A "woman with means" who was arrested at a Mexican beach resort city with her fugitive teenage son who invoked "affluenza" as a defense after killing four people in a drunken-driving wreck has complained about the conditions of her Texas jail cell, a sheriff said Friday.
"She expressed a slight displeasure about her accommodations, and I told her this was a jail and not a resort," Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said at a news conference.
Tonya Couch, 48, and her 18-year-old son Ethan Couch, have been the objects of derision since Ethan was sentenced to probation, rather than jail time, for the 2013 wreck. The case drew renewed attention when the mother and son fled to Mexico after a video surfaced that appeared to show Ethan Couch, fresh from a rehabilitation center, at a party where people were drinking. If Couch drank alcohol, he violated the terms of his probation.
Tonya Couch made an initial appearance in a Texas courtroom Friday on a charge of hindering the apprehension of a felon. She did not enter a plea because her attorney was not present for the arraignment.
Tarrant County Judge Wayne Salvant advised Couch of the charge against her and asked if she understood. The mother, wearing a yellow jail jumpsuit, said she did.
Salvant set bond at $1 million and Couch's attorney, Stephanie Patten, filed a motion asking for the bond to be reduced. "We think anything $25,000 or under would be fair," Patten told reporters.
Anderson said he opposed a bond reduction because Couch is "a woman with means who can get out of the country with the right connections."
Couch told the judge that she surrendered a temporary passport in Los Angeles, where she was deported from Mexico last week.
Authorities believe the mother and son fled Texas together in early December as prosecutors investigated whether the teenager had violated probation. They were arrested at an apartment complex in Puerto Vallarta late last month.
Ethan 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 in juvenile court to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury and was sentenced to 10 years' probation.
Couch is being held at an immigration detention center in Mexico City after winning a delay in deportation, a ruling that could lead to a drawn-out court process if a Mexican judge decides Couch has grounds to challenge his deportation based on arguments that kicking him out of Mexico would violate his rights.
Such cases can take anywhere from two weeks to several months, depending on the priorities of the local courts and the actions of defense attorneys, according to Richard Hunter, chief deputy for the U.S. Marshals Service in South Texas.
Sheriff's Involvement Questioned
On Friday afternoon, Tonya Couch's attorney questioned why Sheriff Anderson was so personally involved with the movements of her client.
In a statement, Stephanie Patten said Anderson was only involving himself and holding press conferences because of his up-coming re-election.
"We would like to thank Sheriff Dee Anderson for taking time out of his busy day serving as this county’s chief law enforcement officer to personally escort a 5’1”, 110 pound handcuffed and leg shackled female who was guarded by at least 2 armed deputies yesterday," Patten and attorney Stephen Gordon said in a statement.
The attorneys say they have never seen "an elected official take such a personal interest and escort a suspect."
An issue with Sheriff Anderson's involvement and proximity to Couch came up during court. While Patten missed her client's arraignment due to traffic issues, they returned to court within an hour to bring a matter before Judge Salvant.
Patten said that Anderson questioned her client about her passport, even though he was well aware that she had legal counsel. Patten believed that crossed the line, calling it an "interrogation."
Judge Salvant said he wanted to ascertain the location of Couch's passport, which would need to be confiscated if she posted bond, and asked the sheriff about it. Patten told the judge she wanted the incident on record.
Anderson said later he felt it was an administrative issue and not a part of her case. Patten told the court Anderson agreed not to ask her client any more questions.
The sheriff said he's being "hands-on" with the case because he wants to make sure things are done correctly and that justice is "finally served" in this case.
In the defense attorney's statement, they raise the issue of the sheriff's pending re-election bid where he faces challengers.
"It would of course be the job of the Sheriff to hold press conferences, if necessary, or supervise his or her staff on a day to day basis," Patten and Gordon said. "However, during a contested election, to piggyback on a case that has drawn extensive media coverage by doing things that have never been done in recent memory on any other case is very troubling."
Court records indicate Patten subpoenaed Sheriff Anderson to be a witness in Monday's bail hearing and asked for all documents in the Tonya Couch investigation.
NBC 5's Chris Van Horne contributed to this report.