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By Bill Houston
Racine, WI — A 20-year-old cold case reached its boiling point Friday morning, Nov. 8, when Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling revealed the identity of a woman whose badly beaten body was discovered in a cornfield in the town of Raymond in 1999.
“Jane Doe” has finally been identified as Peggy Lynn Johnson.
Her suspected killer, Linda Sue LaRoche was taken into custody by Racine County Sheriff’s deputies Tuesday, Nov. 5 in Cape Coral, FL. She has waived extradition and will be brought back to Racine to face at least two felony charges, including first-degree intentional homicide and hiding a corpse.
LaRoche faces life in prison if convicted of the homicide charge.
Read the Criminal Complaint for Linda La Roche.
Years of “Barbaric Brutality”
Born and raised in McHenry, IL, Johnson was 23-years-old at the time of her murder.
According to Schmaling, Johnson was cognitively impaired and living homeless on her own at the age of 18 after her mother died in 1994. She went looking for help at a McHenry medical clinic where she met LaRoche, who was working as a registered nurse (RN).
According to the Racine County District Attorney’s criminal complaint, LaRoche took Johnson into her home, along with LaRoche’s then-husband and three of LaRoche’s five children.
Working as a housekeeper and live-in nanny over the next 5 years, Johnson suffered horrific physical abuse at the hands of the veteran RN, according to the criminal complaint.
After her body was discovered by a passerby walking his dog on 92nd St., July 21, 1999, an autopsy performed by the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office showed Johnson had recently suffered blunt trauma to the head.
The coroner’s report also revealed a broken nose, multiple fractured ribs, and burns to over 25 percent of Johnson’s body.
“All of us here who have investigated the deaths of individuals during the course of our careers have seen many troubling things,” Schmaling said during his press conference. “However, the utter barbaric brutality inflicted on this young woman is something none of us will ever forget.”
Johnson’s body also showed signs of being both sexually abused and malnourished.
The official cause of death was listed as “sepsis pneumonia as a result of infection from injuries sustained from chronic abuse,” according to the D.A.’s criminal complaint.
Schmaling said Johnson “suffered long-term and horrific abuse at the hand of Linda LaRoche.”
How the Victim and Suspect were Finally Identified
Because both her parents and her brother were dead at the time of her murder, and she had never met her only sister, Peggy Lynn Johnson was never reported missing.
For over 20 years she was known simply as “Jane Doe,” buried at Holy Family Catholic Cemetery in Caledonia, WI, October 27, 1999, under a gravestone reading “Daughter: Jane Doe…Gone, but not forgotten.”
Her body was exhumed in October 2013 for DNA testing and reinterred at Holy Family Catholic Cemetery July 21, 2015 — 16 years to the day after her body had been discovered.
Her DNA was added to a missing persons’ database and investigators compared details of her case to more than 1,000 missing person cases over the last 20 years, but “Until recent weeks, neither Linda LaRoche or Peggy Johnson’s names have come up in our investigation,” said Schmaling during his press conference.
That all began to change toward the end of September when a “concerned citizen” in Cape Coral reached out to Racine County investigators to report LaRoche “was telling people that she had killed a woman back when she lived in Illinois.”
When interviewed by investigators in October, one of LaRoche’s now adult-aged children confirmed Peggy Lee Johnson lived in LaRoche’s home back in 1999, according to the criminal complaint.
The DA’s report also said, “Laroche’s children recall that Laroche was very abusive to Peggy and that it was not uncommon for Peggy to have signs of injuries from Laroche. At times when not working for the family, Peggy would be made to sleep and stay in a crawl space under the home. Laroche was verbally and emotionally cruel to Peggy, at times screaming at her like an animal. One recalled Laroche stabbing at Peggy’s head with a pitchfork, one recalled Laroche slapping Peggy in the head and face.”
On Nov. 5, during her initial interview with Racine County investigators, LaRoche confirmed taking Johnson in to her home in 1994. She also “admitted that between 1994 and 1999, she was abusive to Peggy.”
During her first interview with law enforcement, LaRoche told investigators the last night Johnson was seen alive, LaRoche had come home and discovered Johnson standing at the kitchen counter with pills in her hand.
LaRoche recalled taking Johnson outside for fresh air after Johnson fainted from ingesting the pills, but the now 32-year-veteran-RN said “she didn’t know what to do and that she thought about calling an ambulance but didn’t.”
According to the criminal complaint, LaRoche told investigators after Johnson regained consciousness she had Johnson call her grandmother from a gas station pay phone. She claimed she then took Johnson to a restaurant near Belvidere, IL, left the 23-year-old Johnson with her grandmother, and has not seen Johnson since.
However, “when confronted with the fact that Peggy’s grandmother had been interviewed by police and said she had never met LaRoche or her husband, LaRoche later changed her story and admitted that she was not sure who the person was that she left Peggy with.”
When LaRoche’s ex-husband was interviewed by Racine County Sheriff’s deputies and asked about the last time he saw Johnson at LaRoche’s home, he said “he had come home from work and found Peggy lying on the ground lifeless,” according to the D.A.’s report.
“LaRoche told him Peggy had overdosed and she was going to take her away from their house so they would not be involved. LaRoche told him to take the kids out for ice cream.”
LaRoche’s ex-husband recalled “Laroche being gone for approximately 2 1⁄2 hours and then returning home without Peggy.”
He said “he never saw Peggy again.”
During her second interview with investigators from Racine, on Nov. 6, LaRoche then claimed after Johnson ingested pills she drove her to Wisconsin and let Johnson out of the car by the side of the road in a rural area.
According to the D.A.’s report, “LaRoche asserted that Peggy was not injured at all when she dropped her off and that something must have happened to her after she dropped her off.”
But the criminal complaint says when her body was discovered Johnson’s torso appeared to have abrasions like those caused by road rash and light scratching on her lower back and upper buttocks that appeared consistent with having been dragged.
According to the complaint, it appeared Johnson’s body had been “dragged from a vehicle down the slight embankment and laid on the ground in between the first and second row(s) of corn.”
After looking at photos of ear injuries sustained by Johnson around the time of her death, current GoMo Health Chief Medical Officer and Director of the Maternal Child Health and Development Global Network, and former Milwaukee Children’s Hospital Medical Director Dr. Stephen Lazoritz “advised that he believed that both ears were either swollen or slightly swollen as a result of the victim being pulled or tugged by the ears.”
What is Next?
Linda Sue LaRoche currently awaits extradition to Racine to face felony charges of intentional homicide and hiding a corpse.
Through familial DNA testing, Peggy Lynn Johnson’s family has been found and her identity confirmed, according to the criminal complaint.
Authorities plan to exhume Johnson’s body again and bury her next to her mother in Belvidere, IL.
“We are very proud today by the fact that we can finally offer some closure and bring some peace,” said Schmaling during his press conference.