Never-before-seen deposition tapes reveal new details of how Texas teen Ethan Couch and his parents viewed his privileged upbringing that became the core of his defense in the so-called “Affluenza” DUI case.
The deposition tapes, which were obtained by ABC News, are from a 2013 civil suit brought against Couch, his parents Tonya and Fred Couch, and the family’s multimillion-dollar sheet metal company Cleburne Sheet Metal after the teenager killed four people and paralyzed another in a fatal DUI car accident on June 15, 2013.
Couch and his parents did not testify at the criminal case that followed, so these tapes show the family talking about what happened in their own words for the first time under oath.
During the deposition, Ethan Couch, who was 16 years old at the time of the accident, described a privileged life seemingly with few rules or consequences. He testified that he did drugs, that he thought his mother knew he drank alcohol and warned him not to drink and drive the night of the accident, that his parents allowed him to start driving by himself at age 13, and that he often stayed alone in the family’s second home in Burleson, Texas.
Tonya and Fred Couch admitted in the deposition that they allowed their son to stay without supervision in the Burleson home and to drive before he was of legal age, but denied knowing about his drinking habits. Fred Couch testified that “[Ethan] seemed pretty responsible.”
When asked if she had ever disciplined Ethan for anything, Tonya Couch testified in the deposition that she would “sometimes ... take little things away from him or we would just discuss the problems.” When asked if she could recall the last time she disciplined her son, Tonya replied, “I don’t remember.”
On the night of June 15, 2013, Couch’s blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit when he got behind the wheel of his father’s red pick-up truck with seven other teens inside after a night of partying, authorities said.
That night, Couch barreled down the road at approximately 70 miles an hour when he lost control of the truck, swerved into a ditch and plowed into a group of people who were helping a stranded motorist on the side of the road, killing four of them instantly, authorities said.
When asked during the deposition if he remembered pulling out of the driveway, Ethan Couch said, “Not really.” The next thing he said he remembered was “waking up handcuffed to the hospital bed.”
Couch pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault on Dec. 4, 2013.
At the sentencing hearing, Couch’s legal team called prominent psychologist Dr. G. Dick Miller to the stand to testify on Couch’s behalf. Miller said that Couch’s upbringing and a lack of consequences for his actions caused him to suffer from “Affluenza.”
The prosecution advocated for Couch to receive a 20-year prison term, but instead he was sentenced to 10 years of probation and time in a rehab facility, a ruling that shocked the victims' families and made national headlines.
Following the criminal case ruling, six families whose relatives were involved in the fatal accident brought civil suits against the Couches and the family’s business. The Couches settled all of the suits without admitting any wrongdoing.
“Never once has Ethan apologized in any shape or form,” said Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter in the 2013 crash.
Another family, the McConnells, whose son Lucas, now 15, was injured in the crash, was the last family to settle. At first, they fought to take the Couches to court, which is what led Ethan Couch, his parents, Ethan’s friends and psychologist Dr. G. Dick Miller to be deposed.
During his deposition, Miller said he had “strongly” recommended in the criminal sentencing that Couch needed to be separated from his parents and that their parenting “strongly enabled” the deadly accident.
Fred Couch tried to distance himself from the “affluenza” defense during his deposition, testifying that, “I don’t even know that I believe affluenza is real.” He denied that he and Tonya Couch were “profoundly dysfunctional” parents and “never” taught Ethan the rules didn’t apply to him.
Tonya Couch also testified that she “never saw the child drink.” But Ethan’s friend Starr Teague testified in the deposition that she had been drinking with Ethan in front of his mother at the family’s Fort Worth home one week before the 2013 crash.
Even on the night of the crash, Teague testified that Ethan had been texting with his mother and she “knew that we were drinking, she was like, ‘well just don’t drink and drive.’”
Just four months before the fatal crash, police had stopped a 15-year-old Couch at 1 a.m., who was drunk and relieving himself in a parking lot. Though he was alleged to be in clear violation of five different laws that night, Couch got away with a summons and was sent home with his mother Tonya Couch, according to one of the McConnells' attorneys, Todd Clement.
During the deposition, Tonya Couch testified she didn’t tell Fred Couch that their son had been drunk the night of the parking lot incident because she “wasn’t sure how he would react” if he knew “the whole truth.”
As punishment for the summons, Fred Couch testified that he made Ethan walk to work for a month, but Ethan denied that ever happened. “I don’t remember ever having to walk to work,” he said during the deposition.
For that incident, Ethan was required to complete an alcohol awareness course and eight hours of community service within 90 days. But Tonya Couch testified in the deposition that her son never did the community service.
When asked by Greg Coontz, one of the McConnells' attorneys, if she understood that Ethan would likely continue drinking and driving if there weren’t consequences for his actions, Tonya Couch replied, “I should have, yes.”
“I should have known that,” she continued. “I really didn’t think that that would happen again.”
When Ethan Couch was asked during the deposition if there was “always alcohol” at the Burleson house, he said, “not always,” but “most of the time, yes.” He admitted to there being drugs at the house and proceeded to list the number of drugs he had tried.
“I’ve taken Valium, Hydrocodone, marijuana, cocaine, Xanax and I think I tried ecstasy once, pretty sure that was it,” Couch testified.
Nearly two and a half years since the June 2013 crash, Couch, who is now 18 years old and still on probation, is out of rehab and working at his father’s business, Cleburne Sheet Metal. The Couches declined “20/20’s” requests for comment for this report.
The McConnells have settled their suit with the Couches but they and the other victims’ families remain convinced that this accident was preventable. But over time, some hope to find forgiveness.
“It’s a daily decision to forgive,” said Shaunna Jennings, whose husband was one of the people who had stopped to help the stranded motorist when he was killed. “[Hate] doesn’t do anything except punish you. ... I can’t live my life bitter or angry.”