Kutska’s Ex-wife: 2 Key Witnesses Lied (Green Bay Press-Gazette: July 8, 2015)
Paul Srubas , USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin Published 11:28 a.m. CT July 8, 2015 | Updated 7:25 a.m. CT July 9, 2015
Two key witnesses in the state’s Tom Monfils murder case lied on the witness stand 20 years ago, the ex-wife of key defendant Keith Kutska testified Wednesday.
Ardis Kutska was the fifth and last witnesses to testify in the first of three days of hearings to determine if Keith Kutska will have a new trial.
Kutska, 64, and four others are serving life sentences for Monfils’ death. Monfils, 35, was found in 1992 in a pulp vat at the former James River mill with a 50-pound weight tied to his neck.
Kutska is serving his life term in Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage. He is arguing his 1995 conviction was unfair because evidence suggesting that Monfils may have committed suicide wasn’t presented at his trial in Brown County Circuit Court.
Part of Kutska’s conviction was based on testimony from co-worker Brian Kellner and his wife, Verna. They testified they and the Kutskas were at an Oconto County tavern in July 1994 when Kutska described Monfils’ death and a beating that preceded that death.
According to the Kellners’ testimony, Kutska got people in the bar to represent Monfils and other workers in a kind of re-enactment to demonstrate an altercation between the workers and Monfils.
Ardis Kutska testified no such role-playing took place. She said she wanted to testify to that fact at the 1995 trial but that Kutska’s lawyer, Royce Finne, declined to call her as witness, saying no one would believe her. She said she and her husband divorced shortly after his conviction.
One of five men still in prison for their involvement in the death of Tom Monfils, Keith Kutska talks from Columbia Correctional Institute in this 2009 interview. Paul Srubas | Press-Gazette Media
She described Brian Kellner, who died in March 2014, as “a nice guy, but I think he wanted people to, I don’t know, he wanted to make people like him or be important to everybody.”
Under cross examination by Brown County District Attorney David Lasee, Ardis Kutska said she couldn’t remember if she ever told any other lawyers during Keith Kutska’s appeal process that the Kellners lied.
Prosecutors at the 1995 trial argued Kutska stole a piece of electrical wire from the mill, then became angry when he learned Monfils reported the theft. Kutska allegedly incited the others to rough up Monfils, and the group conspired to dump him unconscious into the pulp vat, according to the prosecution’s case.
Kutska now argues there’s evidence to show Monfils may have committed suicide, and evidence supporting that theory wasn’t properly presented and evaluated at the trial.
On Wednesday, July 8, Kutska’s lawyers presented a forensic pathologist’s testimony to cast doubt on Kutska’s conviction.
Dr. Mary Ann Sens, a forensic pathologist and medical examiner in North Dakota, said it would have been difficult if not impossible to determine a cause of death through an autopsy on Monfils’ body, given the degree of decomposition.
“I and my colleagues felt it should have been undetermined,” she said under questioning by defense lawyer Steven Kaplan of Minneapolis.
The late Dr. Helen Young, who performed the original autopsy, concluded that Monfils’ death was unlikely to have been a suicide, according to an officer’s statement that Kaplan presented.
Sens testified that would not have been a reasonable conclusion to draw based simply on the autopsy.
She agreed with Young’s findings that Monfils was alive while in the vat, but said she could not tell what injuries might have occurred before or after he went in.
Sens said she couldn’t rule out a propeller in the vat, rather than a blow by a person, as the cause of a fracture to Monfils’ skull based on her review of Young’s autopsy file.
She also testified that she could not rule out the possibility of murder. She said she would have characterized the cause as being “undetermined.”
Medical examiners in the 1980s and 1990s believed they could differentiate among injuries caused before, during and after death, but they are less sure today, Sens said.
Defense lawyers called two of Kutska’s previous lawyers, Finne, from the original trial, and James Connell, from the appeals process. Both testified they took Helen Young’s findings as unassailable and built defense arguments with the understanding that Monfils was murdered.
Defense lawyers also called Madison lawyer Stephen Glynn as an expert witness. Glynn testified that any lawyer who failed to get an expert forensic pathologist to review Young’s findings was deficient.
Special prosecutor Larry Lasee, who was co-prosecutor in the original trial, asked whether that deficiency label must therefore be applied to the nearly 20 lawyers who represented all of the defendants at the trial and all subsequent appeals over the last 20 years.
In addition to Kutska, Michael Hirn, 55, Dale Basten, 74, Michael Johnson, 67, Rey Moore, 68, and Michael Piaskowski, 66, were convicted in a single trial of conspiring to murder Monfils.
Piaskowski was released from prison in 2001 when a federal appeals judge ruled there was insufficient evidence against him.
Glynn said he hadn’t reviewed the work of all the lawyers in the case, but “from the standpoint that I’m aware of that no trial lawyer sought help from an expert pathologist, my judgment is that would make them deficient.”
Retired Outagamie County Judge James Bayorgeon, who heard the original case, is presiding over Kutska’s hearing, which is expected to run through Friday. The hearing will resume for a day on July 22 to accommodate the schedule of retired detective Randy Winkler, who was unavailable to testify this week.
Monfils case timeline
- Nov. 10, 1992 — Mill worker Tom Monfils, 35, calls police to report that a co-worker, Keith Kutska, had stolen an extension cord from the mill
- Nov. 20, 1992 — Kutska obtains a tape recording of Monfils’ call to police.
- Nov. 21, 1992 — Kuska plays the tape for co-workers. Monfils disappears.
- Nov. 22, 1992 — Monfils’ body is found at the bottom of a pulp vat with a 50-pound weight tied to his neck.
- May 26, 1993 — Monfils’ widow files a wrongful death lawsuit against eight of Monfils’ former co-workers, the paper mill union and insurers.
- April 12, 1995 — Police arrest the eight men at the mill. Six are charged with conspiring to murder Monfils; the other two eventually are convicted of related misdemeanors, including harassment.
- Sept. 26, 1995 — Trial for the six defendants begins.
- Oct. 28, 1995 — A jury brought in from Racine County returns verdicts of guilty on all six.
- January 2001 — Federal Judge Myron Gordon rules that evidence was insufficient to convict one of the six, Mike Piaskowski. Various kinds of appeals by the other defendants are unsuccessful, and all have lost bids for early parole.
- April 3, 2001 — Piaskowski is freed.
- October 2014 — Kutska files for post-conviction relief, claiming new information suggests Monfils could have committed suicide and that option wasn’t properly considered at the trial.