A former McHenry County woman, described as a “monster” Monday by prosecutors and her victim’s family members, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the “barbaric” killing of a 23-year-old Harvard woman.
Linda Sue La Roche, 67, formerly known as Linda Sue Johnson, was convicted in March of the first-degree intentional homicide and hiding the body of Peggy Lynn Johnson-Schroeder.
La Roche – who formerly lived in homes in Lakemoor and Bull Valley, made a living as a nurse and owned a business that cared for jail inmates – was sentenced to an additional five years in prison for hiding a corpse.
Johnson-Schroeder’s remains were found in a cornfield in 1999 in Raymond, Wisconsin, and went unidentified for 20 years. The community of Racine County buried her as Jane Doe. In 2019, after a call was made by an anonymous tipster her true identity was discovered, and so was her killer’s, authorities have said.
“Peggy is a daughter, stepdaughter, granddaughter, niece, stepniece, friend [and] … a loving, caring, thoughtful human being, not an animal like you treated her,” Johnson-Schroeder’s aunt Virginia “Ginny” Schroeder Proffitt of Marengo said at Monday’s sentencing hearing in a Racine County courtroom.
She and other family members wore T-shirts with a photo of Johnson-Schroeder and the words “Justice for Peggy” scrolled above.
“She was somebody,” she said. “You brutally, barbarically beat and tortured her. Her last breath was on a side of a road in a cornfield. You are a narcissist, … [a] psychotic monster.”
Johnson-Schroeder, whom police said was cognitively impaired, had worked for La Roche as a live-in nanny from 1994 to 1999. The two had met at a clinic where La Roche worked shortly after Johnson-Schroeder’s mother died from AIDS.
The woman, 19 at the time, initially was taken in to help with La Roche’s five children. During the trial, La Roche’s children and ex-husband said she began to physically abuse Johnson-Schroeder, slapped her often, once stabbed her with a pitchfork and made her sleep in a crawl space, until one day she disappeared.
On July 21, 1999, a man walking his dog along a road in rural Racine County discovered her tortured remains.
La Roche was arrested and charged in the woman’s killing after a “concerned citizen” in Florida, where La Roche was living, made a call to police, according to the charging document filed in Racine County. The caller said La Roche was telling people she had killed someone in Illinois where she lived with her then-husband and five children.
Johnson-Schroeder’s remains showed that she had been brutalized for many years, prosecutors said.
Spring Leslin, of Rockford, Johnson-Schroeder’s half sister who has a different father, said she just started speaking to Johnson-Schroeder on the phone in the months before she disappeared.
The two did not grow up together and had been planning to meet in person, but that never happened. The last phone call, Leslin said, was about six months before she was killed. La Roche grabbed the phone from away from Johnson-Schroeder and told Leslin not to call back there ever again, Leslin said in court Monday.
“Her life was ended too soon,” Leslin said. “I only knew her a short while, and only over the phone and that was never enough. We had hopes of meeting with each other, and there was never a good time because she was taking care of all her responsibilities [for La Roche],” she said. “Peggy and I wanted to create a sisterly bond. … Peggy was eager to meet with me as I was eager to meet with her as well.”
Leslin said she knows that she and her half sister have the same laugh and look alike, but she will never know what her favorite music, color or meal was or what she liked to do for fun.
“It is all the little things you miss the most,” Leslin said.
La Roche also spoke in court Monday, proclaiming her innocence. She said she loved Johnson-Schroeder and called her “my little buddy.”
“My heart and soul go out to her family,” said La Roche, crying, donning an orange jail outfit with chains around her wrists and ankles. “Whoever did this to her is more than a monster. They don’t deserve to breathe, but it is not me.”
La Roche said she treated Johnson-Schroeder the same as her own children, whom she did not beat, aside from throwing a brush or putting soap in their mouths if they lied. She said on the day she last saw Johnson-Schroeder, she had dropped her off in Wisconsin at a gas station and thought she was being picked up by a friend.
“We have a shared goal,” La Roche said turning toward the the family, “to bring justice for her, and this is not justice.”
La Roche’s attorney Laura Walker said they are going to appeal her conviction. She said no witnesses were called by the defense during her trial.
In asking for the maximum sentence of life in prison without parole, Racine County Assistant District Attorney Diane Donohoo said, “There is no way to rehabilitate this defendant.”
“She is entitled to proclaim and maintain her innocence. ... Anyone that would treat another human being the way she treated Peggy is incapable of rehabilitation,” Donohoo said. “No one thought she was a murderer in 1999. Would she kill again? We honestly do not know. She fooled a lot of people, but we truly do now know who she really is.”
Donohoo said it was La Roche’s repeated, contradicting lies during many police interviews along with a confession she made to a fellow inmate in a Florida jail where she was being held for driving under the influence of alcohol, that sealed the state’s case.
“She is a narcissistic with her concern only for herself and her self-preservation,” Donohoo said.
Her death was “not a single shot, a single stab. This was a slow painful death.”
Donohoo said a doctor who examined Johnson-Schroeder’s remains said she “suffered greatly and her death was slow and “incredibly painful.”
Authorities said her face and entire body showed “a lot of bruising,” road rash-like abrasions, burns and lacerations. Her body had been branded. An autopsy showed she had four lacerations to her scalp caused by blunt force trauma and she was “slightly malnourished.”
Among other wounds and injuries, Johnson’s ear had a “penetrating 45-degree incised wound from a sharp object,” her nose was broken, she had a split lip and lacerations inside her mouth and her throat had injuries consistent with scalding, according to the criminal complaint.
In March 2020, Johnson-Schroeder received a proper burial, next to her mother who died of AIDS in 1994. She was given a headstone inscribed with her name.
Following the sentencing hearing Monday, her family gathered on 92nd Street in the town of Raymond, Wisconsin, where her body was found in 1999, to release 10 red balloons inscribed with messages.
The property owner maintains the site as a memorial to Johnson-Schroeder.