The Enraging Crimes Of Ethan Couch, The ‘Affluenza Teen’ Who Killed Four Pedestrians While Driving Drunk

Published March 12, 2024
Updated April 8, 2024

After 16-year-old Ethan Couch pleaded guilty to four counts of manslaughter in 2013, his attorneys argued that he shouldn't have to go to prison because he grew up so wealthy that he'd never been taught that his actions have consequences.

Ethan Couch was drunk when he got behind the wheel of his father’s truck on June 15, 2013. He had a blood alcohol content of 0.24, three times the legal limit. But though he plowed through a group of pedestrians that night, killing four and injuring nine others, Couch got off with a slap on the wrist. A member of his defense team argued that he’d grown up so privileged that he suffered from “affluenza,” and the teen soon became known to the media as the “affluenza kid.”

The term infuriated Americans across the country, many of whom saw it as another “get-out-of-jail-free” card for the very wealthy. And what little sympathy people had for Couch and his family further evaporated when he and his mother fled the country after he violated his parole. The two fugitives were swiftly arrested in Mexico in 2015 and hauled home.

Ethan Couch

Tribune Content Agency LLC / Alamy Stock PhotoEthan Couch in 2016, three years after he killed four pedestrians while driving drunk in Burleson, Texas.

But the story of Ethan Couch is more complex than “affluenza.” Couch certainly grew up wealthy, but he also suffered from a chaotic and neglectful childhood. A social worker who visited the family when Couch was nine noted that his parents had allowed him to become “overly involved in adult issues.” And on the night of the crash, the 16-year-old was more or less living on his own.

This is the full story of Ethan Couch, the “affluenza teen” whose case enraged the nation.

The Troubled Childhood Of The ‘Affluenza Kid’

Born on April 11, 1997, to Tonya and Fred Couch, Ethan Couch appeared to have a privileged childhood from the outside. He grew up the son of millionaires in a 4,000-square-foot home in Burleson, Texas, that included a pool, a playground, and a barn. But Couch’s home life was tumultuous.

As D Magazine reported in a 2015 article entitled “The Worst Parents Ever,” Couch’s mother and father had a toxic and often violent relationship. When they divorced in 2006, Fred told a social worker that their marriage had been a “mistake from the start” and that his wife was addicted to pills. Tonya claimed that Fred was manipulative and physically and verbally abusive.

The social worker described Ethan Couch as a “polite” and “patient” nine-year-old boy whose favorite classes were P.E. and math. He loved his parents but wished they “wouldn’t put him in the middle.” The social worker, who also noted that the boy had missed full weeks of school in kindergarten and second grade, found that Tonya and Fred had “‘adultified’ Ethan and… allowed him to become overly involved in adult issues and decisions.”

Fred And Tonya Couch

Public DomainFred and Tonya Couch answering questions for a deposition related to a civil lawsuit.

As he got older, “affluenza kid” Ethan Couch started getting into trouble — but his parents turned a blind eye. When he drove himself to school at the age of 13, Fred Couch boasted that his son didn’t need college and threatened to “buy the school.” (Couch was subsequently enrolled in a homeschooling program). When Couch was 15, police caught him with open containers of beer and vodka in his truck — along with a naked, unconscious 14-year-old girl.

By the time Ethan Couch was 16, his parents had reconciled and moved into a new home. But Couch was still living at the Burleson ranch, where he spent many nights alone. The Couches later claimed that their son was there to prepare the house for sale. It was empty except for a bed, a couch, an Xbox, and a TV.

Ethan Couch was at the ranch on June 15, 2013, when, unsupervised, he invited several friends to come over and drink beer.

How Ethan Couch Killed Four People While Driving Drunk

On June 15, 2013, Couch and seven other teenagers gathered to play beer pong — Couch had stolen beer from Walmart that afternoon — and take shots of Everclear. As the night went on, one teenager, Starr Teague, told Couch that she needed to go to a convenience store.

According to a 2015 article from ABC News, Couch and the other teenagers then piled into his father’s red Ford F-350 truck. Six sat up front in the cab; the other two clambered into the truck bed. None of them put on seat belts.

“I was very, very hesitant [to get in the truck],” Teague, the only teen who wasn’t drinking, later testified. “It didn’t feel right getting in.”

Nearby, 24-year-old Breanna Mitchell had been forced to swerve off the road when a tire blew on her Mercury Mountaineer. The commotion drew the attention of Eric Boyles, his wife Hollie, and their 21-year-old daughter Shelby, who emerged from their home to help. It also caught the eye of youth pastor Brian Jennings, 41, who pulled over to offer his assistance.

Boyles Family

Eric BoylesHollie and Shelby Boyles, left and center, were killed when they and Eric Boyles, right, tried to help a motorist in distress.

Eric Boyles briefly left the scene to remove a damaged mailbox. He didn’t see the moment that Ethan Couch rounded the bend and plowed straight into Mitchell, Jennings, and the two Boyles women — but he heard the crash.

“I didn’t know what it was,” he later told ABC News. “I didn’t think that it would involve my wife and daughter. But I knew immediately it wasn’t good.”

Couch had been driving 70 miles per hour down narrow roads with a speed limit of 40 miles per hour, swerving and “playing chicken” with other cars. As he zigzagged down Burleson Retta Road, he smashed straight into the four pedestrians and sent Jennings’ car spinning across the street into oncoming traffic.

Bodies and debris lay strewn across the road. A sheriff’s deputy who responded to the spate of 911 calls that poured in remarked that the scene “looked more like a plane crash than a car wreck.” But though Mitchell, Jennings, and Hollie and Shelby Boyles were dead — and nine other people were hurt — Ethan Couch was able to walk away without serious injury.

Ethan Couch's Pickup Truck

Tarrant County Sheriff’s OfficeThe remains of the pickup truck Ethan Couch was driving on June 15, 2023.

He later admitted that he hardly remembered pulling out of the driveway that night. The next thing the 16-year-old did recall was “waking up handcuffed to the hospital bed.”

The Sentencing Trial Of The ‘Affluenza Kid’

In the aftermath of the crash, police found that Ethan Couch had a blood alcohol level of 0.24 — three times the legal limit for an adult — as well as Valium and marijuana in his system. He was charged with four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault.

Couch agreed to plead guilty.

Affluenza Kid Ethan Couch

Public DomainEthan Couch during his taped deposition.

The horrific crash had drawn media attention, but it reached a fever pitch during Couch’s sentencing trial in December 2013. Then, a member of his defense team, Dr. G. Dick Miller, testified that the teen suffered from “affluenza.” The term suggested that Couch had lived such a privileged childhood and had suffered so few consequences for his bad behavior in the past that he didn’t know right from wrong and lacked culpability for his actions.

Couch’s parents “taught him a system that’s 180 degrees from rational,” Miller explained during the sentencing trial. “If you hurt someone, say you’re sorry. In that family, if you hurt someone, send some money.”

Miller’s point was that Couch’s parents had “strongly enabled” the fatal crash through their hands-off parenting, but the word “affluenza” drew outrage as it spread through the media. (Miller later admitted that he regretted using the term, telling CNN in 2013: “We used to call these people spoiled brats.”)

And the anger against Ethan Couch, the so-called “affluenza kid,” only increased when the judge handed down his sentence. Though he had killed four people, Couch would not serve any time in jail at all. Instead, he was sentenced to 10 years of probation and time in a rehab facility.

“I’m sure the judge is doing what she thinks is probably right for Ethan’s rehabilitation,” Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter in the crash, told The New York Times after Couch’s sentencing in 2013. “But from the victims’ standpoint, she underestimated the impact. Words can’t describe how disappointed I am in terms of how the judicial system works.”

To many following Couch’s case, however, things only got worse.

Ethan Couch’s Flight From The Law And Imprisonment

At the end of 2015, a six-second video was posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, which appeared to show Ethan Couch drinking in possible violation of his parole. Two weeks later, he and his mother fled the country.

Affluenza Kid Arrested In Mexico

Jalisco State Attorney General’s OfficeEthan Couch after his arrest in Mexico in 2015. He and his mother had attempted to change their appearances to avoid detection.

They were arrested in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on Dec. 28, 2015, where mother and son had changed their appearances in order to hide from the authorities. They were brought back to the United States, where Couch’s case was transferred to adult court. He was subsequently sentenced to 720 days in jail, 180 days for each person he’d killed back in June 2013.

Couch was released from jail in April 2018, about a week before his 21st birthday. The terms of his probation decreed that he could not drive or drink alcohol, nor could he leave the Fort Worth area without permission.

Affluenza Kid Leaving Jail

Tribune Content Agency LLC / Alamy Stock PhotoEthan Couch leaving jail in April 2018, shortly before his 21st birthday.

And though Couch was briefly sent back to jail in 2020 for failing a drug test — there was a “weak positive” for THC in his system — the “affluenza kid” has largely stayed out of the spotlight ever since. His probation formally ended in December 2023, meaning that, 10 years after the fatal accident, Ethan Couch is a free man.

But the memory of the crash on Burleson Retta Road will remain. Because of Couch’s actions that night — and, arguably, the actions of his parents — four innocent people lost their lives. To them and to many others, it seems that justice was never served.

After reading about the “affluenza kid” Ethan Couch, discover the stories of these six rich and famous people who probably got away with rape and murder. Then, learn about Diane Schuler, the “perfect” mom who killed eight people while driving.

Kara Goldfarb
Kara Goldfarb is a writer living in New York City who holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Ithaca College and hosts a podcast for Puna Press.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
Cite This Article
Goldfarb, Kara. "The Enraging Crimes Of Ethan Couch, The ‘Affluenza Teen’ Who Killed Four Pedestrians While Driving Drunk.", March 12, 2024, Accessed April 23, 2024.