A week after an arrest warrant was issued for Ethan Couch — more commonly known as the “affluenza teen” — for violating his probation, the 18-year-old remains on the lam.
Authorities have not yet pinpointed the location of Couch, who two years ago killed four people during a drunken driving crash, but they suspect his mother is helping to hide him.
On Monday, the Tarrant County, Texas, sheriff’s office announced that Tonya Couch has been listed as a missing person on nationwide databases and may be accompanying her fugitive son.
“We believe she is helping or assisting him but we can’t even prove they are together at this time,” said Sheriff Dee Anderson.
The sheriff’s office released photos of Tonya Couch and a black Ford F-150 pickup truck that the pair might be using.
A judge’s decision to give Ethan Couch probation instead of jail time was controversial at the time, and more so after a video this month appeared to show the teen playing a drinking game at a party.
District Attorney Sharen Wilson said it “certainly looks like him” in the video, but added that without further investigation, the video alone did not prove he violated his probation.
But leaving the county and not meeting his probation officer are violations, she said.
When Ethan Couch is apprehended, he could be sent to juvenile detention until he turns 19, in April. But Wilson says she wants to move Couch’s case to an adult court, where he could face a longer jail sentence.
“Turn yourself in,” Wilson asked.
Pain for victims’ families
Kevin McConnell — whose son Lucas, 12 years old at the time, was injured in the crash caused by Couch — said he was disgusted but not surprised when he learned that Couch was on the lam.
In McConnell’s view, Couch was never held accountable. Not meeting with his probation officer and fleeing to points unknown, McConnell said, go along with that.
“No surprises at all; there was a pattern,” McConnell said Friday. “Nothing is going to make an impact on this guy unless there’s something severe or certain.”
That’s why, in his victim impact statement in court in 2013, Lucas McConnell told Couch, “While I think we should do our best at forgiving, I believe if this situation is not handled with severity, you won’t take it seriously.”
Couch’s lawyers had argued that the teen’s parents deserved much of the blame. They even called a psychologist who testified that Couch, who was 16 at the time, suffered from “affluenza,” meaning he was a rich kid whose parents didn’t set limits for him.
Tarrant County Juvenile Court Judge Jean Boyd decided against a long prison term, instead giving him 10 years probation and mandating that he get treatment.
And instantly, there was outrage: How could someone kill and then avoid jail partly because he was spoiled? Would others who weren’t as wealthy have gotten the same treatment? And what confidence should anyone have that Couch — or, for that matter, the parents who’d enabled him — would change?
While he thinks Couch’s fleeing jibes with his character, Kevin McConnell still has a hard time understanding why a stiffer punishment wasn’t imposed.
“The scales (of justice) represent balance: There should be no entitling one way or the other, based on who you are or where you’re from,” McConnell told CNN’s “New Day.”
“It’s hard for me to reconcile with my son or my other two sons. … There’s no accountability.”
Lawyer: Judge ‘gave someone a chance’
On the night of June 15, 2013, Couch and some friends stole beer from a Walmart. They started drinking and then hit the road, with Couch behind the wheel.
That same evening, Hollie Boyles and her daughter Shelby left their home to help Breanna Mitchell, whose SUV had broken down by the side of a road. Brian Jennings, a youth pastor, was driving past and also stopped to help.
Couch plowed into them, killing them all. Several other people suffered severe injuries, including two passengers thrown from the bed of Couch’s truck.
Three hours after the crash, tests showed that he had a blood alcohol content of 0.24, three times the legal limit.
The question, then, wasn’t what Couch had done. It was what should be done with him next.
The “affluenza” testimony made national headlines, as did the Tarrant County judge’s decision to give Couch probation rather than the 20 years behind bars requested by prosecutors. The teen was also ordered into long-term mental health treatment, away from his parents’ influence.
“It’s clear that she gave someone a chance that didn’t deserve it,” Todd Clement, a lawyer who represents Boyles and McConnell, said of the now-retired judge. “And (that is) exactly what Lucas McConnell predicted.”
Video reportedly shows teen at party
Move forward two years. Couch, now 18, is back living with his mother. And a video turns up on social media apparently showing Couch at a party playing beer pong, as reported by CNN affiliate KTVT, despite explicit instructions he stay away from alcohol.
When asked to confirm Couch’s attendance at the event, his attorneys Scott Brown and William Reagan Wynn told CNN’s sister network HLN they knew authorities were investigating whether their client violated his probation conditions.
“It would not be prudent for us to make any further statement on Ethan’s behalf until the investigations are concluded and it is determined what, if any, action will be taken against him,” the lawyers added.
At the time of his conviction, prosecutors said Couch could be incarcerated up to 10 years for violating his probation terms.
Joey Jackson, a criminal defense attorney and CNN legal analyst, thinks Couch’s lawyers might have had some success explaining the party video. Still, the fact the teen is now missing undermines any such argument and underscores others’ point that he’s never taken responsibility or paid the price.
“You’re given that opportunity, now take that opportunity as a second chance of a lease on your life because you took others’,” Jackson said. “… It doesn’t help to be on the lam, at all.”
Sheriff worries teen, mother may have fled U.S.
In order to be punished, of course, Couch first must be found.
A warrant was issued for Couch after his probation officer couldn’t reach him last week. Since then, the FBI and U.S. Marshals have joined local authorities to hunt him down. A $5,000 reward was offered for information leading to the arrest of Couch.
In an interview last week with CNN’s “AC360,” Anderson, the sheriff, worried that the teen and his mother could have fled the United States.
“They have the money. They have the ability to disappear,” he said. “And I’m fearing that they have gone a long way and may even be out of the country.”
Jackson believes the family’s considerable financial resources, and the prospect that an escape had been planned out, suggest “it may be a long time” before Couch is apprehended. Still, he thinks it will happen, as does fellow criminal defense lawyer and CNN analyst Danny Cevallos.
“This is not somebody who is going to be able to just slip into the corn, like ‘Field of Dreams,'” Cevallos said. “He is somebody who is going to leave a (digital) trail. He’s got friends. He’s not a survivalist. He should be found eventually.”
In the meantime, Couch’s disappearance means more heartache for the families of those he killed and fuels their belief, and that of others, that he should have gotten a stiffer sentence.
“‘Affluenza’ aside, Ethan Couch appears to show blatant disregard for the law, and he must be held accountable,” said Colleen Sheehey-Church, the head of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“The families impacted will never have their loved ones back; Ethan Couch must have consequences for his actions.”