RAYMOND — Donna Jensen had been crying for 10 minutes before she was able to call her mom on Nov. 8.
“Hey, Mom,” Jensen, a Harley-riding Illinois native, said over the phone, “what was Peggy’s middle name?”
“Lynn” was the quick reply from Grace Schroeder, an 83-year-old Catholic and diehard Cubs fan who has nine kids, including Jensen. Of course she wouldn’t forget her own granddaughter’s name, even if she hadn’t seen Peggy, who is technically a step-granddaughter, in more than 20 years.
“Oh God,” Jensen said. The news she had feared was just confirmed. “I’m coming over.”
Peggy Lynn Schroeder died sometime around July 21, 1999. She was 23 years old. A quiet girl with a learning disability, she was reserved but loved. Her mother, Diane (Colligan) Schroeder, died on Nov. 26, 1994, before Peggy had finished high school. If Peggy knew her birth father, she didn’t know him well.
Not long after her mother’s funeral, Peggy moved in with the family of Linda Johnson, now known as Linda LaRoche, to become a live-in nanny in McHenry County, Ill.
That job ultimately led to Peggy’s death, according to investigators in Illinois, Florida and the Racine County Sheriff’s Office. LaRoche has been charged with first-degree intentional homicide in Peggy’s death.
Peggy’s body was found dumped in a cornfield off 92nd Street in Raymond. Bruises and other injuries showed clear signs of long-term abuse, according to autopsy reports.
LaRoche has been accused of having become abusive to Peggy over the nearly five years they lived together. LaRoche’s ex-husband described his ex-wife to investigators as a “force to be reckoned with” and her children alleged incidents of violence committed by their mother against Peggy.
LaRoche is being held at the Racine County Jail after being arrested in Cape Coral, Fla., where she had been living in semi-retirement. She has maintained her innocence, first having told police she left Peggy with someone else to say with but later changing her story saying she drove to Wisconsin and let Peggy out of the car in a rural area before driving away.
She faces life in prison if convicted. The case has been slowly moving toward trial, even as LaRoche drags her feet in hiring an attorney.
The Sheriff’s Office, Racine County prosecutors and Peggy’s surviving family don’t believe LaRoche’s claim of innocence. Some of them struggle to say LaRoche’s name, usually referring to her as “that woman” or “that lady” or just “her.”
Peggy’s extended family didn’t know this was going on. They thought Peggy had moved to California 20 year ago and that they had lost touch.
She has a name and a family
Donna Jensen’s brother, Lawrence, had been married to Peggy’s mother.
The last time any of them saw Peggy was in 1998, at the funeral of Jesse Schroeder, Peggy’s half-brother, who had died at age 18. Ginny Proffitt, Jensen’s sister and another of Grace Schroeder’s daughters, had picked up Peggy from LaRoche’s home for the funeral and Jensen dropped her off there. Neither had any idea their niece, the quiet girl with reddish hair and a toothy grin, might’ve been suffering abuse there.
Peggy’s stepfather would call the home from time to time to talk to his stepdaughter. One day in 1999, Linda answered and told him “don’t call here anymore,” before claiming that Peggy had gone to California to live with her birth father.
That’s where the Schroeders believed Peggy had been for 20 years. They had no idea she was dead and buried in grave marked “Jane Doe” in Caledonia, Wis., a village they had never heard of.
“It wasn’t like the family didn’t want to be around,” said Renee Sura, a Racine resident who, along with her daughter Selena, has taken care of a number of Jane Doe graves over the past three decades.
Jensen found out the truth while at work on Nov. 8. A news notification on her phone popped up after Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling announced that the 20-year mystery of Racine County’s Jane Doe had been solved. The name of the Jane Doe: Peggy Lynn Johnson.
That’s when Jensen started crying and called her mother.
“When she told me, I just sat there and bawled,” Grace Schroeder said.
The family got together that day to share feelings of shock and grief. There were feelings of guilt, too, after learning their loved one had been in danger and died a tragic death without their knowledge.
Peggy’s half-sister, Spring Leslin, already knew. Her DNA had been tested, confirming Peggy’s identity, but she was sworn to secrecy by investigators until after Peggy’s identity was publicly released and LaRoche was in custody.
On Sunday, Mother’s Day, Grace Schroeder; Jensen and Jensen’s husband, Greg; and Proffitt visited the 92nd Street site where Peggy’s body was found. They have befriended the Suras over the past few months, becoming like family after having been strangers only six months ago.
“They’re like sisters,” Selena Sura, 19, said of her mom’s relationship with Donna.
Renee Sura has long said that Peggy felt like a sister to Selena as they took care of the grave marked Jane Doe. And now Renee feels like a sister to Jensen and Proffitt, making extending Selena’s bond with someone who had been a Jane Doe.
“It’s like the connection we had with Peggy has spread out to everyone else in the family,” Renee said.
A spot near where Peggy’s body was found now holds a small memorial, a small cross adorned with flowers.
The visit Sunday wasn’t joyous or melancholy. It was somewhere in between. It was like when you get together with your family for a late family member’s birthday: There are laughs, there are tears, there’s gossip and stories and memories.
The family just wanted to make sure Peggy is remembered.
“We know she’s at rest now,” Grace Schroeder said, before thanking investigators and the Suras for making sure the Jane Doe case got the attention it deserved. “She’s the lucky one. She’s up there in heaven now with God.”
“We know she’s at rest now. She’s the lucky one. She’s up there in heaven now with God.”
Grace Schroeder, step-grandmother of Peggy Lynn Schroeder
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