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Her name is Peggy: The events that led to the death of Racine County's Jane Doe

Her name is Peggy Lynn Johnson. But for the past 20 years she was referred to simply as Jane Doe.

Johnson’s body was found on July 21, 1999. It had been dumped in a cornfield in Raymond. She was 23.

And the Racine County Sheriff’s Office believes it has found the killer.

The suspect in the case has been identified as Linda Sue LaRoche, a 64-year-old Cape Coral, Fla., woman, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling announced Friday.

“I would also like to add that until recent weeks, neither Linda LaRoche or Peggy Johnson’s names have ever come up in our investigation,” Schmaling said. “Also, Peggy was never listed as a ‘missing person.’ I think that is important to understand.”

LaRoche faces the possibility of life in prison after being charged with first-degree intentional homicide and hiding a corpse.

On Tuesday, LaRoche was taken into custody by members of the Racine County Sheriff’s Office in Cape Coral. Sheriff Christopher Schmaling said that LaRoche will soon be brought back to Racine to “be held accountable for what she has been done.”

What happened

It was not until a few weeks ago that Johnson was discovered as a possible identity for the Jane Doe, Schmaling said.

The tip that led to LaRoche’s arrest came from “a concerned citizen” in Cape Coral who said that LaRoche had been “telling people that she had killed a woman back when she lived in Illinois,” according to the criminal complaint. The Racine County Sheriff’s Office heard about the tip on Sept. 23.

On Friday, Schmaling detailed the series of tragedies that led to Johnson’s death.

“After her mother died, Peggy was approximately 18 years old, cognitively impaired, on her own, and went searching for help at a medical clinic in McHenry, Illinois. There, she met a registered nurse named Linda LaRoche, who recognized Peggy’s disability and took her into her home,” Schmaling explained.

Johnson lived with LaRoche in McHenry for the next five years, during which Johnson “suffered long-term and horrific abuse at the hand of Linda LaRoche,” Schmaling said.

Investigators said that, before her death, Johnson had suffered burns and blunt-force trauma to much of her body, a nose fracture, cuts to the head, abrasions to the forehead, a heavily battered left ear, and showed signs of being both sexually abused and malnourished.

Investigators recently interviewed LaRoche’s ex-husband and five children, who all either lived in the home with LaRoche and Johnson or resided nearby. The children told investigators that between 1994 and 1999 Johnson was taken into the home and was directed to “act as a nanny and housekeeper in exchange” for housing, according to the criminal charges filed against LaRoche.

According to the criminal complaint, LaRoche’s children recalled the following:

Johnson often had signs of injuries caused by LaRoche

She had been forced to sleep in a crawl space under the home

LaRoche would be “verbally and emotionally cruel” to Johnson, “at times screaming at her like an animal”

One of the children told investigators that LaRoche once stabbed Johnson’s head with a pitchfork

LaRoche’s former husband described her as a “force to be reckoned with.” He told investigators that one day in 1999 he came home from work and found Johnson dead on the floor.

“LaRoche told him Peggy had overdosed and she was going to take her away,” according to the criminal complaint. “He recalled LaRoche being gone for approximately 2½ hours and then returned home without Peggy. (LaRoche’s former husband) states that he never saw Peggy again.”

The tale that LaRoche told investigators about Johnson’s death goes like this: LaRoche came home and found Johnson standing on a counter, pouring a bottle of pills down a drain. A few minutes later, Johnson fainted.

LaRoche, who is a registered nurse, “stated she didn’t know what to do and that she thought about calling an ambulance but didn’t,” according to the complaint. She claimed that Johnson’s eyes were still fluttering, and she decided “she couldn’t handle Peggy anymore,” so she took Johnson to her grandmother’s home.

Upon interviewing Johnson’s grandmother, she told investigators she had never met LaRoche. Then, investigators said that LaRoche “changed her story and admitted that she was not sure who the person was that she left Peggy with.”

The next day, she changed her story again. This time, she said she drove Wisconsin, let Johnson out of the car in a rural area and drove away.

“LaRoche asserted that Peggy was not injured at all when she dropped her off and that something must have happened to her after she dropped her off,” investigators reported, “contradicting the information regarding the condition of Peggy’s body at autopsy.”

Finding a suspect

Johnson’s parents and brother are deceased, although she does have a surviving sister whom she never met, Schmaling said. Her body is to be exhumed from its resting place and will be reburied next to her mother in Belvidere, Ill.

With Johnson not being listed as a missing person, it could explain why she was not identified over the past 20 years as investigators pored over more than a thousand of missing person cases and Johnson’s DNA was added to a missing persons’ database.

In October 2013, her body was exhumed for forensic isotope analysis and was reinterred at Holy Family Catholic Cemetery in Caledonia on July 21, 2015, the 16th anniversary of the day she was found. Johnson’s DNA was used to locate surviving family members and confirm her identity.

During Friday’s press conference, Schmaling said: “We are very proud today by the fact that we can finally offer some closure and bring some peace.”

Why we call it ‘Veterans Day’ and not Armistice Day — or Veterans’ Day

If you don’t have social media, don’t know why today is a federal holiday or have otherwise been living under a rock, today is Veterans Day.

That’s Veterans Day — as opposed to Veteran’s Day, Veterans’ Day, Armistice Day or Memorial Day.

Americans have celebrated living and deceased veterans — all those who served the country in any branch of the military — on Nov. 11 since it was first officially marked by Congress in 1926, eight years after World War I ended on what was known as Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918. The observance was called Armistice Day for this reason, until President Dwight Eisenhower changed the name in 1954 to be inclusive of all veterans, not just those who served in World War I.

“On that day let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain,” Eisenhower’s proclamation read.

Those who pressed for the change noted that calling it Armistice Day didn’t honor those who had served in World War II or the Korean War.

Less important, unless you’re a self-declared “grammar guru,” is using the appropriate spelling when honoring those who have selflessly served to protect our nation.

If you were to write “Veteran’s Day,” that’s honoring one veteran with his or her own day.

If you were to write “Veterans’ Day,” that’s a day belonging to all the veterans, which perhaps isn’t wrong in spirit, but is nonetheless grammatically incorrect.

Michael Deas, a lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, regularly teaches this to his students.

“It’s a descriptive,” he said, not an indication of ownership. “If you were to use an ‘s apostrophe,’ that would imply that the day belongs to the veterans; that they own the day.”

He said it is comparable to girls and boys restrooms. We don’t add an apostrophe after the “s” on those signs.

“They do not own the restroom,” Deas explained.

Although Veterans Day primarily honors those living, and often still-serving members of the military, it certainly remains a day to honor and remember deceased veterans as well. That could lead some to confuse the observation with Memorial Day, which is a day in late May set aside to honor those military personnel who died in the service of the United States, particularly in battle or as a result of injuries suffered in battle. Memorial Day itself has its origins in Decoration Day ceremonies first held in 1868 to honor Civil War dead.

Today is the 101st anniversary of Armistice Day, the end of World War I, known at the time as the Great War. The armistice went into effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Because Veterans Day was born of Armistice Day, many people were upset when the “Uniform Holiday Bill” was signed in 1968, changing Veterans Day from Nov. 11 to instead be observed on a Monday, in part to promote travel and commerce by providing three-day weekends for federal employees, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“It was quite apparent that the commemoration of this day was a matter of historic and patriotic significance to a great number of our citizens, and so on September 20th, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford signed Public Law 94-97, which returned the annual observance of Veterans Day to its original date of Nov. 11, beginning in 1978,” according to va.gov. “This action supported the desires of the overwhelming majority of state legislatures, all major veterans service organizations and the American people.”

So Veterans Day now is celebrated on Nov. 11 — except when the date falls on a Sunday (as in 2018), when Monday is the federally observed holiday.

Thailand trip designed to support Hmong diversity at Western Technical College

Two instructors from Western Technical College are hoping a trip they took to Thailand this summer will help spread Hmong culture and history to students and faculty.

Lin Rauch and Pam Solberg were part of a delegation of 12 educators from the La Crosse and Eau Claire areas to visit Thailand for a month as part of a Fulbright-Hays grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The pair and their trip were featured in a June Campus Connection feature in the La Crosse Tribune.

Now Solberg, a communication studies instructor, plans to apply what she learned on the trip to educate students in the classroom about Hmong culture and education.

“If students from every culture see their culture represented in the classroom, I think there’s much more of a feeling of inclusion which leads to better educational outcomes,” she said.

Rauch is a nursing instructor who plans to use what she learned to help educate other instructors at Western. But she also hopes to attract more Hmong people into nursing.

“Oftentimes our (Hmong) students are misunderstood by the patients they take care of. Sometimes there is just a communication gap and a misunderstanding with the students as to what they know from their culture and want to integrate into Western culture. We need to be able to embrace both of those viewpoints because they enrich each other,” Rauch said.

During the month-long trip, the group visited schools and villages in Thailand and learned of the history of the Hmong people, who were recruited by and fought with the U.S. military during the Vietnam War and migrated to the United States after the war to escape political persecution.

“When I went to Thailand, I went with a textbook knowledge of Hmong history and culture. It was only when we met people and stood in places where things had happened that the stories that came with that really made that come alive on an emotional level, so I felt like I left here with knowledge, but I came back with understanding,” Solberg said.

“I think one of the most moving experiences I had was standing on the banks of the Mekong River where people would cross the river as refugees, and we heard stories about people who had tremendous hardship in crossing the river. Hmong people are traditionally from the mountains, most of them don’t swim and so a lot of them cross the river literally holding on to inflated garbage bags holding onto small children and it was a terrifying experience,” she said.

One of those children who crossed the river is now a staff member at Western. Ge Vang didn’t take the trip, but he appreciates the goal of increasing awareness of the Hmong community. He went to public school in La Crosse and said he always found the history of the Hmong people lacking in La Crosse, but he believes that’s starting to change and will only be enhanced by the recent trip to Thailand.

“Anytime we can incorporate learning about other cultures it will help move the needle toward a greater understanding, a more diverse community that can appreciate each other,” Vang said.

Solberg said the trip to Thailand and the work they are committed to after the trip is part of Western’s commitment to support students of all backgrounds.

“Preserving Hmong culture is very important to Hmong people. Hmong are people who have traditionally been stateless and even though they are now American citizens, preserving the arts and the food and some of the customs and language is a very important, so we should all support that,” she said.

Solberg said public presentations based on last summer’s trip are planned in the coming months and Western’s study abroad program in 2021 will be in Thailand.