Peering through the cornstalks, the teenager, Megan Rios, would never forget the sight. The dead woman was skinny, wearing black sweatpants and a gray denim western shirt embroidered with red and black flowers, still wet from the night’s rainstorm. She was covered in bruises and burn marks, and Rios thought her arm looked broken, “laying behind her in a very unnatural position,” she would later tell WISN.
But for years, no one would come forward to identify the woman, even after police revealed horrific details about how she died. It wasn’t the blunt force trauma to the head that killed Jane Doe, as she was known — but the years of chronic abuse she endured at the hands of her unknown killer. The coroner ruled she died of infected injuries from the abuse, of sepsis pneumonia.
“It was just kind of sad that after all these years, she’s still nobody,” Rios told WISN in 2012, as police continued to plead for information.
But now she is somebody — and so is her alleged killer.
On Friday, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling identified Jane Doe as Peggy Lee Johnson, a mentally impaired teenager who spent the last five years of her life allegedly being “horrifically abused” by a nurse named Linda LaRoche — who was charged with murder in Johnson’s death last week. Johnson became homeless as a teenager in the 1990s after her mother died, Schmaling said, and she met LaRoche while seeking help at an Illinois clinic.
LaRoche took her in, the sheriff said — and is now accused of torturing her for years before leaving her to die in the Wisconsin cornfield. Johnson was just 23 when she died.
“The utter, barbaric brutality inflicted on this young woman is something that none of us will ever forget,” Schmaling said at a Friday news conference.
LaRoche, who lives in Florida but is still a registered nurse in Illinois, was arrested Nov. 5 in Cape Coral, Fla., and is awaiting extradition to Wisconsin. It was not immediately clear whether she had an attorney.
In the 20 years that police investigated the case — traveling to “several states” as investigators chased scores of missing person reports — LaRoche and Johnson’s names never came up once, Schmaling said. It was only after an anonymous tip last month that LaRoche showed up on the police’s radar.
The tipster said LaRoche had talked about killing a woman in Illinois 20 years ago, according to the criminal complaint filed Thursday.
The problem back then was that nobody ever reported Johnson missing, Schmaling said. Johnson apparently had no other family to turn to after her mother died while she was a senior in high school, he said. Her father and brother are also dead, Schmaling said, and she had a sister she never met.
“After her mother died, Peggy was approximately 18 years old, cognitively impaired, on her own, and went searching for help at a medical clinic in McHenry, Ill.,” Schmaling said. “There, she met a registered nurse named Linda LaRoche.”
LaRoche recognized that Johnson was disabled, Schmaling said. She offered the 18-year-old a deal: Johnson could come live with LaRoche’s family in the McHenry area, a northwest suburb of Chicago, and LaRoche would help her finish high school. In exchange, Johnson would have to work as a housekeeper and nanny for the family, according to the complaint.
It turned into five years of torture, police say.
Police tracked down LaRoche’s immediate family members, including her five children and her ex-husband, who confirmed that a woman named Peggy Lynn Johnson lived with them from 1994 to 1999, when she disappeared.
The children, now adults, recalled LaRoche severely abusing the new “housekeeper” on numerous occasions, according to the complaint. She made Johnson sleep in a crawl space below the home, and screamed at her “like an animal,” they said. One recalled the time that LaRoche stabbed at Johnson’s head with a pitchfork, while another remembered when LaRoche repeatedly slapped her in the face and head. Once, when they asked Johnson what had happened to her blackened eye, Johnson responded bluntly: Their mother had punched her.
It all came to a head one night in July 1999, LaRoche’s ex-husband told police. It was the last time he ever saw Peggy. He came home from work and found her lying lifeless on the ground, he said. He said he confronted LaRoche, who told him that Peggy overdosed. She needed to “take her away from their house” so they wouldn’t be involved, she allegedly said.
She told him to take the kids out for ice cream, he told police. She was gone for about 2½ hours, he said, and when she returned, Johnson was gone.
Police now say that LaRoche drove across the border into Wisconsin, dragged Johnson out of the car and left her at the edge of the cornfield in Raymond.
An autopsy report from the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office in 1999 bore the evidence of unthinkable abuse, according to the complaint.
There were new broken ribs and old broken ribs, swelling in her knees and her feet from infected wounds, and burn marks covering 25 percent of her body, possibly from chemicals. Her left ear was deformed and cut; her nose was broken; her lower lip split open; and her left cheek discolored. Just before she died, she had endured blunt force trauma to the head that penetrated her scalp but not her skull, and fresh road rash skidded across her torso. She was malnourished.
And there were no drugs in her system, as LaRoche claimed.
The small community of Raymond, home to just over 3,500 people then, held a funeral for the unnamed victim later that year and raised money for her casket and tombstone, the Racine Journal Times reported. Racine County sheriff’s investigators exhumed her body to take her DNA. They started a Facebook page for her in 2011, posting every few months for the next eight years using Jane Doe’s voice — “Someone knows me … someone misses me” — and begging anyone to come forward with information.
LaRoche, meanwhile, moved to Florida, buying a home in Cape Coral in 2014, according to property records. She had founded a jail medical-care company in 1997, Guardian Correctional Care, and as of January and April 2019, respectively, both the Boone County and DeKalb County sheriff’s offices in northern Illinois maintained lucrative contracts with LaRoche’s company, public documents show.
DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott told The Washington Post that the $18,000-per-month contract with Guardian Correctional Care was terminated on Friday. The Boone County Sheriff’s Office could not immediately be reached for comment.
When Racine County investigators tracked down LaRoche in Florida earlier this month, she admitted to taking Johnson back to her home and abusing her, according to the complaint. She admitted that while working as a nurse at an unspecified jail, she would sometimes steal medications — and would grow angry at Johnson for allegedly taking them.
On the night Johnson disappeared, LaRoche claimed she found Johnson with a handful of pills in the kitchen just before she fainted. Her story about what happened would change multiple times over the course of several interviews. The longtime nurse claimed she didn’t know what to do or whether to call an ambulance, so instead she put Johnson in the car, brought her out to a pay phone in Belvidere, Ill., and dropped Johnson off to live with her grandmother.
The grandmother, however, said that never happened.
LaRoche ultimately admitted to driving Johnson over the state line into Wisconsin, then leaving her on the side of the road. She said something must have happened to her afterward.
Long buried beneath a headstone bearing the name “Jane Doe,” Johnson’s body will now be exhumed once more, the sheriff said. She will be reburied next to her mother in Belvidere.