The Texas teenager who used an “affluenza” defense in a deadly drunken-driving wreck grew up in a wealthy yet unstable household where his parents underwent an acrimonious divorce, which included accusations that his mother was addicted to pain pills and his father was abusive.
The divorce provides a revealing backdrop for the latest chapter in Ethan Couch’s troubled life: He and his mother were arrested Monday after fleeing to Mexico while he was on probation and using one of their phones to order a pizza delivered to a condo in the resort city of Puerto Vallarta.
Couch’s path into the national spotlight began in June 2013, when he was driving drunk and speeding south of Fort Worth and crashed into a disabled SUV parked on the side of the road. The collision killed four people and injured several others, including passengers in his pickup truck. He pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury.
During the sentencing phase of his trial, a defense expert argued that his wealthy parents had coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility — a condition the expert termed “affluenza.” The condition is not recognized as a medical diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association, and its invocation drew ridicule.
A judge sentenced him in juvenile court to 10 years’ probation and a stint in a rehabilitation center.
When Fred and Tonya Couch divorced in 2006, the court ordered psychological evaluations of both parents and Ethan, their only child. Fred Couch, now 50, told a social worker that their marriage had been a “mistake from the start,” Johnson County court documents show.
He said that his wife, now 48, was addicted to Vicodin and had given the painkiller to their son about five times. She also kept his bed in her room and considered him to be her “protector.”
Tonya Couch said the marriage ended because her husband had been verbally and physically abusive. She said there was daily name-calling, that he often grabbed her by the hair and that he once “threw her into a fireplace.”
Ethan Couch said his parents had always “yelled at each other a lot,” and he wished that they “wouldn’t put him in the middle.”
The social worker concluded that the Couches had “adultified” a then-9-year-old Ethan, allowing him to become overly involved in adult issues and decisions.
After his parents’ divorce, the Couches’ son lived mainly with his mother in a gated, 5,000-square-foot ranch home set on 6 acres of land in rural Burleson, Texas.
Tonya Couch had her nursing license revoked in 2012 for failing to disclose a reckless driving charge in 2003, according to the Texas Board of Nursing.
Fred Couch founded Cleburne Metal Works, which does large-scale metal roofing, in 1986. The company employs 40 people and has estimated annual sales of $9.59 million, according to business research company Hoover’s. Ethan Couch worked there after finishing school at age 15. It was unclear whether he received a high school diploma or GED.
Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson has said he believes the mother and son fled in late November after a video surfaced that appears to show Couch at a party where people were drinking. He said authorities have no evidence that Couch’s father was involved in the getaway.
Authorities began searching for the pair after Ethan Couch missed a mandatory Dec. 10 appointment with his probation officer.
On Wednesday, the 18-year-old won a delay in deportation. The ruling could lead to a much longer court process if a judge decides Couch has grounds to challenge his deportation based on arguments that kicking him out of Mexico would violate his rights. The judge has three days to consider the appeal.
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, said Richard Hunter, chief deputy for the U.S. Marshals Service in South Texas.
Couch’s mother, Tonya Couch, was brought through Los Angeles International Airport early Thursday after a flight from Mexico. She was in the custody of marshals.
It was unclear why she was brought to Los Angeles and where she would be taken next. A U.S. Marshals Service spokesman said he could not reveal details about her trip.
If found to have violated his probation, it could be revoked and Couch could face up to four months in jail. Once returned to Texas, he will be held in a county facility until a probation violation hearing Jan. 19.
District Attorney Sharen Wilson has said she plans to ask a judge to transfer the case to adult court, where Couch could get up to 120 days in an adult jail, followed by 10 years of probation. If he violates probation again, he could face up to 10 years in prison per death, Wilson said.