In Market: The distance factor

🕐 3 min read

I guess we just can’t help but look at train wrecks. It seems easy to do these days on the Web. It’s pretty easy to laugh at when it’s someone like former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford who seemed so cartoonish, so over-the-top, that antics such as being caught on camera apparently smoking crack seemed like harmless fun.

Maybe it is the distance, but the nationwide attention on Ethan Couch made me realize that often what looks humorous from afar may not be so funny when you’ve got a front-row seat.

Couch, as you like know, is the Texas teenager who used an “affluenza” defense in a deadly drunken-driving wreck that killed four people and injured several others.

Couch’s path into the national spotlight began in June 2013, when the then-16-year-old was driving drunk and speeding south of Fort Worth and crashed into a disabled SUV parked on the side of the road. The collision killed four people and injured several others, including passengers in his pickup truck. He pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury.

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During the sentencing phase of his trial, a defense expert argued that his wealthy parents had coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility — a condition the expert termed “affluenza.” The condition is not recognized as a medical diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association, and its invocation drew ridicule. It was likely the “affluenza” part that grabbed everyone’s attention.

A judge sentenced Couch in juvenile court to 10 years’ probation and a stint in a rehabilitation center.

After a video surfaced that appeared to show Couch at a party where people were drinking – an apparent violation of his probation – Couch and his mother, Tonya Couch, fled in late November, ending up in Mexico where they were recently found.

Couch grew up in a wealthy yet unstable household, and his parents underwent an acrimonious divorce that included accusations that his mother was addicted to pain pills and his father was abusive.

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The divorce provides a revealing backdrop for the latest chapter in Ethan Couch’s troubled life: He and his mother were arrested after using one of their phones to order a pizza delivered to a condo in the Mexican resort city of Puerto Vallarta. Tonya Couch had her nursing license revoked in 2012 for failing to disclose a reckless driving charge in 2003, according to the Texas Board of Nursing.

Ethan’s father, Fred Couch, founded Cleburne Metal Works, which does large-scale metal roofing, in 1986. The company employs 40 people and has estimated annual sales of $9.59 million, according to business research

People were interested in the Couch saga. During the Christmas holidays, stories about Couch were some of our top-viewed Web stories. And Couch was also the subject of some attempted comedy. I realize Texans are naturally comical to the rest of the country, and even the world at times. I’ve got no problem with that. Remember “Texan” means crazy in Norway?

But the Couch case is more of a cautionary tale than the subject of a comedy bit. He has left plenty of pain in his wake, probably more than we know about.

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It makes you wonder, if you were up close and personal with someone in a Rob Ford meltdown, if he would be quite as funny as it looks from a distance.

District Attorney Sharen Wilson has said she plans to ask a judge to transfer the case to adult court, where Couch could get up to 120 days in an adult jail, followed by 10 years of probation. If he violates probation again, he could face up to 10 years in prison per death. That might make everyone take this a little more seriously. – This report includes material from the Associated Press.

Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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