DALLAS—Ethan Couch was behind the wheel of a pickup truck, reeking of booze when police confronted him. He had no driver’s license. Next to him was a passed-out, half-naked girl, and an open vodka bottle lay on the backseat floor.
Still, as one officer reported, the skinny, blond 15-year-old mouthed off as they questioned him. He said he had taken pre-law classes and knew what police could and couldn’t do to him. The officer cautioned him about the perils of drinking and driving, according to court records obtained by The Associated Press.
“I spoke with him at some length about the various consequences of his driving and drinking,” wrote Fort Worth, Texas, police officer W.E. Spakes, “such as effects on (his) driver’s license and his path in life, especially DWI and even killing someone in a DWI.”
Couch left that night in February 2013 with two citations and his mother, Tonya, who was called to the scene. Four months later, he drove drunk into a group of people helping a stranded motorist, killing four.
Long before Couch and his family became notorious for using an “affluenza” defense in that crash, they had multiple run-ins with the law, often flouting authority or relying on personal wealth to get out of trouble. The incidents, totaling at least 20, ranged from speeding tickets and financial disputes to reckless driving and assault, a review of police and court records shows.
On Thursday, Couch returned to the United States from Mexico, where he and his mother had fled in December after a video surfaced online appearing to show him at a party where people were drinking — a potential violation of the terms of his probation for the fatal accident.
A psychologist who evaluated Couch in 2013 introduced the “affluenza” term at trial in reference to Couch being coddled by his wealthy parents. He testified that Couch learned nothing from that first incident, court records show. The teen didn’t think he had done anything serious, Dr. G. Dick Miller said, and his mother lied to his father about it.
Couch also kept abusing substances, Miller testified. “I think he thought, ‘I can get away with this.’… That was what he was taught.”
Miller recommended that Couch be separated from his parents, who he said had “taught him a system that’s 180 degrees from rational. If you hurt someone, say you’re sorry. In that family, if you hurt someone, send some money.”
Fred Couch — the teen’s father, who is in the midst of divorcing Ethan’s mother for the second time — did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment. Tonya Couch spoke briefly to the AP, but declined to discuss the family’s most recent problems.
The Couches legal woes date to at least the late 1980s, records show.
Fred Couch’s roofing and construction company, Cleburne Sheet Metal, was sued in 1996 over a roughly $100,000 debt. Two plaintiff firms alleged he tried to move assets, and twice attempted to question him and Tonya Couch, court records show. The couple failed to show up for both depositions. A judge sanctioned them and gave them a deadline to pay, which they missed by several weeks.
Three years later, Fred Couch punched a supervisor for a contractor that hired his company after the man told his workers to stop using an unsafe table saw, according to an arrest report. Couch drove off; he later received a few days in jail and two years’ probation for the assault.
And in 2009, Fred Couch faced accusations that he sexually harassed a female employee, then fired her when she complained. Court records show he denied touching her inappropriately and showing her sex videos, among other things. The case settled on undisclosed terms a year later.
Tonya Couch’s encounters with the law include a 2003 reckless driving case in which court records say she intentionally forced a motorist off the road. She pleaded guilty, was fined and got probation, records show.
In early 2005, she lied about that charge on a form to renew her state nursing license. Regulators found out years later and took action. She failed to show for a 2012 disciplinary hearing and lost the vocational nursing license.
It was just a few months later when a Fort Worth police officer drove by a Dollar General store in Lakeside, a small town on the outskirts of Fort Worth, and saw a black pickup truck parked with its lights on.
Spakes, the officer, found an intoxicated Ethan Couch with the girl. According to court records, Couch told Spakes that he’d stopped to urinate and had only one drink, maybe two. Spakes described him as “very arrogant, a smart-mouthed kid that had a bit of an attitude with authority,” records show.
“I verbally got onto him trying to get him to see how badly he was messing up,” Spakes wrote in a report. “He has a hard time listening and has come from a family with wealth, and he appears to believe he’s privileged and entitled with no responsibility.”
Couch eventually acknowledged his behavior was wrong, Spakes wrote. Yet when a second officer, Lee Risdon of Lakeside police, handed Couch his citations, the teen replied, “Thanks for ruining my life … as though it was the fault of the police,” according to the report.
A month later, a municipal judge gave Couch six months’ probation for possessing and consuming alcohol as a minor. The judge also ordered him to complete an alcohol-awareness course and 12 hours of alcohol-related community service by June 19.
Records indicate Couch did not comply and, four days before the deadline, organized a party at the family’s second home outside the Fort Worth suburb of Burleson. Members of the crowd played beer pong and drank Miller Lite that some of them stole that night from Wal-Mart, according to an investigator’s report.
Couch, then 16, and a group of friends later piled into his family’s truck and sped down the road. When one told him to slow down, he accelerated and nearly hit a vehicle head-on. He swerved back into his lane and then veered into a ditch, striking the roadside crowd that was helping a disabled driver.
Couch’s blood-alcohol content was three times the legal limit, records show. Investigators estimated his speed was around 70 mph in a 40 mph zone. As he walked away from the scene of the crash, Couch told witnesses: “I’m Ethan Couch, I can get you out of this,” according to court testimony.
He was charged with four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault. His parents sent him to a treatment facility in California.
The center’s director, Jamison Monroe Jr., told the AP that Couch “had no structure, no proper role models and definitely no boundaries” when he was growing up.
Couch pleaded guilty to the charges. Then, during the punishment phase of his case, the “affluenza” defense emerged. Miller, the psychologist, testified that his parents had coddled him: “When the rules get tough, the Couches find another way to get it done.”
But with treatment, and separation from his family, Miller said he thought Couch could “learn to behave in a way that’s civil.”
Tarrant County juvenile Judge Jean Boyd sentenced Couch to 10 years’ probation after time in a state-run treatment facility. That decision drew outrage, but juvenile law experts say Texas emphasizes rehabilitating child offenders, in contrast to the state’s much tougher adult courts.
After sentencing, the family problems continued, records show. Fred Couch was charged in September 2014 with falsely identifying himself as a Lakeside police officer. He told an North Richland Hills, Texas, officer responding to a disturbance that he’d witnessed, “I have my Lakeside police stuff in the truck,” according to a report. He then displayed a shield-style badge. He has a March 18 court hearing.
In early 2015, Tonya Couch was cited after leaving the scene of a minor accident that she caused. Prosecutors later dismissed the case, according to court records.
Ethan Couch faces a Feb. 19 hearing, when a juvenile judge will decide whether his fatal crash case should be transferred to the adult legal system, where probation violations could result in up to 40 years in prison.
The father of one survivor of the drunken-driving crash said he hopes the justice system will finally deliver the kind of “tough love” that Couch’s family failed to provide.
“I don’t think you’re bound by your genetics or even your environment,” said Kevin McConnell, whose teenage son Lucas was among those who were hurt. “I think Ethan Couch could find redemption.”