Paul Srubas, Green Bay Press-Gazette Published 2:49 p.m. ET March 30, 2014 | Updated 3:39 p.m. ET March 30, 2014
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Four years after a book came out proclaiming the innocence of the men convicted of the 1992 murder of a Wisconsin paper mill worker, and with momentum possibly gaining in their favor, the investigator who spearheaded the case remains confident the case was properly solved.
True, all but one of the men remain in prison, where they continue to be denied parole. But with the 13th anniversary of the release from prison of defendant Mike Piaskowski approaching this week, there remains a dedicated group of supporter/protesters clamoring for the release of the other five in Tom Monfils death. They hold annual rallies that appear to be gaining new disciples every year. Monfils’ own brother, Calvin, has expressed support for them, and they continue to meet and strategize regularly. Lately they’ve claimed the case has attracted interest from private investigators and high-profile law firms that say they want to help prove the men’s innocence.
Randy Winkler, the Green Bay, Wis., investigator who led the case, has been vilified by the suspects, their families and co-workers since even before the six suspects were arrested. He was verbally torn apart at their six-week trial in 1995. And he was ridiculed in the book, The Monfils Conspiracy, which claims to reveal fatal errors in his investigation and accuses him of bullying people into making false statements that fit in with his preconceptions of the case.
Now retired and living in a house near the woods and on the banks of the Oconto River, Winkler is content with the case’s resolution, and confident the convictions were properly obtained and that all six men are guilty — even Piaskowski, freed 13 years ago when a federal judge declared his conviction was based on “conjecture camouflaged as evidence.”
“I haven’t read the book,” said Winkler. “I can buy cheaper toilet paper.”
Stolen electric cable
According to police and prosecutors, Piaskowski, Keith Kutska, Michael Hirn, Rey Moore, Dale Basten and Michael Johnson confronted Monfils, 35, in the then-James River paper mill, where they beat him, and then — out of fear of losing their jobs over the beating — threw his unconscious body into the wet, pulpy slurry in the vat. His body was found there a day later with a 40-pound weight tied to it.
Their supposed motive? Kutska had stolen a strand of electric cable from the mill, Monfils reported it to police, and Kutska got tape recordings of Monfils making those reports and played them at the mill to rile everybody up.
“They all gathered around him and were confronting him about calling the cops,” Winkler said. “That’s when Mike Hirn shoved him. … Rey Moore reached over the top of everybody and hit him in the head with a knockout wrench.”
All of the defendants as well as Denis Gullickson and John Gaie, the authors of The Monfils Conspiracy, claim no such confrontation took place, that it’s all a figment of Winkler’s overactive imagination.
They claim Winkler and the other investigators incorrectly zeroed in on Kutska’s irritation at Monfils as proof that Kutska was directly involved in Monfils’ death, and then jammed false information together to put everyone else with Kutska and on the scene at one time to participate in an entirely fictional event. The police’s own timeline of everyone’s whereabouts on the morning of Monfils’ disappearance make such a confrontation impossible, Gaie and Gullickson claim in their book.
Kutska admitted that he played those police tapes for co-workers but said he only wanted everyone to shun Monfils, not to harm him. In a 2010 interview, Kutska told Green Bay Press-Gazette that he still felt guilty for having played those tapes and getting everyone angry at Monfils for snitching on him, but that he didn’t participate in or have any knowledge of a physical confrontation that caused Monfils’ death.
Investigators did indeed zero in on Kutska and the stolen electric cable as the starting point. “Why wouldn’t you?” Winkler said.
But he said investigators did everything they could to try to clear each of the suspects — especially Piaskowski, who even Winkler describes as a nice guy who seems incapable of an act of violence — to try to prove they weren’t involved. It’s just that the facts kept steering investigators back to the same point, Winkler said.
Examples of evidence
Winkler and former Brown County District Attorney John Zakowski still believe Piaskowski was involved and as guilty as the rest, despite a federal judge’s finding in 2001 that there had been insufficient evidence to connect Piaskowski to Monfils’ death.
The people who believe the defendants were wrongfully convicted believe that if Piaskowski is innocent, the others must be as well. Zakowski’s case hinged on the idea that all of them were together at the time of Monfils’ death, so if any one of them caused Monfils’ death, they all were there to share in the guilt. If they were all together, and if Piaskowski wasn’t present at Monfils’ death, then neither were the others, the supporters argue today.
But Zakowski pointed out that the federal judge’s ruling states there’s insufficient evidence, not that Piaskowski wasn’t there or even that he was innocent. He and Winkler believe the judge missed the point that the convictions were for conspiracy to commit murder, not for murder.
Some of the facts that have Winkler convinced of the men’s guilt: Millworker Brian Kellner told him, sometime after Monfils’ murder, that he was working with Kutska to repair Kellner’s truck and Kutska accidentally dropped a wrench on Kellner’s head.
“Oh, you have a Monfils lump,” Kutska allegedly told Kellner, referring to an injury Kellner sustained on the upper side of his head.
That’s where a bruise was found on Monfils — and none of the autopsy results had been released to the public, Winkler said. Why would Kutska have known about that injury unless he had been there when Monfils received it? And how else could Kellner have known it, unless Kutska had said that to him?
Kellner, who died Friday, also claimed Kutska re-enacted the confrontation scene to him and a bunch of friends, a re-enactment that showed several details of Monfils’ death that no one uninvolved would have known, Winkler said.
He dismissed claims by Gullickson, Gaie and others that he had bullied Kellner into making statements that weren’t true, just to fit Winkler’s own theories.
The re-enactment scene as recounted by Kellner also dovetailed with bits and pieces of statements that Winkler and other detectives had collected in the two and one-half years between Monfils’ death and the arrest of the six suspects.
Enough of those kinds of statements made it into evidence to convict everybody, and there was lots of other evidence that never rose to that level but still indicated police were on the right track, Winkler said.
Quiet witnesses and near confessions
Opponents of Winkler’s theory say that there was no way a confrontation could have happened involving so many people in the area where Winkler says it happened without witnesses. Winkler actually agreed with them. “There were plenty of witnesses,” he said.
The problem was, no one would admit to it, either because they were afraid they would meet Monfils’ fate or that they’d be prosecuted, Winkler said.
Winkler claims Moore nearly confessed, in exchange for a deal with prosecutors, but withdrew when Zakowski refused a deal.
“You don’t need a deal if you’re not guilty,” Winkler said.
Once, during an interview, Winkler was pressuring Basten, basically accusing him of being involved, saying, “I know you had something to do with this, just tell me what happened, get it off your shoulders, you don’t want to live with this.”
“That’s when Basten pretty much broke down,” Winkler said. “He put his face in his hands and said, ‘I didn’t mean for Tom Monfils to die.’ “
That may not have been a direct admission of guilt, Winkler said, but it sure seemed to indicate that police were getting close to the truth, he said.
Hirn once told Winkler and another investigator, “I want to tell you what happened, but I’m afraid for my kid,” Winkler said. “It sounds real incriminating, but at the same time, we weren’t sure at the time if he was a witness or a guilty party … you can take it different ways.”
A different theory
The book’s authors and the six defendants have pointed out that police should have focused their investigation on millworker David Wiener instead of the six defendants.
Wiener had come forward well after Monfils’ death to say he had a flashback of a suppressed memory of seeing Johnson and Basten walking about six feet apart, carrying something heavy — presumably Monfils’ body — near the vat on the morning of Monfils’ disappearance.
Wiener went on to kill his brother in an altercation at his home later that year. Supporters of the theory that he could have been Monfils’ killer suggest Wiener was the only one in the mill who was proven to be violent enough to commit murder.
Wiener worked in a remote part of the mill, closer to the vat than where the others worked. The authors and others claim that Monfils could have wandered into that remote area, and Wiener, perhaps thinking to make himself a hero to Kutska and the others, could have single-handedly knocked him out and dumped him in the vat.
Winkler called that theory ridiculous. Wiener would have had an obviously better and more convenient dumping place for Monfils’ body than the vat, one nearer his own work station, Winkler said. He also questioned whether Wiener could have lifted a limp body, along with the weight, over the wall of the vat, which was nearly chest high. The area is too cramped for a forklift to have been used, Winkler said.
Monfils’ body had been weighted down with a weight that came from near one of the paper machines, and tied with a jump rope from one of the other paper machines, and Wiener would have had to walk to both those places unseen to get those items, Winkler said.
Life after conviction
The authors of The Monfils Conspiracy point out that Winkler, after supposedly solving the biggest murder case in Green Bay history, should have been heralded as a great detective, but that instead, he slipped away in obscurity and soon retired.
“People close to him suggest that the Monfils case consumed Winkler,” the book says. “They say that his obsession destroyed him mentally and emotionally.
“If Winkler did his very best to get at the truth — without ever resorting to improper tactics or tainted evidence — then why would the case have ruined him at all?” the authors wrote.
Winkler says today he in fact sustained a breakdown after the case, a bout of post-traumatic stress that caused him to go on disability for a period.
Winkler said Johnson used to park outside Winkler’s house and watch him and his family, which made him feel threatened, to the point where the Winklers moved.
On top of that, Winkler claimed, he was having trouble with the department, both because of the disability time off he was taking and because his supervisors were afraid of what Winkler might testify to in Monfils’ widow’s lawsuit against the city.
Susan Monfils had sued the city for releasing the tapes of her husband reporting Kutska’s theft. She eventually won a $2.1 million judgment, although part of that was vacated.
Winkler said his problems led him to a disability retirement.
Zakowski has pointed out that all of the objections The Monfils Conspiracy raises about Winkler’s investigation had been vetted at the six-week trial, when Winkler was grilled by six very capable defense lawyers. The jury still found all defendants guilty, he said.
Digital scans of the physical newspaper article (posted above) featuring an in-depth interview with the former detective of the Monfils Case, Randy Winkler.