For years, 23-year-old Peggy Lynn Johnson’s tortured remains went unidentified. Even in the wake of investigators’ positive identification last week, questions remain about the young Harvard native whose body a dog-walker discovered in 1999 on the side a Wisconsin road.
One of Johnson’s childhood friends, Theresa Robertson, never stopped wondering about the slender, auburn-haired girl who’d lived with them for a time after Johnson’s mother died.
Months later, Johnson would leave Robertson’s house to take a job as a live-in nanny for 64-year-old Linda Sue LaRoche. LaRoche, who also is known as Linda Johnson, is charged with first-degree intentional homicide and hiding a corpse in connection with Johnson’s death.
For 20 years, Robertson, who now lives in Tennessee, wondered what became of Johnson since the last time they spoke. On Nov. 7, she received an answer that brought her family to tears.
“My sister, Diana, saw the news article and said, ‘Is this Peggy from our childhood?’ and I recognized her face immediately, and I said ‘Oh my gosh yes, that’s Peggy,’ ” Robertson said.
Who is Peggy Lynn Johnson?
In the 1990s, Robertson knew Johnson as “Peggy Schroeder.” The young woman, whom Robertson described as caring, outgoing and pretty, hit hard times in 1994.
Johnson’s mother, Diane Marie Schroeder, formerly Diane Colligan, died of AIDS on Nov. 26, 1994, records show. Schroeder previously worked in the dietary department at Valley Hi Nursing Home, according to her obituary. Johnson’s younger brother, who lived in Fox River Grove, committed suicide years later in June 1998, records show.
“[Johnson] was overwhelmed after she lost her mom,” Robertson said. “She was trying to find her place.”
With nowhere to go, Johnson took up a spare bunk bed in Robertson’s childhood home. Robertson and Johnson had been friends since grade school, and their time together in those six months after Schroeder’s death brought them closer, she said.
“She was really outgoing and very caring. She would go out of her way to help everybody,” Robertson said. “She was always smiling, always laughing. She’s just a typical teenage girl.”
The girls bonded over their shared goal of becoming counselors someday and were active members of First Baptist Church in Harvard, she said.
“I remember our church had a Hawaiian luau. We dressed in grass skirts and we did a Hawaiian dance.” Robertson said. “She was really goofy.”
The fun times came to an end, however, when Johnson announced she would be moving out to take a job as a live-in nanny in McHenry. Johnson, whom police have described as cognitively impaired, was eager to live on her own, but needed help getting there, Robertson said. A prospective job as a nanny guaranteed Johnson work experience and a roof over her head.
“To her, that was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Robertson said. “I remember she was excited. She thought it was a good opportunity for her.”
On Johnson’s last day in Harvard, the girls promised to write to one another. Robertson never received a letter.
“I remember I cried because she was going to write to me and everything,” Robertson said. “We cried when she left, and that was the last time I saw her.”
‘Utter barbaric brutality’
Although the precise date of Johnson’s death hasn’t been released and may not be known, her body was found July 21, 1999, by a man walking his dog in the town of Raymond in rural Racine County. The exact abuse Johnson endured is unclear, but the young woman’s body bore signs of what Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling last week called “utter barbaric brutality.”
Johnson’s torso showed signs of road rash, and her left ear was deformed. She appeared slightly malnourished, and nine ribs were fractured. She’d suffered blows to her head, and her nose was broken.
About 25% of her body was covered in possible burn or scalding marks, potentially from a chemical. And her body bore signs of branding marks, all inflicted within three to five days of her death, according to a criminal complaint filed against LaRoche last week.
Johnson’s death was listed as a homicide, caused by sepsis pneumonia as a result of an infection from injuries she received through chronic abuse. Her body appeared to have been dragged from a car down a slight embankment and placed on the ground about 25 feet off the road in a corn field. Locals held a funeral for Johnson at the time and buried her as “Jane Doe.” Authorities now plan to exhume the woman’s remains and rebury her next to her mother in Belvidere.
A break in the case came in September, when Racine County sheriff’s investigators received a tip “from a concerned citizen” that LaRoche “was telling people that she had killed a woman” when LaRoche was living in Illinois.
In the ’90s, LaRoche lived with her now-ex-husband and children in their Cherry Valley Road home in Bull Valley. At the time, LaRoche’s former husband owned a local machine company, while LaRoche provided medical care to jail inmates in several counties.
Longtime DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott said the DeKalb County jail had been using services from LaRoche’s company, Guardian Correctional Care, for the past 19 years. In exchange for about $18,000 a month, the jail received on-site visits from medical staff four days a week, a doctor as needed and around-the-clock on-call services, Scott said.
“She was friendly and outgoing,” Scott said. “I obviously met her several times but primarily she met with the jail command staff.”
The DeKalb County Jail has since discontinued its contract with LaRoche’s business.
Leading up to LaRoche’s arrest, her now-adult child recounted that at times LaRoche made Johnson sleep in the crawl space under their home and once stabbed at Johnson’s head with a pitchfork. LaRoche was verbally and emotionally cruel to Johnson, who sported injuries such as a black eye, according to the complaint.
Investigators haven’t said whether LaRoche’s children ever reported their mother’s abuse of Johnson or her disappearance.
It wasn’t only Johnson whom LaRoche was allegedly abusive toward, however. In an order of protection filed in 2003 in McHenry County, one of LaRoche’s ex-husbands, to whom she was married when Johnson lived with them, described the physical and verbal abuse that allegedly went on in the home.
Specifically, the man claimed that in February 2002, LaRoche blocked the front door and “hit me with a Tazer.” He went on to describe how, in the past, LaRoche had hit, punched, kicked and spit at him, and verbally abused the children.
Earlier this month, that same man told Racine County investigators that he recalled seeing Johnson at their home one last time. While a date wasn’t listed in LaRoche’s criminal complaint, this ex-husband said he came home from work that day and found Johnson lying on the ground, lifeless.
LaRoche, he told detectives, told him Johnson overdosed and “she was going to take [Johnson] away from their house so they would not be involved.” LaRoche, he said, told him to take their children out for ice cream.
LaRoche left, returning home about 2½ hours later without Johnson, the ex husband said, and he never saw Johnson again. Investigators haven’t disclosed whether this ex-husband ever reported the alleged abuse, or this incident.
Racine County District Attorney Tricia Hanson declined to comment on Friday. Messages also were left for Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling, but he wasn’t available for comment.
LaRoche has painted Johnson to be a drug user, telling investigators on Nov. 6 that Johnson took pills that day before LaRoche drove Johnson to Wisconsin. Saying she couldn’t handle Johnson anymore, LaRoche told police she let Johnson out of her car in a rural area and left her by the side of a road. She said Johnson wasn’t injured, and “something must have happened to her” after being dropped off, according to the complaint.
Looking back, Robertson can’t say with certainty why Peggy might have stayed in an allegedly abusive situation with LaRoche.
“I think in that time of her life, she was looking for where she belonged and it may have started out she was trying to make it on her own and either couldn’t leave or didn’t know who she could call ...” Robertson said. “She was a people pleaser. She wanted people to like her and she would do whatever it took. Maybe she just didn’t know what else to do. Maybe she gave up at some point, I don’t know.”