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Texas ‘Affluenza’ Teen Captured In Mexico, To Be Returned To The United States

By Marice Richter and David Alire Garcia

FORT WORTH, Texas/PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico (Reuters) – A rich Texas teen who fled with his mother to Mexico to avoid possible jail time for breaking his probation in a fatal drunken-driving crash had planned the flight in advance, even holding a farewell party, U.S. authorities said on Tuesday.

Ethan Couch, who became known in the United States as the “affluenza” teen during his trial in juvenile court over the deaths of four people in the 2013 crash, was captured by Mexican authorities on Monday in the Pacific Coast beach city of Puerto Vallarta and was likely to be returned to the United States later on Tuesday.

During Couch’s trial, a psychologist sparked outrage by saying in his defense he was so wealthy and spoiled he could not tell the difference between right and wrong. He was sentenced to 10 years drug-and-alcohol-free probation for intoxication manslaughter – a punishment that critics condemned as privilege rewarded with leniency.

Couch, now 18, and his mother, Tonya Couch, fled the country after a video surfaced online apparently showing Couch at a party where beer was being consumed. Authorities had been investigating that video as a potential parole violation.

Couch had missed a mandatory meeting with his probation officer, prompting officials in Tarrant County, Texas, to issue a warrant for his arrest earlier this month.

Couch and his 48-year-old mother were tracked down and captured near Puerto Vallarta’s seafront promenade. Mexican authorities said they had been working with the U.S. Marshals Service since Saturday to locate the pair.

The mother and son apparently entered Mexico by land, said Ricardo Vera, a local official for Mexico’s National Migration Institute. He said the two did not register when entering Mexico, but it was not clear where they came in. They were expected to be returned to Houston on a commercial flight later on Tuesday from Jalisco’s state capital, Guadalajara, he said.

“They had planned to disappear,” Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson told a news conference in Fort Worth, Texas. “They even had something that was almost akin to a going-away party before they left town.”

When they arrived back in the United States, Couch would appear in juvenile court and his mother would be arrested for hindering an apprehension, Anderson said.

Ethan Couch’s attorney, Reagan Wynn, declined to comment, saying in a statement he had not had the chance yet to speak with his client.

In Puerto Vallarta, eyewitness Cristina Barraza said she saw Tonya Couch’s arrest. She was led with hands behind her head by a man in plain clothes to a white pickup truck in front of a modest four-story building where the pair were reportedly staying.

Afterwards, the vehicle sped off, said Barraza, saying she did not see Ethan Couch during the arrest.

She also recalled an exchange with the mother last week as she sat outside her home on the sidewalk across the street. “She came along here and greeted me in Spanish. She was nice.”

BLOND TO DARK-HAIRED

A police booking picture from Mexico showed the previously blond Ethan Couch with dark hair, which the sheriff said suggested Couch was trying to change his appearance.

Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said that she expected the judge to hold Couch after his juvenile hearing, and that she hoped it would be in an adult jail.

At a previously scheduled Jan. 19 court hearing, Wilson had planned to ask a judge to transfer Couch’s case into the adult court system from the juvenile system, putting Couch under stricter supervision and leaving him open to harsher punishment if he violated probation.

If he were in the adult system, Couch could face 120 days in jail for not meeting with his probation officer as required, and he would face up to 40 years in prison if he violated probation again after that, Wilson said.

However, the double jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution would preclude any attempt to get Couch a stiffer sentence on the manslaughter charges in the adult system, said former New York City prosecutor Paul Callan.

U.S. Marshal Rick Taylor and Anderson declined to say how authorities tracked Couch down, but CNN said the marshals used Couch’s mobile phone to track him down.

‘HANDS-OFF’ PARENTING

In the fatal accident, Couch, then 16, was speeding and had a blood-alcohol level of nearly three times the legal limit when he lost control of his pickup truck and fatally struck a stranded motorist on the side of the road and three people who had stopped to help.

Susan Cloud, a friend of Brian Jennings, one of those killed, said she felt conflicted about what should happen to Couch, but wished he had not thrown away his second chance under his probation.

“I feel more negatively toward his mother than I do him,” Cloud said. “The parents seem to have a completely hands-off approach.”

Sheriff Anderson said last week that the passports for Couch and his mother had been reported missing by the teen’s father, who has cooperated with investigators. Fred Couch is divorced from the mother and owns a successful sheet metal business near Fort Worth.

The “affluenza” term was apparently used for the first time explicitly in defense during Couch’s trial, but has been a theory in sociological and psychological circles since the late 1990s to explain the impact of indulgent parenting, said Daniel Medwed, a criminal law professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

But the notion of rich kids getting leniency based on their advantages sparked a public backlash against the theory, Medwed said, adding, “My hunch is this latest parole incident will mark the end of its use.

(Additional reporting by Anahi Rama and Veronica Gomez in Mexico City, Robert Iafolla in Washington, Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida and Melissa Fares in New York; Writing by Ben Klayman; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Frances Kerry)

U.S. national Ethan Couch is pictured in this undated handout photograph made available to Reuters on December 29, 2015 by the Jalisco state prosecutor office.  REUTERS/Fiscalia General del Estado de Jalisco/Handout via Reuters 

Obama To Welcome Canada’s Trudeau For Official Visit March 10

By Jeff Mason

HONOLULU (Reuters) – President Barack Obama will welcome Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for an official visit to Washington on March 10, complete with a rare state dinner and discussions about energy and climate change, the White House said on Monday.

“The visit will be an opportunity for the United States and Canada to deepen their bilateral relationship, which is one of the closest and most extensive in the world,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement.

“The visit also is intended to advance cooperation on important bilateral and multilateral issues, such as energy and climate change, security, and the economy.”

The White House had previously signaled the visit would occur next year but had not announced a date. The president and first lady Michelle Obama would host Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Gregoire, it said.

Trudeau, a Liberal, has vowed to improve Canada’s relationship with its powerful neighbor after ties were strained over energy and climate issues during the tenure of Conservative former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

President Bill Clinton hosted the last White House state dinner for a Canadian leader in 1997 with Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, December 10, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie 

Derailments Spur Push For Safer Railroad Oil-Tank Cars

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — While some government and industry officials have repeatedly said there’s no silver bullet to improve the safety of oil trains, a persistent problem runs through every new derailment: the tank cars.

Oil industry groups maintain that railroads should do a better job of maintaining track to prevent derailments, while the rail industry has called for tank cars that are better equipped to survive accidents.

Although there’s almost universal consensus that improvements are required in both areas, there’s one key difference.

Railroads have already spent heavily in recent years to improve their track for all kinds of freight and have pledged to spend more. Meanwhile, the companies that own and lease tank cars for transporting oil and other flammable liquids have been waiting for regulators to approve a better design.

The railroad industry petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation in March 2011 for a more robust tank-car design. Rather than wait for an answer, the industry began its own upgrades later that year. But several recent derailments involving different types of crude oil have suggested that those cars don’t perform significantly better than those they replaced.

And unlike the controversy that surrounds other proposed solutions or doubts about their effectiveness, tank-car upgrades have the support of lawmakers, regulators, mayors, governors, community, and industry groups, and the National Transportation Safety Board.

“We certainly have been distracted from doing what is the most obvious safety improvement: the cars,” said Peter Goelz, former managing director of the NTSB.

The White House Office of Management and Budget is reviewing proposals that include an improved tank-car design. But the new rules aren’t scheduled to be published until May, frustrating many who’ve pushed for better tank cars for years.

In January, the NTSB included tank cars on its “Most Wanted List” of safety improvements.

For more than two decades, the NTSB has called for improving the most common type of tank car, the DOT-111. But those calls were largely ignored until railroads started carrying significantly larger volumes of domestically produced crude oil and ethanol.

The minimally reinforced cars were vulnerable to punctures in derailments, spilling their contents, which quickly caught fire. Such fires could compromise other cars by heating their contents to the point where they burst through the tank walls with explosive force.

“Once you get a leak and fire, that can spread to other cars,” said Greg Saxton, chief engineer for the Greenbrier Companies, which is building a tank car to tougher standards. “That’s the number one thing we want to do. We don’t want to have a leak.”

After a July 2013 oil train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board found that none of the cars in that incident was equipped with thermal protection. The cars that sustained only minor impact damage ripped open after fire exposure, violently releasing their pressurized contents as large fireballs.

The rail industry made a few modifications to DOT-111 cars manufactured since 2011, including shields that protected the bottom half of each end of the car and more reinforcement for valves and outlets. But an outer steel jacket to provide extra puncture resistance and insulation to protect the car’s contents from fire exposure were optional.

In recent derailments in West Virginia, Illinois, and Ontario, the newer cars, called CPC-1232s, lacked those extra safeguards.

“Do we need a new standard for tank cars? Absolutely,” said Ed Hamberger, president and chief executive of the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s principal advocacy group.

Those existing cars could be retrofitted with jackets and thermal insulation until new ones are built. But even those improvements are waiting for approval by the White House.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and three Democratic co-sponsors — Patty Murray of Washington state, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin — introduced a bill last week that would require an immediate ban on crude oil shipments in DOT-111 and non-jacketed CPC-1232 tank cars. It also would mandate that new cars meet a standard that exceeds any current requirement.

“No one wants to pull the trigger and say they should be removed,” Cantwell said in an interview. “We can’t wait to see a more aggressive plan.”

The redesigned tank car might look like the one the Canadian government proposed this month. It includes full-height shields on both ends, thermal insulation, and an outer jacket.

Last year, railroads agreed to limit oil train speeds to 40 mph in some densely populated areas and 50 mph everywhere else. But six of the most recent derailments cast doubt on the effectiveness of reducing speeds as a mitigation measure.

All the trains in the four most recent U.S. derailments that resulted in fires or spills were going under 40 mph. Three were traveling at less than 25 mph and one at just nine mph. In the two most recent Canadian wrecks, the trains were traveling at 38 and 43 mph.

The Federal Railroad Administration wants railroads to install electronic braking systems on trains that carry crude oil. But the industry opposes new braking requirements, and they wouldn’t address the vulnerabilities of tank cars to punctures and fire exposure.

Even those who support an “all of the above” approach to dealing with the problem say tank-car improvements are a crucial step.

“It’s unfortunate to have the NTSB investigating the same accident over and over again,” said Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman. “We’re overdue in addressing this issue with the DOT-111.”

Photo: blake.thornberry via Flickr

Bill Dana, NASA Test Pilot Who Helped Usher In Space Age, Dies At 83

By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — The black sky enveloped NASA test pilot Bill Dana as his X-15 rocket plane stopped climbing at 306,900 feet and began teetering back toward the small brown stretch of Mojave Desert more than 58 miles below.

“The horizon appeared as a ring of bright blue around the shell of the earth, with darkness above,” Dana later told NASA officials. “I knew I’d gotten all the altitude I needed to qualify as a space adventurer.”

William Harvey Dana, the famed test pilot who helped usher in the space age in the 1960s by routinely flying rocket planes to new supersonic speeds and stratospheric heights, has died. He was 83.

Dana died Tuesday at an assisted living facility near Phoenix from complications of progressive Parkinson’s disease. His death was announced Wednesday by NASA.

All military pilots are highly skilled, but test pilots have long been considered the best of the best. Like lead climbers who blaze a path up a mountain peak, test pilots help those who follow them avoid costly mistakes.

Dana was a square-jawed aviator during an age when pilots strapped into cutting-edge aircraft and blasted to the edges of the flight envelope — with little assurance they would return safely. It was the era chronicled in “The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book (and later a movie) about the early days of the space program.

Over Dana’s 48-year career, he flew more than 8,000 hours in more than 60 aircraft, including helicopters and wingless experimental rocket planes.

Several of the aircraft Dana piloted now hang in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. However, he is perhaps most associated with the X-15 rocket plane program, which demonstrated it was possible for a winged aircraft to fly to — and from — space. It was a feat that came 19 years before the space shuttle.

Dana was born in Pasadena, California, on Nov. 3, 1930, and raised in Bakersfield. He received a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Military Academy in 1952 and served four years as a pilot in the Air Force.

After earning a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from USC in 1958, he joined NASA as an aeronautical research engineer at the High-Speed Flight Station — now NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center — at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert.

A year later, Dana became a research pilot flying an array of aircraft that eventually led to his involvement with the X-15. It had taken about 50 years from the dawn of aviation for engineers to create an aircraft that could break the sound barrier and climb to 80,000 feet.

It took NASA and Inglewood plane manufacturer North American Aviation less than five years to develop and build the X-15, which could fly more than five times the speed of sound and climb to more than 240,000 feet. The program’s many accomplishments were later overshadowed by NASA’s success with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.

Only 12 men ever flew the X-15, including famed aviators Neil Armstrong and Joe Engle.

“We were as tight of a group as we could be, but we were all busy on other programs, as well,” Engle said. “Bill was one of those types of guys you don’t meet every day. He demanded respect from everyone around him.”

Dana flew the sleek, black aircraft 16 times, reaching a top speed of 3,897 mph and a peak altitude of 306,900 feet. He started flying the aircraft in 1965 and was the last man to fly it in 1968.

Dana was awarded civilian astronaut wings nearly 40 years later for two of his X-15 flights that exceeded altitudes of 50 miles. He didn’t receive that honor earlier because NASA did not give astronaut wings to its pilots.

Dana is survived by his wife, Judi, whom he married in 1962, and four children: Sidney, Matt, Janet and Leslie.

Photo: Luke Bryant via Flickr