The Texas “affluenza” teen who killed four people in a drunken-driving crash and then fled probation — triggering an international manhunt — may face only up to 120 days in jail after he and his mother were captured in a Mexican resort city, officials said Tuesday.
Mexican authorities said they captured Ethan Couch, 18, and his mother, Tonya Couch, Monday evening in the “5 of December” neighborhood in Puerto Vallarta’s old town district.
The pair had originally stayed at one of the holiday bungalows along the town’s seashore, but had moved to a more discreet location that had been suggested by one of the employees at the bungalows, Jalisco state prosecutor Jesus Almaguer Ramirez said at a Tuesday news conference.
The employee then passed along that information to investigators, who discovered that the Couches had overstayed their tourist visas, Ramirez said. The two were detained without incident.
The pair had vanished from Texas weeks earlier, and investigators there suspected that Tonya Couch — who now faces a charge of hindering arrest — was again trying to get her son out of trouble with the law.
In 2013, when he was 16, Couch struck and killed four pedestrians near Fort Worth while driving drunk. Prosecutors wanted Couch to serve 20 years in prison.
Instead, Couch got off with a stint in rehab in Vernon, Texas, and 10 years’ probation after a defense expert argued in juvenile court that Couch suffered from “affluenza” — an inability to tell right from wrong because he’d had a spoiled upbringing and wealthy parents who never punished him for bad behavior.
The juvenile judge’s sentence infuriated the public, frustrated the county investigators who handled the case and touched off a media frenzy that made affluenza a household word.
When the Tarrant County district attorney’s office began investigating in early December whether Couch drank alcohol at a party and violated his probation — raising the possibility of real jail time — Couch and his mother disappeared, setting off a high-profile manhunt.
Investigators learned “they had planned to disappear” and the pair held a gathering “akin to a going-away party” before they vanished, Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson told reporters Tuesday, not disclosing who was at the gathering or saying whether others would face charges.
Officials suspect Ethan Couch and his mother then crossed the border in Tonya Couch’s black 2011 Ford F-150 and made the 1,200-mile drive to Puerto Vallarta, where they may have tried to blend in among the American tourists traveling to the oceanside resort for the holidays. They were arrested Monday in a neighborhood in southern Puerto Vallarta, near a boardwalk peppered with hotels and restaurants.
Mexican officials released a photo showing that Ethan Couch had dyed his blond hair and facial hair to a dark brown. They were traveling in Mexico illegally — they didn’t have the proper tourist documents — and both were turned over to the Mexican immigration authorities for their return to the U.S., Jalisco state authorities said in a statement.
Anderson declined to provide many details on how investigators tracked down the pair in Puerto Vallarta, but said that people close to the family had provided key information to the authorities. He added that Couch’s father — who runs a large-scale sheet-metal business — has been cooperative and that there was no information yet that suggested he was involved in the pair’s disappearance.
Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said Tonya Couch would be charged with hindering an arrest, which carries a sentence of two to 10 years in prison.
But Ethan Couch’s punishment for fleeing probation for killing four people is once again likely to inflame the public, because of what officials are describing as a quirk of juvenile law.
Even though Couch is 18, his probation was still being handled by juvenile court, which means that officials would be able to put him in detention only until his 19th birthday in April, at which point he would have to be released, Wilson told reporters. The remainder of his 10 years of probation would then roll over to adult court, but he would be free.
Instead, Wilson said she plans to request to transfer Couch’s probation case to adult court sooner, where a judge can impose stricter terms and give Couch up to 120 days in jail plus eight years of stricter probation as part of a reworked sentence. His flight to Mexico would not lead to his adult probation being revoked, Wilson said.
“I wish the system were different,” said Wilson, who said she wished Couch could serve a full 10 years behind bars. “It is the horns of a dilemma in Texas law.”
However, Wilson said, “The best result in this case, in our opinion, is to get him into the adult court,” where “I will be asking for every single possible condition of probation where we will know where he is at all times.”
If he then violates the terms of his adult probation, Wilson said she would request that Couch spend up to 40 years in adult prison — what she described as “severe consequences, which he has not had to face yet.”
Attorneys for Ethan Couch could not be immediately reached for comment.
Dallas defense attorney David Finn, who is not connected to the case, said there is a lot of “public angst” about Couch’s case because “he got a second chance and he blew it.”
“My sense is that the Tarrant County DA’s office will do anything and everything they can to get him a 10-year prison sentence,” Finn said, adding that Tarrant County prosecutors want Couch’s probation rolled over to adult court where the judge can “really load him up” with conditions.
“And they’re just going to sit back and wait for him to fail.”