Fort Worth

‘Affluenza’ teen grew up in wealthy but unstable home

Ethan Couch, the 18-year-old fugitive who is starting the new year in a Mexico City immigration detention center, grew up in an affluent yet unstable household with parents who pulled him into the vortex of their dysfunction, Johnson County divorce court records show.

The records provide a revealing backdrop to recent chapters in Couch’s troubled life, including driving drunk and killing four people, and fleeing with his mother to Mexico when it seemed likely that his probation in the case would be revoked, sending him to a lockup.

He and his mother, Tonya Couch, 48, were arrested Monday in Puerto Vallarta after using a cellphone to order a pizza, according to previous news reports.

U.S. marshals brought Tonya Couch back to the U.S. early Thursday. She remained in custody Friday in Los Angeles with bail set at $1 million and a court hearing set for Tuesday morning.

But a Mexican judge granted an injunction delaying Ethan Couch’s 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.

‘Mistake from start’

When Fred and Tonya Couch divorced in Johnson County in 2006, the judge ordered psychological evaluations of the parents and Ethan, their only child, who was then 9. Fred Couch, now 50, told a social worker that their marriage had been a “mistake from the start,” court documents show.

He said that his wife was addicted to Vicodin and had given the painkiller to their son about five times. Ethan’s bed was in her room and she 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” their child, 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 3,964-square-foot ranch-style house at 1719 Burleson Retta Road in Burleson, deed records show. The house, built in 1974, sits on 6 acres.

She and Fred Couch bought the property in 2000, but the deed was transferred into Tonya Couch’s name in 2007 after the divorce, according to deed records.

Sometime in 2011, they remarried, according to depositions in civil suits against them after Ethan’s 2013 drunken crash, D magazine reported.

Tonya Couch’s nursing license was revoked in 2012 for failing to disclose a reckless driving charge in 2003, according to the Texas Board of Nursing.

Fred Couch had 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 leaving school at age 15. It was unclear whether he earned his high school diploma.

The crash

On June 15, 2013, Ethan Couch was 16 and living alone in the house on Burleson Retta Road when he had a party with several friends and lots of alcohol. With seven of the teens in his pickup, he was speeding to a convenience store when he crashed into a disabled SUV parked on the side of Burleson Retta.

Four people were killed, several, including passengers in his pickup, were injured. He later pleaded guilty in juvenile court to four counts of intoxication man slaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury.

During the sentencing phase of his trial, a defense expert mentioned that his parents had coddled him into irresponsibility — a condition the expert termed affluenza. The condition is not recognized as a medical diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association, and its mention drew ridicule. But the label became firmly affixed to the case in the media.

The judge sentenced Couch to 10 years’ probation and time in locked down rehab, a sentence that also fired up media and social media comment.

On Aug. 10, Tonya Couch sold the house on Burleson Retta Road, online records show. The Tarrant Appraisal District values the house at $343,000.

Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson has said he believes the mother and son fled Texas in late November after a video surfaced that appears to show Ethan Couch at a party where people were drinking. He said authorities have no evidence that Fred Couch was involved in the plan to flee.

Authorities began searching for them after Ethan Couch missed a mandatory Dec. 10 appointment with his probation officer.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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