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Tonya Couch, the Affluenza Teen Mom, and a Lesson in Money Laundering

Money Laundering: a Harsher Sentence than Fraud Charges, Plus the Added Bonus of Forfeiture Actions

This post deals with money laundering charges, but we will begin with the backstory.  It starts with the arrest and prosecution of the Affluenza Teen, Ethan Couch.

Most everyone here in Dallas and Fort Worth and the rest of North Texas knows all about Ethan Couch.  Heck, he’s even got his own Wikipedia page.



The Affluenza Defense of Ethan Couch

Sixteen-year-old Ethan was charged for the deaths of four people in a drunk driving crash that happened over in Burleson, Texas, back in 2013.  The charge was involuntary manslaughter under the Texas Penal Code.

Initially sentenced to 10 years’ probation after an effective defense argument of “affluenza,” the young man met with a national outcry that the judge had been way too lenient in punishment.   See the New York Times coverage, “Teenager’s Sentence in Fatal Drunken-Driving Case Stirs ‘Affluenza’ Debate.”

That might be the end of things if this were a one-hour episode of your favorite crime drama, but this is real life.  And it’s Texas.

The Couch Money

So, next thing that happens is we learn about Ethan Couch’s mother, Tonya Couch.  There were lots of civil suits filed against Ethan Couch for personal injuries as well as wrongful death.   As a minor, his parents were involved as defendants in these cases.  Tonya Couch’s name began appearing in news stories related to money issues.

These included the filing of all these civil claims for damages, like those discussed in the Cleburne Times-Review coverage, “Couch, parents named in 6th civil lawsuit,” back in January 2014.  Millions of dollars were being sought from Ethan’s parents as grieving loved ones sought justice for the harm resulting from that drunk driving crash.

There were also stories dealing with the cost of Ethan’s court-ordered rehab therapy up in Vernon, Texas.  Great Britain’s Daily Mail reported that Tonya and Fred Couch, Ethan’s parents, were paying $1170/month for Ethan’s in-patient treatment even though the cost was almost $800/day.

Their coverage reports that earlier in the case, Ethan’s parents had offered to pay for placing him into a private facility that cost almost $500,000/year.  It was a rehab facility in Newport Beach, California, and probably a bit different than the court-ordered place up in North Texas. The judge declined their offer.

So, almost from the get-go, we have learned of the Couch family finances and the fact that Ethan had very wealthy parents.  Fred and Tonya Couch’s finances were the key to his successful “affluenza” defense, after all.

Disappearance of Ethan and His Mother, Tonya Couch

So, with all these civil suits and Ethan’s plea deal, you’d think the story would be over.  Nope.

Next thing we know, it’s December 2015.  A video is posted on Twitter that apparently shows young Ethan enjoying a game of beer pong.  This is a violation of his probation.   Seeing the video, his probation officer asks Ethan to come in for a drug test.

His mother’s bank records show she withdrew $30,000 from her account that day and hosted a party where loved ones were told goodbye, as Tonya and Ethan were moving to Mexico.  Fred later told police was called and told he would never see his son again.

The December 10th drug testing is a no-show, and a warrant is issued for Ethan Couch’s arrest.  He cannot be found.

The state probation office is assisted by the federal authorities, and the U.S. Marshall’s Office starts a manhunt for Ethan Couch.  This gets lots of coverage in social media and the news outlets.

The question of “Where is Ethan?” extends to “Where is Ethan’s Mother?”  Ethan was living in her rental property on Eagle Mountain Lake at that point.  Neither one of them was at the house.  No one knew where they were, including Fred Couch who had divorced Tonya by this point.

A couple of weeks go by; Christmas 2015 is celebrated.  Then, just three days later down in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, mother and son are located in a little apartment there.  The Mexican authorities return them both to Texas (there’s some legal skirmishing here).

Tonya Couch Charges: Hindering Apprehension and Money Laundering

Tonya Couch is returned to Texas first.  She gets booked into jail over in Fort Worth.  The judge orders $1Million Bond at her arraignment.

The charges:  hindering the apprehension of a felon and money laundering.

Couch gets her bond lowered to $75,000 with $10,000 on the money laundering charge and gets out of jail, with the condition she wears an ankle monitor and lives with her other son.

Now, how is this mother allegedly guilty of “money laundering” in this situation?  It’s reported that the prosecution’s filings state that she spent $30,000-$150,000 “… to further the commission of criminal activity, namely hindering apprehension of Ethan Couch.

Money Laundering Charges

We’ve discussed money laundering before.  You read about it in the papers.

In September 2016, for example, over in Sherman, there was a big federal conviction on money laundering charges where a jury found four men guilty of laundering drug money through some Dallas businesses.  Lots of money:  $16,000,000 from methamphetamine distribution here.

(For more about how lucrative the methamphetamine business is here in Texas, read “Methamphetamine in Dallas and North Texas: Expect More Felony Meth Arrests.”)

D CEO Magazine has an interesting article this month concerning money laundering in Texas, too.  Written by Jeff Bounds and entitled, “How Banks Are Fighting Money Laundering,” it delves into the state banking industry’s problems with trying to comply with new federal regulations that are trying to fight money laundering.

It’s costly and complicated, and it’s meant lots of banks just stopped doing business down at the border.  Read more about this in our post, “North Texas Banks, Drug Cartels, And Money Laundering In Dallas.”

All this jives with the common understanding that money laundering charges go with big dollars and usually drug crimes, right?  Well, that is the general rule.

In fact, one of the ways that law enforcement seeks to bring down the drug cartels is through following their money trails and trying to nab them on money laundering charges if they can’t find evidence on manufacturing or distribution.

Texas Money Laundering Charges Aren’t Just for Drug Cartels

But that does not mean that money laundering charges are exclusive to these big drug cases.  The Affluenza Mother is facing them for a maximum amount of $150,000 being used to hide her son in Mexico.

We’ve warned about this before.  Check out our May 2014 post, “Money Laundering Arrests Very Common – Sometimes In Surprising Situations.”

So, what’s going on?  Perhaps some guidance from the United States’ Attorneys’ Manual can be of interest here.  There, federal prosecutors are instructed that:

“A conviction for money laundering may result in a much more severe sentence than a conviction based solely upon a mail or wire fraud. Consult the appropriate version of the United States Sentencing Guidelines Manual for the applicable offense levels. The government may also seek criminal or civil forfeiture under 18 U.S.C. §§ 981 and 982.”

Notice the last sentence, about forfeiture?  That’s a procedure that is available under either state or federal law.

If money laundering charges are filed in state court and there is a conviction, then the authorities can institute forfeiture proceedings to gain ownership of the defendant’s assets.

Forfeiture and Money Laundering

Forfeiture and Money Laundering go hand in hand, no matter what the underlying crime may be – drug running or hiding your son from the U.S. Marshall’s Service.

Everyone believes there’s money to be had from the Couch family.  At least it sure seems that way from all the media coverage.   Right?

Which means that not only will the plaintiffs in all those civil actions (assuming they are successful in their cases) be trying to collect on their settlements or judgments against Ethan Couch and his parents, but the federal government will have an interest in the Couch assets via any forfeiture proceeding.

Guess who gets priority:  the government authorities or the grieving families?


For more on money laundering, read our web resources, check out Michael Lowe’s Case Results, and read his in-depth article on forfeiture “Structured Cash Deposits: What Do I Do When The IRS Cid Agent Comes?


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