Ethan Couch was living a bachelor’s dream life. He had a job that required minimal work for good pay, a 4,000 square foot house with a pool, all the booze and girls he could ever want. Problem was, he was only 16 and that lifestyle came to a crashing halt, literally, on July 13, 2013. For most families, having your son placed on probation for four counts of Intoxication Manslaughter would be a huge wake up call. But then, we’ve already established that the Couches weren’t most families.
The crime and subsequent trial were understandably stressful on the family. Fred and Tonya’s on again, off again marriage was off and the couple divorced. Ethan was sent off for treatment, although not to the Newport Academy as the family and judge had intended. Instead, Ethan Couch was sent to Vernon, a state run hospital. The parents had been ordered by the judge to pay for Ethan’s treatment, a bill that ran up to $200,000, but somehow, that didn’t happen. They family claimed to have been bankrupted by the civil suits filed against them and the costs from defending Ethan. The judge amended her order for them to contribute $11,000 for his stay in Vernon from February to November of 2014.
The family managed to go almost a year beneath the media’s radar. Then in July 2014, Fred Couch couldn’t keep from boasting.
North Richland Hills Police were called to the scene of a disturbance. Fred Couch was simply a witness, but he made the investigating officers very nervous. The officers didn’t know what his involvement was and asked for ID. Fred wasn’t good at following their instructions and kept putting his hands in his pockets and being evasive. They asked him if he had any weapons and he responded that he had his “Lakeside Police Stuff” in the car. They questioned him further and he claimed to be a reserve officer. He flashed a badge for them and showed what appeared to be a TCLOSE license. However, one of the officers was well acquainted with the Lakeside Police Chief Lee Pitts and called him at a later time to confirm Fred really was an officer. The badge had looked off. It had a red center and the officer didn’t recall having seen that before. He was right. Fred wasn’t an officer, not for Lakeside or anywhere else. He had an old Volunteer Search and Rescue badge. Charges of Impersonating an Officer were filed and Fred entered a plea of Not Guilty. The part I find the strangest is that there was no reason for him to do this. He had nothing to gain, except for stroking his ego.
Fred’s case was still pending, when in January 2015, he was in a minor fender bender with Tonya. She was driving his truck and backed into a small car. Their truck hardly had any damage, but the car was extensively damaged. Fred and Tonya got into a verbal altercation with the woman they had backed into. Instead of giving their information, they got back into their truck and drove off. Witnesses had their license plate and it didn’t take police long to chase down the pair and charge Tonya with Leaving the Scene of an Accident. That case was soon dismissed. Tonya and Fred paid a large amount of what they said was “restitution” to the victim of that case. The amount was undisclosed, but immediately after the victim became uncooperative with prosecutors. The case was dismissed in September of that same year.
After his release from Vernon State Hospital, Ethan still wasn’t on the streets, but in a program in Amarillo known as Next Step. Ethan stayed in that program until February, 2015.
The Civil Suits
Ethan may have avoided jail time, but he hadn’t avoided another reckoning: civil lawsuits. A civil suit couldn’t put him behind bars as the survivors and families all wanted to see, but it could hit the Couch family where it hurt. Suits were filed by family members of all four victims and two of the passengers in Ethan Couch’s truck, including Sergio Molina who suffered a devastating injury requiring round the clock care.
Those suits all reached a settlement. But there was one more suit. This one was filed on behalf of Lucas McConnell, one of the boys injured in youth pastor Brian Jennings’ truck. McConnell suffered minor injuries to his face, head, and back, mostly related to the glass which shattered, but he also suffered emotional distress, seeing his friend and pastor killed in front of him.
He struggled to make sense of it. The slap on the wrist Ethan Couch received felt more like a slap in the face to Lucas. Lucas and his parents decided that holding the Couches accountable was more important than a monetary settlement. They weren’t interested in settling.
The accused can’t be forced to testify in a criminal proceeding, but civil is a different animal. Ethan and his parents were forced to answer questions in recorded depositions. Fred Couch’s business was also named in the suit because Ethan had been driving one of his father’s work trucks that night.
In the recordings, Tonya and Fred both try to paint themselves as responsible parents. Tonya acts baffled that Ethan was drinking, despite her having frequently witnessed it. Ethan’s girlfriend testified that she and Ethan had been drinking with Tonya just a week before the crash. Ethan’s older sister said that she confronted Tonya about Ethan’s drinking and driving, telling her mother she was very concerned. The last text Tonya sent Ethan before the crash was a reminder “just don’t drink and drive.”
Fred made claims of punishments he had doled out to Ethan that were shown to be false. He claimed to have forced Ethan to walk to work after the incident where he was caught peeing in a Dollar General parking lot. But nobody else recalls that punishment, including Ethan. Tonya also claimed that Ethan was disciplined, but couldn’t recall any specific instances or when the last time was.
Ethan said he didn’t recall the accident. He claimed to remember pulling out of the driveway and the next thing he remembered was waking up in the hospital, handcuffed to the bed. Perhaps that was true or perhaps it was a convenient way to avoid discussing the accident. He admitted that his parents knew he was drinking. His mother even knew he was drinking that night. It was why she sent the text. He also admitted to a lot of drugs. “I’ve taken Valium, Hydrocodone, marijuana, cocaine, Xanax and I think I tried ecstasy once, pretty sure that was it.” He is calm, matter of fact in his recitation of events.
The McConnell family fought to make sure the deposition tapes were revealed and cooperated with a 20/20 special regarding the case. Afterwards, they were satisfied. They had turned the spotlight on the Couches and made them speak about it. October 9, 2015, they settled the case, but not for millions. They settled for attorney fees and $60,000 to be held in trust for Lucas as a college fund.
Run for the Border
Probation comes with conditions and one of the key ones for Ethan was that he wasn’t allowed to drink. First, he was underage and probationers are required to commit no new offenses. This means you have to follow the laws, which should be obvious. Second, part of Ethan’s ‘rehabilitation’ means a commitment to sobriety. Third, anyone on probation for an alcohol related offense isn’t allowed to drink.
In December 2015, a series of tweets directed to Burleson Police Department and the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office appeared to show Ethan living it up while playing beer pong. He hadn’t even been out of rehab for a year yet.
In response, Ethan Couch’s probation officer contacted him and ordered him to appear at the probation office. He had obviously been violating his probation. But instead of allowing him to face the consequences, Tonya and Fred Couch rushed in to once again rescue Ethan from himself. Tonya and Ethan made plans to flee.
The family was still far from destitute. Tonya withdrew $30,000 from the bank. The family threw a bizarre sort of ‘going away’ party for Ethan. Then Tonya and Ethan got into a pick up and disappeared.
Ethan didn’t appear at the probation office where he was scheduled to appear and submit to a drug test. Authorities began looking and soon realized Tonya was missing as well. The story went public rapidly and people assumed, rightly, that they had left the country. They had money and a head start. People wondered if they would ever be found. Surely they wouldn’t be stupid enough to poke their heads up. They wouldn’t be arrogant enough to lounge about at a tourist destination such as, say, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Actually, once across the border into Tijuana, Ethan and Tonya changed their appearances with a little cut and color, and then made for the seaside resort of Puerto Vallarta. Initially they stayed at the Los Tules resort, but an employee suggested a nearby neighborhood. Allegedly this was to make them more comfortable, but perhaps it was to make the staff more comfortable.
They weren’t the best guests. They insisted on paying cash instead of using a card. Resorts like to hold a card number to be sure they aren’t stiffed by people leaving in the night, or using services they never paid for. Ethan and Tonya refused to complete their paperwork the first night. They promised to complete the paperwork at a later date, but never did. Whenever asked their identities, they would simply respond “We’re from Texas.” Staff began referring to them as ‘the Texans.’
The staff informed them that the resort was booked up for Christmas, so they would need to leave soon. They kept to themselves, except for the night Ethan went to a ‘gentleman’s club’. Tonya went to bed while Ethan was out at a strip club. He racked up a a massive tab he couldn’t pay. He had run a tab at two bars, but after paying one, he couldn’t pay the other. The club manager and a waiter came to the resort and refused to leave until Tonya was woken up to come downstairs to pay her son’s $2,100 bill for alcohol and lap dances. She seemed annoyed at being woken, but didn’t say a word to him about it. At least, not in front of anyone else.
When the time came to leave, they asked if there had been any cancellations, but the staff suggested the move to the nearby neighborhood. It’s odd to me that they ran without a plan. What were they going to do? Did they think they could stay there forever? What would they do when the money ran out? It wasn’t going to last forever with massive bar tabs.
They were able to extend their stay and moved to another room, leaving behind a room filled with junk food wrappers, and Tonya’s gun. The staff had to call Ethan to come back and get it. After five days, they had to leave.
Meanwhile, back in Tarrant County, law enforcement was frantically looking for Ethan and Tonya Couch. A warrant had been issued for Ethan. Tonya was officially a ‘missing person’ although they were certain the pair were together. U.S. Marshalls had offered a $5,000 reward for a tip leading to the apprehension of Ethan. The break they were missing came when Ethan called home to talk to someone with his new cell phone. Law enforcement now had a cell number. They needed him to make another call for them to lock in on his location. A few days later he called for Dominos pizza.
The Couches had been gone for close to a month by that point, but once law enforcement knew where he was, they pulled in Jalisco State Police. Ethan and Tonya had overstayed their entry and were in Mexico illegally. After a week of surveillance, they were located in a neighborhood near the resort and arrested. Tonya’s hair was much shorter and Ethan had died his ginger hair and beard black. It wasn’t a good look for him. Tonya and Ethan lied about their identities, but they had no papers and were detained.
Tonya was quickly brought back to the U.S., while Ethan initially declared he would fight extradition. He had a good reason to fight, because time was his friend. Tarrant County prosecutors had already declared their intent to see Ethan transferred to an adult court for probation. To do that, they had to have a hearing with Ethan present, and it needed to happen before his 19th birthday, which would occur in just three months. The clock was ticking.
Ethan’s attorneys wanted him to be revoked as a juvenile, but after his 19th birthday. The maximum Ethan could be sentenced to under the juvenile law would be a term until his 19th birthday which would have passed at the time of sentencing. In other words, he would basically receive time served. He wouldn’t be to be transferred from juvenile to adult punishment because of this catch. The defense could only benefit from a delay.
But things had changed in Tarrant County since Ethan was put on probation. Judge Jean Boyd had abruptly announced her retirement. Her successor, Judge Tim Menikos would be making decisions about Ethan’s case. Tarrant County also had a new District Attorney and she wasn’t afraid to go after Ethan aggressively, perhaps even make new law. Judge Menikos indicated that he might entertain a motion to transfer without Ethan physically present if he voluntarily absented himself from the proceedings. If Ethan was transferred while still down in Mexico and failed to appear in adult court, the prosecution might then claim he was violating his probation and ask the judge to sentence him to prison time.
It was a strange dilemma, one legal scholars were already arguing over and neither side was sure what would happen. Ethan Couch decided to return to Texas.
Transferring Ethan wasn’t without risk for the prosecution. Because the violations to his probation occurred as a juvenile and prior to his transfer to adult court, the defense would insist he was beginning with a clean slate, a do-over. An adult court could do more to Ethan though. The judge could sentence Ethan to spend up to 180 days in jail as a condition of probation and face new, stricter conditions. If Ethan violated probation, he could receive 10 years in prison, possibly on each case if the judge could be persuaded to stack the sentences. That would mean 40 years in prison.
February 19, 2016, Judge Menikos heard the motion to transfer Ethan Couch to adult court. The defense team faced a dilemma. Fighting the transfer would mean a series of juvenile hearings to determine if Ethan had violated his probation. If the judge found that he had, which seemed pretty likely given the overwhelming evidence, the judge could sentence him to 10 years in juvenile and he could then be transferred to an adult court at the age of 19. They decided not to fight the transfer and to face adult court and Ethan Couch was officially transferred to an adult court just two months before his 19th birthday.
Four new adult cases were filed. When cases are filed, the computer system automatically arbitrarily assigns a court on a wheel system. Ethan’s cases were filed in Criminal District Court Number Two, placing his fate in the hands of Judge Wayne Salvant. You might remember him as the stern, no-nonsense judge from the Melvin Knox case which I covered in Slow Justice. Co-defendants are usually assigned to the same court for practical reasons.
Tonya Couch had been charged with Hindering Apprehension of a Fugitive and Money Laundering. The last may sound odd, but it basically means she invested money in a criminal enterprise, in this case the flight of Ethan Couch. Her case would also be heard by Judge Salvant. She was granted bond and ordered, among other things, to consume no alcohol and wear a GPS monitor.
Ethan was not granted bond because he had already fled once and he was already convicted of four felonies for which he was on probation. Probation gives a judge greater control over a person than someone who has merely been accused.
April 2016, Ethan Couch appeared before Judge Salvant to receive his adult terms of probation. Judge Salvant sentenced to Couch to 180 days on each case as a condition of probation, the maximum amount, on each case. The judge surprised many when he stacked the cases for a total of 720 days, or 2 years. Those days were conditions of probation which means they don’t count against a future sentence if his probation is revoked. He still has to serve his probation.
The defense fought the sentence. Among the legal maneuvering tried by Couch’s defense team, they filed a writ asking for Judge Wayne Salvant to be removed from Ethan’s case. This was denied February 2017 by the 2nd Court of Appeals. Ethan remained in jail.
Outside of the jail, life continued on. In December of 2016, Fred Couch went to trial and was convicted of Impersonating a Police Officer. He was sentenced to probation.
Tonya had difficulty complying with the terms of her bond release and had to appear before Judge Salvant several times in 2017 to respond to allegations of drinking and possessing a gun. The judge had ordered her not to drink, but he hadn’t ordered her not to possess alcoholic beverages and she was working as a bartender. He amended the conditions and released her back on bond.
Then early 2018, just before Ethan release date of April 2nd , Tonya Couch was arrested for testing postitive for prohibited substance. Ethan was released from the Tarrant County Jail with a list of new, strict conditions on top of the old conditions including a curfew and an interlock device.
Couch must submit to electronic monitoring which will track his location and ensure he’s at home each day between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.
He must also wear a SCRAM alcohol monitor and submit to continually wearing substance abuse test patches as well as providing, on demand, hair, urine, blood or any other biological sample for substance abuse testing. All monitoring and testing will be done at Couch’s expense.
He must agree to take no medications not prescribed by a doctor and must notify his probation officer if any medications are prescribed.
Lastly, he is ordered to not operate any vehicle that is not equipped with a camera and ignition interlock device.
He was picked up in a black Tesla with dark tinted windows and whisked away. Neither he nor his parents had anything to say, but one interesting voice has spoken up on Ethan’s behalf. Tim Williams, a pastor and childhood best friend of Brian Jennings visited Ethan in jail multiple times. He says he counseled him and now believes that Ethan Couch has become remorseful and committed to change. But ultimately, the only person who can keep Ethan out of jail, is Ethan.
That’s where the saga comes to a rest for now. Tonya still remains in jail awaiting her trial. Ethan must now adjust to life outside of confinement. Perhaps it’s best to end this article by saying to be continued. . .
Megyn Kelly’s interview with Tim Williams: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIN2KRH0xkM