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(WBAY – Action 2 News) Posted: Fri 2:11PM, Dec 07, 2018 – Updated: Fri 2:31 PM, Dec 07, 2018
GREEN BAY, Wis. – One of the six men convicted with conspiring in the murder of Tom Monfils at a Green Bay paper mill in 1992 is being released from prison this month.
Michael Hirn was granted parole after almost 24 years, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections said.
In its report, the parole commission said Hirn’s sentencing judge wrote a letter of support telling them Hirn should be paroled “at the earliest possible date.”
The commission called him a “model prisoner.” It said Hirn completed vocational programs and earned minimum community custody in 2015, and began working full- and part-time jobs. He’s also an animal handler providing therapy to dogs that have been traumatized.
Hirn is approved to live with his stepfather in Green Bay.
The so-called “Monfils 6” were convicted in 1995, three years after prosecutors say the six confronted Monfils for reporting a coworker, Keith Kutska, to police for stealing from the mill. Monfils disappeared, then his body was found weighted down in a pulp vat.
Three other defendants are still in prison. Michael Johnson has a parole hearing in March, Rey Moore’s parole hearing is in July. Kutska’s next hearing is in 2021.
Dale Basten died last June, nine months after being released from prison due to his failing health.
Mike Piaskowski’s conviction was overturned in 2001 by an appeals court that ruled there wasn’t enough evidence to prove his involvement.
Haley BeMiller, Green Bay Press-Gazette Published 4:30 p.m. CT Dec. 7, 2018 | Updated 5:38 p.m. CT Dec. 7, 2018
GREEN BAY – One of the men convicted of conspiring to murder a Green Bay paper mill worker in 1992 will be released on parole later this month.
Michael Hirn, 54, was one of six men convicted in 1995 in the high-profile death of Tom Monfils in November 1992, along with Dale Basten, Michael Johnson, Keith Kutska, Mike Piaskowski and Rey Moore. Hirn was found guilty of first-degree intentional homicide, party to a crime.
Department of Corrections spokesman Tristan Cook confirmed Hirn’s release Friday. Hirn is incarcerated at McNaughton Correctional Center in Tomahawk, according to DOC records, and has served over 23 years of his life sentence.
According to a report from the Parole Commission, Hirn was first eligible for parole in 2010. He still maintains his innocence and hopes to be exonerated someday to reinstate his voting and hunting privileges, the report states.
The Parole Commission further said Hirn demonstrated”positive” institution adjustment and was successful at multiple work release sites. He’s also completed two vocational programs in HVAC and cabinet-making.
Hirn and the other men, the so-called Monfils Six, worked at the former James River Corp. mill. According to police and the prosecution’s case, the six surrounded Monfils during a break in the paper making process and beat him to unconsciousness. Then, out of fear of losing their jobs, they tied a weight to the unconscious man and dumped him into a paper pulp vat.
Monfils’ body was recovered the next day after workers drained the vat.
Prosecutors asserted Kutska instigated the attack in retaliation for Monfils snitching on Kutska for a minor theft from the mill. Kutska, who served a three-day suspension from the mill for stealing a piece of extension wire, learned from a police recording that Monfils had phoned in a report of the theft.
Kutska obtained the recording and, upon his return to the mill, played it for several of his co-workers. Kutska has admitted all that but denies that he played the tape to whip up violence against Monfils or that he and the other defendants actually committed any violence against Monfils.
The defendants’ lawyers at the time tried to claim someone else had committed the crime, but more recent appeals efforts by Kutska focused on the theory that Monfils could have killed himself.
When released, Hirn will live with his stepfather in Green Bay. He’s considering jobs in the HVAC and carpentry fields and plans to visit Monfils’ grave to pay his respects, according to the Parole Commission.
Three of Hirn’s co-defendants — Johnson, Kutska and Moore — are still serving life terms. Piaskowski was released from prison in 2001 when a federal appeals court found there was not enough evidence to convict him.
Basten was released in September 2017 from prison to a privately operated community facility in Appleton because of health issues. He died earlier this year at the age of 77.
Parole hearings for Johnson and Moore are scheduled for March and July of next year, respectively, Cook said. Kutska’s next parole hearing is set for March 2021.
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.