Stepfather, friends hail impending release of Mike Hirn, one of the ‘Monfils Six’

Paul Srubas, Green Bay Press-Gazette Published 6:15 p.m. CTDec. 13, 2018 | Updated 4:38 p.m. CT Dec. 14, 2018

GREEN BAY – While some may have mixed feelings about the release of convicted murderer Mike Hirn from prison next week, Mike Dalebroux called it “my best Christmas present in years.”

Hirn, one of the so-called “Monfils Six,” will leave prison Tuesday after serving 23 years for a crime that some people — including Dalebroux — believe he never committed: The 1992 murder of Thomas Monfils in a Green Bay paper mill.

Dalebroux is Hirn’s stepfather — his father, really, since he raised him from age 7.

“As far as I’m concerned, there’s no ‘step’ in it,” Dalebroux says. “He’s my son.”

Small wonder, then, that Dalebroux is in full celebration mode at the news that Hirn has finally been granted parole, making him the third member of the Monfils Six to make his way outside the prison walls.

“I’m really excited about him coming home,” Dalebroux said. “We’ve been praying for this for 23 years.”

The six men were convicted in 1995, three years’ after Monfils’ death in the former James River paper mill, where they all worked.

Third man to be set free

This much of it is undisputed: Monfils, 35, snitched on Keith Kutska for stealing scrap wire from the mill; Kutska got a three-day suspension for the infraction, and he spent the time off persuading Green Bay police to turn over a tape recording of the anonymous tipster.

When Kutska got back to work, he played the tape for his co-workers and all agreed it was Monfils’ voice. What happened next was the subject of a month-long jury trial.

Police and prosecutors claim Kutska whipped up enough anti-Monfils sentiment among his co-workers that six of them, including Kutska and Hirn, surrounded Monfils, roughed him up, knocked him unconscious and then, fearing the loss of their jobs, dumped him into a pulp vat, where his battered body was found three days later.

Kutska and the others claim there was no such physical confrontation, that the point to playing the tape around the mill was to get confirmation that it was Monfils’ voice so that Kutska could take union action against him. How Monfils ended up dead supposedly is as much a mystery to Kutska and friends as it is to anybody. Someone else did it, or Monfils took his own life, they suggested through court proceedings over the years.

First out was Mike Piaskowski. He was released from prison in 2001 when a federal appeals court ruled there hadn’t been enough evidence to convict him. His only comment about Hirn’s impending parole, sent by email,was, “Other than to say again that WE have always been absolutely innocent, and that THEY have always been absolutely wrong (and THEY absolutely know it), I prefer not to make any statements.”

The other defendants were all unsuccessful in their appeals and petitions for parole, but defendant Dale Basten, 77, was released to an assisted living facility last fall for health reasons. He died several months later.

All of the defendants have been before the parole board, but Hirn was the first to have success. He became eligible for parole in 2010 but was unsuccessful for eight years. He got word last week that his time is now.

Dalebroux predicted the others would soon have similar success. That would include Kutska, Michael Johnson and Rey Moore. Johnson and Moore are scheduled for March and July parole hearings, while Kutska’s next hearing is set for March 2021.

Catching up

Hirn, 54, who has been serving his time most recently at McNaughton Correctional Center in Oneida County, is to be officially freed Tuesday. His aunt and uncle, who live in Waubeno, will pick him up from the prison, and Dalebroux will drive 2½ hours to go get him.

“We’ll have a 2½ hour drive back to try to catch up,” Dalebroux said. “I know Michael is looking forward to having a nice big steak dinner, something he’s not had in all the years he’s been incarcerated, so when he gets home, we’ll grill out and go to the town on that, fixing steak and baked potatoes.”

Hirn has missed more than just steak and baked potatoes since he’s been incarcerated. His grandmother who helped raise him died while he was in prison. His older brother was killed in a motorcycle crash about the time that Hirn had served seven years in prison.

“They were very, very close — each other’s best friends,” Dalebroux said. Hirn wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral.

“We paid to have someone professionally record the whole thing, and we sent the videotape to Michael,” Dalebroux said.

Then, four years ago, Hirn’s mother — Dalebroux’s wife, Trudy — died.

“Two guards brought him up to the funeral home to view her and to talk to relations,” Dalebroux said. “They gave him about a half-hour and then took him back.”

Dalebroux and Hirn’s son, now a Marine stationed in the Netherlands, visited Hirn in prison as much as they possibly could. That often meant traveling out of state, to Mississippi and Minnesota and all over Wisconsin as Hirn was moved from place to place as part of normal prison system transfers.

Effort to clear names continues

“Michael Hirn spent over 8,650 days incarcerated for a crime he did not commit,” said Denis Gullickson, who co-authored a book, “The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men,” that helped launch a grassroots clamor for the men’s freedom. “During this time, he lost his beloved mother and his son grew up, graduated from high school and went off to college.

“All that time, Mike remained steadfast in his innocence,his personal dignity and his temerity. He put any bitterness over his situation aside and embrace the opportunities available to him. One of his former prison guards cites Mike as his personal example of keeping a positive attitude in life.”

Gullickson said his and others’ efforts to clear the men’s names will continue.

“Michael Hirn has always believed that he’d eventually achieve freedom,” said Joan Treppa, a Minnesota activist inspired by Gullickson’s book to join efforts to seek the men’s freedom.

Hirn has received training in prison in trades like cabinet-making and heating and air-conditioning repair, according to the parole board, which also cited his “positive” adjustment to prison life as one of the points justifying his release.

“People must understand that this (parole) was not simply handed to him,” said Treppa, who met all six men as part of the research for a book of her own, “Reclaiming Lives: Pursuing Justice For Six Innocent Men.” “He earned it through hard work, diligence, patience and a positive attitude. I believe that, in moving forward, being angry over something he cannot change will never define who this man is.”

Cal Monfils, the dead man’s brother, is also friends with Hirn and a believer that all six men were wrongly convicted.

“I think it’s great news,” he said of Hirn’s impending parole. “(It) could only be better if he was actually being exonerated as I feel he and the rest should be.

“Once Mike gets settled in, I’m really looking forward to getting together with him again.”

Mixed feelings

Less happy with the news is retired detective Randy Winkler, who was demonized in Gullickson’s book as having been unwilling to consider other possible theories of the case, and being overzealous and even bullying when interrogating mill workers during the investigation.

Winkler said he had just been on the brink of writing to Hirn in prison to urge him to make a public confession, to better improve his chance of gaining parole.

“I have mixed feelings,” Winkler said. “It’s a long time for him to sit.”

But “If he didn’t admit it, I don’t think he should get out,” Winkler said. “That’s the long and the short of it. They can deny it all they want, but you know that’s what happened and that they’re responsible for it.”

Winkler said he could possibly agree with the parole board’s assessment that Hirn may have been less culpable than the others, “but in my conversations with him, I’ve no doubt whatsoever he was involved,” Winkler said. “He told us in the basement of his house one time that he wanted to tell us what happened but was afraid for his family. A person wouldn’t want to tell you everything unless he was involved.”

Hirn supposedly was Monfils’ friend, making it all the worse that he was in on it, Winkler said.

Dalebroux is well aware many people in the community, like Winkler, are still convinced of Hirn’s and the others’ guilt. But he expects to receive no flak about it from his friends or when he and Hirn are out in public.

“I’m not worried about that,” he said. “All the guys know about my son and the ‘Monfils Six’ and they’ve talked to me freely about it, because they know I know they know.

“And we’ve conversed enough about it, and they’ve given me their opinions. I’m not saying we won’t get one or two coming out of the woodwork who will go berserk about it, but I’m not looking to have any problems.”

Hirn has always been personable, has many friends awaiting his release, and likely will make more, Dalebroux said.

“He’s already had numerous people requesting to visit, he’s had several job offers. … I don’t there’ll be any kind of problem whatsoever.”

For Dalebroux, Hirn’s release has motivated him for the first time in years to celebrate Christmas.

“Since Trudy passed away, I haven’t even put up tree,” he said. “But I’m in the process of putting up decorations and a tree right now. I’ve very much looking forward to Michael being here for Christmas.”

Posted on: December 19, 2018Jared Manninen

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