The actress killed 9-year-old Jorge Cruz Jr. in a car accident in 2001; since then, her life has seen love and loss
The actress has seen love and loss in the 18 years since, though Jorge Cruz Jr., who was crossing the street on his way home from school when she hit him, has never been far from her mind. And despite fearing her career was over, she is slated to appear in Quentin Tarantino’s highly-anticipated Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood as Billie Booth.
Gayheart, 47, recently opened up about the accident on The Only One in the Room podcast, saying she considered taking her own life in the aftermath by way of “self-destructive” habits.
“I just didn’t want to live after that accident. That’s what it came down to. I couldn’t handle it at all. So I spent about a year just trying to kill myself, basically, by doing every self-destructive thing a person can do,” she said.
In June 2001, the star was driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee owned by her Dusk Til Dawn 3 costar Marco Leonardi when she pulled into the left lane to pass cars that had stopped to let Cruz cross the street.
As she did so, she hit the boy, and he died of his injuries the next day. Gayheart paid the family $10,000 for funeral expenses, and was sentenced to probation, a one-year suspension of her license, a $2,8000 fine, and 750 hours of community service after pleading no contest to vehicular manslaughter in November 2001. She also settled a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the child’s parents out of court.
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In the years immediately following the accident, Gayheart took several small parts, like the Sarah Michelle Gellar film Harvard Man, an episode of the comedy What I Like About You, and several episodes of the Bryan Fuller dramedy Dead Like Me.
In 2005, she made her Broadway debut in Steel Magnolias, telling PEOPLE at the time that the role felt “like a fresh start,” as she doubted she’d ever work again as an actress after the accident.
“[It was a] terrible, terrible time. I couldn’t really function for a while,” she said in the same interview, adding that she had difficulty sleeping and eating.
“I just got to a point where I realized I needed help. I got into therapy. I’ve been in therapy since then. It’s really helpful… I don’t think anyone could sit and say they got over something like this. I just don’t think that’s possible. It hasn’t been for me.”
Gayheart landed roles in shows like Nip/Tuck, CSI: Miami and Ugly Betty, and in 2004, she married actor Eric Dane in a Las Vegas chapel — with the airport cabbie serving as best man.
“I feel lucky I found him,” she told PEOPLE. “He definitely appeared in my life at the right time.”
The couple’s union was not without drama; in 2009, a nude video featuring Dane, Gayheart and former Miss U.S. Teen Kari Ann Peniche in compromising positions leaked on the internet.
The LAPD confirmed at the time that detectives were investigating the video, though Dane’s lawyer Marty Singer shot down claims it was a “sex tape.”
“This is simply a private, consensual moment involving a married couple, shot several years ago, which was never intended to be seen by the public,” Singer said in a statement. “Although the participants are nude, the tape is not a ‘sex tape.’ It is a private tape made for only my clients’ personal use, and nobody has the right to exploit it.”
The couple filed a $1 million copyright infringement lawsuit against Gawker Media in September 2009 for posting the 12-minute video, which was settled a year later after the site agreed to take it down.
Shortly after Gayheart announced her second pregnancy, Dane, now 46, completed a stint in rehab for an addiction to painkillers following a sports injury.
Looking back on the couple’s turmoil in 2014, Dane told PEOPLE, “We’ve all made mistakes. My one regret is that I got the person I love most wrapped up in all that: Rebecca.”
Gayheart continued to stick by her husband’s side, and did so again in 2017, as Dane took a hiatus from his TNT series The Last Ship to seek treatment for depression.
That same year, Gayheart was hit with more tragedy as she mourned the loss of her 38-year-old sister, Rachel.
“My baby sister Rachel ‘ray’ has sadly passed away,” she wrote on Instagram. “Let this be a reminder that every day is precious and we must live our best life NOW. Let your loved ones know how much you care as there is no guarantee that you will get another day to do so.”
The actress filed for divorce from Dane in February 2018 after 14 years of marriage, citing irreconcilable differences.
“After 14 years together we have decided that ending our marriage is the best decision for our family,” Dane said in a statement to PEOPLE.
“We will continue our friendship and work as a team to co-parent our two beautiful girls as they are the most important thing in the world to us. We kindly ask that you respect our privacy during this time as we navigate the next phase of our lives.”