In year of freedom, Monfils defendant has been enjoying ice-fishing, biscuits-and-gravy and seeking exoneration
Paul Srubas, Green Bay Press-Gazette | Published 9:42 a.m. CT Jan. 12, 2020 | Updated 12:57 p.m. CT Jan. 12, 2020
GREEN BAY — Michael Hirn still hopes to be exonerated of participating in the murder of Tom Monfils in a Green Bay paper mill in 1992.
But his biggest concern now, 27 years later, he says, is, “I want people to know me for who I am. People think of me as a killer, but people who know me know me for me.”
Hirn, 55, was one of six men convicted in 1995 of beating Monfils, 35, and dumping him unconscious into a pulp vat in the former James River paper mill, where his body was found a day later.
Monfils had reported co-worker Keith Kutska for stealing scrap wire from the mill. Kutska generated anger at Monfils throughout the mill by obtaining and playing a recording of him reporting the theft to police.
Police believe that led to a confrontation with Kutska, Hirn and the others surrounding Monfils, pushing, then beating him to unconsciousness, and then, worried about the loss of their jobs for the infraction, deciding to dump him into the vat with a 49-pound weight tied to his neck.
Hirn and the others all have denied from the start that any such confrontation took place and that they had anything to do with Monfils’ death. Supposedly without knowing what happened to him, they have advanced a variety of alternative explanations, the most current being that Monfils killed himself because of his failing marriage and the deterioration of his standing among his co-workers.
To anyone who would ask, “who in their right mind would kill themselves like that?” Hirn said he’d answer, “Who in their right mind would kill themselves?”
Only one of the alleged co-conspirators has been exonerated. Michael Piaskowski, now 70, was freed from prison in 2001 when a federal judge ruled there had not been enough evidence to convict him.
Since then, all of the co-defendants have been released except Kutska, who won’t be eligible for parole until next year.
Dale Basten, 77, died shortly after being paroled for health reasons in September 2017. Rey Moore, 73, and Michael Johnson, 72, were released on parole last July.
Hirn has been paroled for a little more than a year. He spent nearly three hours Saturday with writer and social justice advocate Joan Treppa at a book signing at the Brown County Central Library. Treppa was selling and signing copies of “Reclaiming Lives: Pursuing Justice For Six Innocent Men.”
Hirn and Treppa fielded questions from the 35-person audience, most of who seemed to have read Treppa’s book or “The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men,” by local authors Dennis Gullickson and John Gaie, the latter of whom is Piaskowski’s former brother-in-law.
That book, which Piaskowski helped with when it was written in 2010, launched a grass-roots clamor for the men’s freedom. It also inspired Treppa to write her own book and to help arrange for new appeals efforts through private investigators, volunteer private lawyers and lawyers from the Wisconsin and Minnesota Innocence Projects.
Questions put to Treppa and Hirn Saturday demonstrated that questioners had already accepted the premise that Hirn and the others were victims of a faulty and aggressive police investigation, overzealous prosecution and a sloppy, unfair legal system, as described in Gaie’s and Gullickson’s book.
Police and prosecutors have defended the original convictions and maintain the trial achieved the truth. They argue court systems have upheld the original findings except for the one federal appeals court judge that exonerated Piaskowski.
“It makes me angry,” muttered one woman who had asked many of the questions of the day. “These are the people we are supposed to be trusting?”
Hirn expressed hope that he’d eventually be proven innocent. He said he still has the option of trying to get his case into federal court and is only waiting to find a lawyer who will handle the case for free.
But in the meantime, “I can’t be bitter,” he said. “I am not going to let this define who I am.”
Walking into a restaurant with friends and well-wishers during one of his first days of freedom, he asked them, “Do you realize how excited I am? To be able to just get up and get ice cream when I want it, or be able to just eat whatever I want?”
He dined on one of his favorites, biscuits and gravy, and spent a day of freedom ice-fishing when he first got out, he said.
He recalled taking a walk shortly after his release and having a woman pull up in her car, put down the window and told him, “I saw you on the news last night. I want you to know you should be proud and hold your head up high,” Hirn told the audience. “I told her, ‘I’m going to.’”
He said the Green Bay community has so far proven welcoming and positive.
“I have had not one negative interaction with a person,” he said. “And I’ve had probably seven or eight where the people have said ‘I’m glad you’re out.’”
He remains on parole, a lifetime assignment, for which he must pay $40 a month, he told the audience, from which could be heard tsk-tsks and a whispered “It’s ridiculous!” But his restrictions are few. He doesn’t have to wear an electronic monitor, and he has regular but uneventful visits with his parole agent.
He received job training in prison and has been working for about a year laying I.T. cable. Part of the joy of being free has been learning about how technology has advanced, he said. The first time he confronted a cell phone, he said he had to ask: “How do you call somebody on this thing?”
Asked by an audience member what he would say to anybody doubting his innocence, Hirn said, “Everybody is entitled to their opinion, whether they’re on our side or not. Read the book. You’re entitled, but not if you’re uninformed.”Posted on: January 13, 2020Jared Manninen