An article about citizen advocate Joan Treppa and the path that lead to her involvement in the Monfils Case.
Walking Without ‘Treppa-dation’
By Denis Gullickson
What can one person accomplish?
A whole lot, if you follow the story of Joan Treppa — a story of determined footsteps that have led to miles of success.
Let’s start with the recent “Walk for Truth and Justice” at the Brown County Courthouse on Saturday, October 25. That walk — the fifth annual — was first held in 2010 to commemorate the October 28, 1995-evening when participants say wrongful convictions were delivered in the Monfils murder trial.
The Locatelli family filled a picture as well as a room. Joan Locatelli, front and center, had a lot of trials and tribulations awaiting her, before she would come to the realization as an adult that ‘my mission in life must be to provide a voice of hope for those who are forgotten as well as a voice of inspiration for all others to remember.’ Photo courtesy of Joan Treppa.
While that event represented a mere half-mile of the walking Treppa has done during her involvement in the Monfils case, there have been countless more miles crisscrossing Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Add in the miles driven between Blaine, MN, where Treppa lives, and Titletown — and you’ve got the expedition of a sojourner on a mighty mission.The even-more recent filing of a 152-page motion for new trials on behalf of the five men who remain incarcerated for the murder of Tom Monfils, suggests that those miles are beginning to pay off.
That motion was filed in Brown County Court by Attorney Steve Kaplan of the Minnesota law firm of Fredrikson and Byron in conjunction with the Minnesota and Wisconsin Innocence Projects and several private attorneys across the Badger State.
Growing Up in the UP
Let’s shoot back to the beginning, where this journey began. Things weren’t so easy for Joan. Born in Laurium, MI — home of the legendary “Gipper” — on September 28, 1958, she was the thirteenth of sixteen “Locatelli kids.”
Laurium is a small town located in the heart of Upper Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. Today, its population is just under 2,000 after climaxing at 8,500+ in 1910 in the midst of a shipping, logging and copper mining boom.
Indeed, Laurium was once the home of many wealthy members of Keweenaw society. The vast majority of structures standing today were constructed during its heyday between 1880 and 1915 and its population has been tumbling ever since. In 1960, it was just over 3,000.
While Joan’s father was — by all outward appearances — a successful local businessman, things weren’t all that tidy or successful at home. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom, said Joan, who ran things “like a demilitarized boot camp or something similarly chaotic.
“I remember feeling alone and lost and I don’t remember experiencing much in the way of individuality, ever. An adequate amount of nurturing was uncommon and was replaced by insecurity and fear.
“We comprised a body of sixteen siblings from a single set of parents. Mom addressed us as ‘you kids,’ always lumping us together as one entity so no matter who was caught doing what, it always became a collective matter and we were all punished.”
As radio personality and “technical engineer,” her father helped start one of the first radio stations in “Copper Country” — WMPL (Miller, Paulson and Locatelli). “The radio station is still in existence in Hancock, MI,” said Joan. “My dad was the sole owner by the time it was sold in 1969 to the present owner.”
While resources were often tight, music was one means for members of the Locatelli brood to distinguish themselves. “My parents both played musical instruments. Mom played the piano and dad played the clarinet and violin. Most of us kids either played an instrument in band or sang in the high school choir. I was in the choir.”
Winters were harsh in Laurium and the walks home after school or choir practice were especially bone-chilling. At Catholic grade school, Joan was bullied incessantly for her tattered clothes — the girls there chanting “cat got your tongue?” when she shut down; at home, she disappeared beneath the bedlam of a jam-packed household. Her father was usually gone; her mother was typically frustrated and overwhelmed.
In 1969, when Joan was just eleven, her father abandoned his family — not that things were good before that. “The years leading up to that time became a public display of marital disagreements between my parents.”
The divorce became final in 1972.
“There were eight of us kids still at home and things really went downhill when dad finally left. We didn’t know whether to feel relief that the fighting had stopped or sadness because of my dad’s absence. Mom went between fits of rage over the separation and deep depression and the house became a hoarder’s paradise. We pretty much raised ourselves from then on.
“My older brothers and sisters whom we all relied upon for both emotional support as well as everyday physical needs had all graduated from high school and gone on to find their own way in the world. It was hard for them to come back into the dismal atmosphere after they had, as we all now say, ‘escaped.”
Joan’s own “escape” wasn’t far off. She started her freshman year at Calumet High School in 1972, but dropped out after becoming pregnant at age 15 in January, 1974. Her son, Jared Manninen, was born on September 10, 1974. “I blame my early pregnancy (with a man seven years older than me) on looking for “love” from that father figure,” she said.
“I kept silent, rendering myself helpless in my defense and all the while, no one came to my aid until the damage was done.
I struggled with feeling different, left out, left behind and forgotten and as a result, much of my young adult life consisted of a myriad of misguided mishaps.
“Life overall seemed to be one struggle after another even though there were little intervals of victories along the way. The insecurities I experienced vastly outweighed any accomplishments so the euphoria did not have a lasting effect on my overall mental health.”
Eventually, she attended night classes at Houghton High, earning her diploma in the spring of 1979. Having endured much by age twenty-one, Joan was taking steps forward. “My son Jared was 5 years old at the time,” she said. “I was starting to come out of my shell and feeling good about this accomplishment.”
A Better Direction
With a new-found bounce in her stride, Joan looked toward college. “I attended Suomi College (now Finlandia College), a two-year community college in Hancock, MI from 1980-1 and received an associate’s degree in Human Services.
“I took a journalism course and wrote poems for the school newsletter. I graduated with honors and was recognized for my life experiences as a non-traditional student. I also volunteered at a 24-hour, phone-line crisis center called Dial Help, all the while being a single mom. But I was surviving and making more friends that I could relate to.”
Dial Help turned out to be a two-way street as Joan stepped further and further away from the lonesome corners of her past.
“There was only one volunteer to man the phones for each eight hour shift. Calls came in occasionally and covered everything from suicide, sexual assault and drug abuse to individuals who were just lonely.”
Helping others helped Joan. At Dial Help, she also met Mike Treppa.
“Mike and I both worked at Dial Help as volunteers. Mike volunteered for about a year and I was there for three years. For me, this opportunity was in direct line with the type of classes I was taking in college, so I felt it was a crucial experience. For Mike, it was a way to help people but without having to commit too much time or energy so he could focus mainly on school.”
The connection was more than just a common cause found on a phone line.
“Mike and I each had a sense for reading people’s emotions and it was intuitive for us to be able to reach them and help them deal with more underlying issues. Our personalities were and are very similar in our desire to help people. I began to appreciate the talents I had.”
Mike and Joan met at a volunteer meeting in the summer of 1983. They started dating when they reconnected at a Christmas Party at the home of a Dial Help volunteer.
“It was our first chance to really get to know each other. I was a local who knew the area so I was a designated driver for that evening for the college students working at Dial Help. Mike made sure that he was one of my passengers on the drive home after the party. While dropping him off, my car broke down in front of his apartment!
“He felt sorry for me so after helping me get my car situation under control, he took me out to meet some his friends who were in the midst of an evening get together. We started dating regularly after that. It was a big deal that someone like Mike thought of me as a worthy companion.”
Soon, Joan’s path took a dramatic turn. The two dated “on and off” for about eighteen months; Mike was wrapping up his senior year at Michigan Tech with a schedule that was hectic and overwhelming with little time for romance. “However, we knew we were meant for each other and had already discussed the idea of marriage,” Joan said, “But there were details to be worked out and Mike had to find a job.”
The next steps were especially delicate.
“Jared was excited about moving and about Mike being his new dad. Mike found a job in Minnesota when he graduated in November of 1984 so he moved there first to find a place for us to live.
“At that time I was on public assistance and working part time as a housekeeper at a hotel. I quit my job and Jared and I were on our way to Minnesota in January. Jared and I both believed that when Mike left for Minnesota, he would be back to claim us. Mike and I got married seven months later, on August 17, 1985.”
Joan’s social worker at the time predicted failure when Joan told her she was pulling up stakes and taking steps in a brand new direction. “Why bother?” Joan remembered the worker asking, “You know it isn’t going to work out anyway!”
A Detroit native, Mike’s mother insisted on paying for a ceremony at the same downtown church where she and her mother had been married. “It was the wedding of my dreams since my first marriage was through a Justice of the Peace,” said Joan. It “laid the ground for a total shift in my whole disposition and having the support of a loving husband caused so many things inside of me to blossom.”
To visit the Treppa’s in suburban Blaine, MN is to visit a modern couple. Urbane, successful, intelligent, aware — Mike and Joan complement one another and their marriage is reflective of individual passions forming synergy.
There is more than three-hundred and fifty miles separating Joan’s life today and her Laurium-childhood. It’s a distance she’s walked and, sometimes, ran. A distance marked by doubt and darkness. A distance broken by unanticipated pregnancies and broken-down automobiles.
Mike, an engineering supervisor, tends to his vegetable garden — keeping the rabbits and deer at bay while Joan puts the finishing touches on her blog for the day. They have embraced the verve of the Twin Cities.
Joan is a “packing assistant” for “Gentle Transitions” helping elderly folks pack up their belongings and transition to a new residence. “When we are finished,” Joan said, “the client has a new dwelling that is all stocked, organized and ready to move in.”
In 2009, this writer and coauthor, John Gaie, published “The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men” after eight years reinvestigating the death of Tom Monfils and the resulting arrests, trial and convictions.
This writer recalls one of the early public meetings regarding the Monfils case and meeting Joan and Mike, afterward. While that introduction was cordial enough and Joan expressed her dismay at the injustice represented in this case, no one could have expected what came next. Or next. Or next.
Joan’s interest in the case prompted questions and phone conversations and emails and more questions and boxes of copies of the book — which she then sold or put in the hands of everyone willing to give her a minute. She stopped at schools and talked to principals, churches where she bent the ear of ministers, law firms where she buttonholed anyone who’d glanced her way.
One take on the Monfils case kept her moving: “Since I was bullied as a child, I viewed this case as a big bullying campaign and was compelled to defend those whom I saw as victims of the same … I have very little patience for those who mimic the bullies in grade school. When I see treatment of others similar to how I was treated back then, there are no restraints that will hold me back from coming to their aid.”
A copy of “The Monfils Conspiracy” was never out of reach. A year into selling and distributing books, Joan made a chance acquaintance — at her own mailbox. That meeting would lead to the involvement of a crack private investigator in the case.
“It was summer and I was grabbing my mail when the neighbor pulled up next to the mailboxes to get his. Johnny Johnson was in the passenger seat. I started talking about the book and the case and Johnny was intrigued. It turned out that he is a retired Veteran with a 30-year career in law enforcement and private investigative work. This idea of wrongful convictions was new to him but he bought a book from me and read it three times.
“He wanted to get involved when he learned that the exoneree [Mike Piaskowski] was also a Vet. He wanted more info, so I introduced him to the authors and the exoneree. He was convinced that this was a travesty and an affront to what he stood for in his 30 years. So we decided that he would investigate this case even further and I would be his assistant.”
Together, the duo compiled “a mountain” of documentation about the case and went searching for legal help. That brought them to an annual benefit for the Minnesota Innocence Project. There, Johnson met Kaplan, who was very sympathetic to the victims of wrongful convictions and who had just completed a case involving Damon Thibodeaux, the 300th DNA exoneree. At the same time, Joan made a connection with Audrey Edmunds, another Wisconsin exoneree.
At a book signing Joan hosted at her home for Edmunds, Joan asked Kaplan about who could help with the Monfils case. At Kaplan’s suggestion, Joan and Johnny found their way to the offices of Fredrikson and Byron, where Kaplan was in the process of retiring. The person they were scheduled to meet with was ill. However, Joan wasn’t leaving “until we talked to someone, so we asked for Steve.”
During a three-hour meeting, Kaplan expressed profound interest in the case and promised to look at that mountain of paperwork Johnson had brought with him. Kaplan, had also promised his wife a vacation to mark his retirement, Joan recalled. “Upon returning, Steve went back to the firm and has since worked on this case full time for twenty months.”
A Motion Filed
On Friday, October 31st, Kaplan filed his motion for new trials in the Monfils case. Joan Treppa’s journey had hit a major milestone.
It was, she said, reflective of her “innate sense of independence and ability to lead, things that were surreptitiously rooted in my character all along … there really was nothing that set me apart from the other kids all along except that I allowed debilitating emotions to control my life.“Even though I am humble, I accept the idea that I have the capacity to inspire and the ability to be a strong leader. I am able to maintain an irrefutable amount of strength and perseverance in the face of adversity and I am intent on using those talents to help mend the lives of others less fortunate.”
Surely Joan didn’t do this alone; there have been innumerable hours turned in by dozens of others. A phone call by Madison attorney Ed Garvey to the Wisconsin Innocence Project … thirteen years of effort by exoneree Mike Piaskwoski … hundreds of hours of work by this writer and coauthor John Gaie … marches, meetings and fundraisers by the “Family and Friends of Six Innocent Men” group … and untold steps by various attorneys and innocence groups.
Still, Joan Treppa’s impact cannot be underestimated. A journey of thousand miles, as they say, begins with a single footstep. Early footfalls may have been those of a lonely girl bracing herself against the cold winds off of Lake Superior, the bullying of other kids in a small town and the emotional ravages of a dysfunctional family. Today, however, Joan’s pace is strong, purposeful and amazingly effective.
Kaplan is under no delusions about the uphill battle facing this most-recent effort on behalf of the six former paper mill workers who remain incarcerated in Wisconsin prisons. The legal team he spearheads is pressing for new trials, which supporters believe will lead to findings of not guilty.
Until then, Joan Treppa will keep on walking — picking up fellow marchers along the way who are just as dedicated to the steps of truth and justice.
Denis Gullickson is an educator, speaker, farmer and horseman. He writes and lectures on these topics, as well as philosophy, history, football and Packers history. He talks about the Packers in Wisconsin Public Television’s “Hometown Stories — Green Bay.” His books include “Before They Were the Packers: Green Bay’s Town Team Days,” “Vagabond Halfback: The Life and Times of Johnny Blood McNally,” and “The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men.” He is currently working on a stage play on Johnny Blood as well as several book projects.
Cal Monfils finds it easier to believe his brother committed suicide in 1992 than thinking six guys murdered him in a Green Bay paper mill and kept quiet about it all these years.
“It’s almost more believable than that six guys kept a secret for 20 years for what they say was union brotherhood,” Monfils said.
A jury found otherwise in 1995, and the six men went to prison for conspiracy to murder Thomas Monfils at the then-James River Mill.
One of those men, Mike Piaskowski, has since been freed by a federal judge’s ruling that there had been insufficient evidence to convict him, but the other five continue to claim their innocence.
Police and prosecutors said the men, angry that Tom Monfils reported one for a petty theft at the mill, confronted him and beat him into unconsciousness. Then, afraid of losing their jobs, they tied a 40-pound weight to his neck with a jump rope Monfils used to use during breaks and threw him into a paper pulp vat. His body was recovered the next day.
Cal Monfils, 47, of Green Bay finds himself in the unusual position of having joined the defendants’ battle for freedom. Cal says he is at odds with most of his family on the issue, but he can’t swallow the notion the men are anything other than innocent.
“These six people, they all had children, houses, they held responsible jobs,” Monfils said. “It really makes no sense. It’s hard to believe someone could be in jail all these years, remaining quiet. … It’s a pretty weak glue that holds them together. Somebody would have cracked. Or told their wife or best buddy, and none of those came forward either.”
Back in the 1990s, when his brother’s death was an unsolved crime, police secretly recorded conversations, performed garbage searches and took a variety of other extreme measures, “and it all yielded nothing,” Cal Monfils said. “It kind of makes you think there was nothing.
“These guys would not have been sharp enough to throw off police so completely.”
Monfils said police even sent him undercover to talk to one of the defendants, Michael Hirn, in hope that Monfils would record him saying something incriminating.
“He said, ‘Cal, I don’t know what happened …. But the police have it wrong. We need to get the FBI in on this.’ And his family did contact the FBI, because they felt the police were heading in the wrong direction,” Cal Monfils said. “I’m not saying I believed him, but it raised doubt.”
That doubt has continued to grow, he said. He was unconvinced at the trial, unsurprised in 2001 when a federal judge threw out the case against defendant Mike Piaskowski, and found himself even more convinced after reading “The Monfils Conspiracy,” a book by two local authors that claims to reveal fatal errors in the police investigation of the case.
So, what does Cal Monfils think happened to his brother that November day in 1992? Monfils finds himself leaning to the latest defense theory, pitched by lawyers from the Minnesota Innocence Project, that Tom Monfils killed himself.
“It’s my brother, and I don’t want to say that, but it’s a possibility,” Monfils said. “I feel bad for his wife, his kids and everybody if it happened that way, but it sure would be terrible to have six lives put away for nothing.”
Tom Monfils’ widow, Susan, originally told family members she thought Tom had committed suicide, Cal Monfils said.
That information had never been shared with the defendants, their lawyers or the jury, according to defense lawyers who have taken up the case for the five remaining defendants. Those lawyers claim in newly filed court documents that Tom Monfils was depressed and stressed from his troubled marriage and from realizing he was on the outs with co-workers for reporting the theft of a piece of extension cord by fellow union member Keith Kutska.
Cal Monfils won’t pretend to know what was on his brother’s mind, but “I also can’t say it didn’t happen.
“He was forever going to be the guy that made the call. He was going to be that guy.”
Cal Monfils accepts the claim by defense lawyers that investigators should have at least given credence to that theory back during the investigation and done psychological analysis. Those defense lawyers, who have mounted an effort to get a new trial for the men, claim the original defense lawyers were lulled into accepting a false conclusion by the medical examiner claiming that Tom Monfils was clearly murdered.
New defense lawyers now say independent medical experts dispute then-medical examiner Dr. Helen Young’s conclusion that injuries on Tom Monfils’ body happened before he died and before he was in the vat, indicating he was murdered. Those lawyers argue in court documents that their medical experts say the injuries more likely happened to Monfils’ body while inside the vat.
“If you get a diagnosis from a doctor, people will tell you to get a second opinion, yet they got one opinion from the coroner,” Cal Monfils said. “One person looked at the body.”
The lawyers of the Minnesota Innocence Project, who took up the case after friends of the authors of “The Monfils Conspiracy” shared the book with contacts in the Minneapolis area, recently filed a motion with the Brown County Clerk of Court’s office asking to vacate the convictions “in the interest of justice.”
The case was automatically assigned to Circuit Court Branch VI, the branch presided over by Judge John Zakowski, who was the district attorney prosecuting the case when the six men were convicted in 1992.
“I could have taken care of it in 10 minutes,” joked Zakowski this week. Zakowski took himself off the new case, which was then reassigned to another branch.
Defending the convictions
Zakowski continues to defend the convictions, as he has done during appeals processes through the years and upon the publishing of “The Monfils Conspiracy.” The book, done with Piaskowski’s help, claims police botched the investigation from the beginning and concocted the mill confrontation between Monfils and the six defendants.
“That’s how far we’ve come — now the argument is he wasn’t even murdered,” Zakowski said of the latest defense gambit. “It’s just ridiculous.”
Zakowski said he hasn’t yet read the new 140-plus page motion for new trial but read a recent news story about it.
Monfils’ autopsy in fact revealed something like 13 areas of bruising and injury, some of which happened before death and some after, Zakowski said.
“There were too many bruises and in too many areas where it wasn’t physically possible that it happened to him down in the vat,” Zakowski said.
Bruising doesn’t take place after a person’s heart stops beating, and Monfils’ body did have plenty of injuries that weren’t accompanied by bruising, Zakowski said. But Monfils would not have survived long enough in the vat to have accumulated as much bruising as he had, so physical evidence clearly indicated “he was beaten up before going into the vat,” Zakowski said.
Zakowski recalled his closing argument at the trial, in which he held up a diagram of the autopsy and told the jury, “Tom Monfils is talking to us; his body is providing evidence. He’s saying, ‘Look at me, Look at what they did, I didn’t do this to myself.'”
Zakowski said he’d be surprised if a judge grants the defendants a new trial.
“Everything else has been argued ad nauseam. The physical evidence speaks for itself. It’s a very weak argument.”
The request for new trial has been transferred to Brown County Judge Thomas Walsh. No date has been established for consideration.
- Michael Hirn, 50, imprisoned at Fox Lake Correctional Institution, was denied parole for the fourth time May 2014, and will be up for reconsideration in January.
- Michael Johnson, 67, imprisoned at Jackson Correctional Institution, and Rey Moore, 67, in Oshkosh, were denied parole in February and are eligible again next February.
- Dale Basten, 73, had waived his first parole hearing in 2012 but reapplied for consideration. He visited with a member of the parole board last month and was referred to the full board for review. No date was established.
- Keith Kutska, 63, imprisoned at Jackson, will get his first consideration for parole in April.
An article that was written by the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel regarding the 10/30/14 motion filed for a retrial of Kieth Kutska due to new evidence that puts into question the plausibility that Tom Monfils was murdered.
Keith Kutska was convicted of dumping him in Green Bay pulp vat in 1992
By Gina Barton of the Journal Sentinel
Here is what the jury heard, from both the prosecution and the defense:
Someone murdered Tom Monfils at the James River Paper Mill in Green Bay on Nov. 21, 1992. The killer — or killers — beat him, tied a 49-pound weight to his neck with a jump rope and dumped him, incapacitated, into a 20,000-gallon vat of churning pulp.
The only open question during the 1995 trial was this: Who did it?
Prosecutors blamed “an angry mob” of co-workers, led by Keith Kutska. Monfils had called the police on Kutska for taking an electrical cord from the plant without permission. Kutska got a copy of the 911 call, then he and the others confronted Monfils near a drinking fountain, and things got out of hand. They beat him, the prosecution argued at trial, and when they realized he was near death, they disposed of him in the vat.
Defense attorneys conceded that Monfils had been murdered. Their assertion was simply this: Kutska and his co-workers didn’t kill Monfils. It must have been someone else.
Although there were admitted gaps in the prosecution’s case — including no evidence of a beating near the water fountain and no eyewitnesses — the jury convicted Kutska and five others of killing Monfils. All of them were sentenced to life in prison.
Now, almost 22 years after Monfils’ death, a Minnesota lawyer is asking a judge to let a new set of jurors hear a new set of facts. Attorney Steven Z. Kaplan filed a motion Friday seeking to overturn Kutska’s conviction, asserting that justice demands it.
While some of the arguments in the motion have been put forward in previous appeals and even at trial, Kaplan and his partner John Lundquist, with assistance from Madison attorney John Bradley and the Minnesota Innocence Project, have uncovered documentation never before brought into court that they say bolsters their claims.
According to the motion, here is what the jury didn’t hear:
- In the days before he died, Monfils was struggling in his marriage, with no one to talk to about the fear his co-workers would find out about his 911 call. He may have been suicidal — and according to newly retained experts, suicide was a possible cause of death.
- Witnesses against Kutska contended their testimony was coerced by Detective Randy Winkler, who was later accused of fraud and irrational behavior by the Green Bay Police Department.
- A man who provided crucial testimony for the prosecution was serving a 10-year sentence for killing his brother, but got out of prison seven years early after he testified against Kutska and the other mill workers. In approving a sentence reduction for the man, the judge cited his cooperation.
One of Kutska’s co-defendants, Mike Piaskowski, won an appeal and was let out of prison in 2001. Because all six defendants were tried together, his exoneration led the others to believe they would soon be freed as well.
Different judges at both the state and federal level have since declined to overturn the convictions of the other men. At this point, Kutska’s odds of prevailing are long.
“We have no illusions about the resistance that we are about to confront. But this case merits our best efforts,” said Kaplan, of the Minneapolis firm Fredrikson & Byron, who is working on the case for free.
The medical examiner who worked on Monfils’ case has since died. The primary witness against Kutska recanted his testimony in an interview with one of Kaplan’s colleagues, the attorney says. But about a month later, as the lawyer drove to his home to have him sign a sworn statement, the witness, who had cancer, suffered medical complications and died.
“It’s been hard,” said Kutska’s son, Clayton Kutska, 42. “I’ve hoped, ever since the jury came out of deliberations, that somehow, somebody would say, ‘This isn’t right, and somebody’s got to fix this.’ But the police and prosecutors haven’t done that.”
While Monfils’ brother and dozens of stalwart supporters believe Kutska and the others are innocent, the dead man’s wife, the detective who investigated the case and the district attorney who prosecuted it — now a judge — still believe the six men are guilty.
Bruce Bachhuber, longtime attorney for Monfils’ widow, said it was “ridiculous” to contend Monfils had committed suicide.
“Think about how outrageous these theories are. He gets caught at work on this tape and this was enough to have him abandon his wife and his two little children to tie a 49-pound weight around his neck and dive into a pulp vat within 15 minutes of this confrontation?” Bachhuber said. “There’s absolutely no indication of him having that kind of a mental state.”
Winkler, now retired from the Police Department, laughed at the suicide theory. He denied the allegations that he badgered witnesses to lie, saying Kutska’s attorneys were trying to use him as a distraction instead of accepting what really happened.
“I definitely believe the jury was correct with their verdict on all six defendants,” Winkler told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We put up all the evidence that was available, and that’s what convicted them, not a theory and not trying to put words in any witness’ mouth.”
The 1995 Trial
Some of the facts presented at the 1995 trial are not in dispute:
The saga began when Monfils saw Kutska cut a 16-foot piece of electrical cord from a spool in a recycling bin at the paper mill. Before taking it home, Kutska was supposed to get permission from his bosses. But he didn’t.
Monfils anonymously called the police, who in turn called the security director at the plant. As Kutska was leaving work that day, a guard asked for permission to search his bag. When Kutska refused, he was suspended for five days without pay.
It took more than a week, but Kutska got a copy of the 911 tape from the Green Bay Police Department — despite numerous desperate calls from Monfils begging them not to release it. If the tape got out, Monfils said, he was afraid of what Kutska and the others would do.
Kutska immediately recognized Monfils’ voice on the recording. When Kutska went back to work, he played the tape for Monfils and their co-workers.
His plan, Kutska has always contended, was to file a union grievance against Monfils and try to have him fired.
Less than an hour later, Monfils disappeared. After more than 40 hours of searching, his body was found at the bottom of the vat.
Last year, Kaplan was inspired to revisit the case after reading the 2009 book “The Monfils Conspiracy,” in which Piaskowski’s former brother-in-law and a co-author argue that all six men are innocent.
Since then, Kaplan and his colleagues have uncovered numerous pieces of information that convinced them Kutska should be set free.
The first, they say, is the possibility that Monfils committed suicide.
At the time of Monfils’ death, police didn’t entertain that prospect for very long. That’s because Helen Young, the medical examiner on the case, concluded that Monfils suffered a brutal beating before he died.
Many of his injuries, which included a fractured skull as well as bruising to the neck, chest and abdomen, could not have occurred after death and could not have been caused by anything inside the vat, Young concluded.
Neither Kutska’s trial attorney, his previous appeals attorneys or the attorneys for his co-defendants hired an outside expert to challenge that contention.
“Defense counsel made the uninformed and catastrophically prejudicial concession of an essential element of the charge — that Monfils had been beaten and murdered as Dr. Young and the prosecution contended,” Kutska’s motion says.
Earlier this year, a group of experts in the pathology department at the University of North Dakota’s medical school, who reviewed the case at the request of Kutska’s attorneys, contradicted Young’s findings. Monfils’ death was either homicide or suicide, they said, but there was no way to be sure which.
Monfils’ injuries, they contend, could have resulted from his body being smashed against the walls of the vat or sucked toward the spinning propeller-like blades at the bottom of it. His unconscious body could have been thrown into the vat. Or he could have lowered himself in, securing the weight to his neck to be sure he drowned in the liquid pulp.
“We do not feel that ANY injury can be conclusively labeled as occurring before entry into the vat,” they wrote. “…Thus, the manner of death is undetermined since both manners — suicide and homicide — could have occurred based on the information provided.”
Young died in 2007.
Monfils had previously been treated for depression, two of his former co-workers at the paper mill told Kutska’s lawyers. Suicide is a possibility his brother, Cal Monfils, finds more and more likely as time goes by, according to a sworn affidavit he gave Kutska’s attorneys in September.
“In the end, when Kutska showed up at work with the tape, you can only imagine how Tom felt,” Cal Monfils wrote. “I don’t believe Tom had a supportive wife to turn to and he had to feel very betrayed by the Green Bay Police Department for giving out the tape, and now everyone at the mill knowing he made the call.”
The knots used to attach the weight to the jump rope resembled those Monfils learned to tie during a stint as a diver in the U.S. Coast Guard, according to Cal Monfils. And although nobody believed her at the time, Susan Monfils told relatives she suspected he had committed suicide, according to the affidavit.
Susan Monfils could not be reached. At the time of her husband’s death, their daughter was 11 and their son was 9.
In 1997, she won a $2 million judgment against the City of Green Bay after a jury determined police were negligent in providing Kutska with the 911 tape. In the civil case, she testified that before she and Tom left for work on the morning of his disappearance, they made plans to go to the movies that night.
“And he gave me a kiss goodbye,” she said. “He always kissed me on the neck before he left in the morning. And I told him I loved him and he left for work.”
The motion filed Friday argues Young’s conclusion that Monfils’ death was unequivocally a homicide led Winkler, who was in charge of the investigation, to do everything he could to prove that theory, rather than following the facts wherever they led.
Former prosecutor John P. Zakowski, now a Brown County circuit judge, did not return a telephone call Friday. In response to a previous appeal filed by two of Kutska’s co-defendants, Zakowski said the issues regarding Winkler’s investigative techniques were raised at trial and considered by the jury.
“A significant amount of mud was thrown at Winkler from the onset of trial,” Zakowski wrote in 1997.
Winkler said Friday he did not coerce statements, but rather became aggressive in his questioning if he felt potential witnesses were lying or holding back.
Although several people were around at the time and place police believe a beating occurred, no one said they saw a fight, the detective testified at Kutska’s trial. There was no physical evidence, such as blood, in the area.
The strongest evidence against Kutska, Winkler testified, came two years after Monfils’ death, from one of Kutska’s friends at the mill, Brian Kellner.
As Kellner and Kutska were working on a truck together, Kutska dropped a tool, which hit Kellner on the head, according to a written statement Kellner signed after questioning by Winkler in November 1994. Kutska laughed and made a joke about a “Monfils lump,” the statement says.
“That was before the autopsy was released,” Winkler said Friday.
As it turned out, Monfils had a huge bump on his head in the same spot, Winkler said. But the skin was not broken, the detective said, which explained the absence of blood.
Another key portion of Kellner’s statement described a drunken re-enactment of Monfils’ murder by Kutska and a bartender at the Fox Den tavern, reportedly witnessed by Kellner.
However, before Kellner signed the affidavit, “Winkler had interrogated him for about eight hours and threatened him with ‘loss of my job, losing my children and being put in jail,'” according to Kutska’s appeal.
As the 1995 trial approached, Kellner contradicted the police statement, telling Kutska’s attorney that Kutska had not acted out a scene, but only tossed out different theories of what might have happened to Monfils. The same was true of the conversation while working on the truck, Kellner said.
Also in the run-up to the trial, Kellner told the prosecution he was not comfortable with portions of the statement Winkler wrote up.
Kellner’s wife at the time, Verna Irish, backed part of the story, saying she remembered some sort of role-playing, but was fuzzy on the details because she had been drinking.
Irish told a defense investigator that Winkler fed her the names in her statement and threatened her with arrest if she did not confirm his theory that Kutska was the leader of a murderous mob.
At trial, she testified that she did not know what was in the statement.
Both the bartender and her husband testified they had neither seen nor participated in any re-enactment.
Days before Kellner was set to take the witness stand, he got a call saying his children had been picked up from school by child welfare officials investigating allegations of abuse. Winkler, the detective, brought the children home around 4 p.m., saying he had picked them up from child protective services.
“Kellner knew that was a lie,” the new appeal says. “Nonetheless, the incident made Winkler’s threats believable to him.”
At a post-conviction motion hearing in 1997, Kellner testified the incident led him to believe he had no choice but to testify falsely.
“(Winkler said) if I was going to sit there and tell lies to him, that he would take steps to either have me locked up or take away my children, or get ahold of the mill and I would lose my job,” Kellner testified.
Earlier this year, just days before his death, Kellner told one of Kutska’s lawyers “that the Fox Den Bar role-playing demonstration had never occurred, was entirely made up, and that Kutska had never discussed Monfils’ death at all that evening,” the motion says.
Kellner died before he could sign an affidavit swearing to the recantation.
In 1996, Winkler filed for worker’s compensation, claiming his work on the Monfils case caused him to suffer from anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
When city officials disputed the claim, Winkler harassed the woman handling it and made threats against her, according to a draft statement of department disciplinary charges filed against Winkler in 1997.
James Lewis, then Green Bay’s chief of police, characterized those actions and others — including insubordination, untruthfulness and abuse of authority — as “serious acts of misconduct,” according to the draft statement.
As the police chief tried to fire Winkler, prosecutors in the Monfils case continued to hold him up as an honest, diligent detective during appeals, according to the motion filed by Kutska’s attorneys.
“Despite his history of unethical, dishonest, abusive and outlandish conduct, the prosecution called Winkler to testify at a February 1997 post-conviction hearing to have him deny that he had ever coerced or threatened Kellner,” the motion says.
Later in 1997, Winkler reached an agreement with the city that allowed him to retire on duty disability, a safety net designed for police officers who suffer physical or psychological injuries on the job. As a result, he received annual payments of $60,000, tax-free. Under the agreement, the department stopped pursuing discipline against him.
Winkler told the Journal Sentinel the settlement prohibited him from going into detail about the disability claim, saying only he was facing extreme pressure not to cooperate in Susan Monfils’ civil case.
Winkler also said his psychological problems did not arise until after Kutska’s trial.
Initially, Kellner denied that Kutska had told him anything. But then the detective tricked him, saying he had a recording of the night at the bar. According to Winkler, Kellner’s face fell, and that’s when Kellner described the re-enactment.
“I used all the different techniques I knew at the time,” Winkler told the Journal Sentinel. “Sometimes I was nice, sometimes I would call them on their bluffs or on their lies, and sometimes that would come across as being a bully, but I was doing a homicide investigation. I wasn’t asking them casually about the weather. I was questioning them about a homicide.”
Because no one would testify to seeing Monfils beaten or thrown into the vat, and because there was no blood or other evidence near the water fountain where the alleged beating took place, prosecutors turned to mill worker David Wiener.
In March 1993, during the preliminary investigation into Monfils’ death, Wiener said he was in the break room with Kutska around the time Monfils disappeared. Kutska was in an “excellent” mood, Wiener said, and spent about 10 minutes showing Wiener entries in an employment manual that could be used as a basis for union sanctions against Monfils.
Wiener later said he had been mistaken about the time of that conversation, thus failing to provide Kutska with an alibi.
Two months later, hearing a name while drunk at a wedding reception triggered a “repressed memory,” Wiener told police, and he recalled seeing two of Kutska’s co-defendants walking through the plant, stooped over and facing each other as if they were carrying something.
“Because the ‘heavy or cumbersome’ object was presumably Monfils’ body, Wiener’s statement helpfully provided law enforcement with its first (and only) ‘eyewitness’ to any alleged act remotely consistent with homicide,” according to the appeal filed Friday.
Within months of telling the police about his repressed memory, Wiener, who had a history of anxiety that required medication, called his mother to say if he saw his brother at his house, he would shoot him, the appeal says.
His brother came over and kicked in the door. Wiener fatally shot him and was charged with first-degree reckless homicide. A jury convicted him of a lesser homicide charge.
Wiener told a newspaper reporter at the time he would not cooperate in the Monfils trial unless he got a deal in his own case. Later, as a prosecution witness at the Monfils trial, Wiener said he had not received any special consideration in exchange for his testimony.
If he actually did have a deal with the prosecution and the jury didn’t know about it, that in itself is a basis for overturning the convictions of Kutska and his co-defendants, the appeal argues.
Court records show Wiener’s sentence was reduced after Kutska’s trial.
In 1994, Wiener was sentenced to 10 years in his brother’s death. In May 1996, the sentence was reduced to eight years. The prosecution did not object.
In an order granting the reduction, the judge wrote: “It is in the public’s interest to reward cooperation with authorities so that others who possess valuable evidence are encouraged to come forward.”
In September 1996, Wiener was paroled after serving three years.
“The facts speak for themselves regarding the deal, arrangement, or wink-and-nod understanding — call it whatever one may — for Wiener’s testimony,” the appeal says.
Zakowski’s 1997 brief points out that although prosecutors did not oppose Wiener’s motion for a shorter sentence, they also did not file documents supporting it.
That’s because, before the criminal trial against Kutska and the other five men, Wiener already had testified about his repressed memory during a deposition in a civil case. If he had refused to cooperate at the trial, prosecutors simply could have read his deposition testimony to the jury, according to Zakowski’s brief.
“The point is this: No deal was made with David Wiener because there was no incentive or need for the state to make any deal with David Wiener,” Zakowski wrote.
Prosecutors also had the benefit of the defendants’ own testimony — which Bachhuber, the attorney for Monfils’ wife, said was clearly suspect.
“They all put themselves at Kutska’s paper machine at the same time, but claimed they didn’t see each other. It just became ridiculous,” he said. “It was so transparent it was ridiculous, and that’s what the jury clearly could see.”
Department of Corrections officials refused to allow the Journal Sentinel to interview Kutska, based on “the welfare of the victim, victim’s family or the community,” according to a spokeswoman.
Kutska and his family are holding onto the new hope they found when Kaplan, the Minnesota lawyer, and his colleagues agreed to take the case, said Kutska’s daughter-in-law, Brenda Kutska.
“That’s very heart-lifting that they’re looking into this, and somebody else sees that this is wrong — just like we do — but they know what to do to make it right,” she said.
The link below is a .pdf version of the entire 152-page motion filed on behalf of Keith Kutska for a retrial due to new evidence that casts doubt on the idea that Tom Monfils was murdered.
According to evidence presented in the motion, there is great probability that Tom Monfils actually commit suicide. This would’ve been in response to Keith Kutska confronting him about calling the Green Bay Police Department when Keith took a length of cable from their place of work, the James River Paper Mill, without filling out the proper requisition form.
Click the following link to view the pdf.
Rally held for men convicted in 1992 Monfils murder
Supporters of the men convicted in the 1992 murder of Thomas Monfils rallied at the Brown County Courthouse Saturday, buoyed by the hope that they can soon ask a judge to reconsider the case.
“The legal team has been working with witnesses and experts to prepare a motion showing why the men were wrongfully convicted,” said Denis Gullickson, who has written a book claiming that the six were wrongly convicted. “We expect that a motion will be filed with the court in the very near future and the reasons why the convictions were wrongful will then become clear.”
The six were convicted in 1995 in the killing of Monfils, who was a 35-year-old worker at what was then the James River Corp. paper mill when he was slain. Dale Basten, Michael Hirn, Michael Johnson, Keith Kutska and Rey Moore are serving time in state prison; Michael Piaskowski was freed in 2001 after his conviction was overturned when an appeals court found that there had been insufficient evidence to convict him.
Gullickson told about 40 people gathered outside the courthouse in twilight Saturday that a Minneapolis attorney and the Minnesota and Wisconsin Innocence projects are preparing a court filing on behalf of the men who remain in prison.
Supporters carried signs bearing slogans like “Walk for Truth, Walk for Justice,” and “Stand Witness to Innocence.” After listening to Gullickson and justice advocates Joan Treppa and Trudy Baltazar, they marched to Green Bay Police Department headquarters and back, chanting the name of each man followed by “not guilty!”
Police and prosecutors, however, have not wavered in their belief that the convicted men were involved in Monfils’ murder. Retired Detective Randy Winkler, who led the Green Bay Police Department’s investigation into the case, recently characterized Gullickson’s book and its claims that the men are innocent as “toilet paper.”
Monfils’ body was found in a pulp vat at the paper mill where he had worked for 10 years, a 45-pound weight around his neck. He died of suffocation and strangulation.
Prosecutors say the six men had confronted Monfils after Monfils told police that Kutska planned to steal electrical cable from the mill, and that one of the men struck Monfils in the head with a wrench or other blunt object. Jurors convicted the men in October 1995 after a six-week trial.