Joan Treppa

Somewhere Between Hobby and Obsession: Monfils Case has Become Minneapolis Woman’s Life

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.

Blaine resident advocates for wrongfully convicted

Eric Hagen Staff Writer

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.

Treppa’s advocacy

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.

The article about Joan Treppa and her new book, “Reclaiming Lives: Pursuing Justice for Six Innocent Men,” as it originally appeared in print.

New book highlights ‘Monfils 6’ case

Marisa DeCandido, 10:50 PM, Aug 16, 2017

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 Treppa. 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.

How a Minnesota Woman Found Peace Crusading for 6 Murder Convicts (FOX 9: April 26, 2015)

A (Minneapolis) feature about the Monfils’ Case and Joan Treppa, the citizen advocate who has been working on it for the past six years.

By: Ted Haller

POSTED:APR 26 2015 09:07PM CDT

UPDATED:APR 26 2015 09:47PM CDT (There is a 10 minute video at the FOX 9 link)

This is the story of how the incarceration of 6 Wisconsin men brought freedom to a Blaine, Minn. woman named Joan Treppa.

More than two decades ago at the James River Paper Mill in Green Bay, a mill worker named Tom Monfils was found at the bottom of a vat, a jump rope tied around his neck and to a weight. Several days earlier, Monfils had called the police warning them that a coworker named Keith Kutska might retaliate if he found out about a 911 call he made.

This is the story of how the incarceration of 6 Wisconsin men brought freedom to a Blaine, Minn. woman named Joan Treppa.

More than two decades ago at the James River Paper Mill in Green Bay, a mill worker named Tom Monfils was found at the bottom of a vat, a jump rope tied around his neck and to a weight. Several days earlier, Monfils had called the police warning them that a coworker named Keith Kutska might retaliate if he found out about a 911 call he made.

In 2009, authors Denis Gullickson and John Gaie published “The Monfils Conspiracy,” arguing all 6 workers were innocent. This is where Treppa comes into the story. She started writing to the men. She even found Johnny Johnson, a retired investigator, who had just bought a motorhome with the intention of traveling the country. Instead, he’d travel to Green Bay and re-interview witnesses and gather evidence.

“There was merit in everything she said, and coupled with her ability to carry it emotionally, I was touched. I was convinced. I was convinced she knew something that she didn’t really know yet,” Johnson said.

Treppa wasn’t done. She convinced the Minneapolis firm Fredrikson and Byron to help. Attorney Steve Kaplan filed a 152-page brief arguing for Kutska to get a new trial. There were plenty of documents in his office and in Piaskowski’s basement. The brief’s main arguments are that the bruises and cuts on Monfils’ body came from the blades in the vat — not from any attack – and that the key witness recanted and Kutska’s alleged confession was fictitious. In addition, the brief claimed there were problems with the lead detective’s interrogations and the timeline. Most importantly, the brief claimed it was a suicide.

The brief brings up something never mentioned in the trial: Monfils was suicidal, mortified by his 911 call, and even left behind notes, an argument supported by Monfils’ own brother. Lawyers argue that Monfils was fascinated with drowning since his Coast Guard days where he learned to tie the knot found around his neck.

The state’s reply calls the brief “entertaining, arguably compelling” that “reads more like a well-written work of fiction,” which is a reminder that the future for these five men is still uncertain. As for the past, just a few years ago, before Treppa took up this cause, she was shy and afraid, lost in the mix as one of 13 siblings. Now, she only just realized why the 6 strangers in Green Bay were no strangers at all.

“Realistically, I could relate to people who’d been wrongfully convicted because those are the same characteristics they have. They feel lost in the mix, they feel left out, they feel forgotten,” Treppa said.

Now, thanks to the crusade, she found a new feeling: Hope, because there is one little girl who is now free.

Interview with Citizen Advocate Joan Treppa (March 9, 2015)

An audio interview between Charlotte View Internet Radio hosted on Blog Talk Radio and citizen advocate Joan Treppa and her work on The Monfils Case.

The episode is titled Charlotte View: Joan Treppa, the ‘Erin Brockovich’ of the Wrongfully Convicted.

Also featured on the program is private investigator Johnny Johnson and the step-daughter of Michael Johnson (one of the convicted men) Joan Van Houten.