Tad and Jona Johnson had to disconnect their doorbell. The sound of it brings them back to the early February morning when a Colorado State Patrol trooper was at their door to tell them their daughter had died after rolling her pickup.
Alexa Johnson, 19, was one of 37 people killed on Weld County roads in 2012, and she was one of many who weren’t wearing their seat belts. As state agencies wrap up a campaign targeting rural counties — including Weld — where fewer drivers wear seat belts, the Johnsons are working to prevent other families from going through the same agony. They say they want to give “positive encouragement” for people to buckle up, and they want people to think of seat belts as a hug from a loved one.
After Alexa died on Feb. 10, Tad continually woke up in the following days at about 2:14 a.m., the time of her crash, crying and “wishing I could turn back time.” He said it was during those long hours that he started flipping through photos of Alexa, and something heartbreaking struck him: There were many pictures in which Alexa and her friends were in cars but weren’t wearing seat belts.
Tad said as he scanned photos of Alexa, he missed hugging her, as others say they do. He placed one arm across his chest and the other across his hip to remember how her hugs felt.
If we can make a difference in one family’s life, it’s already proven to be successful.
— Jona Johnson, Alexa’s stepmother
“I realized that looks a lot like a seat belt,” he said.
From then on, he started telling Alexa’s friends to think of wearing their seat belts as having a hug from her.
“I sat there in my chair, first angry, and then sad and realizing the only way we are going to be able to get a message across is if it comes from positive encouragement,” Tad said. “They’re used to being lectured, threatened, condemned, and that didn’t work.”
He and Jona wanted some kind of a physical reminder for people, and they started hand making brightly colored ribbons with the words “Alexa’s Hug” to be placed on seat belts as a reminder. They sell them for $5 plus shipping on their website, www.alexahugs.com.
Jona, Alexa’s stepmother, said she’s made nearly 700, and they’ve been shipped to 10 states, including Colorado.
“When you put that seat belt on and you feel it across your heart and you feel it across your waist, think of it as a hug from Alexa,” Tad said.
‘A girl’s gotta dream’
On a black board, Alexa had placed neon, color-coded notecards around the phrase, “A girl’s gotta dream.” Among her goals were “Go to classes for business & start own salon,” and “Put $600 in a savings account, $50 per month.”
Alexa had recently graduated from Loveland High School and was working at Crossroads Hyundai, in addition to working with her father at Fort Collins Dodge.
“This girl had goals, and this girl had dreams,” Tad said. “She had a tremendous heart.”
On a group Facebook page called In Loving Memory of Alexa Johnson, posts in the hundreds paint Alexa as a loyal and kind friend. “She was the peacekeeper,” as her dad put it.
“Finding these things out after, I’m very humbled that she called me Dad,” Tad said.
It was because of her fierce dedication to her friends that Tad said he noticed she was “running too hard” the last few days before she died. She had traveled to help one friend the night before she crashed, and she was on her way to help another that morning.
Tad said he had lunch with her the day before and asked her to get some rest. As he and Jona realized why the state trooper was at their home after Alexa’s crash, Tad had said to himself, “We just had this conversation.”
Alexa’s 9-year-old brother Isaac now often clings to the pink bear a family friend gave him before Alexa’s funeral.
“This is my Alexa bear,” he said hugging it tightly. “It was one of Alexa’s favorite colors.”
Tad said Alexa’s mother and stepfather, Sharon and Denny Younie, donated Alexa’s pickup to the Every 15 Minutes program in Colorado, a program that vividly recreates crash scenes. Tad said Alexa’s sister, Shelby, and stepsiblings, Kara and Cory, are all struggling with the loss. For he and Jona, making and distributing the hugs has been a positive way to cope.
“There’s a lot of therapy in every one of these,” Tad said.
Tad remembers taking Alexa for a check-up as a baby and having her doctor ask if he wore his seat belt. Tad said “It depends,” and the doctor said, “Wrong answer.” He said he realized at that point that if he were in a crash, he wouldn’t be able to help his daughter if he went through the windshield.
Tad and Jona said Alexa always wore her seat belt with them, but the photos of Alexa with her friends indicated she didn’t always wear it. Jona said she hopes other parents will learn from that and start making sure their kids are buckling up all the time.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t look closely soon enough, but if some other parent really takes some time to look through the pictures of their kids and their kids’ friends, that’s going to tell them what habits their kids really have,” Jona said.
Colorado State Patrol initially said they were investigating drugs and alcohol as factors in Alexa’s crash, which happened on Interstate 25 between the Johnstown and Berthoud exits. The toxicology report from the Weld County Coroner’s Office shows she wasn’t under the influence, and state patrol found that inattentive driving was the cause.
The Johnsons said they’ll likely never know what distracted Alexa, but they want parents to keep in mind that if they’re not paying attention to driving, neither will their kids.
“You’re going to do what you’re seeing, not what you’re hearing,” Jona said.
‘Click It or Ticket’
Trooper Jeremy Staruck was one of the first Colorado State troopers at the scene of Alexa’s crash. Staruck, a good friend of the Johnsons, said he couldn’t believe what was happening as he realized it was Tad’s daughter who had been killed.
“I never would have imagined that,” he said. “It was unbelievable. It was very traumatic. My heart just pours out to Tad and his family.”
Staruck said he couldn’t talk about the crash for a while after it happened, but that changed when he learned about the Johnsons’ mission and Alexa’s Hugs.
“It just turned it into such a positive thing,” Staruck said. “It’s amazing. I’m so happy that they’re finding peace in this. And I know Alexa would want it this way.”
With funding from the state department of transportation for extra patrol troopers during the last week, Colorado State Patrol has been saturating rural highways, like the I-25 stretch where Alexa died, as part of the Click It or Ticket campaign. Sgt. Mike Baker, spokesman for state patrol, said the point of the effort that wraps up today is to target drivers in rural counties like Weld County who wear their seat belts less.
“This is an issue that we’re not flexible on,” Baker said. “It’s simply not OK to not wear your seat belt. It’s completely a safety issue, and it will save lives.”
Baker said the seat belt campaign allows for the agency to put more troopers on the road, and they concentrate on warmer months when most crashes occur.
Staruck said the Johnsons’ own seat belt campaign seems to be reaching young people in a way that many other messages can’t.
“It’s better than any law enforcement officer or anyone else could do, just getting the word out and trying to help others avoid the situation he went through,” Staruck said. “Tad has the biggest heart. He is so sincere.”
About a month after Alexa’s crash, Alyssa Valdez and Kaitlyn Heardt were headed to Greeley. Kaitlyn knew Alexa and had told Alyssa about the crash, so both of them buckled up with Alexa’s Hugs on the strap. Moments later, Alyssa lost control and struck a pickup that was coming toward them near Seeley Lake. Alyssa said had it not been for the seat belt, she and Kaitlyn would not have walked away unharmed.
“I’m the baby of the family,” Alyssa said. “For my mom to have to get that call would have been absolutely devastating.”
Alyssa called Tad to thank him for sharing Alexa’s story and for creating the hugs. Tad and Jona said they’ve heard many similar stories since they started with Alexa’s Hugs.
“If we can make a difference in one family’s life, it’s already proven to be successful,” Jona said.
To make sure they reach as many people as possible, the Johnsons took two of Alexa’s favorite things — driving her truck and going to concerts — and created a contest. People who post photos of themselves wearing their seat belts on the Facebook page for Alexa are entered into a weekly drawing for $20 in gas money and concert tickets, sponsored by the dealerships where Alexa worked, along with Schrader’s Country Store and The Stampede.
“She was always looking for ways to win concert tickets, and she always needed gas,” Tad said.
Tad said for every two Alexa’s Hugs they’ve sold, they’ve given away three. With money they get from selling the seat belt ribbons, the Johnsons either buy more supplies or help other families who are grieving.
Thanks to donations, the Johnsons will donate Alexa’s Hugs in cherry red and black to the graduating seniors of Loveland High School. Their ultimate goal is to do the same for all schools in the Thompson R2-J School District and in surrounding areas like Greeley. They said they want everyone, especially students near summer break and graduation, to keep safety in mind.
“They should go out and have fun,” Jona said. “We just want them to do it safely so they have another weekend to go out and have fun.”Read the article on the Greeley Tribune website.