Roxana and Richard Johnson

Roxana and Dick Johnson say they learned almost by chance that their daughter was hospitalized with cancer.

Ron Medvescek / Arizona Daily Star

When Dick and Roxana Johnson’s daughter returned to prison in January, she had a lingering cough.

She told them in phone conversations from Perryville Prison that she was waiting to see a doctor. As the weeks became months, their concern turned to worry. The cough was getting worse, Colleen still hadn’t seen a doctor and they feared she might be developing pneumonia.

They never imagined what was wrong was far worse than that.

Colleen, whose legal case the Star covered April 17, died Thursday morning. She had turned 51 May 3.

Her parents learned only by chance that she had been hospitalized, that her health had deteriorated rapidly and that she’d been taken from the prison in Goodyear by ambulance the second week of May.

Dick, a former Oro Valley town councilman who filled in as mayor in 1998, said news of their daughter’s plight came by way of a routine call from the Arizona Department of Corrections on May 18. The DOC employee was updating records and verifying phone numbers.

During the call, Dick mentioned Colleen’s cough, and asked how they might somehow help her see a doctor. The caller said he’d check. They heard back the next day: Colleen was in a Mesa hospital and had been for over a week.

Since she was an inmate, no one from the hospital had permission to call and tell Dick and Roxana that Colleen was intubated or that she had advanced-stage non-smoker’s lung cancer.

No one called to tell them their daughter was dying.

Colleen’s death came about a week after Arizona was court-ordered to improve medical and mental-health services for prison inmates.

The new demands on the DOC came after Civil Liberties Union attorneys — who won a 2014 settlement — complained prison officials had not yet made any substantial changes.

That settlement, won on behalf of 36,000 Arizona inmates, included cases in which prisoners suffered and died from cancer that went undetected, cases similar to Colleen’s.

“Hers was a life that was impacted by this system,” Dick said. “She was a real positive person, a people person. The outpouring has been tremendous.”

Charges revived

Colleen’s legal challenges started in 2008, when she was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol twice within a couple of weeks. She served a two-year term for those aggravated DUIs and was still under state supervision when she was rearrested in June 2013.

Her recent return to prison for nearly five years undermined the progress she was making, her parents said. And while they did not contest her first prison term, the second go-around left them disillusioned.

Dick said their daughter, a graduate of Salpointe Catholic High School, had made significant improvements in managing her mental-health and substance-abuse challenges. She’d been working, had an apartment and her gregarious personality made her a beloved friend to many.

“She befriended everyone she met and to know her was to have a hysterical story to tell,” said high school friend Barbara Chinnock-Rowland, via e-mail. “Anywhere she went was like Norm entering the bar at Cheers. Bank tellers, restaurant owners, cashiers at grocery stores knew her by name and she always left them smiling and laughing.”

When Colleen was rearrested in June 2013, she was driving very slowly near her home. She blew a 0.05 on an alcohol breath test. That’s below the legal limit of 0.08, but people can be charged with DUI for any blood-alcohol level if they are found to be “impaired to the slightest degree.”

She was taking several medications prescribed by her psychiatrist, which her parents believe slowed her down considerably, both physically and mentally. Colleen was held in Pima County Jail over the summer and then, in September 2013, the charges were dismissed without prejudice, which means they could later be refiled. Her parents don’t know why but understand the dismissal might have been due to delays with the lab.

As soon as she left jail, she started residential treatment at Cottonwood Tucson. The whole family participated and they were hopeful that they could help their daughter, that they were working things out. They were grateful to have the chance.

Then the Pima County Attorney’s Office brought back the charges in January 2015.

Dick and Roxana tried to find a way to help Colleen. They met with politicians, and wrote letters. Anything instead of prison. The case dragged on for another year. In the end, she went back to prison.

At peace

When Dick and Roxana arrived at the hospital last week, it was the first time they’d seen Colleen since January. Their clearance for visitation at Perryville was delayed because of a mix-up with Dick’s application, and they were trying to sort that out earlier this month.

Dick still can’t believe they were never notified.

“There should be a streamlined process when you’re dealing with a serious illness,” he said. “They need to notify the next of kin or immediate family.”

Questions about Colleen and about DOC’s protocol with sick inmates were not answered Friday.

Distressing what-if

Dick said as soon as they realized what was happening, they had a Roman Catholic priest carry out Colleen’s last rites. The nurses attending Colleen told Dick she’d been engaging and friendly when she arrived from Perryville, despite her torment.

That was typical of Colleen, Dick said, and comforting. And so was seeing her look so at peace, after all the challenges she’d faced in recent years.

“I can’t help but think that if she hadn’t gone back to prison,” he said, his voice trailing off. He didn’t bother to finish the sentence.

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at

806-7754 or pmachelor@tucson.com