Tina Baltz at her home in Nashville, Tenn., Saturday, July 1, 2017. Her brother, Paul Shoulders Jr., was killed by an intoxicated driver in 2013.
Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean
Paul Shoulders Jr. didn’t take drugs the day they killed him.
Someone else did.
As Tennessee grapples to curb the deadly toll of prescription drug abuse, Shoulders’ death four years ago represents another cost that may not be so apparent — but is just as devastating.
Hundreds of Tennesseans are killed in crashes involving a driver using drugs. The number of deadly crashes that involved drug use has surpassed deadly wrecks involving drunken and distracted drivers.
September 2016: Drugged driving overtakes alcohol in Tennessee road deaths
“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,” Shoulders’ sister, Tina Baltz, said in a tearful interview this month.
A reminder of her brother’s death on April 19, 2013 haunts her from a parking spot in her driveway. Another pops up with a song on her Pandora playlist.
Shoulders’ death is not the only way prescription drugs changed her life.
‘We had it all’
Robert “Todd” Harrell was used to being on stage. The former bassist for the rock band 3 Doors Down toured the world. He said a knee injury in the mid-2000s led to his first taste of the powerful painkiller OxyContin.
Now when he’s on stage, he’s there because of a court order.
On a recent night, the now-45-year-old spoke at Lipscomb Academy. Hundreds of student participants of Nashville Workcamp — a faith-focused community service program — listened inside Acuff Chapel.
“I can’t tell y’all how that changed my life,” Harrell told them. “Having everything at your fingertips. Fame. We had it all. Won Grammys. Did movies.”
Shoulders, meanwhile, preferred life under the hood of a car.
A Nashville native and mechanic by trade, in his spare time he’d tinker on his late-70s Malibu drag racing car, his sister said.
Harrell was speeding 101 mph down Interstate 40 late April 19, 2013, when he clipped Shoulders’ pickup. That sent the pickup rolling over a guardrail, and 47-year-old Shoulders, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown from the truck.
At the time of the crash Harrell had used the anxiety medication alprazolam, the painkiller oxycodone and alcohol, according to police. When he was taken to jail, staffers found 36 pills that he didn’t have a prescription for in his sock.
“The police pulled me out of the car that night and were giving me field sobriety tests and I was like, why aren’t you doing this (to the) other guy?” Harrell said. “They said, well that guy’s dead.
“I have nightmares about it. It changed my life y’all. 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.”
Read the USA TODAY Network-Tennessee’s complete coverage of the opioid crisis.
‘I couldn’t believe it’
On that night four years ago, Tina Baltz fell asleep on the couch. There was a knock at the front door of her Donelson-area home shortly after 3 a.m.
It was not about one of her three children, as she first feared.
Soon came several painful hours. Identifying Shoulders’ body. Removing personal items from his truck. Going to his home to fetch his beloved dog. Notifying his boss, and those he did car work for, that he wouldn’t be back.
And then, a twist: A call hours later from one of her daughters about the other driver.
“She’s like, he’s the bass player from 3 Doors Down,” she recalled, tears in her eyes while sitting on her backyard deck next to her husband.
“The kicker was I’d been listening to their music out here on the deck trying to sort things out. They were one of my favorite bands at the time.
“I just spaced out. I couldn’t believe it.”
Former 3 Doors Down bassist Robert “Todd” Harrell speaks to a gathering of students as part of Nashville Workcamp, a summer community service camp for students, on June 7, 2017. Harrell was on drugs when he crashed on April 19, 2013, killing Nashville native Paul Shoulders, Jr. As part of his court-ordered probation, he must do public education about the dangers of driving under the influence.
‘Always on my mind’
The court case against Harrell dragged on more than two years. For the Baltzes, it was emotional torture.
Each day, Tina Baltz searched the internet for Harrell’s name.
That’s how she learned he was arrested — twice — in Mississippi for driving under the influence.
Then, the woman supervising his house arrest in the Nashville case was arrested after she took off his GPS monitor so the pair could go on a trip out of state.
March 2015: Ex-3 Doors Down bassist pleads guilty to 2nd DUI
October 2015: TBI: Nashville court officer had sex with defendant
December 2015: Ex-3 Doors Down member’s GPS officer charged
“I hate to say (it was) an obsession of mine, but it was something that was always on my mind,” she said.
What was next was prescription drug addiction within the Baltz family.
Tina and her husband, Michael Baltz are raising their two grandchildren, 7 and 3 years old, because one of their daughters used painkillers that led her to heroin, Tina Baltz said. She has been in and out of jail and rehab, they said.
“I’d just be happy if she could get back in their lives,” Michael Baltz said.
“It’s what they deserve,” Tina Baltz said. “A parent.”
As the kids cannonballed into the backyard pool on a recent Saturday afternoon, Tina Baltz pondered how to dam the flood of prescription drugs. Tennessee has the second-highest rate of opioid prescriptions in the country — more than one prescription for every man, woman and child.
“I’m scared to death,” she said. “What can we do to stop that?”
‘A split-second decision’
December 2015: Ex-3 Doors Down member gets prison in deadly crash
In December 2015, Harrell pleaded guilty to six crimes in a Nashville courtroom. He was sentenced to two years in prison, but with credits for good behavior, got out in just a year.
Now he is about seven months into a six-year probation term. Criminal Court Judge Mark Fishburn ordered him to speak to students six times each year about drug addiction.
“I can never change what happened,” Harrell said, pacing the stage. “But I can definitely try and make a message out of it. Guys, you know, a split-second decision could change your life. If you’re drinking and druggin’, there’s help for that too.”
Tina Baltz doesn’t think a year behind bars was enough, but is glad to see Harrell speaking publicly. She hopes someday to do the same, but there’s healing that must come first.
The reminders of devastating drug addiction are everywhere. Once, she said, 3 Doors Down came on at a mall. She had to leave.
There’s Shoulders’ turquoise drag racer in the driveway, with “Paul” still painted on the passenger side window. She cannot wash it off.
There’s her two grandchildren, who think their mother is sick.
“I want people to understand that they’re ruining not just their lives, but family member’s lives,” she said. “Strangers’ lives.”
And she wants an apology, one-on-one without a judge looking on, from Harrell.
“Can I ever forgive him? I don’t know,” she said. “I’m definitely never going to forget.”
Reach Stacey Barchenger at 615-726-8968 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.
By the numbers
In Tennessee in 2015:
7.8 million opioid prescriptions written
1,451 Tennesseans died from drug overdoses
6,036 people: five-year drug overdose death toll
174 people killed in crashes in which a driver tested positive for drugs or an officer determined drugs contributed to the crash
136 deaths in crashes related to alcohol use
51 deaths in crashes in which distracted driving was a factor
Sources: Tennessee Department of Health, Tennessee Highway Patrol
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