Ethan Couch, the Texas teenager who prompted an international search after he vanished earlier this month, appeared set to return to the United States after his Monday night capture in a Mexican resort city.
Couch, 18, made national headlines after a 2013 drunken-driving incident that left four people dead. A psychologist testified for his defense, saying that the teen, from a wealthy Dallas area family, suffered from “affluenza,” which contributed to his reckless decisions.
Couch was eventually sentenced to a drug- and alcohol-free probation but disappeared this month, along with his mother, Tonya. The search for the pair ended this week in Puerto Vallarta, a city of beaches and lavish resorts on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, officials said at a Tuesday news conference in Texas.
The mother and son are expected to be sent back to Texas, where Couch will likely face a maximum of several months jail time, according to Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson.
She told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that, since Couch’s case is in the juvenile justice system, any sentence for violating his probation would expire at his 19th birthday in April. A hearing to transfer his case to an adult court will be held in January; a change to adult status could extend his probation and include a 120-day stay in jail.
Officials said Tuesday that the Couches’ escape appeared to have been planned; Anderson said investigators learned of “something that was almost akin to a going-away party.”
At a news conference, Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson didn’t provide many details about the gathering but said authorities were told it happened before Couch and his mother disappeared.
“As we were trying to determine if this was premeditated, as we believed it was, a statement was made that they basically had a gathering before they left, and you know, kind of characterized it as more or less a going-away party,” he said. “Which, to us, meant that what we suspected had happened. That it was carefully planned and timed to get out of the country.”
Couch was wanted by the U.S. Marshals Service for allegedly violating his probation. He failed to turn up for a routine probation meeting on Dec. 10, according to the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office, and when an officer went to check on him, he was nowhere to be found.
Authorities issued a warrant for his arrest the following day.
Couch — who earlier this month appeared to be shown in a video clip of a beer pong game — and his mother were taken into custody about 6 p.m. Monday, according to a statement from the Jalisco state prosecutor’s office, which was obtained by ABC News.
“The Mexican authorities have them in custody as we speak, we are working — the marshals are working — to get them back here, to the States,” Anderson said.
According to CBS Dallas-Fort Worth, the pair fled to Mexico earlier in the month and initially stayed at a high end resort called Los Tules in the tourist zone near the beach. After a while, though, they moved to a small condo in the quiet neighborhood where they were ultimately arrested.
A woman who worked at the Los Tules resort wound up helping police track down the Couches, according to the Associated Press.
But the Couches also gave themselves away, the AP reported. A police report issued by the the Jalisco state prosecutor’s office in Mexico said the Couches used one of their phones to order Domino’s Pizza to their room at a condominium. A U.S. Marshal’s Service agent let Mexican authorities know about the location of the phone Monday, and they were able to track the mother and son down later that evening.
The police report says that the Couches claimed to be carrying no identification and gave inconsistent stories about their names, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The pair was taken into custody and handed over to immigration officials.
As of Tuesday night, they were being held in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco state.
The exact travel plans for mother and son remained somewhat unclear. U.S. Marshal Rick Taylor said the duo would probably be expelled.
“We still don’t have a lot of details yet about his return, as well as the mother. We’re still working through that with the Mexican government,” he said, adding that “we are very happy and pleased that they are in the custody of the Mexican authorities, and they’ll be returned to the United States here shortly.”
The search reignited discussion of the teen’s light sentence two years ago. In December 2013, Couch pleaded guilty in juvenile court to manslaughter and assault while intoxicated. He had valium and a high level of alcohol in his blood and was speeding down a road on the outskirts of Fort Worth when he careened into a group of people fixing a broken-down car. Four were killed, and several of the passengers in Couch’s car was thrown from the vehicle; one remains paralyzed from a traumatic brain injury.
Although prosecutors pushed for a 20-year prison term, Couch was sentenced to 10 years of probation and no jail time. During the trial, psychologist G. Dick Miller attributed Couch’s reckless behavior to “affluenza,” saying that Couch had an unhealthy relationship with his millionaire parents, who didn’t teach him that dangerous actions have consequences.
“Instead of the golden rule, which was ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ [Couch] was taught we have the gold, we make the rules at the Couch household,” Miller testified in court, according to ABC News.
But during a hearing in February 2014, State District Judge Jean Boyd, who issued the sentence, told families involved that her decision had nothing to do with the “affluenza” argument, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She said Couch, not his parents, was responsible for what happened.
When the mother and son return to the United States, officials will push to transfer his case from the juvenile system to the adult courts, Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson told reporters. Tonya Couch is expected to be charged with hindering apprehension, Wilson said.
“I think that she deserves to be incarcerated,” Wilson said.
The process of transferring the case had already started before Ethan Couch went missing, said Sam Jordan, a spokeswoman for the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for January.
If the case remains in the juvenile system, Couch’s probation could be revoked, and under that scenario, the maximum penalty he could face would be serving time in a juvenile facility until his 19th birthday in April, Jordan said.
If it transfers to adult courts, however, the picture becomes a bit more murky. The probation would not be revoked, because Couch went missing when he was still in the juvenile system. A judge in the adult courts would set new probation guidelines and rules and could make a 120-day stint in prison a term of his probation.
After those 120 days, Couch would complete his probation period as an adult.
“The juvenile sentence is not sufficient,” Jordan said. “We’re looking for more accountability in the adult court.”
This post has been updated.