Southern Oregon University student Brett Johnson's mother, Jane, was dying of cancer when he decided to ease his emotional suffering by trying some of her opiate pain medication.

Southern Oregon University student Brett Johnson's mother, Jane, was dying of cancer when he decided to ease his emotional suffering by trying some of her opiate pain medication.

"Oxycodone for Jane was sitting on the dresser and that's how it started," said his father, Virginia research geneticist Randy Johnson. "He was in pain and misery, and here was something that could relieve the pain temporarily. That's how he got addicted to opiates.

"Then he moved on to heroin when he couldn't get any more."

That initial decision to try oxycodone launched Brett Johnson on a years-long battle with addiction that ended on Nov. 18, 2013.

On that day, the 25-year-old died of a heroin overdose.

"He was found in his backyard by a friend and had been dead for a few days," Randy Johnson said.

Another friend, Talent resident Michael Feldman, arrived when law enforcement personnel were on the scene. He went into the backyard and covered Brett Johnson's body with a blanket.

"I still have nightmares of seeing him on the ground," Feldman said.

He said Brett Johnson was the hardest-working young man he had ever known, an inspiring, entrepreneurial person who often helped others.

After six years of work and while battling a heroin addiction, Brett Johnson was able to earn a bachelor's degree in business administration from SOU, his father said.

He had a patent pending on a marijuana paraphernalia device, was using a 3-D printer for manufacturing, had gotten the product into several area shops and set up a Facebook page to promote his nascent business, family members said.

The Facebook page is still up and contains the last posts Brett Johnson made about his business, including a post celebrating a wholesale order.

Christopher Toughill — owner of an Ashland eyeglasses business called Clearlight Optical Co. — mentored him during college and the planning and early production phases of the business.

He said most people don't feel sad when they hear about heroin overdoses because they assume the victims are worthless junkies and a drain on society.

But Toughill said Brett Johnson was funny, kind, bright, industrious, athletic and came from a good family. Anyone can become addicted to heroin, he said.

"It's an equal opportunity destroyer," Toughill said.

Brett Johnson played football during high school and coached little kids in the sport, family members said.

His father is the national lead on a new U.S. Department of Agriculture Climate Hubs Program. Earlier this month, federal officials announced the launch of the program, which will help farmers, ranchers and forest landowners deal with increased risks of wildfire, drought and other problems associated with climate change.

Brett Johnson's sister, Leigha Niemann, works as a nurse practitioner in Pennsylvania.

"He was very caring and always willing to help somebody out. If I just needed a hug, he was always there," she said.

Niemann works in critical care, where she often sees overdose cases, people with addictions and patients suffering from withdrawal.

"We're all guilty of judging those people. It's not that we don't provide proper care for them, but there is a stigma that they're druggies and alcoholics," she said. "Going through addiction is a serious problem. It doesn't mean that they're not good people or that they don't come from good families or contribute to society."

Niemann said during her brother's addiction battle, she was embarrassed to tell certain friends about him. She had never had any family members or friends with addiction problems before.

"Addiction can happen to anybody and passing judgment isn't going to help these people," she said.

Unlike with her mother's death from cancer, Niemann said her brother's death was sudden and shocking.

"I've felt a lot of guilt. When you lose someone so suddenly, it's so different than expecting it. You can't say what you want to say," she said. "I felt like I should have done more."

Randy Johnson also is plagued by feelings of guilt about his son's death, even though he spent thousands of dollars on treatment for his son and always loved him.

Most recently, his son was enrolled in a methadone treatment program to combat his addiction and had weaned down to a low methadone dose. Then he suffered a relapse and overdosed on heroin, his father said.

"I was part of his life all along, played with him on the trampoline, coached and refereed his soccer games and baseball teams. Had breakfast with him in the mornings, took him to father-son weekend events and much more," he said.

Randy Johnson said he regrets offhand comments he made that sometimes hurt his son's spirit, and wishes he had said more often how proud he was of his son and his accomplishments.

"My friends say, 'Randy, we watched you parent and you did a good job,'" he said. "But could I have done something different?"

Parents of children with addictions walk a fine line, always loving their kids while not enabling them, he said.

Randy Johnson said there is not enough awareness of the addictive power of opiates, including heroin.

"It's not impressed enough on people that you try it once or twice and you're addicted to this stuff and it's a lifelong battle," he said. "How do you convey this message to your kids? So many people are losing that battle."

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or Follow her at