Marla Mitchell rushed to the charred, twisted metal wreckage on a Texas road to find her daughter.
Instead, unbeknownst to her, she found Breanna’s killer.
“You don’t want to go that way,” slurred the boy, pacing away from the strobing red and blue emergency lights of police cars. “There’s nothing good happening over there.”
It was Ethan Couch, who would become forever known as the “affluenza” teen when his lawyers got him off for killing four people on that Saturday night, June 15, 2013.
“I didn’t know who he was at the time,” Mitchell told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview.
Ever since then she’s watched as Ethan’s deep-pocketed parents paid his way out of trouble time and time again.
Couch pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and prosecutors asked the judge to give him 20 years in a big boy Texas penitentiary. Instead, a judge gave Couch 10 years probation after the rich kid’s defense counsel got a psychologist to testify that the boy suffered from “affluenza,” a made-up disorder that blamed away the blueblood’s repulsive behavior to the silver spoon life he’d inherited.
Couch went to rehab at the $450,000 a year Newport Academy where horseback riding and yoga were supposed to make him kick his drinking and drugging.
It didn’t work.
“ya boy ethan couch violating probation,” @BlondeSpectre wrote on Twitter when she posted a short video clip showing the teen playing beer pong in early December.
That was the last the world saw of Couch for a month, because he went on the lam to escape a 10-year prison sentence that violating probation (no driving, no drinking, no drugs) carries.
In late December, Mexican authorities announced they’d caught the “affluenza” outlaw, now 18, with his 48-year-old mom Tonya after two weeks in tourist hotspot Puerto Vallarta. Tonya Couch was quickly spirited over the border to cool her heels in a Los Angeles County jail cell in lieu of $1 million bail for hindering apprehension of a felon. She was brought back to Texas in handcuffs, and on Monday a judge reduced her bail to $75,000 from $1 million for hindering apprehension of her fugitive son. Ethan, meanwhile, has lawyered up and is fighting extradition to the U.S. from a Mexico City holding cell.
The speed demon’s dad, Fred Couch, has settled out of court and buried all seven lawsuits lodged against the family and their steel business since his son copped to being tanked when he killed four people and injured several others.
It started with a flat tire. Marla Mitchell expected to encounter maybe a tow truck and some good Samaritans waiting on an ambulance. After all, Mitchell only minutes earlier had just spoken with her daughter Breanna after her white Mercury Mariner’s front tire blew out as she rounded a curb on Burleson-Retta Road in Burleson, a tony town just outside Fort Worth, Texas.
The SUV’s airbags deployed as it “flipped and rolled” before barreling into a mailbox and crashed in a culvert.
A couple driving by approached Breanna and made certain she was OK.
“I spoke to the first couple that stopped to help her and they verified where she was,” Mitchell recalled. It was a 15-minute drive away from their home.
When Mitchell spoke to her daughter on the phone she suspected she was “disoriented and scared.”
“I could tell she wasn’t talking right,” she said.
But the initial fears were stayed once Marla Mitchell learned that Hollie Boyles and her daughter Shelby left their house nearby to help Breanna. They were followed by Brian Jennings, a youth minister who pulled his truck over on the side of the road while heading back to his church to return chairs and tables he’d borrowed for a graduation party.
Pastor Jennings soothed the worried mom, telling her: “The airbag deployed and she obviously got a concussion on her head and hit her face but she’s standing upright.” The devout Christian mom felt blessed her daughter was in good hands. “I could hear her laughing and carrying on and I felt like she was safe standing by a pastor and a mother and a daughter.”
The pastor passed the phone to Breanna who was more concerned about the banged up car than she was with her own wounds.
“I told her ‘The truck’s replaceable.’ And she told me, ‘No, mom, it’s messed up.’”
Mitchell was already on the way.
“I told her ‘I am crossing the bridge, I’m almost there,’ she said. “‘OK, mom, I love you. Please hurry.’
“And then ph-shoo!”
What Mitchell likely heard was Ethan Couch’s 6,000-pound Ford F350 Super Duty pickup truck side-swiping Brenna’s vehicle at 74 mph, then destroying an approaching Volkswagen Beetle, and pancaking Pastor Jennings’s truck before triggering an explosion.
Eight teenagers were inside the pickup truck, including Couch, after having just stolen beer from the local Walmart to fuel their bender. Couch’s blood-alcohol level was 0.24 (three times the legal limit for adults), and he tested positive for Valium.
Couch was shot from the truck, alive but unconscious. As he came to, he began bragging about how his name could protect those fortunate enough to be alive.
“I’m Ethan. I can get you out of all this,” he told the witness Corbin Clark. “Just remember my name and I’ll get you out of all this.’”
When he was deposed months later in a civil lawsuit, Couch could only turn back to the moment he awoke from the night’s pileup after a toxic brew of booze, marijuana, and Valium. He testified that he remembered “waking up handcuffed to the hospital bed.” And nary any recall from his deadly drive. ‘I have this picture in my head of turning out of the driveway and that’s it.”
Couch is lucky he doesn’t remember what Marla Mitchell saw or heard.
As she searched for Breanna, she saw Pastor Jennings lying lifeless on the ground, Hollie Boyles “cut in half in the ditch,” and Boyles’s daughter Shelby lying splayed inside a gated yard.
“Body parts were everywhere.
“She wasn’t in the car,” Mitchell said, recalling her frantic search when she arrived.
Marla pried open the side door of Breanna’s vehicle and retrieved a flashlight. By then first responders were asking her who she was and why she was there.
“‘I’m looking for my daughter. Where’s my daughter?’” she told them.
Then she stopped searching.
“When I found her she was outside of the fence up to the point of her legs,” she said. “Her legs were gone.”
There was no doubt this was Breanna thanks to the Marilyn Monroe tattoo on the back of her neck and the koi fish on her arm.
Marla fell to her knees and prayed for a miracle.
“God fix her,” she said. “God told me he couldn’t and I didn’t understand. I said, ‘Don’t tell me you can’t. I know who you are.’”
Mitchell often retraces that night in her mind and analyzes the what-ifs.
“I still second guess,” she said. “If I had been there earlier, if I had seen it or heard it maybe I would have said, ‘Hey, ya’ll get up in the yard!’”
But then the grieving mother catches herself.
“You just you can’t second guess,” she said. “There’s no good in that.”
Mitchell went to the courthouse to see Couch get thrown in prison but met his slick parents instead.
Fred Couch went for Marla’s mother first, telling her, “I just want you to know that I believe in God and I’m begging your forgiveness.”
“I forgive you, let’s see if God does,” she shot back, according to Marla.
When the coroner testified at the sentencing trial, recounting the gory scene, Mitchell excused herself from the courtroom.
And this was when Fred Couch went in for another mea culpa.
“He came up to me and wanted to shake my hand,” she said. “I just kind of backed away and he said, ‘I just want to tell you one parent to another how sorry I am that this happened.’
“I said, ‘I’m sorry too that this happened. What are you going to do to fix it?’ and he told me ‘Well, we’re going to do everything to make sure this is fixed. And everything comes out right.’”
Then Couch tried to hug Marla.
“I backed away again and I said, ‘OK, let’s see.’”
As she was about to re-enter the courtroom, Marla paused and saw something she couldn’t believe.
“I turn and look back at him before I walk back in and I see there are three cameras pointing at us,” she said. “It was totally staged. Yeah, totally staged.”
Before her untimely demise Breanna Mitchell was beloved.
“She influenced people all over the world,” the single mother said, noting that there were soldiers who had grown up with her daughter that had reached out while stationed overseas in Afghanistan and Europe and they wanted to cut their tours short just to be back for Breanna’s memorial. “They told me, ‘We’re asking to end our term and come back home. She was our family.’”
Raising five children on her house-cleaning paycheck by herself since 2001 when she says her husband bailed on the child support and abandoned his family to become a roadie for music bands, Marla admits that Breanna was her pride and joy.
“It took me five to get it right and she was the best of five,” she said.
Breanna had already earned acclaim in Dallas where she graduated with honors from the Art Institute of Dallas and had landed a full-time chef gig with a restaurant run by the Bass brothers, (rated by Forbes as the 29th-richest family in the U.S.) and from the first day she made sure her mother would have a little comfort in her life.
Breanna opted for so much insurance and extras when she was hired on that an HR manager took her aside.
“They told her, ‘We’ve had employees that have worked with us for 20 years that have never asked for as much insurance and benefits as you want. Why did you fill out for all this extra and added?’
“She said, ‘I want to make sure my mama is taken care of for the rest of her life.’ I had no clue. No clue,” Marla said through more tears.
Refusing to let melancholy consume her life, the mother has maintained her daughter’s presence everywhere she turns. Breanna’s two rescue dogs still sniff at her chef’s shoes; the butterfly wind chimes she made in grade school still make music; Breanna’s hair ties open and close the curtains, and her Texas Longhorn ornament with the two pom-poms (when she was a tot cheerleader) dangle on the Christmas tree.
“You can either choose to bury it and let it die or you can help the world and everyone that loved her and learn to celebrate that because she’s not gone,” Marla said.
Marla worries that Ethan Couch will be spared again.
“The justice system has failed the whole world,” she said. “Look at Chicago, look at other people—it’s not just us.”
Couch is in Mexico for the immediate future but after exhausting all his legal efforts, he’ll likely be extradited back to Tarrant County where the process is underway to ensure that the 18-year-old’s case is upped from that of a juvenile to an adult.
Marla, who reads the Bible with her outlaw biker friends, said she’s often considered taking justice into her own hands.
“I said it’s a good thing I didn’t choose to go to Mexico because there would be hogtie and duct tape involved when they found me with these people,” she said.
The momentary flash of anger stops almost as fast as it starts.
“Thank God for the Christian woman in me,” she said. “I can’t execute those kind of orders because God holds me accountable and so does my daughter.”
Faith has sustained her, but it almost abandoned her, too.
“I felt like I experienced a lot of things in my lifetime, but this almost broke me. This almost broke my faith. And that’s the only thing I had to hold onto.”
Too many times, Marla wished she could have traded places with her daughter.
“For me suffering is staying alive,” she said. “I prayed for months, ‘God take my last breath. Take me home. Why? Why am I the one left here?’ and he says, ‘I have you waking up every day for a reason. Deal with it.’
“So I put on my boots and ask him: ‘What have you got for me today, Lord?’”
The fact that Couch is back in custody affords Breanna’s mother some solace in her otherwise ravaged life. And she hopes her daughter’s killer is caged for a long time to come.
“I just want to sit in my yard and put my feet in the river and watch Breanna’s dogs play and not have to worry anymore; and just know that he can’t do anything horrible again and he can’t make anybody else suffer.”