Paul Srubas, Green Bay Press-Gazette | Published 9:42 a.m. CT Jan. 12, 2020 | Updated 12:57 p.m. CT Jan. 12, 2020
GREEN BAY — Michael Hirn still hopes to be exonerated of participating in the murder of Tom Monfils in a Green Bay paper mill in 1992.
But his biggest concern now, 27 years later, he says, is, “I want people to know me for who I am. People think of me as a killer, but people who know me know me for me.”
Hirn, 55, was one of six men convicted in 1995 of beating Monfils, 35, and dumping him unconscious into a pulp vat in the former James River paper mill, where his body was found a day later.
Monfils had reported co-worker Keith Kutska for stealing scrap wire from the mill. Kutska generated anger at Monfils throughout the mill by obtaining and playing a recording of him reporting the theft to police.
Police believe that led to a confrontation with Kutska, Hirn and the others surrounding Monfils, pushing, then beating him to unconsciousness, and then, worried about the loss of their jobs for the infraction, deciding to dump him into the vat with a 49-pound weight tied to his neck.
Hirn and the others all have denied from the start that any such confrontation took place and that they had anything to do with Monfils’ death. Supposedly without knowing what happened to him, they have advanced a variety of alternative explanations, the most current being that Monfils killed himself because of his failing marriage and the deterioration of his standing among his co-workers.
To anyone who would ask, “who in their right mind would kill themselves like that?” Hirn said he’d answer, “Who in their right mind would kill themselves?”
Only one of the alleged co-conspirators has been exonerated. Michael Piaskowski, now 70, was freed from prison in 2001 when a federal judge ruled there had not been enough evidence to convict him.
Since then, all of the co-defendants have been released except Kutska, who won’t be eligible for parole until next year.
Dale Basten, 77, died shortly after being paroled for health reasons in September 2017. Rey Moore, 73, and Michael Johnson, 72, were released on parole last July.
Hirn has been paroled for a little more than a year. He spent nearly three hours Saturday with writer and social justice advocate Joan Treppa at a book signing at the Brown County Central Library. Treppa was selling and signing copies of “Reclaiming Lives: Pursuing Justice For Six Innocent Men.”
Hirn and Treppa fielded questions from the 35-person audience, most of who seemed to have read Treppa’s book or “The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men,” by local authors Dennis Gullickson and John Gaie, the latter of whom is Piaskowski’s former brother-in-law.
That book, which Piaskowski helped with when it was written in 2010, launched a grass-roots clamor for the men’s freedom. It also inspired Treppa to write her own book and to help arrange for new appeals efforts through private investigators, volunteer private lawyers and lawyers from the Wisconsin and Minnesota Innocence Projects.
Questions put to Treppa and Hirn Saturday demonstrated that questioners had already accepted the premise that Hirn and the others were victims of a faulty and aggressive police investigation, overzealous prosecution and a sloppy, unfair legal system, as described in Gaie’s and Gullickson’s book.
Police and prosecutors have defended the original convictions and maintain the trial achieved the truth. They argue court systems have upheld the original findings except for the one federal appeals court judge that exonerated Piaskowski.
“It makes me angry,” muttered one woman who had asked many of the questions of the day. “These are the people we are supposed to be trusting?”
Hirn expressed hope that he’d eventually be proven innocent. He said he still has the option of trying to get his case into federal court and is only waiting to find a lawyer who will handle the case for free.
But in the meantime, “I can’t be bitter,” he said. “I am not going to let this define who I am.”
Walking into a restaurant with friends and well-wishers during one of his first days of freedom, he asked them, “Do you realize how excited I am? To be able to just get up and get ice cream when I want it, or be able to just eat whatever I want?”
He dined on one of his favorites, biscuits and gravy, and spent a day of freedom ice-fishing when he first got out, he said.
He recalled taking a walk shortly after his release and having a woman pull up in her car, put down the window and told him, “I saw you on the news last night. I want you to know you should be proud and hold your head up high,” Hirn told the audience. “I told her, ‘I’m going to.’”
He said the Green Bay community has so far proven welcoming and positive.
“I have had not one negative interaction with a person,” he said. “And I’ve had probably seven or eight where the people have said ‘I’m glad you’re out.’”
He remains on parole, a lifetime assignment, for which he must pay $40 a month, he told the audience, from which could be heard tsk-tsks and a whispered “It’s ridiculous!” But his restrictions are few. He doesn’t have to wear an electronic monitor, and he has regular but uneventful visits with his parole agent.
He received job training in prison and has been working for about a year laying I.T. cable. Part of the joy of being free has been learning about how technology has advanced, he said. The first time he confronted a cell phone, he said he had to ask: “How do you call somebody on this thing?”
Asked by an audience member what he would say to anybody doubting his innocence, Hirn said, “Everybody is entitled to their opinion, whether they’re on our side or not. Read the book. You’re entitled, but not if you’re uninformed.”
WBAY.com – Posted: Sat 7:14 PM, Jan 11, 2020
GREEN BAY, Wis. – A man convicted in one of Wisconsin’s highest profile true crime cases made his first public appearance since his release Saturday.
Michael Hirn joined author Joan Treppa for a book signing Saturday afternoon at the Brown County Library.
Hirn was convicted in the killing of Tom Monfils, but was released from prison in 2018.
Treppa, whose book is titled “Reclaiming Lives”, describes herself as a citizen advocate for the wrongfully convicted.
After the signing, the pair sat down and discussed his life since being released, and what they believe are major flaws in the case.
“Initially, because I read the Monfils conspiracy book and it seemed like bullying to me, I had been bullied as a child, and that really tugged at my heart strings. I know what it feels like to be accused of something that you didn’t do and to have it on the scale that they had it really affected me, and I had to get involved,” said Treppa.
Action 2 News has reported on the so-called “Monfils 6” case for years.
In 1992, Tom Monfils’ body was found in a pulp vat at a paper mill in Green Bay.
Six men, including Hirn, were convicted and sentenced to live in prison.
All six men have maintained their innocence, and five of them have since been released.
By Sarah Thomsen, WBAY.com Staff | Posted: Tue9:04 AM, Dec 18, 2018 | Updated: Tue 8:56 PM, Dec 18, 2018
LAKE TOMAHAWK, Wis. (WBAY) – One of the men dubbed as the “Monfils 6” was released from prison Tuesday after nearly 24 years behind bars.
Michael Hirn, 54, was released from McNaughton Correctional Center in Lake Tomahawk. Hirn’s family and friends were waiting to greet him and he gave them all an embrace.
Hirn waved goodbye to the prison correctional workers and the warden and thanked them. They wished him good luck.
Action 2 News was the only local news station at the prison for the release. Hirn spoke with us for a local news exclusive to air Tuesday on Action 2 News.
“I do have legal challenges, but I think you cross those bridges as they come. I’ve got to take everything one day at a time. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to enjoy this moment, enjoy this time with my family today driving back,” Hirn tells Action 2 News. “You know, I’ve never used a cell phone so that’s going to be a big challenge for me. Things have changed since I’ve been in.”
THE MONFILS 6 CASE
In 1995, Hirn and five other men were convicted of 1st Degree Intentional Homicide for conspiring to kill co-worker Tom Monfils at a Green Bay paper mill. Monfils’ body was found weighed down in a pulp vat in 1992.
During trial, the prosecution said the men conspired to kill Monfils, who had heard one of the suspects, Keith Kutska, talk about stealing an electrical cord from the mill. It is alleged that Monfils reported it to authorities, but his anonymity was compromised when Keith Kutska obtained a tape of Monfils’ call to police.
The prosecution accused Kutska and the other men of forming a group to take revenge on Monfils.
The men came to be known as the Monfils 6. They were all convicted at jury trial. They have maintained their innocence.
“You know, wrongful convictions are hard to deal with because you have people that believe you’re guilty, and then you have your supporters that believe you are indeed innocent,” Hirn said. “And the true people that know me, know that I am innocent. So I can’t be bitter over the experience. I have to move forward. I’m not going to let this experience define who I am.”
Of the six, Kutska, Michael Johnson and Rey Moore remain behind bars.
Michael Piaskowski’s conviction was overturned by an appeals court in 2001. The court ruled that there was not enough evidence to prove his involvement.
Dale Basten was granted parole in September 2017 due to his failing health. He died at age 77 in June.
Earlier this month, a parole commission granted Michael Hirn’s request for parole. The commission called him a “model prisoner.”
A commission report said Hirn completed vocational programs and earned minimum community custody in 2015, and began working full- and part-time jobs. He’s also an animal handler providing therapy to dogs that have been traumatized.
“I’ve been working in the community, so I was leaving every day. Maybe it’s surreal in the fact that it’s… I’m free now. I can say I’m a free man and establish roots again and start working, and be a normal person, have some normalcy again,” Hirn said.
Hirn says he’s looking forward to his first Christmas with family in more than two decades.
“Put up the Christmas tree at home, things like that, things that I haven’t done for 23-24 Christmases now,” Hirn said.
He thanked people on social media who have supported him. Hirn told us he heard about comments left on the WBAY Facebook page.
“And WBAY, I heard about your Facebook page and a lot of people are very positive on it, and that’s a great thing, because the community is starting to change its mind, and that’s what should happen,”Hirn said. “They should be informed about what’s going on.”
Michael Johnson has a parole hearing in March. Rey Moore’s parole hearing is in July. Kutska’s next hearing is in 2021.
Keith Kutska mounted an appeal based on what his attorneys claimed was new evidence in the case. The defense was granted an evidentiary hearing to present an argument that Monfils killed himself.
A judge ruled there was not evidence to grant Kutska a new trial.
The United States Supreme Court denied Kutska’s petition for a writ of certiorari, which is a document asking the high court to review the decision of a lower court.
Action 2 News will post the full interview with Michael Hirn tonight.
MONFILS 6 BOOK
Joan Treppa, an author and social justice advocate, wrote the book “Reclaiming Lives” about the case. She was there for Michael Hirn’s release.
Her goal: tell both sides of the story. Treppa is convinced all six men are innocent.
“To tell the story about, we hear about Tom Monfils and his family and that’s a tragedy in itself, but the other tragedy is that six men and their families were wrongly labeled and these men were sent to prison wrongly,” Treppa says. “And so I wanted to tell their stories because they also need a voice. Because this is something that was also very tragic for them as well.”
Treppa has been in contact with the men since 2010. She visited them in prison.
“He [Hirn] has some options for jobs. And he’s always told me that he wants to help change, reform the system,” Treppa says.”Because it’s broken.”