Fort Worth

Sheriff: ‘Affluenza’ teen Ethan Couch’s lawyer files writ to delay return to U.S.

Ethan Couch and his mother have taken legal action to stay in Mexico, delaying their return to Fort Worth, Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said Wednesday morning.

Anderson said he was told by U.S. Marshals that an attorney representing the Couches filed a “legal writ,” to prevent the pair from leaving Mexico.

Anderson said his office had planned to take the Couches into custody in Houston on Wednesday. They had been scheduled to fly from Guadalajara to Houston on Wednesday afternoon.

“They’re trying to fight being brought back somehow,” Anderson said. “It’s just a continuing string of what we’ve seen all along. We're patient people. We’ll be waiting.”

Anderson said U.S. Marshals are “still trying to decipher it all” with Mexican authorities. Anderson said he was told the process of getting Couch back could take days or possibly weeks.

Couch, the “affluenza” teen who had been on the run for about two weeks, and his mother, Tonya Couch, have been in custody of Mexican authorities since Monday night, when they were detained in the beach resort town of Puerto Vallarta.

Anderson told the Star-Telegram Tuesday night that Couch will go to the Tarrant County Juvenile Detention Center when he returns to Fort Worth.

Star-Telegram media partner WFAA, which has a reporter in Puerto Vallarta, has a report here about the area where Couch and his mother were staying in the Mexican resort city, including surveillance footage of Couch shopping.

Officials said that since their arrest the Couches have been staying at immigration facilities in Guadalajara, where they were given food and rooms with beds, The Associated Press reported.

When Couch, 18, returns, the heaviest punishment he can receive for fleeing the country while on probation is several months in jail, Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said Tuesday.

Because Couch is on juvenile probation, any punishment would be limited to the terms of probation set in juvenile court. The terms don’t expire until he turns 19 in April.

A hearing to transfer his case to an adult court is scheduled for Jan. 19. The change to adult status would extend his time on probation.

Couch is serving 10 years’ probation for killing four people in a 2013 drunken driving crash in southern Tarrant County. Authorities had been looking for him since he missed an appointment with a juvenile probation officer earlier this month.

Anderson told the Star-Telegram Tuesday night that there was “no resistance” when the Couches were arrested in Puerto Vallarta.

At a news conference earlier in the day with the district attorney, Anderson said an arrest warrant has been issued for Tonya Couch, 48, accusing her of hindering the apprehension of her son, a third-degree felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison.

Couch and his mother had prepared to be gone a while, even dyeing Couch’s blond hair black, Anderson said.

“They had planned to disappear. They even had something that was almost akin to a going-away party before leaving town,” he said.

He declined to give details about the event including how many people attended.

Anderson said investigators “believed they would do everything they could to change their appearance.”

“If you see the photo, he certainly tried but it didn’t seem to work too well. I don’t think anyone would have not recognized him,” Anderson said. “His hair was obviously markedly darker and different. I think that was an obvious attempt to change his appearance.”

Drove pickup into Mexico

Tonya and Ethan Couch drove her Ford pickup into Mexico before a juvenile arrest warrant was issued Dec. 16, Anderson said.

“Crossing over from here to Mexico is not a hard thing to do,” Anderson said. “I don’t think there would have been any issue or problem getting out, especially since it was before any detention order was issued.”

They eventually made their way to Puerto Vallarta on Mexico’s western coast, which is crowded with tourists during the holidays.

Jalisco state prosecutor Eduardo Almaguer Ramirez said U.S. authorities knew the mother and son were in Puerto Vallarta because of a phone call to Domino’s Pizza, The Associated Press reported.

A U.S. Marshals Service agent tipped authorities in Mexico to the location of the phone on Monday, according to a police report issued by Almaguer’s office. The phone had been used to order pizza for a room at a condominium complex called Los Tules near the beach.

When agents first went to the condo, the Couches had already moved on, but a tourism operator pointed agents to the mother and son’s new home at an apartment in Puerto Vallarta’s old town.

The apartment is 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.

Agents set up surveillance and found the Couches that night.

The police report says they claimed to be carrying no identification and gave inconsistent stories about their names. They were taken into custody and handed over to immigration officials.

Possible punishments

Back in Fort Worth, Ethan Couch will attend a juvenile detention hearing to determine where he’ll be held in the short term. At the previously scheduled Jan. 19 hearing, it will be determined whether his case will be transferred to the adult probation system or remain in the juvenile court.

If he’s transferred to adult court, he can be sentenced to 120 days in jail as a condition of adult probation, and would continue the remaining eight years of his probation.

Wilson called it “the horns of the dilemma,” when dealing with juvenile cases: Couch’s fleeing the country isn’t enough on its own to trigger a lengthy prison sentence.

She said her office will push for Couch to be transferred to the adult probation system, where he would remain under supervision until February 2024.

“In our state — in juvenile court — the standard is what is in the best interest of the child,” Wilson said. “That’s how he got 10 years’ probation from the juvenile judge to begin with.

“That judge at that time thought it was in the best interest of the child.”

But the adult system, Wilson said, focuses on the protection of the community, on sentences appropriate for the conduct that occurred and on rehabilitation of the offender where appropriate.

“I no longer think it’s appropriate for this defendant,” Wilson said.

If Couch violates the terms of his adult probation, Wilson said her office would file a motion to have his probation revoked. If revoked, Couch could be sentenced to 10 years in prison on each of his four intoxication manslaughter convictions.

In such a situation, Wilson said, her office would seek to have the sentences stacked, meaning Couch could be sentenced to 40 years in prison.

In a statement released Tuesday, Couch’s attorneys, Reagan Wynn and Scott Brown said, “At this point, we have not had an opportunity to speak with our client and we do not anticipate being able to do so unless and until he arrives in the United States.”

Couch’s sentencing

State District Judge Jean Boyd, who is now retired, sentenced Couch to probation on four counts of intoxication manslaughter in December 2013. Couch was also ordered to enter a “lockdown” addiction treatment facility and not to drive or use alcohol or drugs for 10 years.

Prosecutors had asked that Couch be sentenced to 20 years in a state juvenile lockup.

In his closing statements, Richard Alpert, Tarrant County assistant district attorney, argued that if given a light sentence, Couch would likely veer off the path.

“There can be no doubt that he will be in another courthouse one day blaming the lenient treatment he received here,” Alpert said.

During a hearing in February 2014, Boyd told the families that her decision had nothing to do with a psychologist’s comment about “affluenza” during his testimony for the defense. The psychologist used the term to mean Ethan Couch had been spoiled by affluent parents and had a warped sense of right and wrong.

The crash

About 11:45 p.m. on June 15, 2013, Couch was speeding down Burleson-Retta Road in southern Tarrant County in a F-350 pickup with seven teenage passengers when he veered off the road, clipped an SUV and smashed into its driver and three other people.

Couch had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit and had traces of Valium in his system, according to court testimony

Killed were Breanna Mitchell, 24, of Lillian, whose SUV had broken down; Brian Jennings, a youth minister at a Burleson church who had stopped to help; and Hollie Boyles, 52, and her daughter, Shelby Boyles, 21, who had come from their house nearby to help.

Another 12 people were injured, including Sergio Molina and Solaiman Mohman, teenagers who were riding in the bed of Couch’s pickup. Molina suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Staff reporters Deanna Boyd and Monica S. Nagy contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press.

Ryan Osborne: 817-390-7684, @RyanOsborneFWST

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram