Answer Man

‘Affluenza’ teen’s parents had problems too

Returning to Texas from Los Angeles, Tonya Couch, mother of Ethan Couch, arrives escorted by sheriff’s deputies at the Tarrant County Jail in Fort Worth, Texas, on Jan. 7.
Returning to Texas from Los Angeles, Tonya Couch, mother of Ethan Couch, arrives escorted by sheriff’s deputies at the Tarrant County Jail in Fort Worth, Texas, on Jan. 7. Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Q: I have been following the story of the “affluenza” teen who killed four people while driving drunk. The media keeps referring to his wealth. Just how rich are these people and where did they make their money? And what became of the judge who gave him the sentence of 10 years probation?

Catherine Stoltz, of Belleville

A: If you followed only the headlines, it was understandably easy to become outraged over this tragic case.

Blessed with a life of privilege, a 16-year-old brat who has thumbed his nose at authority for years gets smashed and kills four when he plows his truck into a group of people standing near a disabled SUV.

At his trial, the defense pulls out a Twinkie defense: Because of his family’s affluence, he did not understand the consequences of his decisions. A psychologist testifying on his behalf called it “affluenza.” A sympathetic judge took pity and sentenced him to probation.

But if you dig deeper into this troubled teen’s background, you may decide “affluenza” only begins to explain his amoral behavior. Instead, you uncover two parents with major problems of their own who probably should have had intense counseling and parenting classes before ever attempting to raise a child. And while this may not excuse Ethan Couch’s actions, you may find it explains a lot.

Ethan’s father, Fred, 50, was born in West Virginia, but graduated from high school in Mineral Wells, Texas, in 1983. He was a 17-year-old senior when he met a 30-year-old woman named Gaye, who would soon become his first wife.

By the time he was 21, he had founded Cleburne Sheet Metal, which does large-scale metal roofing. According to business research company Hoover’s, the company now employs 40 and has estimated annual sales of just under $10 million.

So, long before Ethan was even born, his father had developed his own sense of entitlement. During a deposition for one of his son’s trials, Couch was asked if, during a 1992 DWI stop of his own, he bragged to a police officer, “I make more in a day than you make in a year.” He answered, “Probably.”

Ethan’s mother, Tonya, 48, was born in Paris, Texas, and quit school when she was 15. Married and pregnant by the time she was 18, she divorced less than 10 years later. She earned a GED and worked briefly as a vocational nurse before winding up at Couch’s sheet metal business doing odd jobs. After briefly dating, they married in 1996 and had Ethan the following April.

When Ethan was 3, they moved into a 4,000-square-foot ranch house in Burleson, Texas. It sits on six acres and has a pool, playground, barn and 6,000-square-foot workshop. But almost from the beginning, the marriage apparently was anything but happy. During divorce proceedings in 2006, Fred told a social worker the marriage has been a “mistake from the start.” He said Tonya had a drug habit and that she gave Ethan the painkiller Vicodin more than once. She also kept Ethan’s bed in her room and considered him to be her “protector.”

Tonya accused Fred of being both physically and verbally abusive. She charged he often grabbed her by her hair and once “threw her into a fireplace.” She said he also had multiple affairs and tried to manipulate family members with his wealth. Police reportedly were called to the house often.

Ethan wound up in the middle of a tug-of-war between a mother who coddled him and a father often filled with rage. LeVonna Anderson, the head of a private school where Ethan was enrolled about the time of the divorce, testified the couple frequently engaged in screaming matches in the school parking lot, usually in front of Ethan.

“He’d been angry since childhood,” a psychologist said of Fred during the trial. “So there’s a litany of times where he had disagreements with people, and he wants to go outside and settle it.”

After the divorce, Fred built a 7,000-square-foot house on three acres in northwest Fort Worth. It featured a two-story guesthouse and an even bigger workshop than the one in Burleson. He also continued to demand that he set the rules. When Ethan was 13, Anderson noticed that he was driving himself to school. She quickly earned Fred’s wrath for questioning it. If she didn’t like it, Fred threatened more or less to buy the school.

“He was adamant that Ethan was going to drive to school,” Anderson told D Magazine. “He believed his son was better. His son was more talented. He was the golden boy.”

For his part, Ethan told social workers his parents always “yelled at each other a lot” and that he wished they wouldn’t put him in the middle. Eventually, he began to escape through drugs and alcohol. On July 4, 2011, for example, Fred found his 14-year-old son passed out from drinking rum. Apparently annoyed that Ethan wouldn’t be able to take part in the family’s traditional fireworks display, he reportedly went out and shot them off with other kids in the neighborhood.

Three months before, Fred and Tonya had remarried but their lives, too, remained mired in trouble. In 2012, Tony had her nursing license revoked for failing to disclose a reckless driving charge in 2003, according to the Texas Board of Nursing. In the summer of 2014, Fred was charged with impersonating a police officer after police responded to a disturbance call. In all, the pair have been accused of about two dozen criminal and traffic offenses, although neither has served any jail time.

Meanwhile, Ethan’s life continued to spiral out of control. By January 2013, Ethan, then 16, was living by himself or with his cousin a few days a week at the Burleson home, which by now had only a bed, couch, Xbox and TV. A month later, police found him urinating in the parking lot of a Lakeside, Texas, Dollar General. Inside his truck was a nude 14-year-old girl and open containers of beer and vodka. Tonya came to pick up her son, who was ticketed only for possession and consumption by a minor. And the girl? “Her mom picked her up, I assume,” Tonya said in her deposition. “I guess. I don’t know.”

Just four months after that came the horrific accident. After cameras caught him stealing two cases of beer at Walmart, Ethan would drive his father’s F-350 pickup 70 mph in a 40 mph zone, lose control and crash. The crash killed four and injured nine. He had a blood alcohol level of 0.24, three times the legal limit for an adult driver.

Psychologist Dr. Dick Miller would blame it on “affluenza,” although after the trial he said he regretted using the term because it trivialized a widespread phenomenon. He did, however, testify that instead of the golden rule, Ethan was taught “We have the gold; we make the rules.” He also said Ethan probably inherited an anxiety disorder from his father — either he’s loud and pushy or he’s frightened.

As for Judge Jean Hudson Boyd, she said the “affluenza” argument did not sway her but felt that because of the family’s financial position Ethan would receive more appropriate treatment in a rehabilitation center than a youth detention center. Nevertheless, more than 30,000 people signed an online petition for her removal, and, on Dec. 31, 2014, Boyd retired as presiding judge of Texas’ 323rd District Court.

Media notes: Former KMOV-TV reporter Jasmine Huda has moved to Fox 2-KTVI, where, starting Monday, she will join Shirley Washington to anchor a new 11 p.m. newscast. Meanwhile, Doug McElvein, a 22-year veteran at KMOX, was laid off at the end of last year.

Today’s trivia

Who was the only president sworn into office by his father?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: In the 1930s, mobster Louis “Lepke” Buchalter developed an efficient way of performing contract killings. Cosa Nostra gangsters would tell him whom they wanted rubbed out and he would assign the job to Brooklyn street gang members. Eventually the press would call it Murder Inc. It finally caught up to him. In 1941, another mobster ratted him out, testifying he had overheard Buchalter order the killing of Joseph Rosen, a Brooklyn candy store owner. Buchalter was found guilty and, three years later, became the only major mob figure ever executed by the government.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer