Ex-Three Doors Down Bassist's Fatal DUI Changed Many Lives

By Paul Gaita 07/20/17

The family of Paul Shoulders recently spoke about opioid addiction and the car crash that led to the loss of a loved one. 

Three Doors Down former bassist Robert "Todd" Harrell
Three Doors Down former bassist Robert "Todd" Harrell Photo via YouTube

Opioid addiction can have a devastating impact on not only the user but also the people in his or her life—families, partners, employers and friends can all take heavy tolls from the use of prescription painkillers and other opioids in a variety of ways, from mental health to financial well-being.

The pervasive cycle of pain and loss that can be experienced as a result of such a dependency is graphically illustrated in the lives of two complete strangers—Robert "Todd" Harrell and Nashville, Tennessee native Tina Baltz.

Harrell is the former bassist for the rock band Three Doors Down whose addiction to prescription drugs led to a car accident in 2013. Baltz's brother, Paul Shoulders Jr., is the man who died after Harrell's vehicle collided with his pickup, sending it over a guardrail on Interstate 40. While contending with the grief over her sibling's death, Baltz is also raising her grandchildren while their mother, her daughter, suffers from painkiller and heroin use disorders.

At the time of the crash, Harrell had oxycodone in his system, to which he had become dependent after knee surgery, as well as the anti-anxiety medication alprazolam—while police found 36 pills, including Xanax, oxycodone and oxymorphone, on his person at the time of the crash. His dependency issues had led to four stints in rehab, as well as an arrest for public intoxication in 1999 and an accident and DUI charges in 2012, which in turn resulted in his dismissal from the band he had helped to found in 1996. Less than a year later, Harrell was involved in the crash that killed Shoulders Jr.

In December 2015, a judge gave Harrell a two-year prison sentence, as well as a six-year probation term for the 2013 accident. He was also ordered to speak at six schools a year and speak about drug addiction to students for the duration of his probationary sentence, contribute public service announcements about DUI to an ad campaign by the Tennessee Governor's Highway Safe Office, and attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He was released after serving a year, and speaks at schools like Lipscomb Academy in Nashville, trying to convince students about the emotional wreckage that accompanies substance use disorders.

"I can't tell y'all how [the accident] changed my life," Harrell told a group of students and participants from Nashville Workcamp, a faith-based community service program at the school. "Having everything at your fingertips. Fame. We had it all. Won Grammys. Did movies." Now, he's left with lasting pain and regret. "I have nightmares about it," he said. "It took who I was and just turned me upside down. Paul died, and he didn't have to for a decision that I made."

Tina Baltz is all too aware of the lingering emotions linked to her brother's death. "It amazes me that it's been this long, and I'm still just so surprised and shocked about things, and how it still affects me to this day," she said. She is reminded of the accident every time she looks outside her house and sees her brother's car parked in her driveway with his name emblazoned on the window. Hearing anything by Three Doors Down will devastate her as well. She had to leave a mall recently when one of their songs came over the PA system.

While struggling with that pain and loss, Baltz must also deal with her own daughter's substance use issues and having to raise her two children. "I'd just be happy if she could get back in their lives," said her husband, Michael. She's also faced with daily news reports about the opioid problem in her state, which has the second highest rate of prescriptions for such medication in the country. "I'm scared to death," she admitted. "What can we do to stop that?"

Baltz hopes that at some point, she can speak publicly about drug addiction, just as Harrell does. "I want people to understand that they're ruining not just their lives, but family members' lives," she said. And she'd like to meet Harrell, one-on-one, without a judge present, and receive an apology from him. "Can I ever forgive him? I don't know," she said, adding, "I'm definitely never going to forget."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.