Author: Jared Manninen

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.”

Man convicted of Monfils murder makes first public appearance since release

WBAY.com – Posted: Sat 7:14 PM, Jan 11, 2020

GREEN BAY, Wis. – A man convicted in one of Wisconsin’s highest profile true crime cases made his first public appearance since his release Saturday.

Michael Hirn joined author Joan Treppa for a book signing Saturday afternoon at the Brown County Library.

Hirn was convicted in the killing of Tom Monfils, but was released from prison in 2018.

Treppa, whose book is titled “Reclaiming Lives”, describes herself as a citizen advocate for the wrongfully convicted.

After the signing, the pair sat down and discussed his life since being released, and what they believe are major flaws in the case.

“Initially, because I read the Monfils conspiracy book and it seemed like bullying to me, I had been bullied as a child, and that really tugged at my heart strings. I know what it feels like to be accused of something that you didn’t do and to have it on the scale that they had it really affected me, and I had to get involved,” said Treppa.

Action 2 News has reported on the so-called “Monfils 6” case for years.

In 1992, Tom Monfils’ body was found in a pulp vat at a paper mill in Green Bay.

Six men, including Hirn, were convicted and sentenced to live in prison.

All six men have maintained their innocence, and five of them have since been released.

‘Monfils 6’: Michael Johnson released from prison

By Sarah Thomsen, WBAY Staff. | Posted: Wed 10:02 AM, Jul 03, 2019  | Updated: Wed 5:54 PM, Jul 03, 2019

ONEIDA, Wis. (WBAY) – A fifth man convicted in the Monfils 6 murder case was released from prison Wednesday morning.

Michael Johnson, 71, walked out of Sanger B. Powers Correctional Center in Oneida a free man. He did not stop to talk with the Action 2 News crew outside the prison.

Johnson’s release comes about 24 hours after the release of co-defendant Rey Moore.

In 1995, Johnson, Moore and four other men were sentenced to life in prison for the killing of Tom Monfils at a Green Bay paper facility. Prosecutors said they conspired to kill their co-worker as an act of revenge.

Johnson and Moore served 24 years of their sentence until the parole board granted their release.

Johnson’s parole was deferred 10 times during his incarceration. It was granted on May 31, 2019.

Johnson was greeted by his wife, his sisters, some children and grandchildren.

“It’s kind of a bittersweet time for this family. They’re very nervous, they’re terrified of what’s ahead because when you have a loved one who’s away for so long, you don’t know what the future holds,” says Joan Treppa, social justice advocate and friend. “There’s a lot of transition time that’s going to happen. There’s going to be a lot of learning to do on his behalf.”

Author Joan Treppa was there for Johnson’s release. While pushing for their release, she has befriended the men and visited them in prison.

“These aren’t monsters or union thugs or murderers,” Treppa says.

Treppa has also become close with the families.

“They’re excited that he’s getting out, but it’s also terrifying because they haven’t lived with this person for 25 years,” Treppa says. “And it’s like… they’re going to have to get to know each other all over again There are traumas that have happened in the families and in prison that they’re going to have to work through. This is very traumatic.”

THE MONFILS 6 CASE

It was 1992 when Tom Monfils’ body was found in a pulp vat at the James River Mill in Green Bay. Investigators said Monfils had been beaten and a weight had been tied around his neck.

Three years later, police arrested suspects later dubbed the “Monfils 6.” Keith Kutska, Michael Hirn, Rey Moore, Dale Basten, Michael Piaskowski, and Michael Johnson were charged with 1st Degree Intentional Homicide.

The prosecution said the men conspired to kill Monfils, who had heard co-worker Keith Kutska talk about stealing an electrical cord from the mill. It is alleged that Monfils reported it to police, but his anonymity was compromised when Keith Kutska obtained a tape of the call made by Monfils.

The prosecution accused Kutska and the other men of forming a group to take revenge on Monfils for reporting on Kutska.

Another co-worker told police that Kutska had confided in him all the details of the killing of Monfils.

All six men were convicted at jury trial and sentenced to life in prison.

The trial was one of the most high-profile events in Northeast Wisconsin in the past 30 years. Over time, opinions have shifted about their guilt in the death of Tom Monfils. Supporters believe the men were wrongly convicted. All six men have maintained their innocence.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Michael Piaskowski’s conviction was overturned by an appeals court in 2001. The court ruled that there was not enough evidence to prove his involvement.

Dale Basten was granted parole in September 2017 due to his failing health. He died at age 77 in June.

In Dec. 2018, Michael Hirn was released from McNaughton Correctional Center in Lake Tomahawk.The 55-year-old was granted parole after 23 years in prison.

With the release of Moore and Johnson, that leaves only Keith Kutska behind bars in the Monfils 6 case.

Kutska has appealed his conviction up to the United States Supreme Court. In 2017, the high court denied his petition for a writ of certiorari, which is a document asking the high court to review the decision of a lower court.

Kutska, 68, had mounted his appeal based on what his attorneys claimed was new evidence in the case. The defense was granted an evidentiary hearing to present an argument that Tom Monfils killed himself.

A judge ruled there was not evidence to grant Kutska a new trial. His subsequent appeal was denied. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to take the case upholds the lower court’s ruling.

Kutska is eligible for parole on May 1, 2021. That decision is up to the parole board.

Treppa says freedom comes with a cost–a fear of how they’ll be treated by the public.

“They’re going to be out walking the streets in this town, and they don’t know who they’re going to come across. They don’t know who is going to say ‘hey, congratulations,’ or ‘go to hell’ you know,” Treppa says. “They don’t know, so it’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of fear amongst their elation.”