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Journal Times editorial: Justice for Peggy Lynn Johnson

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It began with the discovery of a young woman’s body in a Town of Raymond cornfield on July 21, 1999. To the Racine County Sheriff’s Office investigators who investigated her death, and to the members of the community who attended her funeral later that year, she was known only as Jane Doe, the standard name given to girls and women whose remains cannot be immediately identified.

The investigators knew immediately that Jane Doe had been physically assaulted and could tell she was malnourished. They could tell that her case was a homicide.

A line of sheriffs and their subordinates were determined to bring Jane Doe’s killer or killers to justice, but also to determine her real name, to give closure to those who knew her and loved her. Her case was cold, but it remained open.

That determination, over more than 20 years, was rewarded on Nov. 8 when Sheriff Christopher Schmaling announced that Jane Doe was in fact Peggy Lynn Johnson, and that an arrest had been made in Johnson’s death.

Periodically over the past 20 years, The Journal Times reported on the continued efforts of the sheriff’s investigators — overseen first by Sheriff William McReynolds, then by his successor Robert Carlson, then by Schmaling — to identify Jane Doe. Their frustration was evident, but so was their dedication.

Eileen Reilly, who was the Sheriff’s Office’s first female deputy, was one of the leads in the cold case investigation until she retired in 2008.

“I feel like I failed her, that I didn’t get her identified,” Reilly said in 2011.

After Reilly, the case was passed to investigators Cary Madrigal and Tom Knaus, and also Tracy Hintz. In 2011, Madrigal said: “This is the case that burns in all of our minds, because she’s not identified … at the bare minimum, we want to identify her.”

Knaus thought he might have solved the case in 2011 when he came across the story of a teenager whose description matched the Jane Doe who had gone missing from her adoptive parents’ home. But DNA testing confirmed that the missing person was not Racine County’s Jane Doe.

Johnson’s body was exhumed and analyzed in 2013, but no DNA matches were found. In September of this year, a tip enabled Schmaling’s investigators to track down Johnson’s family and obtain a DNA match, then enabled them to make the arrest of the suspect, Linda LaRoche.

“Twenty years is a long time for an innocent victim to be nameless to the world,” Schmaling said. “Peggy Lynn Johnson can now rest in peace with her killer behind bars. Justice will finally be served.”

The sheriffs and their deputies remained true to one of the most important law enforcement principles: They spoke for someone who could no longer speak for herself.

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