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.
For the past eight years, Blaine resident Joan Treppa has been crusading for the release of five Wisconsin men who she felt were wrongfully convicted for the 1992 death of a co-worker.
Treppa wrote “Reclaiming Lives: Pursuing Justice for Six Innocent Men,” which American Book Fest recently recognized as the best book for 2017 in the category of True Crime: Non-Fiction.
The book centers around the death of Tom Monfils and the convictions of six men, but it also raises awareness that there are many innocent men and women behind bars.
One life sentence was overturned well before Treppa became involved and another man was released a few months ago due to poor health, but four of the “Monfils Six” are still serving life sentences.
“This was a wrong that still needs to be set right,” Treppa said.
“The book was to tell the story of what I call the collateral damage of wrongful convictions, which is the wrongfully accused, their families and loved ones,” she said. “I felt it was time that their voices be heard because as soon as you’re sent to prison nobody listens to you anymore. My role has been to be an outside voice for these people.”
Treppa self-published the book, which can be purchased through Amazon.
The Monfils case
Tom Monfils, 35, was found dead on Nov. 21, 1992, in a pulp vat at the James River mill in Green Bay, Wisconsin. A weight was tied around his neck and investigators said his body had also been beaten.
Six men were arrested April 12, 1995, more than two years after Monfils died. They were all charged with first-degree murder. They were tried and sentenced later that year to life in prison.
Senior federal U.S. District Court Judge Myron Gordon in 2001 ruled that the evidence against Mike Piaskowski was insufficient to sustain a conviction and he was released from prison five-and-a-half years after his conviction.
Dale Basten, 76, was granted parole in September 2017 due to poor health and he is now in an assisted living facility in Wisconsin.
Michael Hirn, 53, Michael Johnson, 70, Keith Kutzka, 66, and Reynold Moore, 71, are now in four separate medium-security prisons in Wisconsin, Treppa said.
Denis Gullickson and John Gaie wrote “The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men” in 2009. Treppa could not just put the book down and forget what she had read.
As a child, Treppa was the frequent victim of bullies. While she was reading Gullickson’s book, she felt the legal system that strives for fair and balanced judgment had bullied these six blue-collar men by selectively highlighting facts that built the case against these men while leaving out other information that may have left reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors.
“These men were labeled as murderers and union thugs without people knowing the real facts,” she said.
Treppa became involved with the Minnesota Innocence Project, which strives to free the wrongfully convicted. The national non-profit organization, Innocence Project, was founded in 1992.
The National Registry of Exonerations reports 2,145 exonerations and more than 18,750 years lost on its website. Eyewitness misidentification, false confessions and misapplications of forensic science are the leading reasons why innocent people are sent to prison.
Kutska was granted an evidentiary hearing in a Wisconsin courtroom in 2015. His attorneys wanted to present a theory that Monfils had committed suicide.
James Bayorgeon, the Wisconsin judge who heard the original cases in 1995, came out of retirement to hear the new information and decided that a new trial would not be granted for Kutzka.
The case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the highest court decided in October 2017 that it would not hear Kutska’s appeal.
Treppa was not surprised that the U.S. Supreme Court. It only hears 100 to 150 of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review each year.
But she was frustrated that Bayorgeon did not grant a new trial and believed he had made up his mind in advance.
“His demeanor, his body language, his attitude just told me he wasn’t going to do anything for Keith Kutska,” Treppa said.
Treppa said a jury should have heard from Cal Monfils*, Tom’s younger brother, that the knot of the rope tied around Tom Monfils was a knot that Monfils had learned in the Coast Guard. Cal Monfils* had informed the lead detective, Randy Winkler, of this in 1992.
Kutzka’s team tried to discredit Winkler’s integrity in this investigation. One woman testified that when she was a child, Winkler had forced her father to sign a statement saying he had witnessed a confrontation between Monfils and Kutzka. Otherwise, she would be turned over the social services. The woman testified in court in 2015 that this had happened, but Winkler denied on the stand that this happened.
Another item that Bayorgeon would not admit as new evidence in consideration of a new trial was a forensic pathologist’s testimony that the coroner could not have determined whether Monfils had been murdered or killed himself based on the condition of the body.
Blaine classroom visit
Sketch artists are sometimes used by the police when they are looking for a suspect that they do not have a photo of and relied on eyewitnesses to describe this person.
While this is only one piece of the puzzle the police use to catch a suspect, Treppa illustrated how dangerous it can be to rely on it.
During a visit last year to a Blaine High School criminal justice class, Treppa showed an FBI sketch artist rendering of the man who detonated a truck bomb outside a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, which killed 168 people and injured more than 680.
Treppa put this sketch art between two photos of military service members and asked the students to identify the correct photo of the man responsible for the bombing. About two-thirds of the students pointed the finger at the wrong man, who just happens to be Treppa’s son. None of the students had been born at the time of the bombing, or whenTimothy McVeigh was executed in 2001.
But back in 1995 when the news media showed the artist rendering before McVeigh was positively identified, some of Treppa’s friends and family called her to say the sketch resembled her son, who at the time of the bombing was serving in the military in California. They of course knew he was innocent, but Treppa dreads to think that her son could have somehow been dragged into the investigation had he been serving on an Oklahoma base in April 1995.
It is impossible to know how many innocent people are in prison. Treppa asked the Blaine High School class for their best guesses and one student believed there was one innocent person for every 10 people in prison.
“With a prison population of 2.4 million in this country that could be as many as 200,000 (innocent) people in prison. That’s a lot of people,” she said. “And a lot of them will never be heard.”
*The article originally said “Ken” Monfils, but this is incorrect. Tom Monfils’ brother’s name is Cal Monfils.
New book highlights ‘Monfils 6’ caseMarisa DeCandido, 10:50 PM, Aug 16, 2017 http://www.nbc26.com/news/new-book-highlights-monfils-6-case GREEN BAY, Wis. – More than two decades after Tom Monfils was murdered at a Green Bay paper mill, a new book has been released about the convicted killers and their next steps to get out of prison. The author of the book, titled Reclaiming Lives: Pursuing Justice for Six Innocent Men, said she believes she’s standing up for what’s right.”I was in disbelief that there could be innocent people in prison and I couldn’t stand back and just let it happen,” said author Joan Trepa.One of the men convicted, Keith Kutska, is taking his case through the courts. The next step for him is the U.S. Supreme Court.
Kutska and five others, known as the “Monfils 6,” were convicted of the 1992 murder of Tom Monfils, their co-worker at a Green Bay paper plant. Monfils’ body was found in a paper vat. Kutska is currently serving a life sentence.
Another one of the convicted men has been released.