Somewhere Between Hobby and Obsession: Monfils Case has Become Minneapolis Woman’s Life

Published 8:25 a.m. CT June 29, 2018 | Updated 3:31 p.m. CT June 29, 2018

Paul Srubas, Green Bay Press-Gazette

The Tom Monfils murder case has changed Joan Treppa’s life.

Other than the victim himself and his family, and the six original defendants and their families, Treppa has been affected by the case maybe as much as anyone else on the planet, but unlike all those other people, Treppa sort of did it to herself.

Now the Minneapolis woman is deeply involved in the case, which has become far more than a hobby for her but which she can’t bring herself to call an obsession.

“I don’t want to put that negative slant on it,” she says. “I am driven. I’m driven because it’s the right thing to do, and because I can; I have the time. I can put the time into it.”

Go to the annual “Truth and Justice” rally, where up to 60 protesters will march at the Brown County Courthouse chanting slogans implying the defendants were wrongfully convicted, and chances are, Treppa will be one of the keynote speakers.

She’s written a book on the case, lectures around the country about it, has become something of a point person for other convicted criminals claiming they were wrongfully accused.

Thanks to the Monfils case, Treppa now writes the words “social justice advocate” after her name on emails. She never used to do that.

Not bad for someone with zero legal or investigating background or skills, no connection whatsoever to the victim or defendants and in fact who never even heard of the case until nearly 20 years after it happened.

A quick recap: Monfils, 35, a paper mill worker at the former James River plant in Green Bay, was found dead in November 1992 in a paper pulp vat after disappearing from his work station the previous day.

After a three-year investigation, Green Bay police arrested six of Monfils’ co-workers: Keith Kutska, Mike Piaskowsi, Michael Hirt, Rey Moore, Michael Johnson and Dale Basten. They were charged, tried together in a single jury trial, convicted of conspiring to murder Monfils and sentenced to life in prison.

The police theory was that Kutska, angered after being suspended from the job because Monfils snitched on him about a minor theft from the mill, got a tape recording of Monfils reporting the crime and played it around the mill. Co-workers were so incensed, they roughed Monfils up and knocked him unconscious. Then, worried about losing their jobs over the violence, they decided to conceal the evidence of it by tying a weight to Monfils’ neck and throwing him in the pulp vat, where he died.

All six men were convicted, but an appeals judge overturned the conviction for Piaskowski on the grounds of insufficient evidence. All of the other five remained in prison or state custody up until last week, when the oldest of them, Dale Basten, died at age 77.

It’s a familiar story to anyone who lived in the Green Bay area in the 1990s. That does not include Treppa, 59, who lives in Minneapolis.

She learned of the case in about 2009 from a guy her sister was dating for a while. That was John Gaie, a retired Green Bay school teacher and Piaskowski’s former brother-in-law. Gaie and local author Denis Gullickson, with Piaskowski’s help, had researched the case and wrote a book, The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men.

Treppa met Gaie, who told her about the case and the gave her a copy of the book, and Treppa’s life changed practically all at once.

“I liked true crime stories anyway, so it was very fascinating,” Treppa says.

She accepted Gaie’s and Gullickson’s account of the case, their claims that the police built their entire case on a faulty theory.

Yes, Monfils had snitched on Kutska for theft, and yes Kutska was angry and got the police tape recording and played it for practically everyone at the mill, but no, Kutska had no intention of whipping everybody up into a violent frenzy and no, there never was a violent altercation around a drinking fountain in the middle of the mill, as police claimed. That’s according to the Gaie-Gullickson account of things.

An over-zealous detective bullied witnesses into admitting things that never happened, and the defendants got screwed by a judge ruling they could all be tried at once instead of having their own separate trials, and the next thing you know, they were all sentenced to life in prison. Meanwhile, somebody else murdered Monfils or maybe Monfils killed himself. So goes Gaie’s and Gullickson’s theory, anyway, and so went their book.

Their book more or less launched a grassroots interest in the case, forming a centerpiece for family and friends of the defendants to rally around and call for exoneration or at least a new trial. It was after their book was published that the courthouse protests began, and people would start meeting in an Allouez home to discuss legal strategies and letter-writing campaigns to legislators and parole board members.

This is the world that Treppa got involved with, only she took it further than most. After reading the book and hearing Gaie’s account, she began doing what Gaie had been doing: telling everyone she came across about the case, until she found herself telling a retired detective about it in Minneapolis one day.

Together, they started looking at the old case files and becoming more and more convinced Gaie and Gullickson were right. They took the case to the Minnesota Innocence Project, which agreed to take on an appeal without charge.

“I tell people, I didn’t choose this; it chose me,” Treppa says. “It’s hard for people to understand, unless they experience it on a personal level, the passion and drive and determination someone feels when that person is just on autopilot. That’s how it felt for me. I needed to do this thing.”

Treppa had been blogging about the case throughout, and her adult son urged her to compile her blogs and write a book. That 4 ½-year project culminated in a self-published book, Reclaiming Lives: Pursuing Justice for Six Innocent Men, that came out last year.

During the writing of it, Treppa and her husband traveled to all of the Wisconsin prisons were the Monfils defendants were incarcerated, meeting them, posing for pictures with them. She has been writing all of them since about 2011.

Following the publishing of the book, which she says won a national award and was, for a time, on Amazon’s best-seller list, she did book-signings and lectures. She was a guest speaker at the Untitled Town book-and-author festival in Green Bay this spring and she’ll be doing book festivals in Neenah and Appleton later this year.

As far as she knows, the defendants have exhausted their appeals, but the Minnesota Innocence Project remains on the job, looking for possible strategies, so she maintains her hope that her vision of justice, and the vision of Gaie and Gullickson, will prevail.

“I’m always hopeful,” she says. “Once you give up hope, you might as well die. I will remain hopeful because of the integrity of the law firm working on it … and there’s also actually some hope some of these men can get paroled.”

So what would she do if, after all this time and energy she has invested, it turned out that these defendants really did do the crime? What if one of them suddenly confessed?

Treppa gives a long pause. “I couldn’t really speculate, because I can’t see that ever happening,” she says finally.

Posted on: July 11, 2018Jared Manninen