Meet Brandon Crist (1993-2015)

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Jeff and Hollie Crist hold a picture of their son Brandon, who died of a heroin overdose in late September. (KEIZERTIMES/Craig Murphy)

Jeff and Hollie Crist hold a picture of their son Brandon, who died of a heroin overdose in late September. (KEIZERTIMES/Craig Murphy)

By CRAIG MURPHY
Of the Keizertimes

Brandon Crist’s parents were going to kick him out of the house.

The 22-year-old had once again been caught doing drugs. Though they loved him dearly, Jeff and Hollie Crist couldn’t let him live under their roof anymore.

They never had the chance to kick him out.

Two days after Brandon didn’t show up at home, Hollie’s motherly instincts proved to be sadly correct when the officer knocked on the door.

Brandon had been found dead in his van after a heroin overdose.

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The death has been jarring to many who knew Brandon, some of whom thought he had finally kicked the drug habit that had plagued him for so long. Brandon’s death was a key factor behind the Chasing Dark series of stories in the Keizertimes.

The death has been most jarring to Brandon’s parents.

“Both Jeff and I were so devastated that he was all by himself for two-and-a-half days in his van,” Hollie said last week. “Then I wanted to say goodbye and kiss him one last time and was told at the funeral home they suggested I not see him. So we never got to say goodbye.”

In Brandon’s last year, he had moved back home to Keizer. His parents thought he was clean, only to find out he wasn’t. Instead of using suboxone, an opiate blocker that is designed to help block the craving for heroin, Brandon was selling suboxone pills to pay for heroin.

As far as Jeff was concerned, when he came from work Monday, Sept. 28, he was kicking his son out of the home.

“I’d had enough,” Jeff said. “I was done. Putting me through it, that’s fine. But his mom is emotional, with all the ups and downs this puts her through. It wasn’t fair to her. Considering all the things we’d done in the last eight months, we spent a lot of money, fixing cars, buying stuff.”

When Hollie got home on Sept. 28, she noticed Brandon had left his Facebook page open on a laptop in the house.

“I saw his private messages,” Hollie said. “I called his last phone numbers he’d called. Anyone he contacted, I texted them. He was selling suboxone. I was frantic. I put a Facebook post out to his friends about him being missing. He didn’t want us to see anything. He just randomly left the computer open that day. I felt this was a God thing, because I was able to reach out to his friends.”

Hollie knew something was wrong at that point.

“When I looked out Tuesday, his van wasn’t there,” she said. “He would always call or text if he didn’t come home. I called all the hospitals, jails, rehab centers. I knew. I started worrying Tuesday morning when he didn’t come home.”

Jeff wasn’t as concerned initially.

“I just thought he would come back and I would kick him out,” he said. “I was done. I didn’t want to see him again.”

Jeff then turned to Hollie.

“You said, ‘You know he’s not coming home,’” Jeff said.

Hollie looked at her husband and nodded.

“You said, ‘He is too,’” she said. “That Wednesday at about 8:45 p.m. we got the knock we’d feared for five years.”

It was a Keizer Police Department officer knocking on the door.

“He said, ‘Is Hollie here?’” Jeff recalled. “I said yes. Then I said, ‘So you found him?’ He wouldn’t say until he could talk to Hollie.”

When Hollie came to the door, the officer explained Brandon’s body had been found in his van in Salem.

As with other addicts, there were two Brandons.

“He’s outgoing,” Hollie said when asked to describe her only son. “He was always smiling when not using drugs. Anyone who met him liked him. Any rehab place we took him to, they said he was awesome. He had a great heart. He was a good kid.”

Jeff said Brandon’s charm was apparent to all who got to know him.

“All of our friends liked him,” Jeff said.

Troubles started in eighth grade. After going to a private Christian school in Salem previously, Brandon decided to start attending Whiteaker Middle School.

“In eighth grade it started with alcohol and pot,” Hollie said. “He didn’t feel like he fit in. He didn’t have a group to gravitate to. The kids who were experimenting (with drugs), he was gravitating to them.”

Police reports obtained by the Keizertimes show a history of a young man in trouble with the law, mainly for drugs and behavioral issues, dating back to when Brandon was 13.

Things progressed when Brandon entered McNary High School. He started running away and doing other drugs like ecstasy. At age 15 the Crists sent Brandon to a boarding school in Costa Rica.

“He was skipping school, running away, being defiant,” Hollie said. “It was good for a while when he came back. Then it went downhill again. He lied about who he was seeing. He probably started doing heroin at 17.”

Hollie said Brandon eventually admitted to doing heroin, cocaine and speedballs, a mixture of the two.

“He and his friends wanted to try all the drugs,” Hollie said. “Heroin was the one that hooked him.”

Over the course of several years, Brandon was in and out of detox centers. He went to one in Portland three separate times – two weeks each time – but didn’t finish the third time. There was a week spent in a Eugene detox center. He got a diploma for completing 45 days at a detox center in Klamath Falls.

“He was just a troubled kid,” Jeff said. “I don’t know what to think. He was a good boy before all of this. You never think it will happen to you, or to your kid.”

In July 2013 Brandon was arrested by Detective Chris Nelson of the KPD for unlawful possession and delivery of heroin.

“Brandon said when Chris Nelson pulled the gun on him and he went to jail for the first time, that’s when he decided to get clean,” Hollie said. “The arrest was the best thing that happened to him. We had him back for a year.”

As mentioned in a previous Chasing Dark story, Brandon entered a detox center and then transitioned to a long-term rehab center. He talked with Nelson about once a month.

“He showed interest when he got out of the treatment center about talking to kids about the dangers of drug use, particularly heroin, and the devastation it hails on individuals and families,” Nelson said. “Brandon fought hard against the dark and evil addiction to heroin. He gave himself a glimpse of freedom and you could hear energy and excitement in his voice when he was drug-free. Unfortunately, he relapsed after treatment and the addiction to heroin ended his life.”

Hollie also noted the change in her son.

“He was clean for 11 months,” she said. “He was pumped about it. He was happy. He was going to be a drug and alcohol counselor. He found a friend in Bend. He was going to live in a youth shelter, then a Sober Living house in Bend.”

In an Oxford House, recovering addicts live together in transitional housing, support each other and go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings together. In short, it’s a large support group.

“He was always going to meetings,” Jeff said. “He knew exactly how many days he’d been clean.”

Suddenly, things fell apart.

“We’re not really sure what happened,” Hollie said. “He called, crying and said he was going to move out. He said he was going to have a drink. He was struggling with step four of the recovery, which is coming to terms with who you’ve hurt. He moved out but didn’t have a place to live. I think it was to use heroin. I have no idea what happened, no clue. I thought he was doing fine.”

Brandon came back to Keizer, but continued using drugs. He didn’t want to go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, since he wanted to go to bars with friends.

Hollie said it became clear when Brandon was on heroin.

“He was negative when using,” Hollie said. “The poor pitiful me thing. Everyone was out to get him. He wasn’t nice. He didn’t smile a lot and was always unhappy. When he was clean he was smiling, happy, outgoing, family oriented. But he missed my birthday and Mother’s Day five years in a row.”

In addition, Brandon would come home late, constantly be tired and nodding off.

“He alienated himself,” Hollie said. “He was definitely nodding off with the heroin. He looked bad. He was very thin, had lost a lot of weight, had dark circles under the eyes. He wouldn’t shower. His nails would be dirty. He used black tar heroin, which would be under his fingernails. He was washing his clothes all the time. There was a real personality change. They’ll get very defensive when you confront them.”

Jeff said parents suspecting drug use need to trust their instincts.

“If you think there’s something wrong, there’s something wrong,” Jeff said. “Don’t doubt it.”

Hollie said nothing else could have been done to help Brandon.

“We tried everything,” she said. “We did everything. He had every opportunity to get clean. The times he went to detox, he just did it for us. It’s an internal thing. It has always been his choice (to get clean). We loved him to death and would have done anything, but it had to be his choice to get clean.”

After bouncing between Keizer and the Bend area, Brandon came back to Keizer in October 2014. He had trouble finding work due to his felony history, but in September – just two weeks before his passing – Brandon got a job at a call center.

“He told them before being hired about the felony,” Hollie said. “I do human resources, so I told him to tell them right off the bat. They knew about it and they hired him. He was so excited about it. Three days in, he got a tap on the shoulder and was terminated. He was devastated. I wonder if that’s the excuse for what set him over.”

Hollie still feels anger.

“I get mad at Brandon for doing it again and for leaving me,” she said. “I know he wouldn’t want me to see him using. I’m mad at myself for not catching it. I’m mad at myself and at him.”

Hollie said her son didn’t want to be remembered for his addiction.

“He never wanted to be known as a junkie,” Hollie said. “He would hate that. But that’s how people are remembering him. He would just be devastated. He had a lot of shame and guilt in being an addict.

“He was the addict,” she added later. “He chose to do it. He couldn’t get out of it. It’s a disease. People don’t choose to get cancer, but he chose to do drugs. I don’t think he knew what he was getting himself into.”

The pain can be felt in Brandon’s obituary, which includes this line: “Brandon put up a good fight with his addiction, but sadly lost the battle. He is finally at peace and will be deeply missed.”

Hollie recalled one Christmas gift from Brandon.

“He had stolen our camera,” Hollie said. “So he brought us a camera, which he’d probably stolen from someone. It was just a box and a camera, nothing else. I know he had guilt about stealing. He wasn’t stealing, it was the drugs. He would rather sell drugs than get money from stealing things.”

Now it’s Jeff and Hollie thinking about their son’s life being stolen away.

“A lot of friends have helped us through it,” Jeff said. “I think about it every day. I’ll drive somewhere and I’ll remember Brandon. It could be places we would go, or I’ll see a white van. I think about it every day, all the time.”

Hollie still hasn’t completely processed the loss of her son.

“I’m more numb still,” she said. “I sleep with his coat. We haven’t touched anything in his room. He was the love of my life. I just adored him. I told him I would lay down in the road and die for him in order for him to be clean. That drug just got him really bad. It’s just the most awful thing ever.”

At Brandon’s memorial service, a mom wrote in the service book her son was going down the same path Brandon had. She asked for Hollie to call her.

Hollie tearfully said last week she hasn’t made the call yet.

“Right now I don’t know how to help somebody,” Hollie said. “I didn’t even know how to help my own son. We did everything we possibly could. I hope this story helps one kid. That’s what Brandon would have wanted. His message would have been don’t ever start.”

Ideally, Hollie would love for more than one addict to be saved after hearing Brandon’s story. But even if that happened, it wouldn’t replace the hole in her life.

“It would feel good, but it wouldn’t make his death any easier,” she said.

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