'Affluenza' teen and his mom were tripped up in Mexico by ordering pizza, officials say

The brief but intense manhunt for Texas teenager Ethan Couch and his mother came to an unspectacular end in a Mexican seaside resort when one of the two used a personal cellphone to place a delivery order from a Domino’s Pizza outlet to a condominium complex in Puerto Vallarta’s old town.

A U.S. Marshals Service agent monitoring the pair's cellphone activity tipped off local authorities and the Couches were detained.

Ethan Couch — who used the now-infamous “affluenza” defense to win probation in a drunk driving crash that killed four people — and his mother had been expected to be returned to Houston on Wednesday.

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But in developments early Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that Couch had won a three-day delay in deportation. Later Wednesday afternoon, Mexican officials said that Couch's mother had been deported to the U.S., according to AP.

From the start, Couch made for an unlikely character in an international manhunt. The teen was wanted for skipping routine probation meetings in Texas.

When he was picked up Monday with his mother, Couch had dyed his blond hair and beard a dark brown, presumably to disguise his identity as the teen who never served a day in prison after his defense proposed that his indulgent childhood and pampered upbringing had stripped him of the ability to tell right from wrong.

As the Couches await their return to the U.S., one of America’s most bizarre criminal cases in recent memory has started another odd chapter, one that officials said included a farewell party.

Although Couch’s mother, Tonya, faces up to 10 years in prison on suspicion of hiding her son from arrest, prosecutors say they may not be able to punish Ethan Couch as harshly for leaving Texas.

“I wish the system were different,” said Tarrant County Dist. Atty. Sharen Wilson, who wants Couch to serve 10 years behind bars for violating his 10-year probation sentence for the drunk-driving deaths.

Instead, because of a quirk of Texas juvenile law, Couch may spend only up to 120 days in jail when he eventually returns to the U.S., because the court system is still treating him as if he were a minor. “It is the horns of a dilemma in Texas law,” Wilson said.

In 2013, when he was 16, Couch struck and killed four pedestrians near Fort Worth while driving with a blood alcohol content of .24, three times the legal limit for an adult.

He pleaded guilty in juvenile court to intoxication manslaughter. Prosecutors wanted him to serve 20 years in prison.

Instead, Couch received probation and a stint in rehab. The juvenile judge’s sentence infuriated the public, frustrated the Tarrant County investigators who handled the case and touched off a media frenzy that made "affluenza" a household word.

Couch resurfaced in the news Dec. 2, when a Twitter user, frustrated by the case, posted a short video that appeared to show Couch clapping and laughing as friends played beer pong at an October party. One of the terms of Couch’s probation was that he not drink alcohol.

The video does not show him drinking, but Tarrant County prosecutors — undoubtedly hoping to make up for Couch’s light sentence — began to investigate whether Couch violated probation.

Officials think the video spurred him to vanish, along with his mother and her black 2011 Ford F-150 truck. 

Investigators learned the pair held a gathering “akin to a going-away party” before they fled, Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson told reporters Tuesday.

Officials suspect Couch and his mother then drove across the border and made the 1,200-mile drive to Puerto Vallarta, where they may have tried to blend in among the American tourists visiting for the holidays.

The pair had originally stayed at one of the holiday bungalows along the town’s seashore, but had moved to a more discreet location 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, Ramirez said. The two were detained without incident at 6 p.m. Monday in the “5 of December” neighborhood in Puerto Vallarta’s old-town district, near a boardwalk peppered with hotels and restaurants.

Both had expired visas, and both were turned over to 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.

He added that Couch’s father — who runs a large-scale sheet-metal business — had been cooperative and that no information suggested he was involved in the pair’s disappearance.

Wilson explained why Ethan Couch might spend a maximum of 120 days in jail: Because his case remains in juvenile court, officials could only put him in detention until he turns 19 in April, at which point he would have to be released.

The remainder of his 10 years of probation would then roll over to adult court, but he would be free.

Wilson said Couch would spend slightly more time in jail if she succeeds in transferring 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.

“The best result in this case, in our opinion, is to get him into the adult court,” said Wilson, where she will ask “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 did not respond to a request 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 D.A.’s office will do anything and everything they can to get him a 10-year prison sentence,” Finn said, adding that 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.”


Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


Dec. 30, 3:36 p.m.: This story was updated with news that Tonya Couch had been deported to U.S.

Dec. 30, 9:04 a.m.: This story was updated with news that the deportation of Ethan Couch was delayed.

Dec. 30, 7:58 a.m.: The story was updated with new details about the investigation.

Dec. 29, 8:03 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with new details.

Dec. 29, 4:05 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with new information.

Dec. 29, 8:37 a.m. The story was updated with details on the arrest warrant issued for Tonya Couch.

The story was originally published at 11:44 p.m. on Dec. 28.