Ex-McHenry County woman serving life in prison for 1999 murder denied a new trial

Linda La Roche listens as her attorney Laura Walker delivers her closing argument during a hearing for a new trial on Feb. 26, 2024. La Roche was found guilty in March of 2022 for the murder of Peggy Lynn Johnson-Schroeder in 1999 and for concealing her corpse.

A Wisconsin judge has ruled that expert testimony alleging a serial killer could have killed a Harvard woman is “no more than speculation” and denied a former McHenry County woman’s motion for new trial.

Linda La Roche, 68, is serving life in prison for the brutal killing of Peggy Lee Johnson-Schroeder who in 1994 came to live with La Roche and her family in their Lakemoor then McHenry homes.

In 2022, a jury took less than two hours to find La Roche guilty of first-degree intentional homicide and hiding a corpse, according to court records in Racine County. At the trial, witnesses – including another Racine County inmate, La Roche’s children and ex-husband – said La Roche physically abused Johnson-Schroeder, slapped her, burned her, once stabbed her with a pitchfork and made her sleep in a crawl space. The last time she was seen, witnesses testified, she was lifeless. Then she disappeared.

On July 21, 1999, Johnson-Schroeder’s remains were found in a grassy field in Racine County. She was buried by local residents and remained a Jane Doe for 20 years. In 2019, an anonymous tipster called authorities, and the remains of the 23-year-old woman – and her alleged killer – were identified.

La Roche’s motion for new trial accuses her original trial attorneys of being “ineffective.” Her current attorney, Laura Walker, said Thursday she will appeal the judge’s ruling and said she believes “Linda has been wrongfully convicted on scant evidence.”

However, Virginia Schroeder-Proffitt, Johnson-Schroeder’s aunt, said she felt the appeal would be denied and, although La Roche can appeal the ruling, “she’s not going to ever get away with this.” Schroeder-Proffitt, of Marengo, also said she feels “so bad for [La Roche’s] children” who witnessed much of the abuse. “No child deserves to be put through what her own children went through,” Schroeder-Proffitt said.

La Roche’s motion for a new trial, argued in October and February in Racine County courthouse, asserts her trial lawyers failed to provide testimony as to the cause and timing of Johnson-Schroeder’s death and failed to properly address or cross-examine prosecution witnesses about her physical appearance the last time she was seen.

La Roche claims the same people who killed a different Illinois woman could have killed Johnson-Schroeder. The remains of Mary Kate Sunderlin were found six months after Johnson-Schroeder’s. The two had similar injuries and were in the same type of area, in grass on the side of a road. Trial attorneys should have presented evidence to jurors that the two murders could have been connected, possibly committed by a serial killer, Walker argued.

In February, a pathologist testified that she reviewed both women’s autopsy reports and compared U-shaped markings found on both bodies. She said “there was varying degrees of probability” that the murders were connected and possibly committed by a serial killer.

Judge Timothy Boyle said the pathologist, though a certified medical examiner, has “no psychology degree, behavioral science degree of profiling training.” The pathologist “did not review any police reports, witness statements of court records/transcripts,” Boyle said.

Additionally, Boyle said “an accused has no right, constitutionally or otherwise, to present irrelevant evidence. Evidence offered to cast blame for a charged offense onto a person not on trial is not relevant unless it has a legitimate tendency to show that the other person actually could be guilty.”

To introduce another person or persons as the killer La Roche’s attorneys would be required to show the third party had motive, opportunity and “there is some evidence to directly connect the third party to the charged offense that is not remote in time, place or circumstances,” Boyle said.

He said the testimony about the similarity of the U-shaped markings has no “scientific basis” to say the “same person or a serial killer for that matter caused them. ... [The] opinion is no more than a speculation which frankly anyone could make just by looking at markings.”

Boyle also said that had La Roche’s attorneys introduced another killer as a defense, that would have gone “against the chosen strategy of reasonable doubt.” That would have put the burden on the defense, proving some other specific person committed the offense, “as opposed to presenting that anyone but the defendant did it.”