A former McHenry nurse has been charged in the beating death of a 23-year-old cognitively impaired woman whose battered body was discovered at the edge of a cornfield in southeastern Wisconsin in July 1999, police said Friday.
Linda S. La Roche, 64, whom court records show now lives in Cape Coral, Florida, was arrested Tuesday in Cape Coral, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling said during a news conference. According to a criminal complaint, La Roche was charged Thursday with first-degree intentional homicide and hiding a corpse in the killing of Peggy Lynn Johnson, 23, of McHenry.
"All of us here who have investigated the deaths of individuals during the course of our careers have seen many troubling things," Schmaling said. "However, the utter barbaric brutality inflicted on this young woman is something none of us will [ever] forget."
According to the criminal complaint, a passer-by found Johnson's beaten body while walking his dog. An autopsy showed she was malnourished, had been struck in the head shortly before death, and had a broken nose and broken ribs, some of which were broken after death and some that had been previously broken and were healing. Authorities determined the woman they called Jane Doe was between 18 and 25 years old.
"She suffered from significant injuries and had been brutalized by many means over a long period of time," Schmaling said, adding that his investigators have spent "thousands of hours over the past 20 years" trying to identify Johnson "and bring her killer to justice.
Johnson had also been burned, possibly with a chemical, over 25% of her body, and had branding marks on her body. The autopsy report shows she died from sepsis pneumonia due to infection from injuries she suffered during chronic abuse.
Schmaling said investigators worked the cold case for years without knowing Johnson's identity. Her body was exhumed in 2013 in hope of identifying her remains using new technology. She was reinterred in 2015.
In September, authorities received a tip that a woman living in Florida, La Roche, was telling people she had killed a woman when she lived in Illinois.
Last month, authorities interviewed one of La Roche's children, who said Johnson had been homeless when La Roche took Johnson in, and Johnson provided nanny and housekeeping services in exchange.
Court and legal documents spelled the defendant's name variously as La Roche, LaRoche and Laroche, and it wasn't immediately clear which was correct.
Johnson met La Roche at a medical center in McHenry, where La Roche worked as a registered nurse in the 1990s. Johnson, then about 18 years old, went there seeking help after her mother died, Schmaling said.
Johnson subsequently moved in to La Roche's home in McHenry, and the nurse "barbarically" brutalized her over a long period of time, Schmaling said.
Johnson lived in McHenry with La Roche for the last five years of her life and never was reported as a missing person, he said.
Schmaling did not provide details about Johnson's cognitive impairment, nor explain if La Roche still was employed as a nurse.
The criminal complaint says La Roche's children remembered their mother was abusive to Johnson. One recalled her stabbing at Johnson's head with a pitchfork. La Roche's ex-husband confirmed the abuse and said the last time he saw Johnson, she was lifeless on the ground. La Roche told him that Johnson had overdosed and that she was going to take her from the house so the family wouldn't be involved.
The autopsy showed there were no drugs in her system.
Phone messages left for La Roche's family members have not been returned.
When authorities first interviewed La Roche, she admitted that she abused Johnson, who moved in around 1994. She told different stories about how Johnson left the house, first saying she took Johnson to her grandmother, but later saying she drove Johnson to Wisconsin and left her at the side of the road. According to the complaint, she told authorities that Johnson wasn't injured and something must have happened after La Roche left.
She has waived extradition to Wisconsin. Her bond has been set at $1 million in connection with the two felony offenses, Racine County court records show, but her first court date has not been set.
Schmaling said investigators plugged away at the cold case for years, not knowing the identity of the woman who had been killed and unceremoniously dumped in the town of Raymond, Wisconsin, about 40 miles northeast of McHenry.Johnson's mother, father and brother are dead, but Johnson had a sister whom she never met, Schmaling said.
Johnson's body was exhumed in 2013 with the hope of using advancing technology to identify her. She was reinterred in 2015, 16 years to the day after her body was discovered.
It was only a few weeks ago that investigators found information that identified Johnson as the victim and led them to La Roche, Schmaling said. Now that Johnson has been identified, authorities plan to exhume her remains again and rebury her next to her mother in Belvidere, Schmaling said. She's still buried as a Jane Doe.
"We can finally offer some closure and some peace," Schmaling said.