The adults in Shakeisha Lloyd’s brief life failed her. It’s not that they didn’t love her. She was very loved. It’s not that they weren’t doing their best. They tried. But the truth is that they utterly failed to protect her resulting in her death at the age of ten, just a day after she completed 4th grade. Surviving family members remember her as a sweet, cheerful little girl who loved singing.
Photo credit: TCU Magazine
Photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Shakeisha lived with her extended family in the historic Stop Six neighborhood of Fort Worth, Texas. Stop Six is primarily an African-American community that was once the sixth stop on the Northern Texas Traction Company, a trolley line that ran between Fort Worth and Dallas. They’re best known as the home of the Dunbar Wildcats and their multiple basketball state championships under the guidance of legendary coach Robert Hughes. If she had survived, Shakeisha would have gone to school there. Instead, her mother met a man named Edward Lewis Lagrone.
Like so many inner city, blue collar communities, Stop Six was ravaged by drugs and gangs in the 80s and 90s like they were natural disasters that laid waste to families and the infrastructure. In 1985, Shakeisha’ s mother began dating Lagrone. Allegedly he made a living as a cook, but everyone knew Lagrone’s real job was as the local drug dealer. Crack had ferocious grip on Stop Six and Lagrone was deep in the culture. Pamela Lloyd only dated Lagrone for six months, but that was enough for him to ingratiate himself to the family. He would come by to visit with the children.
No one questioned why a grown man would be so invested in the children of a woman he briefly dated. As for Pamela, she was struggling with her own addiction to crack and Lagrone was her supplier. She was willing to ignore everything else to keep him closer. There were eight people living in Shakeisha’s house. She had a older brother, Charles, a baby sister, her mother, her uncle Dempsey, and two elderly great aunts, seventy-six-year-old Carolina “Caola” Lloyd and eighty-three-year-old Zenobia Anderson. Other family members were frequently there. Shakeisha was especially close to another great aunt and uncle, Beverly and Billy Lloyd. Their daughter Kendra was the exact same age as Shakeisha. Kendra was her cousin and her best friend in the world.
In spite of there being so many people around, we know Lagrone had plenty of alone time with little Shakeisha. In 1991, Pamela noticed physical changes in her daughter that concerned her. She was gaining weight and her breasts were growing. One night after her bath, Shakeisha told Pamela, “Mommy, something is moving around inside of me.” Pamela took her daughter to the hospital for an examination and learned that her 10 year child was 17 weeks pregnant.
Shakeisha admitted to her mother that Lagrone had been raping her for two years and that he said he would kill her if she told. She could remember nine different times she had been raped by Lagrone, but it’s hard to know how much occurred. Child predators spend time getting close to a child and gaining their trust. The goal is to have access, but to also ensure that the child doesn’t tell. The process of gradually escalating intimacy and control is called “grooming” and frequently includes lavishing attention on lonely children.
The predator starts out with little things, kissing or cuddling before moving into fondling and ultimately full intercourse. Threats and guilt are used to maintain control of the child. The child victims are often conflicted. How can someone make them feel so good and yet so bad at the same time? They believe from all the attention that this person must love them. If they tell about the bad parts, they’re harming this person who loves them. As with any confession, the longer they silent, the harder it becomes to tell. They become afraid that no one will believe them. Shakeisha had told no one. Not even her cousin.
Pamela wanted to do the right thing. She reported him to the police. But she also contacted Lagrone. At first he denied “messing with” Shakeisha and hung up on her. But later he called back and apologized. He said he was sorry for what he had done and that he would take care of the baby. She told him she was pressing charges.
The next day, she instructed Shakeisha to call Lagrone’s beeper, fearing that he might not call her back, but he would call Shakeisha. He did call back and she told him Shakeisha need to have an abortion which would cost $895. He said he would pay.
May 29th was the end of the school year. Shakeisha should have been looking forward to the summer and 5th grade. She should have been riding her bike or playing with Barbies. She should have been giggling with Kendra and dancing around singing as she loved to do. Instead, her mother was negotiating with Shakeisha’s rapist to pay for her abortion. Lagrone offered Pamela $1,000 to pay for the abortion and another $500 just for her. All she had to do was withdraw her complaint. He told her he would be by on Thursday with the money.
Pamela didn’t withdraw the complaint. She was trying to do the right thing by her daughter. She had brought this man into their lives and allowed him access to her children. She was going to protect her daughter now. But communicating with Lagrone would prove a fatal mistake. She should have known better. She really should have.
Lagrone was more than just a drug dealer. He had already been to prison before. Lagrone was already a convicted murderer.
On October 6, 1976, Lagrone shot and killed a man named Michael Anthony Jones in a dispute. He was sentenced to 20 years. While on parole for this offense, he began dating Pamela. In 1990, he has several pending arrests for dealing drugs and was facing more prison time. He was also under investigation for a double homicide committed in December of 1990. Someone broke into an apartment with a shotgun and killed a Clifton Demerson, 39 and Mary Demerson Daniel, 40. According to police, a note in Mary’s possession implicated Lagrone.
This was the man Pamela let into the lives of her family, her vulnerable children and fragile elderly women. She wasn’t bothered by Lagrone being on parole. At the time, she was newly paroled herself after serving time for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. She was deep into her addiction. Her uncle Billy Lloyd warned her about Lagrone. Everyone knew he was a dangerous man. But Pamela just knew that he brought her drugs. She would later comment that she thought he was great with children because he bought lots of presents to the children of the people he sold drugs to. He lavished attention and gifts on the kids of parents whose minds were clouded with drugs.
Although he was a convicted murderer who had threatened to kill the child victim of his new sexual assault charge, Lagrone hadn’t yet been arrested. Arlington Police Department were aware he lived in their city and had the warrant, but they just hadn’t gotten around to it yet citing “a heavy caseload.”
After the conversation where Pamela refused to drop the charges, Lagrone had his new girlfriend Anetta Daniel go with him to the Winchester Gun Store. He couldn’t legally buy a gun, but he gave her the money to purchase a double-barrel, pistol-grip, slide-action Winchester shotgun. She brought the gun out to him and he put it in the trunk of his car.
The next day was May 30, 1991. Pamela woke up around 4:00 am and went to get a drink of water. She was startled by a banging on the door demanding to be let in. Shakeisha’s brother later said he recognized the voice and begged him not to answer the door, but Dempsey Lloyd opened the door to find Lagrone standing there. Dempsey asked Lagrone what he wanted at that hour. In response, Lagrone shot him. Dempsey grappled with Lagrone for the shotgun, but he was weakening quickly.
Lagrone wrestled the shotgun away and went into the first bedroom. There he found Caola Lloyd. Caola was suffering from terminal cancer and was blind and mostly deaf. Lagrone executed the elderly woman with a single shot.
From there he went into the kitchen where he found Zenobia Andersons washing out some clothing. He also executed her with a single shot.
“Run, Mama” Shakeisha cried out. She and Charles were also running for cover, but first Shakeisha stopped to hide her 19 month old baby sister. This altruistic act probably cost her life as Lagrone caught up with her. Ten year-old Shakeisha threw up her hands to shield herself. When Lagrone shot, the bullet traveled through her hands, dismembering fingers and slammed into her cheek, exiting her jaw on the opposite side. He then placed the gun to the back of her neck and pulled the trigger a second time.
On the way out, he leveled the gun again at Dempsey. Dempsey begged for his life, but Lagrone shot him again anyway. Incredibly, Dempsey survived to identify Lagrone as the shooter. Pamela and Charles would also identify him. He was arrested almost immediately. Although there were three living victims and extensive forensics, Lagrone would deny he was the shooter. He also denied being the man who had impregnated Shakeisha, but unlike Lagrone, DNA doesn’t lie. He was the father.
Pamela Lloyd Tutt
At trial, Lagrone put a witness who testified that another person was bragging about the murder. Lagrone’s grown son Erik Williams, AKA Omar Anderson. His son wasn’t the most credible witness, having shot three men in three incidents, one of whom had died. That’s right. Just five months after the Lloyd family murders, Lagrone’s son also killed a man. At the time he testified for his father, he was a known gang member and drug dealer who was under indictment for murder. The jury rejected his testimony in favor of more credible evidence.
After the conviction, the jury heard more about Lagrone’s past including the drug dealing and the previous murder. They also heard testimony from two sisters, both aged fifteen at the time who had been abducted at gunpoint by Lagrone who sexually assaulted and terrorized them in 1986. He threatened them before releasing them and they didn’t tell until he safely behind bars.
The jury sentenced Lagrone to death in just 25 minutes. The violence and drugs didn’t stop there. They continued stalking this community and this family. Lagrone’s son is now serving a life sentence for the murder he was convicted of. Pamela’s addiction was too big to ignore. After Shakeisha’s murder, it only increased. She married the father of her baby girl, but he was also a violent man. In 1997 she shot and killed her husband Gene Tutt. She said it was self-defense. A plea agreement of five years was agreed on in 1999. This meant she was incarcerated on February 12, 2004, date Edward Lewis Lagrone was finally set for execution.
Charles also couldn’t be there. He, too, had fallen prey to the scourge of drugs, dying of an overdose at the age of 22. Shakeisha’s beloved aunt and uncle Beverly and Billy attended the execution as did Kendra, now 24. Lagrone was defiant to the end, refusing to admit responsibility and refusing to apologize. Kendra wept bitterly in front of reporters. She said she didn’t want to hate another person, but he had raped and killed her best friend. She was disappointed that he couldn’t at least apologize. Her father, Billy expressed relief that Lagrone would never again harm another person.
Pamela said before her release that she now accepted responsibility for her role and was ready for a change. She was ready to step away from drugs and men who had dragged her down. Upon release, she left the state and now resides in Missouri. I hope she has found her way.
When I look at the picture of Shakeisha, I’m filled with rage. She deserved better from the adults in her life. Her face is so innocent, so joyous. What a waste of a sweet, precious life.
Source Notes: The following are all sources I have used in this article, particularly murderpedia and clarkprosecutor, both of which list numerous other sources they relied on.
*Content Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of child abuse and sexual assault. Pseudonyms have been used for all minors in the story except for the victim in order to protect their privacy.
Summer in Texas means long, sweltering days. On July 1, 2013, 7:30 meant day was just tipping over into evening. The heat had loosened its grip ever so slightly, but the dark was still an hour and a half away. A thirteen year-old girl sat in the computer room of her Saginaw, Texas home, when she heard the sound of tires squealing and looked up in time to see a red pick-up truck racing away from a crumpled gray tarp near the corner of Roundrock and Cindy. The tarp clearly wasn’t empty. Its contents were bundled with what she thought might be twine.
Two neighborhood kids were out riding their bikes. The squeal of tires had also attracted their attention and they rode over. Curious, one boy lifted the edge of the tarp, then hastily dropped it. The teen girl came out and she also lifted the tarp, enough to see the semi-nude body of a child. Her screams attracted the attention of her father. He didn’t believe her when she insisted there was a dead child in the street and lifted the tarp to see for himself. He wished he hadn’t. The small girl was wearing a pink flowered shirt and nothing else. In addition to the tarp, she had been stuffed into a black trash sack. Her hands and feet were bound with red duct tape. Although he couldn’t see it, there were four plastic Walmart sacks were placed over her head and secured with more of the red duct tape.
The first officer who responded opened the bundle which had been secured with a brown men’s belt. He tore away at the plastic around the child’s face as he frantically checked for a pulse. But he could tell then that she was dead, and had been for a while at least. She was cold to the touch. She also was wet. Her fingers and toes were pruned like she’d been in the bath too long.
As the Saginaw police secured the scene, several noted an unwelcome sight—Tyler Holder, 17. Holder had many brushes with Saginaw PD and Detective Robert Richardson especially. Holder paced, watching the police work. There was something in the intensity of the way he stared that drew the attention of multiple officers who noted it in their reports. But when officers began canvassing the assembled neighbors, trying to figure out just how and when the body had been dumped, Holder managed to slip away.
Holder had a reputation as the neighborhood thug. He wasn’t in school and he wasn’t working. Judging by his Facebook posts, he spent most of his time smoking pot and causing trouble. A lot of the trouble was petty. He damaged property. He stole things.
February 21, 2013, he called Saginaw police to report that his mother’s guns had been stolen. He claimed three men had broken in but he scared them away. Police responded to investigate and quickly determined Holder’s story was not plausible. He claimed that the men all ran together out a back door, but on examination, the door was blocked and only partially opened. There was no way three grown men could have run out abreast. Also, it had just rained and the ground was damp and muddy around the house, but there were no shoe prints anywhere. When confronted with evidence that events could not have happened the way he described, Holder shrugged it off without seeming upset. He called his mother, who was not home, and told her the guns were stolen but the police didn’t believe him. Then he calmly hung up.
At his former school and in the neighborhood, Holder had a reputation as a bully. He was large and awkward, making jokes about rape and violence and he was known to carry a knife. A neighborhood teen recalled a time her brothers built a snowman. Holder came out and destroyed it. In retaliation, one boy threw a snowball at Holder who responded by pulling a knife and threatening him.
In 2012, Holder burglarized the house of one of his former principals. He was confronted later by the man who told him to return the property and he wouldn’t make a police report. Holder showed up with a pillow case full of the man’s belongings. Just days before the murder, neighbors had report a rash of car burglaries. Some of them suspected Holder, but there wasn’t any proof. It just seemed like the sort of thing he would do.
The mother of Holder’s on-again/off-again girlfriend, Christina, forbid him from coming over to the house. She didn’t really have a specific reason. She just knew he made her very uneasy. One former classmate told the Dallas Morning News, “He was the kid you were always really nice to because you didn’t know if he was going to come shoot up the school. He was an angry person.”
The source of Holder’s anger isn’t clear. His mother was was loving, but his father was absent. The reason depends on who you ask. His mother, Kimberly Holder, says that his father left the state as soon as she told him she was pregnant. The father, who now lives in Montana, claims he knew nothing about his son until he was served with child support paperwork in 2009. He claims he tried to get some sort of visitation, but was stone-walled and just gave up. Likewise, his maternal grandmother was involved, but his grandfather was estranged from the family. Holder and his mother lived with his grandfather and step-grandmother until a family dispute when Holder was five. Kimberly Holder moved out and they never spoke again.
There is no documented history of the type of abuse often seen in cases of a sexual sadist, no indications Holder was every physically or sexually abused. When asked at jail screenings, he denied having been abused by anyone. His family wasn’t wealthy, but he had a home, clothing, affection. At worst, he was a latch key kid, but that’s hardly a recipe for creating a predator. Yet from an early age, he rebelled against normal discipline.
He was a difficult child, always acting up in school. He publically disobeyed his mother, challenging her and cursing at her. In 5th grade, some parents stopped allowing him into their homes because he talked about inappropriate things like drugs and sex, things they didn’t want their children exposed to. He had trouble making and keeping friends.
By the time Holder was in middle school, the behavioral problems were severe enough that he was being sent to a juvenile justice alternative education school. Instead of allowing him to go there, his mother chose to withdraw him and home school her son. She said she was afraid of him being around other juvenile offenders, even in the controlled setting, but perhaps she was in denial about how deeply her son’s problems were rooted. She repeatedly refused counseling referrals, insisting that everything was fine, even as her son began running afoul of the juvenile justice system. He was referred to the juvenile courts, but those records are sealed. He was not sent to Texas Youth Commission for incarceration meaning his offenses were likely misdemeanor or non-violent offenses.
When Holder claimed that the house had been burglarized, His mother believed her son and even bought him a gun to protect himself if the house was broken into again. However, she also kept her own door locked at all times and kept her own gun in there, hidden in drawer. Perhaps she didn’t trust him all that much.
She worked long hours in Grand Prairie, quite a daily drive from Saginaw. She denied he was drinking or doing drugs, but all his Facebook posts look like this picture. They’re all selfies of him in various states of intoxication, most especially with marijuana. He also vented about his difficulties with his sometimes girlfriend, Christina. His mother described how he was usually asleep when she got up and left for work, and often left the house after she got home. Throughout, she has stubbornly clung to her insistence that he was fine.
His Facebook “likes” got a bit of media attention, but were fairly pedestrian for a teen. He liked metal music, horror movies, and violent video games. Adolescent fantasies are one thing, but there Tyler Holder had a very dark set of interests, one that might have been addressed if only his family had availed themselves of the offered counseling years before. This aspect of how he spent his time would not come to light until after his arrest. In addition to pot, theft, and video games, Holder filled his days with anonymous sex with strangers he met through Craigslist, both men and women. He also regularly surfed child pornography websites.
Holder’s grandmother thought he was doing fine as well. She lived in Decatur, but was in Saginaw visiting him the day before the murder and she had spent the night. On the morning of July 1st, she left while her grandson was still sleeping and bought food for the house and took her car for repairs. Holder stayed in bed until 2 p.m., which was apparently normal for him. He had lost his job at Sonic just the week before. None of his fast food jobs seem to have lasted very long. Employers described him as lazy and unreliable, plus there was always that something that set other people on edge about Tyler Holder, some wrongness in him.
He did have a few friends, most notably JR*. JR saw Holder the day of the murder, both in the morning and in the evening. When JR saw Holder after the discovery of the child’s body, Holder told him confidently that the police had found the body of Alanna Gallagher. Problem is, no one else knew that, not even her parents…because they hadn’t discovered she was missing yet.
While police were processing the scene at Roundrock and Cindy, Laura Gallagher flagged down a patrol car to say that she couldn’t find her daughter, Alanna Gallagher, 6. Alanna had last been seen around 2:30 pm. It was now 9:30 and completely dark. It wasn’t unusual for Alanna to roam the neighborhood alone. She was a common sight riding her purple scooter around. Everyone in the area knew her. She was an outgoing, friendly little girl who would often just show up, knocking on someone’s door wanting someone to come out and play.
The officer returned to the Gallagher’s house at 641 Babbling Brook. He noticed Holder pacing around up and down the sidewalk outside his house, which was 649 Babbling Brook, only two doors down. The officer stopped and asked Holder if he had seen anything unusual. Holder claimed to have been out fishing all day. He hadn’t been around.
Inside the Gallagher house, the officer was shown pictures of Alanna and heard about how she always wore a watch to make sure she was home by her 8:00 pm curfew. The officer swung into action, interviewing neighbors and searching records to discover any sex offenders who might live in the area. Laura Gallagher protested that she felt a little silly involving the police. Her daughter was probably just watching cartoons somewhere and had forgotten about the time. She thought Alanna had gone to with a neighbors’ twin four-year-old granddaughters, but when she went over, they hadn’t seen Alanna. The officer followed up with that neighbor anyway. The neighbor confirmed that she hadn’t seen Alanna since June 30th. She told police that Alanna and her older sister Mary* sometimes came over, but that Alanna would cry when it was time to go home. She never felt right about just letting Alanna walk alone own and would stand and watch her until she made it into her home.
Police checked at another house where Alanna often played. That neighbor confirmed that Alanna had come over to play with her grandchildren around 2 pm, but said the family was on their way out. Alanna insisted she would wait “right by their door” until they returned. She felt terrible leaving the child sitting outside her house, but there was nothing she could do. This was the last confirmed sighting of Alanna alive.
The Gallagher family received a great deal of attention, some for valid reasons and others because of their nontraditional lifestyle. They consider themselves polyamorous, meaning they are a family unit of more than two adults in a committed relationship. The family dynamics have very little to do with the case, other than to say there were three adults living in the house, two men and one woman and their style of parenting could best be called permissive. Karl Gallagher, Laura Gallagher, and their third partner, Miles McDaniel, had three children, Mary, 9, John*, the middle child, and Alanna, baby of the family at 6 years. John had some special needs and Mary, 9 was known to be maternal to her younger siblings. She checked on them every day while they were at school.`
The most troubling aspect was the lack of supervision in the household. Neighbors came forward to say that Alanna was always outside, playing by herself without her parents keeping track of her. She rode her purple scooter around, visiting everyone. Purple was Alanna’s favorite color. Likewise, the school reported that the family was not at all involved. The parents never attended school events. Indeed many of the teachers had never met the parents. The children didn’t participate in any clubs, sports or clubs. Teachers described Alanna as a happy, outgoing, and friendly child. She liked to wear dresses and wanted to be a princess. They found her especially needy, hungry for physical contact, always seeking hugs and praise. She clearly got herself ready for school. Her hair was not brushed and she wore mismatched clothing that was not age or size appropriate.
The same officer stopped by Laura Gallagher on July 1st remembered a previous incident with the family that occurred when Mary was 6. He received a call about a child playing unattended at a park. A family was concerned that the little girl was there for hours with no adult in sight.
The officer arrived and spoke with Mary, then tracked down her mother. Laura was irate when the officer insisted she come and pick up her daughter. She said that she frequently let daughter go play at the park to get out of the house and saw nothing wrong with her walking there. The officer pointed out how young the child was and that she had to cross streets with busy traffic and no sidewalks. He also tried to explain about child predators.
The small community of Saginaw might seem perfect, safe, but the police knew better, as did many of the long term residents. They were especially mindful of the risks because of the Opal Jo Jennings case in which she was snatched and murdered while playing outside her grandmother’s home. That case left deep scars on Saginaw. (For more details about that crime, see No Safe Place.) But Laura dismissed his concerns. She told the officer that such things don’t really happen as often as the news tries to make is sound.
The Gallaghers seemed to favor the concept of “free-range parenting” although they did not use the term. The idea is to encourage children to function independently with very little parental supervision.
July 1, 2013, the family first realized Alanna was missing at 6:30. Mary had made hotdogs for dinner. When Laura couldn’t find Alanna, she sent Mary out to look at the neighbors. She returned without her sister. No one knew where Alanna was. They ate dinner, then went to look again.
Laura and Mary drove around awhile, but they didn’t spot Alanna. Laura sent Karl a text. When he returned, Laura and Miles were playing World of Warcraft. They had decided just to wait for it to get dark and hope Alanna would come home. Karl and Laura made another trip around the neighborhood, but again, no Alanna. They went home and Karl made himself a dinner. The parents went around and knocked on doors at around 9-9:30 pm, according to neighbors. That’s when Laura spotted the police car and flagged him down.
A dispatcher put the two scenes together: a child missing, the body of a child found. She notified both sets of officers and soon the identity of the girl in the tarp was confirmed.
Saginaw police sought help from larger agencies including the FBI. They processed things methodically, but one name came up almost immediately. Tyler Holder was interviewed and he told the detective that he slept in until around 2 pm. He claimed he watched some TV shows and then left to look for a job. This was a different story than he had given the officer investigating Alanna’s disappearance. It also didn’t match the evidence police possessed that Holder’s car wasn’t seen driving away in the afternoon.
Police honed in on him as a suspect almost immediately, but they didn’t press. They could afford to be patient. Alanna’s autopsy report was gruesome reading. She had been sexually assaulted anally. Bruises to her face, arms and torso indicated further violence. The cause of death was suffocation due to the four plastic bags placed over her head and wrapped with duct tape. Her body was then submerged in water for a period, possibly in an attempt to cleanse her of biological evidence. This attempt was unsuccessful. DNA was obtained from anal swabs and from a belt. Also collected with Alanna’s body was a roll of toilet paper, crumpled and dirty that was inside the tarp. Her clothing wasn’t missing, but rolled up in the tarp with her body, however, her purple and pink watch wasn’t there. Alanna never took it off. Had the killer kept it for a souvenir?
Saginaw reeled from another brutal child murder, another little girl taken from close to home. Parents were afraid to let their children outside. A makeshift memorial sprang up on the street where her body had been found. Neighbors, friends, and complete strangers brought stuffed animals to remember her. As days turned into weeks, there was a vigil with purple balloons and a $10,000 reward for tips. Holder attended the vigil wearing a T-Shirt that read “WANTED.” Too keep the case in the public view, supporters started a purple ribbon campaign. DNA was taken from all the neighbors voluntarily. No one wanted to be the person who refused. Even Tyler Holder let them swab his cheek.
While the public demanded answers, police were close to being able to provide them. The cardboard center of the toilet paper roll was analyzed by FBI labs and was determined to belong to a batch shipped to Texas and sold in an Arlington Costco. Kimberly Holder had a membership to Costco. The police collected the trash put outside the Holder home. The bags matched the one Alanna’s body had been stuffed into, same brand. In the trash was red duct tape. Kimberly Holder had some work done on the house recently and a silver construction tarp had been spotted outside her home by a neighbor. That tarp was no longer there. Animal hairs were collected from Alanna’s body. Dog hairs, to be exact. The Holders had a dog of the right type to have left those hairs
All these small pieces were forming the picture of Alanna’s killer, like a puzzle being filled in, but what police really needed were results from the anal swab. DNA would complete the image.
July 19, 2013, Saginaw PD was surprised to receive another emergency on Babbling Brook Drive. This time it was a fire. They arrived to find that someone had set fire to memorial in front of the Gallagher’s home, and also to Karl Gallagher’s car. Believing it to be arson, the ATF brought out specially trained dogs who confirmed the presence of an accelerant. Who would be so cruel as to torment the family grieving the loss of a child? The family had a lot of detractors over the past few weeks, but police wondered if someone had been hateful enough to lash out at the family. The family hadn’t shied away from the publicity. They had been out front, begging for people to come forward with any information and defending their lifestyle, which had become the focus of so much criticism. The fire had spread from the car toward the house, damaging its exterior and placing the family in danger.
Around this time, Holder’s friend JR came forward with his mother. A few days after Alanna’s murder, Holder had given him a cell phone, saying he’d gotten a new one. JR asked if there was anything that needed deleted, but Holder said no. JR later found some alarming things on the phone. There were searches for “best child pornography” and photos of Holder in women’s underwear and naked with a garden hose inserted into his anus. There was also evidence of Holder’s Craigslist history with his anonymous hook-ups. JR cut off contact with Holder and deleted pictures, but he finally told his mother and she had insisted they bring the phone to the police.
Just one day after the arson, the police had what they needed. The DNA results were in and confirmed police suspicions. Both the anal swab and the men’s belt that had been used to bind the tarp were confirmed to belong to Holder. They drafted a search warrant for the Holder residence to look for:
In addition to the search warrant, police obtained an arrest warrant. Because they knew there were guns in the house, the FBI Safe Streets Task Force was tagged to take Holder into custody. Holder opened the door as if he were surrendering, but abruptly pulled his mother’s 9 mm from behind his back and shot 22 year Arlington Police veteran Charles Lodatto who was part of the FBI taskforce investigating the case. The bullet struck Lodatto in the groin, severing his femoral artery and lodging in his hip. The injury could have easily been fatal, but officers quickly applied a tourniquet to keep him from bleeding to death. He remained in ICU for some time, but trauma surgeon Dr. William Witham who treated Lodatto said their quick actions saved his life.
After he shot Lodatto, Holder was shot in the neck and immediately transported to the hospital. The scene was locked down due to the shooting and first processed as an active crime scene. The search warrant would not be executed until the following day. Serving the warrant filled in many of the missing pieces. They found the red duct tape, numerous used condoms, matching toilet paper rolls, latex gloves, garden hose lengths, and most damning, they found Alanna’s watch. The also found gas cans and evidence tying Holder to the arson at the Gallagher’s house.
They also found evidence that Holder had been planning on either “suicide by cop” or trying to run. On the nightstand by his bed, in a sealed envelope, he had left a letter for his mother that some interpreted as a suicide note. “Mom, I love you and I’m sorry, but I have to leave,” the note read. “I took your shot gun and your hand gun. I want you to know you are not responsible for this.” He tells her the he can no longer “hold back” the things going on in his head and how he wants her to live out her plans for them. “I love you so much. You were a great mom. You gave me everything I ever wanted. Don’t let this ruin the good memories of me and us together. I just wasn’t made for this world. Tell Granny and Bubba I love them. I will leave my car in a safe place in good shape. If I live I will write you.” The portions about leaving his car in a safe place indicates that he may have been more literal when saying “I have to leave.” He planned to run for it, but the police came for him before he had the chance.
July 31, Holder was well enough to have a conversation with detectives. He couldn’t speak due to a tracheotomy, but he could write his answers to questions. After being read his Miranda warnings, he mused about whether or not to speak with police. He both wanted a lawyer and wanted to talk right then. That wasn’t possible, but he wanted to prove he could be cooperative. At one point, Detective Richardson told him he did not expect a lawyer would want him to talk to the police about dumping the body. He once again told Holder it was his decision whether he wanted to talk. Holder responded by writing “I didn’t drop her.”
What followed was a nonsensical story about a man who looked just like Karl Gallagher, but wasn’t Karl Gallagher. Holder said the man, a stranger, showed up with Alanna. He was evasive about her condition, saying she was alive when she got there, but “she left dead.” He elaborated that she was injured and had been beaten. He claims this man brought her over and had sex with her there and killed her, but he didn’t witness it.
When the detective asked questions about Holder sexually assaulting Alanna, he played dumb, saying things like “I don’t know what you mean.” Detective Richardson then explained about the DNA. Holder admitted having sex with her after she was dead. He claims the stranger asked for the bags and duct tape. He said that she was bound and dead when he turned her onto her stomach and raped her anally.
His story, already unbelievable, took strange twists and turns. First, he claimed that he yelled at the man to stop beating her, that she was hurt all over and he tried to stop the man from having sex with her. Then he says that the man made him have sex with her, or told him things “that made sense at the time” but that he no longer remembered, things that convinced him to have sex with Alanna. Holder said he went to the restroom and when he came out, the man had left, carrying away the body of Alanna Gallagher.
The detective summarized for Holder: A stranger brought an injured child to you, and taped her up, convinced you to sexually assault her, then killed her and carried her body away. Holder confirmed that was his story. Even if the story wasn’t so ridiculous on its face, there was not a shred of evidence to suggest another person being involved. All the DNA, all the items found with Alanna, all the items left behind, everything tied her to Holder. Holder was charged with capital murder for Alanna’s death, attempted capital murder for shooting Charles Lodatto, and arson for starting the fire at the Gallagher’s house.
Holder’s trial was scheduled for October 2014, but in September, prosecutors announced a plea deal. A new Supreme Court decision ruled that mandatory life sentences for defendants younger than 18 were unconstitutional. Holder was 18 at the time of trial, but he had been 17 at the time he committed the crime. Afraid the case might fall into a legal loophole, prosecutors consulted with the family.
The charge of capital murder was reduced to plain murder. He still received a life sentence, but with the possibility of parole. In addition, he received 20 years for the arson and another 40 for trying to kill Charles Lodatto. That last sentence was stacked on the life sentence, meaning even if Holder received parole for the murder case, which he would be eligible for in 30 years, he would have to serve his time for the attempted capital. He would have to serve at least half that sentence. In essence, Holder would have to serve 50 years before he could even think about being released.
For the Gallagher family, this meant they would be spared a trial and further vilification in the press and social media, but it was a sad realization of how dangerous the world really was.
“Nobody thinks you’re down the street from someone developing into a monster,” Laura Gallagher said. “There’s not just our kids, but so many other kids we’d see out playing. And you think of all the times that all these kids were walking past that house, and you feel like it was a time bomb slowly building that we didn’t know about, and it went off on our baby.”
Sometimes they do, but they aren’t believed by the adults who are supposed to protect him. Please share the story in this star-telegram article. These girls are so brave. For one, it’s cost her a relationship with her family. They have chosen to stay with the church that supports the abuser. The abuser in now in prison on child pornography charges, and yet the church and family blame the victims. The pastor at Heritage Baptist Church in Mansfield is still speaking out against the victims and it breaks my heart that there are little girls and boys being raised in that church, learning the lesson of silence over protection. Please read and share this Fort Worth Star-telegram story below.
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/