A cold case involving the death of a mentally disabled woman found dead along a Wisconsin highway may finally have some answers, nearly twenty years after the body was first discovered.
Police say a nurse who lived and worked in Illinois, Linda LaRoche, 64, subjected the victim, identified as Peggy Lynn Johnson, to years of "horrific" abuse, eventually killing her. Authorities arrested LaRoche on Nov. 5 in Cape Coral, Florida, charging her with first-degree intentional homicide and hiding a corpse in connection with Johnson's death in 1999.
According to a criminal complaint from the Racine County Sheriff's Office, Johnson's body was found on July 21, 1999, in a cornfield in Racine County, Wisconsin. Police were unable to identify the woman, who had burns covering 25 percent of her body, broken ribs, bruising on her face, and upper torso as well as "deformed" ear that had been cut. The criminal complaint states the body also had a broken nose, a discolored cheek and her lower lip was split open on both ends. Johnson's cause of death was determined to be homicide by sepsis pneumonia as a result of infections that had been sustained from abuse.
At the time, investigators were unable to identify Johnson, referring to her only as "Jane Doe."
Nearly twenty years passed without any clues to Johnson's identity or who might have been responsible for her death, but that all changed in September when authorities received a tip that LaRoche had told people she'd killed a woman while living in Illinois.
Investigators looked into the allegations and discovered that LaRoche had been living in Illinois with her husband and three children between 1994 to 1999, before Johnson vanished. Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling told reporters at a press briefing that Johnson was raised in Illinois and had become homeless shortly after her mother died. Johnson had no other family to speak of, as her father and brother had died, and she'd never met her sister.
At one point, Johnson went to a medical clinic for help where she met LaRoche, who was working at the clinic as a Registered Nurse for the first time.
Schmaling said LaRoche recognized Johnson's disability and offered to take the teen in, allowing her to live with her so long as she "acted as a nanny and housekeeper" for the family.
However, LaRoche was "very abusive" toward Johnson, forcing the mentally disabled woman to sleep in a crawl space underneath the home, LaRoche's now adult-children told investigators. At one point, LaRoche allegedly stabbed at Johnson using a pitchfork, leaving the 18-year-old with visible injuries.
"LaRoche was verbally and emotionally cruel to Peggy, at times screaming at her like an animal," the complaint states.
According to the complaint, LaRoche's ex-husband told police that after coming home from work one day, he discovered the teenager "lying on the ground, lifeless" and that LaRoche told him Johnson had overdosed. He told investigators that LaRoche told him she was going to get rid of the body and she disappeared for more than two hours, returning later without the girl.
"We are angered by the senseless and brutal murder of this young woman, and we want justice served," Sheriff Schmaling said. "Yet we're also very proud today by the fact that we can finally offer some closure and some peace."
LaRoche told detectives that Johnson went missing after she discovered the teen with some pills, the criminal complaint states. LaRoche said she drove Johnson to Wisconsin and let her out of the car, claiming that the teenager "was not injured at all" when she dropped her off. LaRoche told investigators something must have happened to Johnson after she left her behind.
LaRoche is scheduled to be extradited from Florida to Wisconsin where she will be tried for the 1999 murder.
Photo: Racine County Sheriff's Office