WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
On July 21, 1999, the body of a 23 year old woman was found. She had been killed by blunt force trauma after several weeks of neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. She was deemed the Racine County Jane Doe, and was buried unidentified in 1999.
On October 16, 2013, her body was exhumed for further investigation. She was successfully identified 6 years later in November of 2019 as Peggy Johnson. Her name, and the name of her suspected killer, who is still in police custody, were released on November 8, 2019.
DISCOVERY AND INVESTIGATION (1)
On July 21, 1999, a father and his daughter were walking their dogs in Raymond, Wisconsin when they stumbled upon the body of a woman in the first few rows of a cornfield. They called the authorities, who had determined that she had been killed the day before the discovery of her body.
Her various injuries were apparent, her right arm "unnaturally" bent behind her. Rain the night before washed away any evidence of the perpetrator, but they were able to determine her body was likely placed about 12 hours before the discovery. Based on marks on her body, authorities believed she had been dragged about 25 feet from the roadside.
She was found wearing a men's grey shirt with a floral design. The shirt's manufacturer was called, but nothing came of it. She was also wearing black sweatpants. She was not wearing any shoes.
The autopsy found multiple injuries, and the medical examiner determined she had endured weeks of neglect, in addition to long-term physical abuse. This was determined by her mal-nourishment and an untreated infection in her arm. The ME was able to tell that the abuse had increased immediately before her death, and that she had been sexually assaulted.
Also found on 25% of her body were chemical burns, and road rash was also found. In addition, her nose and several ribs were broken. She had "cauliflower ear", a deformity likely from the increase of abuse.
It was believed that the woman may have been cognitively disabled, and was likely 18 to 35 years old. Decay was present on many of her teeth, and many others were missing. Her hair was reddish-brown and collar length. Her eye color was difficult to discern because of the beating. There was also evidence that she may have worn glasses, although none were found at the crime scene.
Though she was unidentified, over 50 people attended her funeral on October 27, 1999 at the Holy Family Cemetery in Caledonia, Wisconsin.
Reconstructions were created of her face to try to identify the Jane Doe. In 2012, a new facial reconstruction was done by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Police believed that she was an international visitor, a runaway child, or someone who was estranged from her family. They investigated various high-profile missing persons, such as Aundrina Bowman, Tina D'Ambrosio and Karen Wells, but they were all ruled out. Some believed her death may have been the work of a serial killer who had killed one Mary Kate Chamizo, who had been found in a similar condition as Johnson, but a connection was ruled out.
With no leads 14 years later, her remains were exhumed for further study in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They hoped to study the isotopic materials of her bones to determine where she had lived prior to her death. Investigators were hopeful that they were close, and in 2013, held a press conference to explain that they had uncovered more clues. On July 19, 2015, having finished the examination, it was announced that her body would be re-burried on the 16th anniversary of the discovery of her body.
On October 20, 2016, the chemical isotope testing sample revealed that she was from, or likely spent years of her life in, Alaska, Montana or southern Canada. It was revealed that the victim, and her killer, may have been from southeastern New England, like New Hampshire or New Jersey.
IDENTIFICATION AND ARREST OF THE KILLER
On November 7, 2019, the Racine County Sheriff announced that a media briefing would be held the following day to announce Jane Doe's identify, and the name of the woman they believed to have killed her. They found that they both had ties to a suburb of Chicago. (1)
On November 8, 2019, more than 20 years after her body was discovered, the Racine County Jane Doe was identified positively as Peggy Lynn Johnson, 23, of McHenry Illinois. Classmates had last seen her at a homecoming dance in Illinois in 1994. She became homeless at age 18 after her mother died. Her father and brother had also died previously. She was the "sweetest girl. She never, ever would hurt a fly," said a childhood neighbor of Peggy's, Amanda Reagan. (2)
Friends and classmates claim that she felt like Peggy was failed. Her mother had nothing for her after her death. The schools and her classmates and friends failed. "I feel like we failed her as a friend," Amanda Reagan, who had been neighbors with Peggy and her mom as a kid claimed. "She never felt like she could come to us and say hey, I'm homeless. I need help. Then everyone moves away, has kids. We all lose touch. We were so young." Friends agree she just slipped through the cracks. (2)
After falling upon homelessness, she got a job at a medical clinic. There, she met Linda La Roche, who also worked at the medical clinic. La Roche offered her room and board to serve as her housekeeper. However, the transaction wasn't as anticipated, and the abuse began shortly thereafter. It is believed that from the time she moved into her residence in or around 1994, La Roche was physically abusing her. She was subject to a poor living environment and was not well-nourished. La Roche's children and ex-husband confirmed the abuse, saying that she beat her and yelled at her "like an animal". She forced her to sleep in the crawl space. (2)
Friends and classmates of Peggy claimed she was quiet and mild-mannered, but La Roche said that she repeatedly stole stuff from the house and invited men over without permission. (1)
Another childhood friend, Nichole Gruenes, said that she had visited the La Roche's house after Peggy moved in, and that Peggy seemed happy with a new job and some stability. However, she called her multiple times over the next few years, but never got a call back. (2)
La Roche's (now ex) husband claimed that, in July of 1999, he arrived home to find Peggy lying unresponsive. La Roche claimed it was a result of an overdose. She admitted that she stored medication in the cellar, where Peggy was forced to sleep, and she had seen Peggy faint after emptying the pills. La Roche ordered her ex-husband to take the children away so she could safely dispose of the body. She did not call the paramedics or provide any medical intervention, even though she was a nurse by trade. (1)
In the summer of 2000, Gruenes stopped by the house to talk to Peggy, not knowing she had been dead for over a year. La Roche claimed that she had run away, but Gruenes wasn't so sure. She told her dad, a cop, but he said nothing could be done unless someone formally reported it. And Gruenes didn't feel like Peggy had anyone who could, or would, formally report it. (2)
Another classmate said he didn't know why someone with a disability and a dead family wouldn't have received state intervention. (2)
However, the autopsy confirmed her death was caused by blunt-forced trauma, and a toxicology report found no drugs in her system, disputing the overdose story La Roche cooked up. (1)
When the police looked in to La Roche, they found that she had her own nursing practice, which had provided care to at least 2 Illinois correctional facilities, and she had no questionable or inappropriate behavior reported. However, she was arrested on November 5, 2019 in Cape Coral, Florida, 3 days before her name, and the name of her victim, would be released. (1)
She had allegedly confessed to killing someone during her time in Illinois to various individuals, one who reported her story to the police in September of 2019. She was charged with first-degree intentional homicide and concealment of a corpse, with a maximum sentence of life in prison. (1)
Her story has shifted, telling one that said she had left Peggy with her grandmother, and another that she had abandoned her, unharmed, along the street in Wisconsin. Peggy's grandmother denied ever meeting anyone in the La Roche family. (1)
Peggy had never been reported missing. Her aunt had placed a personal ad in a December 1999 issue of a local newspaper requesting her niece contact her, but no official report was ever filed for the missing 23-year-old. (1)
It wasn't for lack of people who cared for her. Though her family did not respond when requested for comment, many of her old classmates and friends expressed their sadness upon finding out that the unidentified body belonged to the sweet, kind Peggy Johnson from their childhoods. They were horrified that the La Roche family never came forward, horrified at what she had done to her, and horrified that a girl who had just lost her family was forced into homelessness and into the arms of an abuser.
Initially, I wondered - if so many people from her childhood and high school years remembered her so fondly, and were curious about what happened to her, why didn't they report her missing? But damn if that isn't an unfair question. They were childhood friends. Her life began falling apart right around the time everyone graduates, moves away. There are many people from my high school that had family and home-life troubles while I was in school with them who I have no idea where they are now. These people did not have the responsibility to report her missing, but also, probably didn't even have enough knowledge to know that she was missing.
Megan Rios, the 16-year-old girl who was with her father when Peggy's body was found, went to college to study criminal justice. "I've been crying pretty much nonstop lately. It's heartbreaking," Rios said after Peggy was identified. She is happy that there may be closure or justice in the case, but is still emotionally shaken. "It's disturbing that this girl went looking for help when her life was falling apart - and walked into the hands of that woman. She dropped her like garbage." (2)
It is crazy to me the advancements in technology that allow investigators to identify a 20-year-old corpse, and her killer. But more than that, it is so very sad that a woman could be buried, unidentified, for 20 years, her family simply not knowing what happened to her. And, in this case, nobody ever even reporting her missing.
Though her aunt tried to contact her, nobody ever reported her missing or did anything to look for her. Perhaps if they did, she would have been found before 2 decades had passed. It brings me some peace knowing that the people of Racine County attended her funeral, allowing some people to mourn her, but to be buried in a nameless grave with no family present, or even concerned enough about where you are to begin looking, is so sad. It seems like Peggy disappeared at the "perfect" time - right when life was shifting for her and those around her, making it nearly impossible for those who knew her to know what became of her. But it still haunts me that the body of a young woman was buried for 20 years without anyone who loved her knowing she was there.
But, I will choose to look on the bright side that technological advancements have made this type of identification possible. Though no mother got to have the closure of knowing her baby girl was at peace, friends who had wondered about her got to know. The young girl who found her got to know. Decades-later identifications will look different for everyone, but many people who knew and cherished Peggy now know what happened, and know where they can go to honor her life.
And the technology is only getting better. Peggy was only identified a few months ago, and though it took 6 years from the time she was exhumed, it is not like the technology is rolling back. This may become a viable option for Jane and John Does around the country and world, allowing those who never knew what became of their loved one some peace, and perhaps even some justice.
The case is ongoing, but hopefully in the coming years, Linda La Roche will be convicted of her involvement in Peggy's murder to bring justice for those who knew and loved Peggy.