The Redemption of Ricky Johnson
MISSISSIPPI COUNTY, MO (KFVS) - "Everything I've done is out here. And that gives me strength," Ricky Johnson said.
Johnson spent more than a decade in a daze of drugs, DUI's and run-ins with the law.
Now, this East Prairie native is spreading a message of recovery, hope and redemption.
No doubt you've seen our anchors, Kathy Sweeney included, standing next to a mug shot and reporting on someone's arrest or the outcome of their trial.
But, this story isn't just about the Ricky Johnson who spent a decade in a fog of meth and alcohol.
It's also about the man he is now.
Against all odds, he climbed out of that dark hole and turned his life around.
Now, he wants you to know there's strength in owning your truth and never giving up.
Johnson contacted Kathy Sweeney on Facebook back in late March, wondering if she would share his story.
When he told her he and his wife live in North Carolina, she told him the only way to really tell it is if they were willing to travel back to Mississippi County, Missouri.
The Johnsons didn't hesitate.
But she didn't just hear from Ricky.
He asked his Facebook friends and followers if they would be willing to put in a good word for him with her.
She was bombarded with dozens and dozens of messages and emails, asking her to share his story.
When they met in mid-May, she quickly learned to understand who Ricky Johnson is now, you have to go back to the guy he used to be.
That's why he and his wife Julie traveled nearly 500 miles to meet us at the Mississippi County Jail.
The Johnsons were met by a crew of old friends. The group offered hugs and handshakes.
Lance Harper explained how the two became friends.
"I met him at what they call a turkey shoot in Bertrand," said Harper. "We were probably six or seven."
Joshua Sisk remembered the trouble they got into back in the day.
"Mainly just getting high," he said. "Getting high and seeing what else we could get into."
Being here reminded Johnson of a memorable run-in with police. He was high on acid, hallucinating.
"I was by the river, on the levee," he recalled. "I had just boxer briefs and that was it. My phone went dead. And I saw two headlights come ahead of me. I didn't know who it was and I'm going like this in the road. And it was a county cop."
Johnson finished the story inside the jail, standing beside his step-dad, County Commissioner Darrell Jones.
"And the county cop found me. And all I had on was boxer briefs. So, my dad picked me up from this jail," Johnson said. "And all I had on was the boxer briefs."
"That's the night he was seeing the helicopters," Jones recalled. "It was a really bad experience."
"Yeah," Johnson agreed.
Those bad experiences, self-inflicted Johnson will tell you, came after a normal childhood, after he became a dad at just 17, after serving five years in the Marine Corps.
He came home and fell into the bottle. He used meth. He chose both over time with his son, Landon, who would grow up with a mostly absent father.
Johnson's first drug arrest landed a mention on our website. His second happened on Mitchell Street in East Prairie.
When asked if he remembered what was going through his head the time, he said, "I knew I screwed up."
"Uncertainty," he said.
"Yes," he said when asked if he was high at the time. "I was under the influence."
Back at the Mississippi County Jail, Johnson once against called his step-dad.
"Of course I get the phone call, 'Pop I'm in jail, can you come get me?' whatever and I was no I can't. And I hung up the phone."
We asked Johnson how hard it was for him to take at that time.
"I was bitter at the time," he responded.
"It hurt to come over here and know that he was back there because with my job I know what it's like back there," Jones said. "And it did hurt."
Lance Harper remembered watching his lifelong friend spiral out of control.
"And to tell you the truth, I kind of shunned him. But at the time, I just told him your life's going a different route, man," Harper said. "It's time for somebody to tell you 'no.'"
"I was a thieving junkie," Johnson admitted as they all stood on the exact spot where his second drug arrest happened. "I always had drugs on me. People didn't come around because of that. But at the time I took it personal. Like, where are all these people at that love me?"
"But I think in the long run, I believe that may be what turned his life around," Jones said.
"I tell everyone I thank my dad for what he didn't do for me," added Johnson.
Johnson would get himself out of jail this time. He ended up in a homeless shelter and at a substance abuse treatment facility. That's where he met a counselor who changed his life.
"One of my really good friends said 'I have some clients I can't see today,'" Julie Johnson recalled with a smile. "I need you to see one of my clients. And walked out of my office and he was still standing in the lobby area and he said to me, 'I just want you to know that whenever I finish this program I'm going to come back and marry you. And I said, 'I'm going to hold you to that.' And it came out of nowhere. It shocked me that I said it."
"When she told me 'I'm going to hold you to that,' that's what started my whole transition," Ricky Johnson said. "I saw her as like, there's no way I was ever going to have a chance with her living the way that I was."
Johnson now had a very real reason to get sober.
And he decided to take his journey public, even when that meant sharing the most painful part of his recovery.
"When you begin recovery, you get a lot of congratulations and pats on the back," Johnson said. "You're awesome. You're doing a good job. That stuff fades away. And that's where the real work begins."
Ricky Johnson wanted to do more than just beat his addictions. He wanted to hold himself accountable as publicly as possible.
So, as he worked on his recovery, he started posting videos on Facebook.
"Everything I've done is out here," he said, "and that gives me strength. It's like, what are you going to say about me that I've not already said myself?"
Instead of hiding from his past, Johnson embraced it.
Friends and strangers facing similar struggles began to see Ricky's recovery as their chance at a better life.
"When I was in my worst place and going through a lot of things he was always a huge influence," his longtime friend Brandon Gaddy said. "Nobody else would really tell me the truth, tell me what I needed to hear. He was one of the ones who would message me out of the blue and check on me and make sure I was staying clean. And I wasn't, he would be the one to call me out on it. Whenever you're going through something you can lie to everyone else but you can't lie to someone who's been down those roads."
"He has been at the bottom of the barrel," Joshua Sisk added. "And when you look at someone like him and see where he comes from, it gives you hope. It let me know that I can do that. I can be better."
"I work with a lot of guys who are in similar circumstances to what he was, and they don't see hope," John Cornelius said. "And I'll play one of his videos for them and you can just see it in their eyes how they're like wow, somebody made it out."
"For so long, I've seen him limited by his past," Julie said about her husband. "And I know his genuine heart. And I love him so much. And I've always known that he was capable of so much. And so many greater things."
Ricky and Julie married in the summer of 2015. He worked to repair his relationship with his son, Landon.
"They were trying to mend some of that broken relationship that was just there," Julie said. "The hurt that was there. And so, it was blossoming. And it was a great time."
But in December of 2015, Johnson's journey took a tragic turn. Landon took his own life at the age of 18. It would take him a year to find the strength to talk openly about his loss.
"Tomorrow's the anniversary," Johnson said in a Facebook video. "Guys, I hurt. I hurt bad. I'm never going to lay down. I don't give up."
During his visit home, Johnson wanted to stop by the cemetery to visit the graves of his son and his mom.
"I hurt when I wake up," he admitted. "I hurt when I go to bed. No matter how much I hurt, it's not going to bring him back. And I've learned through my journey the longer you lay in something the harder it is to get out of it."
Johnson also found strength in his son's final words, which he chose to share with a growing number of followers.
"I saw that positive in his letter when he took responsibility for what he did," Johnson said of his son's suicide note. "And he got to see me in the later part of my recovery being very transparent. Owning everything I've done. I don't blame people for it. So, when I saw him take responsibility for his decision, it gave me strength. And it gave me a little bit of peace."
"I'll be honest with you," Darrell Jones said back at the Mississippi County Jail. "I had to bury a son and a grandson. And I fully expected to bury him."
Darrell Jones knows better than anyone how far his step-son has come.
"Some people hit bottom, before they can climb back up. And that's what he's done," Jones said.
He reflected on how it felt to be back at the jail with Johnson now.
"I feel great because I know that he can walk out with me," Jones said. "They're not going to take him back there through those doors."
"If you would have told me five years ago that I would be doing this, I wouldn't have believed it," Ricky admitted. "I spent so much time hurting him through my actions and stealing from him. Just disrespecting his house. So, to me, this is one of the defining moments of my life to be able to share this with him."
Are Johnson's friends proud of him?
"Proud is not the word," lifelong friend Lance Harper said. "To see what he is now, proud can't explain it."
To see Ricky Johnson now, visiting old friends, introducing his wife, grabbing photos to capture this whirlwind trip, it's hard to imagine the guy he used to be.
"I care about the message that I send," Ricky Johnson said. "It matters to me. And I'm not perfect by any means, but I'm definitely not the person that I used to be."
We asked him if he could back to Ricky Johnson at his lowest point, what would he say to him.
"Hey brother, I love you. You have worth."
After he returned home to North Carolina, Ricky completed a program to be certified as a peer support specialist.
He will begin helping fellow veterans starting in June.
Johnson invited you to follow his journey on his Facebook page. You'll find him here.
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