New legal team argues Monfils’ death was suicide
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.