RACINE — A woman convicted of homicide in 2022 is appealing her case on the grounds that the outcome of her trial might have been different if the jury had seen all the evidence.
Linda LaRoche, 67, is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the death of Peggy Johnson, 23, who was her housekeeper. Both lived in McHenry, Ill.
Johnson was found dead in a Raymond cornfield on July 21, 1999. She went unidentified for 20 years before advances in forensic genealogy led investigators to her living relatives.
However, a second victim was discovered five months later in circumstances the defense claims were similar to those of Johnson.
Mary Kate Sunderlin, 34, was found on December 9, 1999, in a deserted corner of Lake County, Ill. She went unidentified until 2006.
A forensic pathologist hired by the defense concluded injuries inflicted on the two women were so similar, they were likely killed by the same person.
Appeal filed after new evidence found
Laura Walker is representing the defendant on appeal. On May 25, she filed the results of a forensic examination.
Lindsey C. Thomas, M.D., a forensic pathologist hired by the defense, reviewed the autopsy reports of both women along with other relevant reports.
“These cases suggest the likelihood of a serial murderer, and I would not be surprised if other related deaths or abductions exist,” Thomas wrote in a report filed with the court.
Diane Donohoo, assistant district attorney, called the doctor’s findings “pure speculation” and is seeking to limit the extent of the doctor’s testimony.
However, Judge Timothy Boyle reviewed the report and echoed Thomas’s finding. During a status hearing on May 25, he said multiples times the injuries suffered by both women were “strikingly similar”.
Autopsy raises questions
Investigators from Lake County, Ill., contacted Walker about the 1999 homicide of Sunderlin and provided her autopsy report. Walker had been unaware of this second case up until that point.
She turned the autopsy reports and other relevant documents over to the expert in forensic pathology, who concluded:
- Both victims had cognitive challenges and were similar in appearance.
- Both showed signs they were held for some time before they were killed and dumped in deserted, rural areas.
- Both had substantial burns covering their bodies and blunt force trauma to the head and genitals.
- Both had distinctive injuries on the skin in the shape of a half-loop, which the medical examiner was not able to explain.
Johnson had multiple fractured ribs from injuries sustained two to four weeks before.
The evidence collected from Johnson’s body included the DNA of an unknown male from under her fingernails.
Her clothes inexplicably contained pollen native to New England even though Johnson and LaRoche were both living in McHenry County, Ill., at the time of the murder.
Johnson’s official cause of death was pneumonia. She was malnourished and the extent of the abuse to her body weakened her ability to fight the infection in her lungs and the one in her arm, which had sepsis so severe, her arm was soft to the touch.
Sunderlin, too, had pneumonia and was malnourished.
LaRoche’s relationship with Peggy Johnson
The original investigation into Johnson’s murder took a turn shortly after she was identified in 2019 when detectives received an anonymous tip that led them to the person who employed Johnson at the time she went missing: Linda LaRoche.
Johnson was an orphan with cognitive challenges who met LaRoche at a free clinic where LaRoche worked as a nurse.
LaRoche told investigators she felt sorry for the young woman because she also had a rough early start in life. LaRoche hired the young woman to act as a mother’s helper, doing housework and some child care for LaRoche’s children.
Johnson lived with the LaRoche family in their McHenry County, Ill., home for about three years.
During her 2022 trial, LaRoche’s children testified to the abuse Johnson suffered at the hands of their mother.
They told the jury LaRoche isolated Johnson from her family, verbally abused her, hit her, including with a pitchfork on one occasion, and once made her stand outside holding buckets of water for punishment.
Robert Johnson, who was married to LaRoche at the time, claimed he did not see abuse or evidence of abuse. He also said he worked long hours and was frequently absent from the house.
The family last saw Johnson in the summer of 1999 in the passenger seat of LaRoche’s car as she drove away.
LaRoche claimed she found the young woman with pills, which she did not want around her children.
Because events occurred 23 years before, the family could not give a date for the last time they saw Johnson, which would have been between June 5 and July 21, 1999.
There was no hard evidence linking LaRoche to the crime scene. At trial, Donohoo relied on witness testimony of the abuse Johnson suffered at the hands of LaRoche.
She also presented testimony that LaRoche told many stories to her children about Johnson’s whereabouts over the years.
LaRoche claimed she took Johnson to the train station so she could go home and another time she claimed to have dropped her off at the hospital.
At one point, LaRoche said Johnson contacted her about coming back to live with the family, which could not have been true since the young woman had been dead for two years by that time.
LaRoche told investigators she made up the stories because her son questioned her constantly about what may have happened to Johnson.
Donohoo told the jury the lies and inconsistent statements were to hide the fact she had taken the young woman somewhere, killed her and then dropped her body off in a Wisconsin cornfield.
In the appeal, Walker argued the state’s case does not add up because of Johnson’s physical condition at the time of her death. At least one witness remembers her doing dishes before she left LaRoche’s home for the last time, and standing to do chores seemed unlikely for someone in Johnson’s condition, Walker posited.
A hearing will be held on Aug. 7 in Racine County Circuit Court that will determine if LaRoche obtains a new trial.
At that time, there may also be testimony from the original trial attorneys who claim they did not have access to the autopsy report of the second victim prior to the 2022 trial.
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