Fort Worth

Affluenza frenzy: Ethan Couch story just keeps on giving

Tonya Couch arraigned on charges of hindering apprehension

Mother of "affluenza" teen Ethan Couch has her first day in Tarrant county court, before Judge Wayne F. Salvant in Criminal District Court 2
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Mother of "affluenza" teen Ethan Couch has her first day in Tarrant county court, before Judge Wayne F. Salvant in Criminal District Court 2

For TV news producer Scott Filipski, the saga of Ethan Couch has it all: A wealthy and troubled teen on the run from the law, blowing his second chance with the help of his mother.

Filipski knew the story would resonate with his audience.

“It’s right in our sweet spot,” Filipski said this week.

Filipski, it should be noted, works for a morning news show in Japan.

Since fleeing Tarrant County and being captured in Mexico, Ethan Couch and his mother, Tonya, have received local, national and international attention — on social media, radio and TV talk shows and major news outlets.

Tonya Couch appeared in a Tarrant County courtroom Friday morning, a day after arriving from Los Angeles to a horde of reporters and photographers at the back entrance of the Tarrant County jail. TV trucks had waited on her arrival for hours.

At least one local network livestreamed her caravan from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to Fort Worth.

Sheriff Dee Anderson says Tonya Couch is complaining about jail accommodations. (Star-Telegram/Rodger Mallison)

While she has a bond reduction hearing scheduled for Monday, Ethan Couch remains in a jail in Mexico, where he’s fighting extradition to the United States.

The teen became infamous in 2013, when he drove drunk and crashed in southern Tarrant County, killing four people and injuring others, a crime for which he received 10 years’ probation. During his trial, a psychologist made a passing reference to Ethan Couch suffering from “affluenza,” causing many to believe he was given a light sentence because of his family’s wealth.

This is not only mainstream media, but entertainment news, too, like TMZ. I’ve been on Inside Edition. That’s not normal for crime stories.

Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson

A recent string of incidents has thrust him back in the spotlight — the Twitter video of him allegedly partying, a missed probation appointment, a two-week flight from authorities with his mother.

“The most interesting qualities [of news] are money, family, health, community outrage and public safety,” said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute. “This has a little bit of all of them.”

The story has been hard to miss, with local media covering every misstep of the Couch’s unraveling, from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to Los Angeles to Fort Worth. But its reach has gone far beyond North Texas.

In the last month, the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and TV networks CNN and BBC News have had regular coverage of the mother and son. And last week, the Daily Mail, a British tabloid, sent a reporter to the Fort Worth home of retired state district Judge Jean Boyd, who put Couch on probation in 2013. Boyd, according to the story, “scurried inside” and refused to talk.

Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said he receives about 100 calls a day from media.

“It’s unprecedented,” said Anderson, who was the Arlington police spokesman for another high-profile case in 1996 when 6-year-old Amber Hagerman was kidnapped and killed.

For the Couch story, Anderson has fielded interview requests from Fort Worth to Japan and Australia.

“This is not only mainstream media, but entertainment news, too, like TMZ,” Anderson said. “I’ve been on Inside Edition. That’s not normal for crime stories.”

‘Will it ever end?’

While Tarrant County’s latest “Most Wanted” list features a fugitive accused of murder and two accused of aggravated assault, Ethan Couch has become one of the country’s best-known and most ridiculed criminals.

Tonya Couch has a bond reduction hearing at 1:30 p.m. Monday in Fort Worth.

Last week, the New Yorker published a cartoon showing a man resembling the teen sitting in a doctor’s office. “You tested negative for affluenza,” the cartoon read, “but positive for hepatitis B.S.”

One Facebook meme poking fun at Ethan Couch was shared more than 68,000 times. It shows a woman spanking a young boy with the caption: “Get your affluenza vaccine before it’s too late.”

“I don’t know if I’ve ever covered something that’s garnered such strong reactions,” said WFAA reporter Todd Unger, who traveled to Mexico the morning after the Couches were captured.

Their arrests ended a search led by the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department and the U.S. Marshals Service.

But on the morning they were scheduled to be returned Texas, another twist developed: Ethan Couch hired a Mexican attorney and filed a “writ of amparo.” Instead of returning to Tarrant County, Ethan Couch was granted an injunction that allowed him to stay in Mexico; his mother was later flown to Los Angeles.

Sheriff Anderson tweeted: “Is anyone surprised the Couch duo are putting up legal fight to not return and face justice? Not me. Will it ever end?”

Facebook comments on news stories have ranged from crude jokes to pure outrage.

“It really is a story where every nugget you have is something people seem to respond to,” Unger said. “And every new nugget, for better or worse, portrays [the Couches] in a negative light.”

The same Daily Mail story that noted an encounter with Boyd also featured a picture of drug kingpin El Chapo, pointing out that he and Ethan Couch reportedly frequented the same strip club in Puerto Vallarta.

And this was before the Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was recaptured.

The tabloid later reported that “the spoiled rotten ‘affluenza’ teen Ethan Couch” pawned a Rolex watch to pay a $2,000 bar tab while in Mexico.

Mom elevates scandal

Mary Angela Bock, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, attributed some of the interest in the Couch case to a lighter news month in December. His story provided a “respite” from presidential campaign coverage, she said.

Women are also a very attractive target. Their motherhood is fair game.

Mary Angela Bock, journalism professor at UT-Austin

But Bock said the involvement of Tonya Couch also kicked it up a notch.

“The public — the audience — loves to feel like we’re on moral high ground,” Bock said. “Women are also a very attractive target. Their motherhood is fair game.”

Nicholas Lemann, Dean Emeritus of the Columbia Journalism School and a former Texas Monthly editor, said the Couch story has had “two magic elements:” The natural allure of a manhunt, and the label of “affluenza,” which taps into a larger theme about wealth.

“It’s always overkill, in a sense, because this category of a story doesn’t inherently deserve the amount of coverage it’s getting,” Lemann said. “It’s serving a kind of symbolic function in society.”

At Fuji TV, Filipski prepared two U.S.-related stories this week: The armed takeover of a federal wildlife preserve in Oregon, and the Couches.

“Parents themselves tend to be extremely judgmental of other parents’ choices,” Filipski said. “It’s very easy to finger-wag at the Couch mother.”

At Ethan Couch’s sentencing hearing in December 2013, Judge Boyd made it clear who she felt was to blame.

“Ethan, you are responsible for what you did, not your parents,” Boyd told the teen.

Still a juvenile

What makes Ethan Couch’s situation more unusual is that he’s still under terms of juvenile probation.

Juvenile cases — or at least the names of juvenile offenders — often don’t become public unless they are transferred to an adult court, said Sarah Bryer, the director of the National Juvenile Justice Network.

The Star-Telegram typically does not identify juvenile offenders and did not identify Couch during his trial. His name was published after he became a public figure.

Couch has a Tarrant County hearing scheduled for Jan. 19, when a juvenile court judge will decide whether to transfer his case to the adult probation system.

26.1 million hits on Google when searching for “Ethan Couch”

A violation of an adult probation could send him to prison. But for violating a juvenile probation, it’s likely the damage to his reputation will outweigh any punishment he receives from the court.

Bryer called that kind of exposure a “really big concern” for any punished juvenile who wants to someday contribute to society.

“Either we believe that young people are developing and they can be rehabilitated or we don’t,” Bryer said. “If we believe they can be — and there is definite research that they can be — then it feels like to have that sort of digital footprint, it’s hard to go back on that.”

Ryan Osborne: 817-390-7684, @RyanOsborneFWST

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