Reporting a Crime, Then Dying for It
Courts make a Wisconsin police department an object lesson after officers fail to protect tipster’s anonymity.
December 02, 1999|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER
GREEN BAY, Wis. — His voice was tight with fear.
“I haven’t slept much in the last couple of days,” Tom Monfils told a police officer in a taped phone call. “This is not a nice guy. He’s a biker type. . . . If he gets hold of this [tape of an earlier call], I might not come home some night.”
His prediction proved to be chillingly accurate.
The week before, Monfils, a 35-year-old paper mill worker, had phoned an anonymous tip to police about thefts by a co-worker.
When the culprit, Keith Kutska, returned to work, he let it be known that he intended to find out who had turned him in. And when he did, Kutska said, he would get even.
Growing more scared by the day, Monfils called the Green Bay Police Department three more times and pleaded with officers, including the deputy chief, to keep secret the tape of his first call. They assured him they would take care of the matter.
But they didn’t. On a Friday afternoon in November 1992, an officer handed over a copy of the tape to Kutska, who took it to work the next day.
Now Monfils’ words sound a warning to police departments nationwide who hear from ordinary citizens reporting a crime.
Monfils was last seen at his control room post at 7:30 a.m. that Saturday. His wife, frantic when he did not return home, demanded a search of the huge paper plant that loomed over the Fox River. Searchers finally found Monfils’ body at the bottom of a two-story-high pulp vat; a rope, twisted through a 40-pound weight, had been wrapped around his neck.
The murder shocked this conservative town like none before.
“This one hit with a double punch,” said Mike Blecha, an editorial writer for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. “It was probably the worst crime in this city’s history. And people were angry both at the [labor] union and at the Police Department for the slipshod way they handled this.”
It also led to a precedent-setting verdict that held the police liable for endangering the life of a citizen who reports a crime tip.
The case of Monfils vs. City of Green Bay closed a loophole in the law that many would not have guessed existed in the first place.
Americans have no right to protection from the police, the courts have said, even when officers know a person is in danger.
And they have no assurance that their calls to police will be kept secret. Policies at local departments are sometimes unclear, even to their own officers.
In Wisconsin, the Open Records Act pledges that public agencies, including police, will make their files and records available to the public. There are many exceptions, however. Police are obliged to maintain secrecy once an official crime investigation begins.
But Monfils’ anonymous report of a theft in progress had not triggered a police investigation, only a call to the plant’s security staff. For that reason, an officer in the department’s taping unit–who had not spoken with Monfils–decided the tape could be released.
Public outrage over Monfils’ death prompted important changes in the law. The Wisconsin Legislature quickly amended its open-records act. The “Monfils Law” tightened security for records whose release could pose a danger to someone. And the federal court ruling that arose from his family’s lawsuit said that police can be forced to pay damages for endangering the life of an anonymous informer.
The Green Bay police did not kill Monfils, but they “created the danger” that led to his death, said the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. At a minimum, Americans have “a right not to be placed at harm” by their own police force, it concluded.
System Is Not Perfect
As a general matter, police say, they always strive to protect informers. California law, for example, says that crime reports, if released, should not include “the name, address, phone number and statements of a confidential witness [or] information that would endanger a witness.”
But as the Monfils murder and other cases show, the system is not perfect.
Last December, a San Bernardino County jury handed down a $5-million verdict against the city of Ontario over the death of 16-year-old Christopher Mancha.
In November 1992, the same month Monfils was murdered, Ontario police went to the home of Sandra Mancha and her son to investigate a burglary. When pressed, Christopher admitted he had seen a familiar car in front of the house.
After a lab technician promised him confidentiality, Christopher said it was the car of Richard Salazar, a neighborhood gang member. When a detective later questioned Salazar, she told him Christopher had identified him as the burglar.
“Within 24 hours, he was dead,” said Marina R. Dini, a Los Angeles lawyer who represented the family. The boy was shot five times and run over by a car; Salazar was convicted of the crime and sent to prison for life.