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'We didn't see this coming': Baxter, Minn. family man didn't show any signs of suicidal thoughts

Tom Johnson poses with his wife, Leola, and their three daughters, Karsan (left), Caelan and McKennan at Caelan's 2015 Brainerd High School graduation. Submitted photo.1 / 2
This photo was taken of Tom Johnson during a past family trip. Johnson took his life in January. It was a complete shock to his family as he showed no signs of depression or mental health illnesses. Submitted photo.2 / 2

"You girls deserve better," "I am sorry to do this to you," "I love you."

These final handwritten words—by a father, a husband—are words the family will never forget and are heartbreaking to read.

The afternoon of Jan. 10 of this year is one of pain and sorrow, leaving so many questions left unanswered for the family of Tom J. Johnson of Baxter, Minn. Baxter is located in central Minnesota, approximately 25 miles west of Mille Lacs Lake.

Why did he take his own life? Why did he feel like his family deserved better? What happened that day? What was he thinking? How long did he feel this way?

"The questions I have for him are endless," Caelan Johnson, 21, said of her 49-year-old father, who died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in January. "Why did you decide that day? Why, why, why? I ask this every day. Did you think about what would have happened to us girls and how this would affect us? You know we all loved you and we would never disown you. ... We had trips planned that you were suppose to go with us on and now we have to go alone."

Caelan shared her family tragedy in hopes to help others who may have thoughts of ending their life like her father did. "We didn't see this coming," she said of her father, who didn't show signs of depression or mental health illnesses. None.

"He always was the happiest person. He never got mad," Caelan said. "No one ever thinks this will happen to them. Even when we talked about suicide (by others) in the past he would say, 'Yeah that's terrible.'"

Tom Johnson left behind his wife, Leola, and three daughters, Caelan, 21; McKennan, 17; and Karsan, 12—all who will continue to grieve his death and miss him every minute of every day.

The family struggles with their loved one's death because they saw no signs of any issues, especially since Leola Johnson is a professional clinical psychiatric practitioner at Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd. Her work is to help clients with mental illnesses.

"We saw no signs of any mental illnesses," Leola said of her late husband. "This is how easy it is for people to hide it."

"We saw nothing unusual and that is why it shocked our world," Caelan said. "I don't have a dad anymore. I have to tell myself this every single day. It doesn't feel real to me yet. I'm not sure when it will sink in."

Caelan said her father was a private person who didn't show his feelings often. He told the girls he loved them, but it was more on certain occasions. The girls knew their father loved them very much—he did everything for them. He would drop everything he was doing anytime the girls asked him questions like, "Dad, can you take us to Target?" This occurred quite often, Caelan said. And he would do it with a smile.

On Jan. 10, Caelan had the day off from her job as a dental assistant. She was at home and so was her dad, who worked with drywall and rental properties. He often came and went from home to work. She sensed something was off with her dad. She said it is hard to put it into words, but her dad wasn't as chatty as he typically was.

"He seemed to be having a bad day, but (suicide) never crossed my mind," Caelan said. "When I left the home his last words to me were, 'I love you.' He doesn't say it all the time so when he said that I thought it was a little weird. But again, I thought he was just having a bad day."

About 30-45 minutes later, about 3:30 p.m., a 911 call came in from a passerby about a suspicious vehicle at the Whipple Beach boat access. The caller thought someone was possibly taking a nap. Baxter police officers responded and found Tom Johnson with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Caelan said police came to the house and told them her father had severely injured himself. The family was in shock and was told to go to the emergency room right away. Tom Johnson was still alive—he was transported to the Brainerd hospital and then was airlifted to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, where he died a day later.

Tom Johnson was an organ donor, and his main organs were donated to help others.

The location of Tom Johnson's death will haunt the family forever. The family lives close to Whipple Beach and every day they have to pass it, reminding them of their loved one's tragic death.

"I asked the cops why did he do it so close to home and (they said), 'It's because they want to be found,'" Caelan said. "They don't want to not be found. I am sure it crossed his mind that the girls (her sisters) would be driving by the beach at that time after school on their way home. I just can't imagine if the girls would have found him, it could have been much worse."

Caelan said her father left a note for the family and wrote it on a big pink notepad. The notepad and the Sharpie marker Tom Johnson used were found in the main entryway of the house.

Tom Johnson enjoyed sitting on the beaches of Mexico, boating on Gull and Cross lakes, deer hunting and participating in fantasy football leagues. Caelan said he was missed on a trip to Mexico this past spring break.

Caelan said when summer rolls around, it will be tough as her dad won't be getting the boat and docks out, ready for lake use.

Caelen is engaged to be married, but her dad won't be walking her down the aisle. He won't be able to teach his youngest daughter to drive, like he did for the older two girls.

"My dad was basically my best friend," Caelan said. "We did everything together. We did gun safety training together, snowmobile class, we went deer hunting and he took us girls everywhere. ... He always had said you treat guns with respect."

Caelan said if anyone ever feels like her father did and has thoughts of suicide, she pleads with them to step back and think about every single person who would be impacted by their death.

"Think about all the future plans that won't happen because you are gone," she said. "Think about how much this will affect family members. Think about that for a minute. Think about if you are not here tomorrow, what would happen.

"Don't just think about yourself for that moment. Go talk to someone if you are having any type of bad thoughts. There is help out there so people don't have to be put in this situation."

Caelan said suicide needs to be talked about and needs to be addressed. She hopes her family's story will get more people in the community to talk about suicide awareness and to help others who may be having suicidal thoughts to seek help.

Get help

If in a crisis or in need of help—or know of someone who is—call the Crisis Line and Referral Services at 218-828-HELP (4357) or 800-462-5525. The Crisis Line is answered by local, trained volunteers 24 hours a day. It is a free, anonymous and confidential service.

Help is also available through texting. People who text MN to 741741 will be connected with a trained counselor who will help defuse the crisis and connect the texter to local resources. The service helps people contemplating suicide and facing mental health issues.

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