The Texas teenager known for using an "affluenza" defense in a fatal drunken-driving accident likely won't return to the United States anytime soon because of a Mexican judge's decision to delay his deportation, US law enforcement officials said Wednesday.
Richard Hunter, chief deputy US marshal for the southern district of Texas, said during a news conference in Houston that a three-day injunction granted to Ethan Couch will likely take at least two weeks to resolve. Authorities believe the 18-year-old, sentenced only to probation for the 2013 wreck in Texas, fled to Puerto Vallarta with his mother as prosecutors investigated whether he had violated his probation.
Hunter said Couch's mother, Tonya Couch, also won't be deported as originally planned Wednesday evening, though he didn't say whether she also had been granted a court delay.
The ruling by the Mexican court could lead to a weeks-long legal process if a judge decides the younger Couch has grounds to challenge his deportation based on arguments that kicking him out of the country would violate his rights. The judge has three days to consider Couch's appeal.
The Couches were taken into custody Monday after authorities said a phone call for pizza led to their capture in the Mexican resort city. They were being held by immigration officials in Guadalajara.
During the sentencing phase of Couch's 2013 trial, a defense expert argued that his wealthy parents coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility — a condition the expert termed "affluenza." The condition is not recognized as a medical diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association, and its invocation drew ridicule.
"Couch continues to make a mockery of the system," said Fort Worth attorney Bill Berenson, who represented Sergio Molina, who was paralyzed and suffered severe brain damage in the crash.
Couch's attorneys in the US didn't return calls seeking comment.
Mexican police say Couch and his mother spent three days in a rented condo at a resort development in Puerto Vallarta before finding an apartment. One of the Couches' telephones had been used to order delivery from Domino's Pizza to the condominium complex in Puerto Vallarta's old town, far from the glitzy resorts of the city's newer section, according to a police report issued by the Jalisco state prosecutors' office.
Agents from the prosecutors' office went to the complex, where a tourism operator told them that the people who had occupied the condo were asked to vacate because the owners were coming to stay over Christmas, the report said. The Couches then moved to an apartment, and the agents set up a surveillance operation in the surrounding streets.
On Monday evening, two people matching the Couches' description were spotted and intercepted. The police report said they behaved evasively, claimed to be carrying no IDs, gave inconsistent stories about their names and failed to provide proof of their legal migratory status in Mexico.
They were taken into custody and handed over to immigration officials.
In Texas, Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said Tuesday that the Couches had prepared to be gone a while, even dyeing the teenager's blond hair black.
"They had planned to disappear. They even had something that was almost akin to a going-away party before leaving town," Anderson said. He declined to detail the party, including how many people attended.
Anderson said Couch and his mother apparently crossed the border in her pickup and drove to Puerto Vallarta. No immediate charges were planned for others who may have known about or assisted with the plan, Anderson said. He noted that authorities have no evidence that Couch's father, who owns a sheet metal factory in North Texas, was involved.
The sheriff has said he believes the two fled in late November, after a video surfaced that appears to show Ethan Couch at a party where people were drinking. If found to be drinking, Couch could see his probation revoked and face up to four months in jail.
Authorities began searching for him and his mother after he missed a mandatory appointment with his probation officer on Dec. 10.
Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said Tuesday that she planned to ask that Couch's case be transferred to adult court, where he could face up to 120 days in an adult jail, followed by 10 years' probation. If he violates that probation, he could face up to 10 years in prison per death, Wilson said.
Anderson said an arrest warrant was being issued for Tonya Couch on charges of hindering an apprehension, a third-degree felony that carries a sentence of two to 10 years in prison.
Couch was driving drunk and speeding near Fort Worth in June 2013, when he crashed into a disabled SUV, killing four people and injuring several others, including passengers in his pickup truck.
He pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury. A judge sentenced him in juvenile court to 10 years' probation and a stint in a rehabilitation center.