FORT WORTH, TEXAS – A teen fugitive known for using an “affluenza” defense and his mother attempted to disguise themselves and disappear among the American tourists thronging a Mexican resort city for the holidays, but are now in custody and will be returned to the U.S., authorities said Tuesday.
Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said 18-year-old Ethan Couch — who invoked the “affluenza” rationale after killing four people in a drunken driving wreck — and his mother had prepared to be gone a while, even dyeing Couch’s blond hair black, before being detained Monday in the Pacific Coast city of Puerto Vallarta.
“They had planned to disappear. They even had something that was almost akin to a going-away party before leaving town,” Anderson said. He would not give details about the event including how many people attended.
Couch was on juvenile probation for the wreck when he was 16. During the sentencing phase of his trial, a defense expert argued that his wealthy parents coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility — a condition the expert termed “affluenza.” The condition is not recognized as a medical diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association, and its invocation drew ridicule.
Anderson said Couch and his mother, Tonya Couch, apparently crossed the border in her pickup and drove to Puerto Vallarta. The U.S. Marshals found the two in Mexico, and worked with Mexican agencies to apprehend them. It was not clear whether they had any accomplices.
No immediate charges were planned for others who may have known about or assisted with the flight plan, Anderson said. He said authorities have no evidence that Couch’s father was involved.
Jalisco state prosecutor Eduardo Almaguer Ramirez said U.S. authorities knew the mother and son were in Puerto Vallarta and had asked Mexican police to help capture them. Mexican detectives started searching on Dec. 24 and caught up with them at about 6 p.m. Monday. The pair did not resist arrest.
Almaguer Ramirez said Couch and his mother stayed first at a resort known as Los Tules, near the beach. Prosecutors say a woman who worked there helped authorities capture the pair.
They were found in a dowdy section of Puerto Vallarta’s old town, far from the glitzy resorts, golf courses and high-rise hotels of the newer section. The street corner where they were found is dotted with a small sandwich shop, a taco stand, and a mom-and-pop corner store.
Anderson noted that Ethan Couch’s hair was “markedly different.” A photo distributed by the Jalisco state prosecutor’s office shows him in detention with his blond hair dyed black and his normally blondish beard now brown.
The sheriff has said he believes the two fled in late November after a video surfaced that appears to show Couch at a party where people were drinking. If found to be drinking, Couch’s probation could be revoked and he could face up to four months in jail. Once returned to Texas, Couch will be held in a Tarrant County facility until a probation violation hearing next month.
Anderson said an arrest warrant was being issued for Tonya Couch on charges of hindering an apprehension, a third-degree felony that carries a sentence of two to 10 years in prison. Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said that at the hearing she plans to ask a judge to transfer Ethan Couch’s case to adult court.
Couch would then face up to 120 days in an adult jail, followed by 10-year probation. If he violates probation, he could face up to 10 years in prison per death, Wilson said.
If the judge declines to transfer Couch to adult court, Wilson will ask that his probation be revoked, in which case he could be held in a juvenile facility until his sentence expires when he turns 19 next April.
Couch’s attorneys, Scott Brown and Reagan Wynn, said they won’t comment until they speak with him, which likely won’t happen before Couch reaches the U.S.
Ricardo Ariel Vera, the representative of Mexico’s immigration institute in Jalisco state, said the mother and son were being held at immigration offices in Guadalajara and would be returned to the United States aboard a commercial flight to Houston.
“They are going to be sent back to their country, given that they were in Mexico improperly,” Ariel Vera said. “They would have had to enter, for example, as tourists, but they entered without registering.”
He initially said that would happen Tuesday; however, another immigration official who is not allowed to be quoted by name told The Associated Press that there were no seats available on commercial flights and the return would be Wednesday.
Couch was driving drunk and speeding on a road south of Fort Worth in June 2013 when he crashed into a disabled SUV off to the side, killing four people and injuring several others, including passengers in his pickup truck.
He pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury. A judge sentenced him in juvenile court to 10 years’ probation and a stint in a rehabilitation center.
Authorities had begun searching for the pair after Ethan Couch missed a mandatory appointment with his probation officer on Dec. 10.