MEXICO CITY – The Texas teenager known for using an “affluenza” defense in a fatal drunken-driving accident likely won’t return to the U.S. anytime soon because of a Mexican judge’s decision to delay his deportation Wednesday, but a Mexico immigration official said his mother was being flown to Los Angeles.
Richard Hunter, chief deputy for the U.S. Marshals Service in South Texas, said during a news conference in Houston that a three-day court injunction granted to Ethan Couch will likely take at least two weeks to resolve.
Later in the day, however, the teen’s mother, Tonya Couch, was put on a plane to be flown from Guadalajara to Los Angeles, an official with Mexico’s National Immigration Institute told The Associated Press. The official said she would be turned over to U.S. marshals.
The official, who was not authorized to discuss the case and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the woman was sent to the United States because immigration authorities did not receive a judge’s injunction like the one that temporarily blocked her son’s deportation.
Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson told CBS Dallas-Fort Worth he would be waiting for her.
“When she arrives, the warrant we have for her for hindering the apprehension of Ethan will be served upon her and that’s a felony here in Texas,” Anderson said. “And we will have to extradite her back to Texas and she will have to face those charges here.”
If convicted of the third-degree felony, Tonya Couch faces a sentence of two to 10 years in prison.
Ethan Couch was transported late Wednesday to Mexico City, the official said. The decision to move Couch was made because the Mexico City facility for detaining migrants is larger and better equipped to hold someone for days or weeks. The official would not say if he was being moved by air or ground.
Authorities believe the 18-year-old Couch, who was sentenced only to probation for the 2013 wreck in Texas, fled to Mexico with his mother in November as prosecutors investigated whether he had violated his probation. Both were taken into custody Monday after authorities said a phone call for pizza led to their capture in the resort city of Puerto Vallarta.
The ruling earlier Wednesday by the Mexican court gives a judge three days to decide whether the younger Couch has grounds to challenge his deportation based on arguments that kicking him out of the country would violate his rights.
Hunter said the legal maneuver basically takes the decision out of an immigration agent’s hands and asks a higher authority to make the deportation decision. He said such cases can often take anywhere from two weeks to several months, depending on the priorities of the local courts.
“It also depends on the fact the Couches have legal counsel. And it seems to me, if they wanted to, they could pay them as much money as they want to drag this thing out,” Hunter said. “We’re hopeful that’s not the case. We’re hopeful the Mexican immigration court will make a quick and decisive decision and return the Couches to America.”
During the sentencing phase of Couch’s trial in 2013, 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 during the legal proceedings drew ridicule.
“Couch continues to make a mockery of the system,” said Fort Worth attorney Bill Berenson, who represented Sergio Molina, who was paralyzed and suffered severe brain damage in the crash.
Couch’s attorneys in the U.S. issued a statement Wednesday saying they couldn’t comment on the case because they weren’t licensed to practice law in Mexico. It wasn’t immediately clear which attorneys were handling the case in Mexico.
Mexican police say Couch and his mother spent three days in a rented condo at a resort development in Puerto Vallarta before finding an apartment. One of the Couches’ telephones had been used to order delivery from Domino’s Pizza to the condominium complex in Puerto Vallarta’s old town, far from the glitzy resorts of the city’s newer section, according to a police report issued by the Jalisco state prosecutors’ office.
Agents from the prosecutors’ office went to the complex, where a tourism operator told them that the people who had occupied the condo were asked to vacate because the owners were coming to stay over Christmas, the report said. The Couches then moved to an apartment, and the agents set up a surveillance operation in the surrounding streets.
On Monday evening, two people matching the Couches’ description were spotted and intercepted. The police report said they behaved evasively, claimed to be carrying no IDs, gave inconsistent stories about their names and failed to provide proof of their legal migratory status in Mexico.
They were taken into custody and handed over to immigration officials.
Anderson said Tuesday that the Couches had prepared to be gone a while, even dyeing the teenager’s blond hair black.
“They had planned to disappear. They even had something that was almost akin to a going-away party before leaving town,” Anderson said. He declined to detail the party, including how many people attended.
Anderson said Couch and his mother apparently crossed the border in her pickup and drove to Puerto Vallarta. No immediate charges were planned for others who may have known about or assisted with the plan, Anderson said. He noted that authorities have no evidence that Couch’s father, who owns a sheet metal factory in North Texas, was involved.
The sheriff has said he believes the two fled in late November, after a video surfaced that appears to show Ethan Couch at a party where people were drinking. If found to be drinking, Couch could see his probation revoked and face up to four months in jail.
Authorities began searching for him and his mother after he missed a mandatory appointment with his probation officer on Dec. 10.
Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said Tuesday that she planned to ask that Couch’s case be transferred to adult court, where he could face up to 120 days in an adult jail, followed by 10 years’ probation. If he violates that probation, he could face up to 10 years in prison per death, Wilson said.
“The maximum jail time he is going to do is probably gonna be 120 days,’ Anderson told CBS Dallas-Forth Worth. “That sits badly with a lot of people. People don’t think that’s justice for killing four innocent people, the way they didn’t feel like probation was justice for killing four innocent people.”
Couch was driving drunk and speeding near Fort Worth in June 2013, when he crashed into a disabled SUV, 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.