A mentally disabled woman who was found dead along a Wisconsin road 20 years ago had been living with an Illinois nurse, who subjected her to years of "horrific" abuse and killed her, authorities say.
The nurse, Linda LaRoche, was arrested on Nov. 5 in Cape Coral, Florida, where she was living, on charges of first-degree intentional homicide and hiding a corpse in connection to the 1999 death of 23-year-old Peggy Lynn Johnson.
Johnson's body was found on July 21, 1999, in a cornfield in Racine County, Wisconsin. According to a criminal complaint by the Racine County sheriff's office, she had burns covering 25 percent of her body, possibly from a chemical, broken ribs, bruising on her face and upper torso, and a "noticeably deformed" ear that had been cut.
She also had a broken nose, a discolored cheek and her lower lip was "slit open on both ends," the document states.
An autopsy revealed that she was "slightly malnourished" and had an untreated infection that left her knees and feet swollen. The complaint states that there was a bruise on Johnson's head from a blow that "did fully penetrate the scalp, but not the skull."
It was determined that the cause of death was homicide by sepsis pneumonia as a result of infection from injuries sustained from abuse. No drugs were found in Johnson's system.
For two decades, Johnson was referred to as "Jane Doe" as investigators worked to identify her.
Then in September authorities received information that helped them uncover her identity.
According to the criminal complaint, a concerned citizen in Florida told police that LaRoche was telling people that she had killed a woman when she lived in Illinois. It was later determined that Johnson lived with LaRoche, her then-husband and three of her children from 1994 to 1999 before the young woman vanished.
Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling said at a news conference Friday that the case's finally coming to close has brought mixed emotions.
"We are angered by the senseless and brutal murder of this young woman, and we want justice served," he said. "Yet we're also very proud today by the fact that we can finally offer some closure and some peace."
Johnson, who was raised in Illinois, was 18 when she became homeless after her mother died. The teen's father and brother were already dead, and she had never met her sister.
Schmaling told reporters that the teenager, who was "cognitively impaired," went to a medical clinic for help which is where she met LaRoche, a registered nurse.
LaRoche "recognized Peggy's disability" and offered to take her in and let the teen live with her and her family, Schmaling said. According to the criminal complaint, Johnson was allowed to stay with LaRoche's family if "she acted as a nanny and housekeeper."
LaRoche's children, who are now adults, told investigators that their mother was "very abusive" toward Johnson and forced her to sleep in a crawl space underneath the home.
"LaRoche was verbally and emotionally cruel to Peggy, at times screaming at her like an animal," the complaint states.
One of her children recalled a time when LaRoche allegedly stabbed at Johnson's head with a pitchfork. They all said Johnson had visible injuries.
LaRoche's now ex-husband told investigators that one night he came home from work and found Johnson "lying on the ground lifeless," the complaint states. He said LaRoche told him that Johnson had overdosed and she was going to get rid of the body "so they would not be involved." According to the criminal complaint, he said LaRoche was gone for more than two hours and returned home without the girl.
Schmaling told reporters at the news conference that the abuse Johnson endured during the last five years of her life "is something that none of us will ever forget."
LaRoche, 64, will be extradited from Florida to Wisconsin. Online court records do not list an attorney for her. LaRoche told detectives that on the day Johnson went missing, she had fainted after she was caught with pills, the criminal complaint states.
LaRoche alleges that she put Johnson in her car, drove to Wisconsin and let her out of the car. According to the complaint, LaRoche claims that Johnson "was not injured at all when she dropped her off and that something must have happened to her after she dropped her off."
Schmaling said Johnson's remains are buried under the name "Jane Doe" and in the coming weeks she will be laid to rest next to her mother's grave.