a year's probation.
In 2002, she was booked as a woman also for theft and sentenced to 30 days.
And in 2004, a charge of failure to ID was dismissed.

However, it wasn't until 2008 that Nikki Araguz says she had a sex change operation.

So how does the sheriff's office explain the two bookings as a woman before the operation? They can't. They say there are no records specific enough to say.

"I don't have firsthand knowledge of the case, so I wouldn't be able to tell you," said Garza.

Nikki Araguz told Eyewitness News first about the sex change Monday.

"This was no secret to my husband, and I miss him terribly," Araguz said.

This is all significant because Nikki's marriage to firefighter Thomas Araguz is being questioned now in a court of law. He died in a blaze near Boling on July 4. His mother and ex-wife claim Thomas Araguz didn't know Nikki used to be a man, and as such say she is not legally entitled to any death benefits.

A spokesperson for Nikki Araguz says, "whether or not she committed crimes in the past has no bearing on whether she should receive benefits."

We expect to learn more about this case Friday during a hearing in court.

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