Before ‘affluenza’ case, teen’s family tangled with the law

Published 8:24 am Friday, January 29, 2016

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.”

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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.