This is the third and final installment in my series on Ethan Couch. You can read the first installments here: Wrecked Part 1 and Part 2.
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
This is the second part of a series. If you missed it, part one begins here.
Because he was a juvenile, the 323rd Judicial District Court of Tarrant County had exclusive jurisdiction over Ethan Couch at the time he was charged with four cases of Intoxication Manslaughter. The first question the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s office (TCCDA) had to grapple with was whether or not to ask the judge to certify Couch to stand trial as an adult. Texas Family Code Section 54.02 sets out the rules for when a juvenile court waives its jurisdiction and transfers the accused to an adult court.
There are two types of certification, one is used when the person is still a juvenile (under the age of 17) at the time he is charged, the other is for when the person was a juvenile at the time the offense was committed, but is an adult at the time of adjudication. If you’re at all familiar with this story, you know that the first type of certification is what applied initially, but the second type would be relevant later. Contrary to what you might think watching the news, very few juveniles are certified. It’s typically only done for the most serious felonies such as murders and sexual assaults. These are also the types of cases likely to get news coverage which can skew the perception. The cases you already know about are the ones most likely to have a juvenile certified.
In Tarrant County, the number of juveniles certified is generally in the single digits. If the TCCDA Office wants to certify a juvenile, he must be at least 15. They must file a petition asking the judge to certify the juvenile. The judge first orders a complete diagnostic study. Once that is done, the judge next conducts a hearing weighing the factors listed in Section 54.02(f) to weigh the safety of the community against the welfare of the juvenile. Playing heavily into the decision are the sophistication and background of the juvenile, previous criminal history, and the likelihood of appropriate rehabilitation of the juvenile. I’m not sure I’ve seen a juvenile certified for Intoxication Manslaughter before, although TCCDA asked for it on previous occasions. That’s because it’s a crime of recklessness rather than intent and substance abuse issues seem appropriate for rehabilitation.
Juvenile justice is a like walking a tightrope. Given what we now know about developing brains, when do we choose to make a teen face adult consequences over more youthful ones? Prosecutors chose to leave Couch to the juvenile system. Many factors played into this decision, but one of those was the judge. You see, prosecutors can try to have a juvenile moved to adult court, but the person who has the final decision on certification is the judge. At the time, the sitting judge was Jean Boyd. For over 20 years, Judge Boyd made those decision as judge of the 323rd District Court. She was known for favoring long probations and being very stingy with certifications, even for murder cases.
Prosecutors Richard Alpert and Riley Shaw knew they didn’t have a realistic chance of her certifying Couch, but they did hope to convince her to send him to a Texas Youth Corrections (TYC) facility. Intoxication Manslaughter is a second degree felony punishable by 2-20 years. Alpert was seeking a determinate sentence which would allow the defendant to begin his sentence in TYC. At the age of 19, he could be paroled if he had showed progress in rehabilitation or transferred to an adult facility if he had not. If the name Richard Alpert sounds familiar to readers, he is considered the Texas’ foremost authority on vehicular homicide and was the prosecutor on the Chante Mallard case which I covered in “Depraved Heart: The Killing of Gregory Biggs.”
As they were gearing up for trial, Alpert and Shaw received word of a not-so surprising development. Given the overwhelming evidence, Ethan Couch was going to plead guilty before the judge and hope for the best. It was a tactic that had always served him well in the past. That’s right. He had a history of alcohol related offenses. February 2013, just five months before the fatal crash, a Lakeside police officer found Couch peeing in the parking lot of a Dollar General at 1 am. In his truck was a naked 14-year-old girl, beer, and a 1.75-liter bottle of Grey Goose. D Magazine describes the exchange as follows:
The officer asked the clearly intoxicated 15-year-old Ethan what he was doing.
Ethan replied, “What’s it look like I’m doing?”
Tonya was called to the scene. The officer’s microphone captured the conversation between the mother and son.
“By the way, I didn’t know you snuck out,” Tonya says.
“What do you mean, I snuck out?” Ethan says. “I told you I was—”
“Well you’re not going to tell your dad that after you go out drinking and doing this,” she says.
“I drank one beer,” he says.
“It doesn’t matter,” she says.
Couch was cited for minor in possession. He appeared with his mother Tonya Couch. She paid his fine and he was ordered to attend an alcohol awareness program and perform community service. He did neither. Not one single hour. Again, Tonya would claim this was her fault for not understanding. During civil litigation, Tonya was asked about the girl. She shrugged it off. She didn’t know who the girl was or how she got home and she didn’t care. Ethan was her only concern.This incident just underscores Couch’s history. He acted out and one or both parents covered for him. If one parent punished him for something, the other one came along and bailed him out. The family dynamic was toxic.
When Ethan Couch was 9, Tonya and Fred Couch divorced. The divorce was extremely hostile, fueled by Fred’s temper and Tonya’s self-medication with drugs and alcohol. Ethan Couch became his parent’s pawn. They fought one another over him, used him to get back at one another, rarely keeping the visitation schedule. Both used money to buy his affection. He had anything he wanted: a motorcycle, a four-wheeler, a pool, the best education money could buy. He was a good student, but his parents did nothing to encourage it and even interfered.
At 13, Ethan was driving his new truck to school. A concerned principal called the parents. Fred Couch shouted her down, exclaiming that Ethan was the best driver he knew. He threatened to just ‘buy the school’ if they complained further. Then he transferred Ethan to a ‘homeschool’ program. It’s unclear if he ever graduated.
Fred first found Ethan passed out from drinking rum at the age of 14. He was angry because Ethan wouldn’t be around to shoot off fireworks. Tonya denied knowing her son was still drinking, but Ethan’s girlfriend at the time testified to drinking with Ethan and Tonya just a week before the crash. Ethan was also using other drugs, especially cocaine. If Fred did try to take something from Ethan in punishment, Tonya would swoop in and give it back to Ethan. Ethan learned how to game the system from an early age, pitting his parents against one another to get what he wanted.
He saw his parents engage in extremely risky behavior. Fred was once cited for driving 95 miles per hour and was known to engage in road rage incidents. He was arrested for DWI. According the civil case depositions, he told the officer he made more in a day than the policeman made in a year. Tonya wasn’t much better. She was once charged with reckless driving for running someone off the road. She paid a $500 fine. Fred owned a successful sheet metal business and would yell and bully others to get his way. Tonya just went for the checkbook. They divorced, remarried, and divorced again after the crash.
True to form, his parents purchased the best legal team they could find for Couch, attorneys Scott Brown and Reagan Wynn. Both attorneys were Board Certified in Criminal Law. Neither one comes cheaply. If Wynn’s name sounds familiar, he was the defense attorney on the Chante Mallard case.
The parent’s also employed an expert, a psychologist, Dr. G. Dick Miller. On Dr. Miller’s advice, Ethan Couch was sent to rehab. The family chose Newport Academy, a luxurious facility in California with equine therapy, cooking classes, basketball, swimming, mixed martial arts lessons, massages, and a matching price tag of $450,000 per year. Against Dr. Miller’s advice, the parents checked Ethan out and brought him home after just 62 days and $90,000.
Although Couch was pleading guilty, there would still be a trial. Texas has a bifurcated trial system. The first part is the guilt/innocence phase, the second is punishment. Couch’s plea erased the need for the first part and really, this case was all about the punishment. Richard Alpert knew it wouldn’t be easy. Judge Boyd was notorious for her efforts to redeem even the most hardened juvenile offenders, but Alpert had built his career on cases like this. He isn’t just any expert on Intoxication Manslaughter, he literally wrote the book. His manuals on DWI Prosecution and Intoxication Manslaughter have gone through multiple printings from Texas Criminal and District Attorneys Association Press. He knows everything there is about a building a punishment case.
December 2013, Alpert and Shaw laid out Couch’s misdeeds before Judge Boyd. She heard about his callous disregard for others, his serious substance abuse issues, and the horrific night of the crash. By now, there were seven civil lawsuits seeking damages from families of Couch’s victims and survivors. The other teens from that night testified about Ethan’s legendary drinking parties. One friend testified regarding multiple instances of Ethan Couch driving while impaired. Ethan’s circle of friends had abandoned him. But not his parents.
The defense denied nothing about Ethan Couch’s past. In fact, you might say they doubled down. They cleverly shifted attention from Ethan to his parents by putting Tonya and Fred on trial. They paraded teachers and social workers from Ethan’s past to talk about what a sweet, smart little boy he was before his parents spoiled him rotten. His parent’s divorce and remarriage and next divorce all damaged him. They treated him like an adult. Poor, little rich kid living in his 4,000 square-foot ranch-style house with a pool, numbing his pain with booze and drugs.
Ethan didn’t testify, which is unusual in guilty pleas where the defendant is seeking probation. There isn’t much to be gained by silence. The usual trial tactic is to put the defendant on the stand and let him apologize and say he accepts responsibility and wants to do better. Perhaps Ethan’s attorneys were afraid of what their cocky client would say. After all, he wasn’t really sorry.
Throughout the trial, Couch sat quietly, not even participating in his own defense. He stared off as if his thoughts were elsewhere. The defense didn’t call Tonya or Fred to testify which made it easier to paint them as the villains. Instead they called their psychologist, Dr. G. Dick Miller. This was why he had been hired, why he had spent over 50 hours with the family in preparation, why he had been paid $15,000. Dr. Miller laid forth the heart of the defense case. Ethan was a victim of over-indulgent parents. He didn’t know right from wrong because his parents had never taught him. He had never felt the consequences of his actions. Simply put, he was too rich to know how to act.
Then the word fell out of his mouth, that ridiculous portmanteau: Affluenza. Attorney Scott Brown would swear he had never heard Miller say that term before. Miller would later say in a CNN interview that he regretted saying the term, but once it was out there, it stuck. Ethan Couch would forever be Affluenza Teen. Miller went on to say that his parents had taught him, “If you hurt someone, say you’re sorry. In that family, if you hurt someone, send some money.”
The Texas Juvenile Justice System is heavily slanted towards probation. Misdemeanor offenses can only be punished with probation. The reasoning is obvious. If anyone deserves a second chance and help in changing, shouldn’t it be children? Boyd always operated on that principal, sometimes to the frustration of prosecutors.
But never assume that the system is fair. Rehab and counseling don’t come free. TYC is overcrowded and overburdened. But if a family can pay for inpatient treatment, well, that relieves the burden a little, doesn’t it? The defense argued that TYC couldn’t meet Ethan Couch’s needs as well as Newport Academy and since the Couches would pay the whopping price tag, that was the best option. They would even agree to stay away from their son, like a “detox” from their toxic love. Money can buy everything in the system, but especially in juvenile justice. It’s a dirty little secret that defendants pay for probation and those who can’t pay often end up doing time.
Prosecutors argued that Ethan was a spoiled brat with a substance abuse problem who would never understand consequences unless someone forced him to. He had killed four people, paralyzed one, and seriously injured nine more. Rehabilitation is a great thing, but sometimes, justice demands punishment. Let him get therapy in jail.
When Boyd pronounced her sentence: 10 years probation, the court room practically exploded. Court bailiff’s hustled the judge out as the assembled survivors and families expressed their outrage.
To Eric Boyles, who lost both his wife Hollie and daughter Shelby, “Money always seems to keep Ethan out of trouble. Ultimately today, I felt that money did prevail. If you had been any other youth, I feel like the circumstances would have been different,” he said to reporters.
Richard Alpert was disgusted with outcome. “There can be no doubt that he will be in another courthouse one day blaming the lenient treatment he received here.” A reporter for ABC’s 20/20 asked Alpert what would have been justice. “Justice would have been if the system had held him accountable.”
But while most were expressing their outrage, there was another contingent who wondered if Judge Boyd had known she was setting Ethan Couch up to fail. If he had gone to TYC and been granted parole, he would only serve two years. By placing him on probation, he would be under the court’s control for 10 years.
But of course, probation comes with conditions and Ethan Couch would never make a probation.
He may have walked into the court looking like an clean cut, All-American boy, but his Facebook profile shows what he looked like at the time of the offense. That was the real Ethan. And he had no interest in changing.
Coming up soon…Part 3 of Wrecked: Civil Suits, Beer Pong, and a detour to Mexico
Affluenza, a portmanteau of affluence and influenza, is a term used by critics of consumerism. It is thought to have been first used in 1954 but it gained legs as a concept with a 1997 PBS documentary of the same name and the subsequent book, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (2001, revised in 2005, 2014).–Wikipedia
Ethan Couch’s court team may not have originated the term, but he’s the poster child for “Affluenza.” Just google “affluenza teen” and his face pops up along with his crimes and punishment, or lack thereof. Most people can tell you that he’s the rich kid who got away with killing someone while driving drunk, but there’s a lot more to this story and I’m going to explore it in my first every two-part article.
Couch, a juvenile at the time, was sentenced to probation for killing four people in Intoxication Manslaughter, igniting a firestorm of criticism, controversy and intense scrutiny. What was it about this case that brought so much attention? Was it the absurd buzzwords? The perception of purchased justice? Or was it Ethan himself, the very picture of wealthy privilege? Was it his lack of remorse? The callous disregard for the lives he destroyed? Or was it the terrible nature of the crime?
Sunday, June 16, 2013 was Father’s Day, but not for Ethan Couch. The 16 year-old was out with his friends for a good time. At sixteen, he had moved out of his parent’s house and into a large home of his own. His father built houses and had built this one. The house was party central for kids. Couch and a group of other teens had already been drinking when they tried to buy more beer at a Burleson Albertson’s Grocery Store, but were refused for being underage. Undeterred, Couch stole two cases of beer from a Walmart. The party had to continue.
An hour later, just before midnight, Couch was behind the wheel of his father’s red Ford F-350, speeding down Burleson-Retta road, going 70 down the unlit, two-lane road in a 40 mph zone. Blood tests would later reveal his Blood Alcohol Concentration to be a .24, three times the legal limit for an adult. He also had Valium and marihuana in his system. He had left the party with a seven other teens and was heading for a store.
Just 400 yards away, four adults were grouped around a disabled car. Breanna Mitchell’s SUV had blown a tire and two women who lived nearby, Hollie Boyles, 52, and her daughter Shelby, 21, had come out to help. Breanna, 24, was a chef at a private club. It was her dream job even if it meant she was coming home late at night. The blown tire made her swerve off the road and hit a mailbox. She knocked on the Boyle’s door and called her mother, Marla. Marla was also Breanna’s best friend. She calmed her daughter and told her she was on her way to get her. “I love you, Mom. Please hurry,” Breanna urged.
In a driveway, two boys waited inside a car. Brian Jennings, 41, a youth minister had also stopped to help. He was on his way home from his son’s graduation and had been giving rides to two pre-teen boys. He left them inside his white, Silverado pick-up as he went to check on the women.
Couch lost control of the truck, veering of the roadway and slamming into Breanna’s SUV and then into Jenning’s truck with the boys inside. Momentum slung Jenning’s truck into the roadway where it stuck an oncoming car. Couch’s truck flipped before coming to rest against a tree. The group of four standing around Breanna’s SUV were flung 60 feet in the air. None of them survived the impact. In that one, alcohol-soaked moment, four people were dead.
Sergio Molina also made a mistake on July 13th. The 16-year-old was a bright, popular soccer player on the night he went to a party at his friend Ethan’s house. After playing beer pong and drinking shots, he got in Ethan Couch’s truck with a group of kids. Six fit inside the cab, but there wasn’t room for everyone. Molina and another boy climbed into the bed of the truck. Molina was thrown from the truck in the crash and suffered a devastating head injury. He cannot walk or talk and requires round the clock care.
After the crash, Molina’s family appealed to the Couches for assistance. Molina’s family wasn’t well off, not like the Couches. Molina didn’t have insurance and after a month, he was sent home from the hospital. There was no money for rehab or other care. They refused and told the family “call a lawyer.”
The family did call a lawyer, ultimately receiving a 2-million-dollar settlement. But as a Washington Post article (links in Source Notes) mentions, early treatment of a head injury is key. His mother was left to wonder what would have happened if he had been treated for longer than a month. She had to quit her job to care for her son who can only blink yes and no in response to questions.
The other boy in the bed of the pick-up, Solimon Mohmand, was severely injured, with internal injuries and broken bones. Both the pre-teen boys in Jenning’s truck were wearing seat belts at the time of impact and both survived. The door was jammed shut, forcing them to crawl out a window. Lucas McConnel, 12, suffered only minor physical injuries, but he witnessed something that would traumatize even the adults there. Bodies were everywhere, bleeding and moaning. Someone was screaming. He located the bloody body of Brian Jennings, his pastor and friend. The people in the oncoming car they had struck would also survive as would all seven passengers of Couch’s truck, but with varying degrees of injury.
Lucas McConnel, Photo credit: KXAS
Marla Mitchell was still on the phone with her daughter when she heard the sickening crunch of metal. Marla arrived to the accident scene and frantically ran in the direction of the wreckage. Couch staggered to her, slurring his words. “You don’t want to go that way. There’s nothing good happening over there.” She would later recall the chaos in the dark as she frantically looked for her daughter
Eric Boyles was stunned. How could his wife and daughter be gone, just like that? They had only stepped out into their own front yard.
THE TRIAL…PART 2
ABCNEWS article with links to the deposition recordings: http://abcnews.go.com/US/affluenza-dui-case-deposition-tapes-reveal-details-fatal/story?id=34505481
An excellent article from D magazine: https://www.dmagazine.com/publications/d-magazine/2015/may/affluenza-the-worst-parents-ever-ethan-couch/
WARNING: This article contains graphic and upsetting descriptions of human and animal mutilations. There are some photos of animal skulls and maggots. I chose not to use the crime scene photos because of their horrific nature, but at the end I will link to an episode of Forensic Files which does show the photos. Use your own discretion.
We know a lot these days about what makes a serial killer. There are always outliers, but we know they often have horrific childhoods, particularly early childhood. Jason Eric Massey was born January 7, 1973 to parents with severe substance abuse issues. His father abandoned them immediately. His mother was young alcoholic and abusive. The birth of her first child didn’t affect her lifestyle. She would leave her toddler son in the car while she went into clubs. Two years later, she added a daughter. She beat them severely with a wooden paddle or a belt for any minor infraction. She kept the food in her room. If she found them sneaking in after food, she’d beat them. She moved constantly, staying just a step ahead of landlords looking for payment. At times they were homeless, living in her car. Jason and his siblings would show up at school as thin, hungry, dirty children with unexplained bruises.
Then there were the men. His mother brought a constant stream of men into their lives, often leaving the children alone with these men. It’s not surprising that one of them sexually assaulted Massey. By 9 years of age, Massey was bigger and stronger enough to take out his intense anger on those smaller than he was. He savagely beat a younger child with a tree branch. He also moved on to animal torture.
In the 1970s and 80s, there was a lot of discussion about what came to be known as the McDonald’s Triad, a purported predictor of homicide and sexual sadism. The Triad was animal cruelty, bed wetting, and arson. We now know that those are not predictors of violence, but rather indicators of extreme child abuse. They’re still huge, red warning flags because severe childhood abuse is one of the known contributing factors in serial killers.
Shortly after the beating of the younger child, Massey strangled and mutilated a cat. For the rest of his life, he would engaged in animal torture and murder. He was moving into his preteen years and the mutilation and torture would become twisted into his sexual fantasies. By fourteen, he was drinking and taking drugs and fantasizing about demons and power. He developed a fascination with fires and started numerous small ones.
In high school, he became obsessed with a girl who didn’t return his feelings. Massey had no notion of normal relationships. He began stalking the girl, calling her house. He killed her dog and painted the blood on her car. He had branched out from just cats to dogs and also cows, keeping their skulls as trophies.
It’s believed that around this time he started keeping a journal. His mother found it when he was 18 and had her son committed. If the entries were anything like his later ones, it’s no wonder. Unfortunately, he was soon released and immediately began again with the animal mutilations. He frequently talked about killing young girls, writing about them in the same way he described his animal killings, but people who knew him blew off the talk as self-aggrandizement. Sure he idolized Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and Henry Lee Lucas, but that didn’t mean Massey was a serial killer.
But he wanted to be one.
In fact, that was his plan. He wanted to be the famous serial killer of all time, so he practiced on animals, keeping his trophies in a cooler, and he plotted and planned until he found his first victim. In 1993, Massey met 13 year old Christina Benjamin. Christina innocently flirted back with Massey. He was smitten with her. July of that year, Massey told his friend Christopher Nowlin that he had met a girl and was in love. He said he wanted to kill her, carve her up like one of his animals. He was stopped by police for a traffic offense. In the car he had knives and the body of a dead cat with a rope tied around his neck.
July 23, 1993, James King hear a sound late at night, a car beeping its horn. He looked outside and saw his 14 year old son Brian run out to talk to the driver of a tan car. James went to the restroom. When he returned, the car was gone and he assumed Brian had gone with him. It wasn’t until the next morning that he realized his 13 year old step-daughter Christina was gone as well. James King and his wife Donna Benjamin waited to see if the kids would return because at that time, police didn’t worry about missing teenagers. They would “turn up.” When Brian and Christina stayed gone for a full day, James and Donna reported them missing.
July 28th, Police responded to a call of animal cruelty in Telico, Texas in Ellis County. Ellis is located just below Dallas. It’s the bottom right of the counties which ring Tarrant and Dallas, and the US Census counts it as part of the DFW Metroplex statistically. Ellis is largely still rural, but in 1993, it was especially so. On that date, the Ellis County Sheriff Department arrived to find a mutilated calf behind a pizza restaurant. A young, blond male had been seen running away and he left behind his car, a tan sedan that was towed. At the time, they had no clue it might be related to the disappearance of two teens.
July 29th, just a day later, there was another shocking discovery in Telico. Next to a remote highway, work crews found the nude body of a young girl. She had been shot with a .22 pitsol, stabbed, decapitated and her hands removed. Both head and hands were missing. Her body had been shockingly mutilated. She was disemboweled, her body transected by long incisions like an autopsy that exposed her orgrans. Her thighs and genitals had long, intricate carvings. Her nipples had been cut off. The extensive injuries made identification difficult. The usual methods of dental records or fingerprints were unavailable.
Not far, a second body was discovered. 14 year-old Brian had been shot twice in the back of the head with a .22 pistol. His body was fully clothed and not mutilated. In Brian’s wallet was his library card. The sheriff’s department contacted his father who told them that his son was missing. Then asked about Christina. Was she the girl with him? It seemed likely. Donna and James told the police that Christina had recently broken a foot. X-ray records confirmed the fractures of Christina and the Telico Jane Doe matched.
In addition, there was long, blonde hair caught on nearby barbed wire that was consistent with Christina’s. DNA would later provide the more definitive confirmation. Due to the small size and rural nature of Ellis County, Dallas County Crime Lab provided assistance. At the crime scene, they discovered a blond hair on Brian King’s leg that did not match him or Christina. Stuck to his sneaker was a single tan fiber belonging to the interior of a Japanese-make vehicle.
Meanwhile, police were processing the tan Subaru seized during the calf mutilation investigation. Inside they found three blood stains. In the trunk was a blood stained leaf. There was a roll of duct tape with blood on it, a hammer and a hatchet, a receipt for .22 ammo. A bracelet was dropped by the blond man running from the scene of the calf mutilaion with the name JASON on it. He might as well have left a big neon sign behind.
Almost immediately, police received an annonymous call that they should look at Jason Massey. Considering he went around talking about how he wanted to murder and mutilate young girls, it’s not shocking. They heard he had been seen the day of the murders at a local car wash vacuuming his tan Subaru. When the story broke on the news, the owner remembered Massey being there and called police who seized the contents of the carwash vacuum. In them, they found an appointment card from Massey’s probation officer and multiple strands of Christina’s hair in a bloody red bandana.
To be certain which day the murders had occurred, they turned to a forensic entomologist. He examined the maggots and hatched some of his own in order to give an accurate age of the larvae found on the bodies. By doing this, he could deciseively say Christina and Brian had been deceased for two days. They were killed the same night they left in a tan car.
Police learned that Massey’s cousin owned a .22 caliber pistol that Massey had “borrowed.” Multiple people had seen Massey with the gun. The Walmart clerk who had sold the bullets, two knives, and handcuffs to Massey was able to ID him. At Massey’s house, police found the handcuffs, knife box, and newspaper articles he had cut out about the crime.
The fiber on Brian’s shoe matched the interior of Massey’s car. The blood on the car seats was tested and confirmed to come from Brian and Christine. Forensics and witness interviews painted a grim picture of the crime. Christine had agreed to sneak out and meet Massey. Perhaps she was nervous enough to ask her brother to come with them.
Perhaps she thought Brian could protect her from Massey. Instead, Massey drove them to a secluded location and shot Brian twice in the back of the head while still sitting in the car. Christine jumped out and tried to run, but Massey caught her and brought her back. There was no evidence of sexual assault. That isn’t where he got his pleasure. He shot her and dragged her back, then stabbed her multiple times. The gunshot did not kill her. It’s not known which of the other injuries were fatal. She was likely dead before the worst of the mutilations occurred.
Massey smirked during his arrest. He relished the media frenzy that followed, basking in the attention. There was a mountain of evidence, but in tiny pieces. Put together, the pieces made a whole picture, but conviction wasn’t a sure thing. It was a circumstantial case, even if the circumstances were damning. Then during the trial, a bombshell. A hunter in the woods stumbled upon a rusty cooler. Opening it revealed Massey’s trophy case. In the cooler were 31 skulls of animals, and a set of four spiral notebooks. These notebooks bore the title “Slayer’s Book of Death” and they were the ramblings, the fantasies, the plans and recollections of Jason Massey. It was his blueprint for murder and mutilation. He detailed his crimes against animals. He particularly liked strangling them and decapitating them so he could keep the skulls. Massey wrote that killing gave him an “adrenaline rush, a high, a turn on, a love to mutilate.”
Massey wrote of his admiration for famous killers, particularly Bundy, Manson, and Lucas. He aspired to be even more, the most famous serial killer of all time. He set a goal of 700 victims in 20 years, working out how many people he would have to kill a month to hit his total. He named girls he wanted to add to the list. The journal starts with his fantasies of rape, torture, mutilation, and cannibalism, but then moves into specific planning.” Massey wrote that he wanted “to grab society by the throat and shake ’em with terror until they’re awake and realize what’s up so they will remember who I am, when and why I came their way.”
Both sides only had a single day to process the new evidence. For the state, it was exactly what they needed, a glimpse into the mind of a wannabe serial killer. For the defense, it was devastating. The jury only needed 15 minutes to convict Massey of capital murder. After the verdict, the jury learned more about Massey’s background and his crimes against animals and robberies. He was sentenced to death.
Massey was executed April 3, 2001. As so many before and after him, he claimed to have found religion. Maybe he had. He grew from a boy to a man on death row. He expressed remorse and I can only hope it was genuine. He apologized to the families of Christine and Brian. He told them that “she didn’t suffer as much as you think” and said that he had thrown her hands and head in the Trinity River. He apologized to his family and said he was relieved his journey was at an end. “Tonight I dance in the streets of gold. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Would Massey have become a serial killer? He certainly had all the makings. Horrific childhood. Severe substance abuse. Animal mutilation. Fire starting. Sadistic sexual fantasies. At the trial, several experts testified that there isn’t a known treatment for such a strong case of anti-social personality disorder. As a society, all we can do is warehouse them or put them down like rabid dogs for our own safety. Maybe someday we will progress enough that we can do something meaningful to stop the process. The warning signs were there. If we can’t unmake the monster we have to stop him from being created. Otherwise, innocents like Christina and Brian suffer, just two kids who never had the chance to grow up because wannabe serial killer.
10-31 is a Houston police code for “crime in progress”. hosted by native texans…cassie and hannah… this is a true crime podcast that specifically discusses crime committed in texas. every episode we both present a murder/crime and then give our theories about the case. you can listen to our episodes on iTunes, Apple Podcasts, Pod Bean, & Stitcher. new episodes will be released every other week. happy halloween!
You know I have a soft spot for Texas True Crime and we have a worthy podcast that joined the ranks October of 2017. Hannah started off by herself, but soon added Cassie and I think that’s where the podcast began to find its voice. This podcast isn’t a bantering one in the style of My Favorite Murder, but it’s more conversational than scripted.
There’s lots of discussion and theory and that really takes two to tango. There’s some salty language, but not an excessive amount (IMHO) and the cases are interesting and unique. They do a great job of researching and bringing fresh stories each week. I like that they are victim sensitive and also thoughtful about mental health issues. I also like that they dive right in without spending a half hour talking about nonsense.
There have been technical issues with production quality, but they seem to have them all smoothed out now. While you’re browsing their episode list, be sure and check out the Cowtown Crime Minisode!
Hannah interviewed me about my career as a criminal attorney. Of course I had to return the favor and sent them some questions of my own.
1. What led to you starting a podcast? What made you decide to add a second person?
HANNAH: I decided to make a podcast because I was so sick of hearing about the same cases over and over again. Not that they don’t deserve the recognition they’ve received, but I personally knew about cases that were just as important/interesting. I wanted those stories to have an opportunity to be heard besides their one article in the local paper or a quick news segment covering the tragedy. I knew that it couldn’t just be a general true crime podcast but that it needed a niche. That’s why I picked Texas as the focal point.
I wanted to add a second person the whole time, but I didn’t really know anyone who’d want to a part of a true crime podcast. I was asking and answering my own questions when recording; it was going to get boring very quickly. Cassie had text me asking if I was a murderino, we sent a few texts catching up and talking about murder, and then I asked her if she ever wanted to REALLY talk about true crime then she should be on the podcast with me!
CASSIE: I decided to join because I’m very interested in true crime and not letting these victims’ stories go untold. Plus, I really missed Hannah and was excited to get back to seeing her regularly!
2. How do you go about selecting cases to talk about? What makes a case more interesting than another one?
CASSIE: I usually scroll through murderpedia and pick at random. I like to pick cases that I either have an emotional pull toward, or cases that have an interesting twist. Whether that be a whodunnit or shady police work, I’d like for there to be something to theorize about.
HANNAH: Honestly, I’ve started looking up a Texas city with the word “murder” in google. I get links to a lot of shootings most of the time, but if I dig far enough I can usually find something intriguing. Not that the shootings aren’t, but I personally prefer the crime to have an element of severity (dismemberment, multiple killings, brutality, wrongful conviction etc.), or if the offender has a fairly obvious, deviant, psychological factor. I usually lean more toward those types of stories.
3. Can you talk about how your different views shape the podcast?
CASSIE: I think I’m really quick to question everything and am very loud about my opinions. I’m really outspoken. Hannah is really good at and more interested in the legal aspect, which is nice. I feel like we both round out an episode well.
HANNAH: I actually believe that Cassie and I share very similar views on topics and issues. I’m just a little more naturally reserved in my personality and disposition than Cassie. I hate confrontation and upsetting people. While I may agree with more the “liberal” side of things, I also don’t voice my opinion as often. The world needs people like Cassie who are able to be up front and assertive, otherwise nothing would be debated or talked about. She obviously doesn’t want to offend anyone with what she says on the podcast in regards to religion, police work, or the legal system, but at the end of the day shit gets done by people who step up to the plate with firm views and beliefs, and many people respect that.
4. Is there a case you would never talk about and if so, why?
CASSIE: I don’t know if I could ever talk about Dean Corll. It hits too close to home and is so sad and terrifying. I think the 26+ victims deserve to have their stories told, but I think different podcasts like LPOTL did an amazing job and I couldn’t do any better.
HANNAH: I don’t think I’d ever cover the Austin Yogurt Shop Murders. It’s been talked about sooooooo many times. There would be no point in discussing a case that someone else has a 4 part episode series on, or better yet a case that people have written books on. Go read or listen to one of those because we won’t be giving y’all anything new by talking about it.
5. What’s your “favorite” Texas murder?
CASSIE: Oh man. That’s a hard one. It honestly may be Dean Corrl. It’s one of the more important ones to talk about because of the police misconduct and the treatment of the lower class missing children. He was and is one of the most terrifying serial killers in US history. And we don’t even know how many victims he had. They…just stopped digging.
HANNAH: My favorite Texas murder is probably the case I covered in the very 1st episode. The double murder of Cheryl Henry and Andy Atkinson. That case is still unsolved, their deaths were absolutely horrendous, there is DNA matching a rape victim from a couple years prior, and yet no suspect after 20+ years. It has all the best elements of a crime: mystery, gore, crazy forensics, romance, urban legend, and an escalating serial offender that all lead to question after question. Texas has a lot of famous killings, but this one will always stick with me.
6. Tell me a bit about yourselves away from the podcasting world.
CASSIE: I work for one of the best craft breweries in Texas. I love my job and am so lucky to have found my dream career. I’m madly in love with Brennan and our dog Gallo. My family is wonderfully strong and they instilled a lot of good in me. I love/hate politics and I’m passionate about women’s rights…ALL women. My favorite color is black and my fav band is Parkway Drive. I used to be pretty cool But I’m a pretty boring homebody now.
HANNAH: I’m horribly boring. I’m really involved with my education right now so I don’t do much. I’m working towards my Nursing degree and Criminal Justice degree. I love my dog. My favorite color is black as well. I hate wearing dresses. I spend a lot of time reading. I’m a major control freak and neat freak. I don’t have a favorite band because I don’t really listen to music. Told ya I was boring.
7. What are your plans for the podcast? Where do you see yourself in a year?
CASSIE: A year from now I would love to be recognized as a great true crime podcast. I want to be known for giving victims a voice and interviewing cool & important people in the criminal justice world. For myself? I hope I’ll be better at time management so I can dive even deeper into the cases I research. And so I can help take some of the load off Hannah. But, that’s for next year hah!
HANNAH: I can’t even think about what I’ll be doing a year from now. So much has changed in just the last 3 months so I can only imagine what could be in store. I do hope that I am still in school and working towards my future. In regards to the podcast, I feel like we just take everyday in stride and let it do its own growing. I don’t have any “plans” for the podcast per say, but if opportunities come up along the way then we’ll figure out what’s best for us individually, the podcast and our friendship. We just want to keep telling y’all about true crime and hope we can give everyone an insight into a case that hasn’t been told.
So, if you like conversational podcasts with an emphasis on discussion and criminal justice theory, give them a listen.
Cowtown Crime Verdict: Houston, we have a podcast in progress!
Few places are as empty as a church on Thursday. March 3, 2011, there were only two people working at Northpoint Baptist Church on Brown Blvd: Pastor Clint Dobson, 28 and church secretary Judy Elliot, 67. Clint Dobson had been a pastor at the church for three years. Young and enthusiastic, he was equally at home discussing the Office or Seinfield with the younger church members as he was talking over the deep spiritual concerns of the more senior members. It wasn’t unusual for people to appear at the church doors looking for help. Although the front door was kept locked, no one seeking help would be turned away.
We don’t know everything about what happened that day, but we do know that both Clint and Judy were at work by 8:30 that morning. Northpoint is a satellite church of First Baptist Arlington. The L-shaped building is shared by another small church. That church also had two people present. We know they didn’t hear anything unusual, but they did notice Judy Elliot’s car, a white Mitsubishi Galant, was gone sometime between noon and one.
We know that Judy’s husband became increasingly concerned when no one answered the phone at the church. He went to the church and discovered his wife’s car was missing and no one would answer the door. He called another church member who had a key. Through a window, the men believed they could see a pair of men’s shoes and immediately called the police around 4 pm.
Photo credit: WFAA
Photo credit: WFAA
Photo credit: NBCDFW
Photo Credit: Google Earth Image
They found a horrific scene. Both Clint Dobson and Judy Elliot were on the floor, hands and feet trussed up behind them. They were severely beaten and plastic bags had been tied over their heads with a black electrical cord and masking tape. The responding officer and Judy’s husband hurriedly opened the bags. Clint was deceased but Judy was still alive, although severely injured. Her jaw was broken and all her teeth had been knocked out. Her face was so swollen and disfigured, that her own husband could only identify her by her clothing. She was mumbling incoherently.
Clint had been deceased for an hour or more. The medical examiner would later testify that he survived a horrific beating in which he sustained 21 separate injuries, but the plastic bag had been placed so tightly over his head that he sucked in the plastic and slowly suffocated.
Judy was unable to help police. She hovered on the brink of death in ICU. While at the hospital, she coded twice and her injuries were so severe she needed a blood transfusion.
The office had clearly been ransacked. Judy’s purse and car were missing as was Clint’s phone and laptop. Police began tracking Judy Elliot’s credit cards. They learned her cards were used to buy items at The Parks, an Arlington Mall on the same day as the murder. Someone purchased jewelry and shoes. Surveillance video showed two men using the cards.
At the same time detectives were obtaining the surveillance footage, other officers were interviewing two women who had come forward. The women told Arlington Police that a pair of their acquaintances, had been laughing about the murder. The women said that when a news story came on the television regarding the murder of an Arlington pastor, both men made “inappropriate comments” and flashed items they claimed belonged to the pastor. The women further said that the men had been trying to rob people recently and that Nelson had new shoes and clothing. Police now had names and soon they had photo graphs to match up to the surveillance video. The person using Judy Elliot’s credit cards within hours of her near fatal beating was Stephen Lewayne Nelson.
Within hours of learning this information, Arlington PD arrested Anthony Gregory Springs, the man who was with Nelson. Springs had Clint’s cell phone and the keys to Judy Elliot’s car. He told police that he didn’t participate in the killing, but that Nelson had picked him up in the white Mitsubishi Gallant around 2 pm. Nelson told him he had killed a man and probably the woman as well. They went to the mall and Nelson bought items for them both with the credit cards. He said Nelson had given him Clint’s phone.
Springs actually had an alibi for the time of the murders. Police were able to confirm his alibi and cell phone records would later confirm he wasn’t in the area at the time of the robbery and murder. That isn’t to say Springs was any kind of saint. He has been in prison since this for another aggravated robbery. He was out there committing crimes, but he was no Stephen Nelson.
March 3, 2011 marked the intersection of two lives, two men on very different trajectories. Twenty-eight year old Clint Dobson was a man of faith and he believed in putting his faith into action. He was actively involved in trying to make the world a better place. He had fallen in love and married. He had gone to Seminary to become a pastor. Friends and family also remember him as someone who was warm, outgoing, with a great sense of humor. He once described his “super power” as being the “world’s best parallel parker.”
Twenty-four year old Stephen Nelson had just been released from an in-patient treatment program. He already had an impressive criminal history starting from the age of 13 years old. He served juvenile probations and had been sent to TYC. His most recent troubles were from May 2010 after he had strangled and pulled a knife on his then girlfriend. This wasn’t the first attempt at turning Nelson’s life around and he was good at tell the counselors what they wanted to hear. His counselor wrote that Nelson had made great strides in anger control and learning how to work for things instead of grabbing at “fast money.” Nelson wrote that he knew how to keep from going back to jail. He completed the anger control counseling days before the murder. He was still on probation for the violent assault.
Between the murder and the arrest, more witnesses came forward. At 1:45, just more than an hour after the murder, Nelson sold Clint’s laptop to a man at a tire shop. The next day when the news broke, the man brought the laptop in to the police. He had thought the man who sold him the computer was Clint because all the paperwork in the laptop bag had that name on it. Two women at a QT were approached by a heavily tattooed man with dollar signs on his eyelids who showed them a phone and said it came from “that dead preacher in Arlington.” Nelson has dollar signs tattooed on his eyelids.
A woman named Brittany Bursey came forward to say that Nelson, Springs, and her nephew showed up at her house in a white Mitsubishi Gallant the afternoon of the murder. Nelson was introduced to her as “Romeo.” Springs told her that the car was stolen and Nelson had cards. He was offering to buy free gas for everyone. When she questioned Nelson, he admitting that he had “hit a lick,” which is street slang for robbery. He told her that “somebody was strangled and somebody got beat half to death…I think I killed her, too.” She described his demeanor as “Nonchalant. He didn’t really show any emotion or any care about anything.”
That night, Nelson went clubbing with his girlfriend. She testified that he was normal that night, untroubled.
Police located Nelson at his mother’s home just blocks from the church. He barricaded himself inside, but police were able to talk him out.
Nelson might be contained in jail, but he wasn’t’ safe, not by a long shot. While in jail he broke light bulbs, flooded his cell, threatened jailers and assaulted one of them. He flew into a rage during a visit. He was found in possession of a shank, narcotics, and even razor blades. All of that pales in response to what he did to Johnathan Holden. Holden was incarcerated in the same cell block as Nelson. His crime was breaking into a car, most likely to sleep. Holden suffered from mental illness and often ended up arrested for petty crimes.
According to the other inmates, Nelson tricked Holden into helping him with a “fake suicide attempt” to get the guards attention. Holden stood in front of the cell bars and let Nelson loop a blanket around his neck. Instead of the fake attempt, Nelson strangled Holden. He held him there until his legs stopped kicking, then grabbed a broomstick and celebrated by performing a “Chuck Berry Dance” on top of a table by using the broomstick like a guitar.
Nelson would insist Holden had committed suicide, but his DNA was under Holden’s nails as he had tried to escape once he realized Nelson’s intentions.
Nelson testified at his own trial. He claimed that Springs and another man went inside and remained outside. They did the crime while he waited outside. But he was forced to admit that he went inside after the attack. When he was arrested, police found his bloody shoes in his mother’s house. He had stepped in Clint and Judy’s blood. It was splattered on his shoes and he left his tracks at the murder scene. He also left fingerprints inside the church office and some white, metal studs which came off his belt. The studs were good evidence that he had been part of a violent struggle, especially when phone forensics placed the men he accused at another location at the time of the crime.
Nelson tried to claim they were still alive and he just stepped around them to rob them. His attorney had to prompt him. “Did you feel bad about that?” He agreed that he did. He showed no emotion while discussing it. He couldn’t even fake the emotion in front of the jury. Unsurprisingly, he was found guilty in only 90 minutes. The evidence was overwhelming.
Upon being convicted, however, he showed emotion for the first time: rage. He was taken to the holdover cell behind he courtroom. He howled and screamed and managed to break the sprinkler system with his bare hands. The courtroom began flooding with black water as court personnel rushed to grab boxes of evidence off the ground and subdue Nelson. The day before his trial resumed, he was found to have razor blades in his possession.
At the punishment phase, the jury heard all about Nelson’s behavior in jail, including the murder of Holden. He wasn’t even safe behind bars.
Nelson’s attorneys claimed that he had never gotten the help he needed. He first acted out at the age of 3 when he set his mother’s bed on fire. They pointed out that his father was incarcerated most of Nelson’s life and was a negative influence. Nelson got into trouble with Oklahoma juvenile authorities at the age of 6. Ronnie Meeks, with the Office of Juvenile Affairs in Oklahoma, testified that Nelson finally ended up in the custody of Juvenile Affairs while they tried to rehabilitate him. Once, Nelson stole Meeks’ truck while he was being transported from one facility to another. Meeks remembered Nelson well. “That’s the thing I remember about Steven. I don’t remember ever seeing any remorse about anything.”
Nelson moved to Texas with his mother and siblings. Mary Kelleher, a psychologist and juvenile services supervisor, testified that Nelson’s criminal history in Texas dates to 2000 when he was 13. At 14 he was committed to the Texas Youth Commission. Even at that young age, he was unrepentant. When she asked him why he kept committing crimes, he just said that he was bored.
She also testified about his home life. His mother tried, but was very frustrated by Steven. She did everything she could. He had two siblings who turned out fine, but from an early age, Nelson seemed destined to a life of crime. The jury sentenced Nelson to die by lethal injection. He has exhausted all appeals and remains defiant, writing poetry from behind bars. I’ve read it and it isn’t bad poetry. I say that as a former English teacher. But it’s self-indulgent and narcissistic. Every poem is about him because that is how Steven Nelson sees the world.
Two men. One whose epitaph reads “He was generous of heart, constant of faith, and joyful of spirit.”
The other who took that joyful life. Unrepentant. Cold. Heartless.
SOURCE NOTES: Here are some of the public articles I relied on in my investigation. In addition I reviewed some of the primary sources such as reports and photographs which may be obtained with open records requests.