The word “shocked” has been heard a lot this week.
A childhood classmate was “shocked” when he learned that Peggy Johnson has been dead for 20 years.
A pastor in McHenry, Ill., told The Journal Times he and his congregation were “shocked and appalled” by the news that a former member of his church, Linda LaRoche, had been charged with killing Johnson — although none of the current members of the church have been around long enough to remember her.
On Nov. 8, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling announced that LaRoche has been arrested charged with killing Johnson in 1999.
Johnson was 23 at the time of her death. She had a cognitive disability and had been living with LaRoche’s family in McHenry, Ill., for five years after Johnson’s own mother died in 1994.
Two Illinois residents remember LaRoche as being “Christ-like” when she led a youth group they attended as teenagers. Now, their memories of her have been tainted.
“Omg!!! You better be ashamed, lady. I used to attend a youth group you ran in the mid 90s and thought you were a wonderful woman. Turns out, you’re a very sick individual. This makes my stomach turn,” Dana Kroll, now 40 years old, wrote in a Facebook comment.
“I can tell you, I lean pretty atheist these days, but if I chose five people in my life that lean pretty Christ-like, she would have been on that list of people,” Dan Metivier, a 40-year-old brewer in Chicago, told The Journal Times. Metivier attended the youth group, named Crossfire, along with Kroll.
Some shock, some suspicions
The people who knew LaRoche — who was born in La Crosse but spent most of her adult life in Illinois — have had mixed reactions to last week’s news.
Linda Forbes, a current friend of LaRoche’s, described LaRoche as “a very caring, loving person, for anybody and anything” to WFTX-TV, a Fox affiliate in southwest Florida. Forbes said that LaRoche continues to claim she is innocent, even while behind bars.
Paul Rachalski, LaRoche’s neighbor in Cape Coral, Fla., didn’t sound as “shocked” by the news.
“It just doesn’t surprise me,” Rachalski told Fox 4, noting that LaRoche would be seen drunk at all hours of the day. “It was just a matter of time before something happened over there. We thought it would be a domestic problem.”
In October, LaRoche was cited in an operating while intoxicated crash she allegedly caused while driving with a blood-alcohol concentration four times the legal limit. WINK-TV, a CBS affiliate in the same part of Florida, reported that police have responded to LaRoche’s Cape Coral home seven times in 2019.
LaRoche and her husband — who is not the man to whom she had been married at the time of Johnson’s death — are currently going through a divorce, court records show.
‘A shocking week, that’s for sure’
Metivier said he was a bit of a rebel as a teen — dressing in all black, smoking cigarettes, that kind of kid. But LaRoche was one of the few adults who still managed to connect with him and his peers.
“She was wildly accepting of kids like me. And there was a bunch of kids like me who went to that youth group,” Metivier said. “That was the kind of lady that she was.”
Those memories have made news of Johnson’s death more painful for those who know LaRoche.
“This is, I guess, why I’ve been upset with all the news that’s come out over the last week,” Kroll said. “It was such a good experience as a kid … I kind of looked at her as a trusted adult figure.”
Both Kroll and Metivier said they vaguely remember Johnson being around the youth group, but didn’t have any specific memories of her. They didn’t suspect she had been abused. By the time Johnson went missing in 1999, Crossfire had effectively disbanded. Kroll and Metivier say they have seen LaRoche only once or twice over the past two decades.
One of the reasons kids like Kroll looked up to LaRoche, she said, was that she had taken Johnson into her home. It had, on the surface, appeared to be a good deed.
“It’s been a shocking week, that’s for sure,” Kroll said. “I’m extremely angry.”
A suspected killer’s Facebook
On social media, LaRoche portrays herself as a philanthropic, open-minded retiree who loves animals, her family, seafood and living in Florida.
Her Facebook page is filled with donations to dozens of fundraisers, ranging from animal shelters to ocean cleanup to LGBTQ equality to the Alzheimer’s Foundation to the Wounded Warrior Project.
There are dozens of pictures with animals, including dogs, birds, horses and even a capuchin monkey named Holly that LaRoche owned from the mid-1990s until Holly contracted breast cancer a couple years ago.
Like many Facebook users, LaRoche often shared inspirational sayings — many of them related to her professed Christian faith. One of them starts with the words: “What if one day you come to the realization that you never again have to explain yourself away to anyone anymore.”
Another reads: “Life is always a polarity. If there were no darkness there would be no light.”
Her bio reads: “Above all be honest be kind, treat people with love and forgiveness don’t tolerate disrespect.”
If you look at the comments made on her page in the past week, it’s a different story.
LaRoche posted on a weekly — and sometimes daily — basis. It does not appear that anything has been uploaded to the page since LaRoche’s arrest. But strangers from across the world have found her profile and barraged it with comments.
One man, whose Facebook page says he’s from North Carolina, repeatedly equated LaRoche with the devil and called her a “Pyschopath (sic) with a superficially charming, glib personality” in all capital letters.
This past summer, the British tabloid The Sun reported that “Facebook has been slammed for leaving the accounts of jailed killers and crooks active online.”
LaRoche’s page remained online Saturday.
It isn’t uncommon for strangers to dig into a high-profile suspect’s history through social media, and plenty of people have used Facebook to throw in their two cents on high-profile criminal cases, similar to what’s happening now with LaRoche.
But not all of the responses have been condemning.
One woman, whose profile shows she is a teacher in India, repeatedly shared reminders on LaRoche’s page, saying things like “May God bless you more and more … Jesus is always happy. I will pray for you and your child of God. Jesus loves you so much. Praise the Lord.”
The Journal Times has reached out to more than a dozen of LaRoche’s friends, hoping to learn more about her and what she is like in person. None had replied as The Journal Times went to press.
At least one friend, however, has weighed in on Facebook, saying that he has been keeping the LaRoches in his prayers. After strangers chastised him, too, he said that he has no idea what happened 20 years ago and that he hopes justice is served.
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