On her way home from work, Breanna Mitchell swerved off the road. A tire blew on her white Mercury Mountaineer. The car knocked over a mailbox and ended up in the grass at the edge of a front lawn on Burleson-Retta Road, a two-lane, unlit blacktop without shoulders that cuts through a bucolic neighborhood outside Fort Worth. Nearby was a golf course and a private airport. Breanna was a 24-year-old chef at a private club, and though she loved her job, it often had her working late. That night, Saturday, June 15, 2013, it was past 11 when Hollie and Eric Boyles and their 21-year-old daughter, Shelby, came out of their house to help.
Within minutes, Brian Jennings, a youth minister returning from his son’s graduation party, stopped his pickup on the side of the road and offered assistance. He told the two middle-school-age boys in his truck to keep their seat belts on. Breanna was on the phone with her mom, explaining what had happened. As the group assessed the damage to her car, Eric moved his upturned mailbox into his garage.
That’s where he was when he heard the crash. A neighbor who was watching a movie with headphones on heard it, too, and came out into the street to investigate. Another neighbor nearly half a mile away thought he’d heard an explosion.
A red Ford F-350 was going more than 70 mph when it barreled out of the darkness, off the road, and into the grass, slamming into the Mountaineer and then Breanna, Hollie, Shelby, and Brian, killing them all. The truck, loaded with six teenagers in the cab and two in the bed, then hit the pickup with the two buckled-up boys, and flipped into a tree. The collision sent the minister’s pickup into the road, where it hit an oncoming Volkswagen Beetle.
Recordings of seven 911 calls, placed within four minutes of each other, capture the chaos. A woman tells the operator she has just driven up to the scene of an accident and then interrupts herself: “Oh, there’s another child in the ditch!” The operator tells her to stop screaming and asks how many cars are involved. “Ma’am, I can’t tell,” the woman says. “It’s dark! There’s kids laying in ditches! There’s kids laying in the street!” In the background there is moaning.
On another recording, a man is overheard telling his son to sit down and pray, to not look at the carnage. “Who is that?” the boy asks. Then: “Oh, my God!” The operator asks the father how many people are injured, and the father starts to count: “One, two, three—multiple. I don’t even know how many.”
Another call comes from a drunken teenage boy. “We need some ambulances,” he says, slurring. “It’s bad. We flipped and—” He pauses as he sees body parts in the street. “Oh, God.” The operator asks how many people need help. “Dude,” the boy says, “I have no idea.”
Burning rubber and gasoline vapor filled the air. Pieces of mangled metal and human remains were scattered over nearly 300 feet of road. A Tarrant County Sheriff’s deputy said the scene “looked more like a plane crash than a car wreck.”
The driver of the F-350, 16-year-old Ethan Couch, was seen walking away from the wreckage. His blood-alcohol level was .24, three times the legal limit for an adult. He also had Valium and marijuana in his system.
Ethan eventually pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter for killing Breanna, Hollie, Shelby, and Brian, and two counts of intoxication assault for the two teenagers who were injured when they were thrown from the bed of the truck as it flipped. But his defense lawyers presented a surprising argument during his sentencing hearing. Describing how the boy had been a victim of his own family’s wealth and how he had grown up without repercussions for bad behavior, a psychologist used the word “affluenza.” After three days of testimony, Judge Jean Boyd sentenced Ethan, the spoiled kid who had wrought such pain and destruction, not to prison, but to time in a cushy California rehab and 10 years of probation.
The case—and that portmanteau, “affluenza”—sparked national outrage. “It’s disgusting!” Dr. Drew Pinsky told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “It’s a cute, clever twist of a phrase that the psychologist should be ashamed of himself for having brought in the courtroom. And even more shameful is the judge for having fallen for that nonsense.” This was the son of a well-off family escaping consequences by saying he’d always avoided consequences. It was proof of separate justice systems in this country, one for the rich and another for the poor, and Ethan became the face of wealth and privilege.
His parents, Tonya and Fred Couch, have declined to comment publicly. But court documents stretching back more than a decade tell the disturbing story of how, with the perfect combination of indulgence, addiction, abuse, and neglect, they created a nightmare.
After the crash, the world was introduced to Ethan through his Facebook profile picture, a selfie taken in a bathroom mirror. He’s wearing a neon-green tank top and a backward baseball cap. His eyes are barely visible behind his shaggy strawberry blond bangs. He looks like every cocky, rich 16-year-old in every suburb in America. He seems to have lost all traces of the sweet boy he was at 9.
When Fred and Tonya divorced, in 2006, the court ordered psychological evaluations of them and Ethan. A social worker was assigned to interview Fred and Tonya separately and to talk to Ethan at both homes. The subsequent report runs nine pages.
Fred told the social worker that their marriage had been a “mistake from the start.” He said that Tonya had a pill addiction and that she’d given Vicodin to Ethan more than once. He said that she’d threatened to commit suicide and that she referred to 9-year-old Ethan as her “protector.” At the time, Ethan slept most nights in a separate bed his mother moved into her bedroom.
Tonya said the marriage ended because Fred had been verbally and physically abusive. She said he’d call her names, that he often grabbed her by the hair, and that he once “threw her into a fireplace.” She said Fred pushed and choked the daughter from her first marriage and that during a fight he’d threatened to “burn the house down.” Ethan’s half-sister told the social worker that she had seen Fred “slap her mother when she was pregnant with Ethan.” Tonya also accused him of having multiple affairs and manipulating family members with money.
The police were called to their house often—including during the social worker’s visit with Fred—and though officers occasionally advised Fred to leave the residence, there were no arrests. Fred was arrested at one point when he punched someone on a construction site, but he didn’t serve time.
Both parents admitted that they never followed court-mandated visitation schedules. Ethan mostly lived with his mother in a 4,000-square-foot ranch house in Burleson, the home the family had shared from the time Ethan was 3 until his parents filed for divorce. It sits on 6 acres and has a pool, a playground, a barn, and a 6,000-square-foot workshop out back. An open floor plan and a large wet bar made the house great for entertaining. Fred would stop by a few times a week, and once in a while Ethan would stay with his father, though Tonya said Fred “doesn’t properly supervise Ethan.” Fred’s response: “I am not a mom.”
Teri Flamming lives next door to the Burleson house. “They were decent neighbors,” she says of the Couches. But in this neighborhood, she says, people generally keep to themselves. Most of the houses have big fences. Most of the driveways have tall gates. When her girls were little, they sometimes played with Ethan. She says he was “just a polite, normal child.”
The social worker also described Ethan as “polite” and “patient.” Ethan told the social worker that his favorite subjects in school were math and PE. He said he liked school and maintained good grades, despite being absent 50 days during his kindergarten year and more than 40 days of his second-grade year. Little Ethan loved his parents and wanted to see his dad more, but said that he “wants to feel secure.” He said his parents yelled at each other a lot, and he wished they “wouldn’t put him in the middle.”
At the conclusion of the report, the social worker wrote, “Fred and Tonya Couch continue to exhibit a high degree of animosity and conflict.” The biggest concerns were “the codependent relationship Ethan has with his mother and the father’s lack of a regular and consistent relationship with Ethan,” along with the fact that “both parents have ‘adultified’ Ethan and have allowed him to become overly involved in adult issues and decisions.”
Ethan had his own motorcycle and four-wheeler, but during his interviews, he was more eager to show the social worker his bedroom and the fenced area in the backyard where the dogs lived. As Fred talked to the police that day, the social worker stayed with Ethan, noting that the little boy “appeared to be indifferent to the presence of the police cars and officers.”