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'Affluenza' Teen Had Going-Away Party Before Fleeing Country

A hearing held Jan. 19 will determine whether Ethan Couch's case is moved from juvenile to adult court.

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    'Affluenza' Teen, Mother Captured in Mexico

    A teen fugitive who's known for using an "affluenza" defense and his mother attempted to disguise themselves and disappear among the American tourists thronging a Mexican resort city for the holidays, but are now in custody and will be returned to the U.S, authorities said Tuesday. (Published Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015)

    The escape of a Texas teen who fled to Mexico while on probation for killing four people in a drunken-driving crash was carefully planned and even precipitated by a going-away party, according to Tarrant County officials.

    "Affluenza teen" Ethan Couch, 18, was caught in Puerto Vallarta with his mother Monday after 11 days on the run.

    Authorities hope to transfer his case to an adult court during a hearing next month and said his mother will be charged with a felony.

    Couch was sentenced to 10 years' probation after pleading guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault for a 2013 crash, when he was 16 years old. His attorneys invoked the now-famous "affluenza" defense — an argument that Couch's wealthy parents coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility.

    County officials said Couch violated the terms of his juvenile probation and fled to Mexico with his mother after missing a Dec. 10 mandatory meeting with his probation officer. Authorities believe his trip to Mexico was precipitated by a video posted on social media that appeared to show Couch at a party where others were playing beer pong and drinking.

    Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said Couch and his mother, Tonya, likely planned their disappearance and held something of a going-away party before fleeing. It's not clear when or how they intended to return.

    "He was at best looking at a life of exile. There was no way he could come back to Texas, or the States, for that matter," said Anderson.

    Tonya Couch will be charged with hindering an apprehension, a third-degree felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison.

    Ethan Couch, meanwhile, could have his case moved to adult court during a hearing Jan. 19 in Fort Worth.

    Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson plans to ask the judge to sentence Couch to 120 days in adult prison, followed by eight years of probation. She said the most time Couch could receive for violating his juvenile probation is just under four months, until he turns 19 on April 11, and that keeping him in a juvenile facility until that time "is not enough."

    Should a juvenile court judge transfer Couch's sentence to an adult court, he'll start his sentence over as an adult and that, as a condition of his adult case, could be ordered to spend 120 days in state jail before starting his next probated sentence. The conditions of that probation would likely be more strict and Couch could spend 40 years in state prison (10 years for each involuntary manslaughter charge) if he's found to have violated his adult probation.

    Should the case be transferred to adult court, and since the previous violation and flight to Mexico took place during juvenile probationary period, Couch would essentially escape punishment for that offense. The adult court is somewhat limited on what could be imposed, Wilson said, and is bound by the original sentence handed down in juvenile court.

    Anderson was among those critical of the judge's decision not to incarcerate Couch. The sheriff said that the teen has never expressed remorse for his actions and that his case sparked more outrage than any other Anderson has encountered in his law enforcement career.

    Ethan and Tonya Couch were detained Monday in a dowdy section of Puerto Vallarta's old town, far from the town's glitzy resorts, golf courses and high-rise hotels of the city's newer section, according to Mexico's Jalisco state prosecutor's office.

    The street corner where they were found is dotted with a small sandwich shop, a taco stand, and a mom-and-pop corner store. A playground and a day-care center with a fence topped with razor-wire stand nearby.

    Ethan Couch, before and after his arrest in Mexico.

    Couch was apparently trying to lie low and even disguised himself; a photo distributed by the Jalisco state prosecutor's office shows him in detention with his blond hair dyed black and his normally blondish beard a light brown. He appears pale and untanned.

    Richard Taylor of the U.S. Marshal Service declined to elaborate Tuesday on what led Mexican authorities to Couch, but said "every fugitive makes mistakes and they were no different." He said Mexico is treating the duo as "undesirables."

    A Mexican official said Couch will be returned to the United States aboard a commercial flight to Houston on Tuesday, though the U.S. Marshal's Service said that flight will take place Wednesday. When Couch returns to Tarrant County has not been confirmed.

    An attorney representing the families of two of Ethan Couch's victims said Tuesday that "everybody is glad it got done this quickly."

    "I don't think anybody is terribly surprised from my clients' end or myself. We didn't think they would be very successful at this effort (to flee)," said attorney Greg Coontz, who represents the families of Brian Jennings and Kevin McConnell.

    Coontz said the Couches going to Mexico was like something out of a "B movie."

    "They die their hair, they drive down there and they're in a resort town that Americans go to all the time – just not surprising. (It) seemed like a terribly poorly thought-out plan," Coontz said.

    "My clients are glad because it moves it to the next chapter of what's going to happen to him" Coontz added.

    Anderson added he wasn't surprised by Couch's mother assisting him in his escape, saying, "Her entire focus has been on protecting Ethan ... on making sure he was not held accountable. I'm not surprised she helped him."

    Officials continue to investigate whether anyone else helped Couch leave the country and said further charges may be filed.

    NBC's Ari Mason contributed to this report. Associated Press writers Peter Orsi and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City also contributed to this report.