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Driver in deadly crash had 4 DUIs

Fatal crash
Mar. 20, 2013 @ 08:26 AM

HUNTINGTON -- A vehicle crash that killed a Kenova woman Sunday led to Michael Couch's fifth drunken driving arrest since late 1997.

Four of the five arrests stem from vehicle accidents, beginning with the theft of a police cruiser in December 1997 and most recently Sunday's death of Deborah Lynn Rakes.

Rakes, 52, died that afternoon, shortly after Couch's van crossed the center line and crashed head-on into her car on 5th Street Hill in Huntington, according to an arrest warrant executed Tuesday after Couch was released from Cabell Huntington Hospital.

Couch was arraigned by Senior Status Magistrate Brenda Chapman, who set a $30,000 cash bond. He was charged with DUI causing death, a felony. The suspect cried as he covered his face during his arraignment, saying he was sorry for what happened. He was later incarcerated at the Western Regional Jail.

Meanwhile, Rakes' family is grieving.

Rakes' daughter, Madison Rakes Chandler, 19, described herself as angry, frustrated and hurt Tuesday afternoon. She remembered her mother, always smiling, as the glue to their family, a dedicated carrier for FedEx and a passionate volunteer at Christ Temple Church.

Rakes died a mile from the facility after leaving Sunday's service.

"I hope he rots in jail," Chandler said. "I hope he gets whatever penalty he deserves for ruining my family ... She was too good of a woman to be taken the way she was."

Couch, 43, hasn't had a valid driver's license since July 30, 1996, according to state and county records reviewed Tuesday. But since then, his record shows his involvement in four, alcohol-related crashes occurring Dec. 16, 1997; May 28, 1999; Jan. 1, 2005; and Sunday. The remaining drunken driving arrest happened June 17, 2005.

Couch pleaded guilty in all but one prior incident. Those convictions have resulted in very little jail time, some home confinement and orders to pay fines and court costs. Penalties associated with three of those convictions remain unpaid, according to court records.

Also left unattended are numerous license suspensions and revocations, said Debbie Ferguson, supervisor for the state Division of Motor Vehicle's drunken driving section.

The supervisor said records show no acknowledgment from Couch of either his prior alcohol-related revocations or others associated with unpaid citations, fines and other miscellaneous violations.

"I'm looking at a person who has made no effort to resolve any of his issues," she said. "It shows a disregard for the safety of society, obviously, and a disregard for their own responsibility for their actions."

The series of drunken driving arrests started with a stolen police cruiser. It happened Dec. 16, 1997, when a man stole a cruiser from a parking lot along W.Va. 2. It was quickly spotted by another officer, who gave chase in a pursuit that ended with the assailant crashing the cruiser into a ditch, according to an incident report filed at the Huntington Police Department.

Couch was charged with felony fleeing and receiving/transferring stolen property, along with misdemeanor driving under the influence, driving on a suspended/revoked license, obstruction and carrying a dangerous and deadly weapon. The case was bound over to circuit court, but court records show prosecutors never presented it to a grand jury. That resulted in the case being dismissed in January 1999.

Despite the dismissal, Couch's license is still revoked due to that incident.

Then came a May 28, 1999, crash at an alley intersection near Bridge and Buffington streets in Guyandotte, according to an incident report filed by city police. It notes the assailant ran from the scene, but was apprehended nearby. He failed a battery of field sobriety tests and told officers he had been drinking, the report states.

That evidence led police to charge Couch with driving under the influence, driving on a suspended/revoked license, leaving the scene of an accident and no insurance.

Those charges led to a plea agreement, in which prosecutors allowed Couch to plead guilty to the reduced charge of reckless driving and driving on a suspended/revoked license. His punishment was $300 in fines and $194 in court costs, none of which have been paid.

Next came a Jan. 1, 2005, car accident in Ceredo. A criminal complaint, filed in Wayne County Magistrate Court, listed Couch as the suspect in a hit-and-run accident at the intersection of B and C streets.

Witnesses pointed to Couch as the suspect as police arrived, the complaint states. They found him walking away without shoes, bleeding from the mouth and with alcohol on his breath. Couch told officers he was walking to his mother's residence from Tennessee.

The criminal complaint -- which charged him with misdemeanor second-offense driving under the influence, leaving the scene of an accident and driving on a suspended license for DUI -- listed Couch's blood-alcohol content at 0.261. That's about three times the legal limit of 0.08.

The Wayne County charges netted a guilty plea to first-offense driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident. He received 10 days in jail, a $200 fine and $322 in court costs, none of which have been paid.

Months later, West Virginia State Police in Huntington charged Couch with second-offense driving under the influence, speeding and driving on a suspended/revoked license. Few details were available about the June 17, 2005, arrest.

It led to prosecutors accepting Couch's guilty plea to driving under the influence and driving on a suspended/revoked license. The judge allowed him to serve a 6-month jail sentence on home confinement and ordered him to pay a $100 fine and $356.50 in court costs.

Again, none of those fees had been paid as of Tuesday.

Chandler described herself as shocked by news of Couch's record and his continued ability to drive, despite not having a license for nearly 17 years.

"Why," she repeatedly asked. "Why did he have to go out that day? Why did he have to take my mother from me? Why did he have to get behind the wheel? That's my reaction."

Follow Curtis Johnson via Twitter @curtisjohnsonHD.

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