‘American Idol’ Finalist Oliver Steele Devastated by Sudden Loss

Oliver Steele, Toby Steele

Heavy/ABC "American Idol" Season 21 contestant Oliver Steele with his dad Toby

A fatal shooting in Nashville that left one man dead in the early morning hours of May 27, 2023, has left “American Idol” finalist Oliver Steele and his family in deep grief. The singer-songwriter, who made it to the Top 8 on the latest season of “Idol” and performed just one week ago on the May 21 season finale, revealed on social media that he is reeling after learning about the shocking death of one of his dad’s best friends, Ernie Aguilar, an accomplished musician who was considered an extended member of their family. In fact, Steele always referred to him as his uncle.

“I’m at a loss. I’m in between crying and not being able to cry,” Steele wrote in an emotional Instagram post hours after Aguilar’s body was found.

“Ernie loved me and my sister as if we were his own kids,” he continued. “His love and guidance was unconditional, and he was the type of person that would go out of his way to help you out.”

The Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD) responded to a shooting in the Bellevue neighborhood at 7:15 a.m., according to the Tennessean, and found a man dead on the grass outside an apartment complex. Local news station WSMV reported that neighbors said they heard gunshots as early as 2 a.m. and “the sound of a vehicle quickly leaving the area.”

By evening, the MNPD had identified the victim as 60-year-old Rodrigo Ernesto Aguilar, according to WKRN, and launched a homicide investigation. Authorities said that surveillance footage showed Aguilar arriving at his residence after work around 1:30 a.m. and then unloading his vehicle. When he noticed something off-camera, WKRN reported that “he walked toward the area where he was shot, and died at the scene.” At the time of publication, police did not yet have a suspect in custody.

This loss is just the latest dose of adversity Steele has had to face in recent years. His father’s own music career was sidelined by a debilitating stroke in 2019, and became a focal point of Steele’s storyline on “Idol,” given that he promised his dad he would carry on his legacy of making music.

Oliver Steele Pays Tribute to His ‘Uncle’ Ernie Aguilar

According to a flurry of social media posts by friends of Aguilar’s on May 27, he was an accomplished musician whose credits included being the former bass player for classic country artist Sammy Kershaw for over a dozen years, according to one friend’s Facebook post. Bellevue Middle School also posted that Aguilar was a “beloved BMS staff member” and will hold a candlelight vigil in his memory on May 28.

In Steele’s lengthy post, he reflected on how much Aguilar helped him as he was growing up and marveled at how he offered him unconditional love and support.

“Ernie I love you so much,” he wrote, “You’ve given me so much guidance and you’ve been the best uncle a dumb kid like me could’ve asked for. You never judged me for the mistakes I made…you went out of your way to make sure I knew I was loved and appreciated. You went out of your way for me many times, whether it was to fix a flat tire I had, or just to help me out of a pinch. I’m still in shock and I’m not sure why this had to happen….but I hope you’re up there creating the best music the heavens has ever heard.”

Steele also expressed his anger over Aguilar’s senseless murder.

“It sickens me that one person with a gun felt like they needed to end my uncle’s life,” Steele wrote in his tribute. “He never did anything to ANYONE. I’m not trying to turn this into a political debate, so do not come at me in the comments about gun control/gun reform. You can have your opinions, I don’t care. All I know is that my uncle is now dead because someone chose to wield a gun at him. He deserved better. He deserved the world.”

Among the hundreds of comments Steele received on his post, Top 5 finalist MaryBeth Byrd wrote, “Oliver, I am so so so sorry. Sending you love and prayers 🤍”

“Idol” alum Adin Boyer, who did not make it past the Hawaii round but appeared multiple times to share his journey with autism and love for his fellow contestants, wrote, “Sending condolences, man. So sorry ❤️”

Oliver Steele’s Dad Was Also an Accomplished Musician Before His Stroke

Aguilar’s death is not Steele’s first experience with grief and adversity. As he shared during his “American Idol” audition, he grew up idolizing his dad Toby, who was also an accomplished musician as a blues guitarist, playing with a wide range of famous artists during his career, from B.B. King to Chet Atkins.

“Anytime he would pick up a guitar, it would just make you stop and kind of melt away and just listen to what he was doing for a little while,” Steele recalled as he described his dad’s musicianship to judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan.

But in December 2019, his dad’s world was turned upside down when he suffered a stroke, according to a Facebook post by Steele, and he has struggled with health challenges ever since. Toby accompanied his son to his audition in front of the judges and, after Steele told them his story, they invited Toby into the room to watch his son sing.

“He’s been through a lot,” Steele told them as footage played of Steele pushing his dad in a wheelchair. “It’s been hard because he can’t really get around very well. He had a stroke that basically severely affected the left side of his body. I just remember feeling very powerless. He’s part of the reason why I want to do this. This is for him.”

During an interview with producers, Toby shakily told them, “I remember one night we were having a conversation and I was just really sad. And he said, ‘You know, Dad, you don’t really have to worry about singing because I’ll just do it all for ya.’ And I thought, ‘Ok, that’ll work.'”

Steele played one of his dad’s favorite songs, Eric Clapton’s “Change the World,” as his dad sat next to him and wiped away tears. The powerful video has been viewed over 1.4 million times.

Richie encouraged Steele to bring his dad with him to Hollywood, but as he advanced through the competition, Toby was hospitalized again back home in Tennessee. However, once he was well enough to travel, their community of Mt. Julien — a suburb of Nashville — banded together to raise enough money for Toby to travel to Los Angeles with medical assistance, according to WKRN.

On May 6, Steele posted photos of their reunion and one with close friend Iam Tongi, who went on to be named the winner of Season 21. The next night, his dad was in the audience as Tongi and Steele performed a duet together as part of the Top 8, just as they had done during Hollywood Week months before. In what wound up being Steele’s final episode of competing, he shared how much Tongi’s friendship had meant to both him and his dad in recent weeks, especially since Tongi had lost his own dad in December 2021.

“Even way after Hollywood Week, like while my dad was in the hospital, this man was calling my dad and talking to him for like two hours at a time,” Steele said, according to Country Now. “And let me tell you it made my dad’s world for him to do that.”

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