Tag Archives: Brown County Courthouse

An Unearthing of Ghosts…

A fitting day to share this chapter from my book; triumph that instilled an uncommon but short lived dose of hope and possibilities…

Chapter 33

Legal Woes for the Opposition

Halloween, October 31, 2014. A fitting day to illustrate an unearthing of ghosts still lurking through the halls of the Brown County Courthouse. Finally, twenty-one months of effort put forth by a dedicated legal defense team came to fruition when they filed a 152-page motion, more than one hundred exhibits, and several affidavits in Brown County requesting an evidentiary hearing for Keith Kutska. Close to twenty years later, this small Midwest town was thrust back into legal upheaval.

There was a flurry of news reports on local TV stations and in print. One Green Bay Press-Gazette headline read:

“Defense: Monfils Death a Suicide. New Legal Team Seeks to Have Conspiracy Conviction Thrown Out.”

Read the news article here.

When this motion was filed, Johnny and I took great satisfaction in knowing we had played a monumental role in its inception. The families were hopeful. We all felt great about it because there was real progress being made. And our miracle was a kick in the legal shins for Brown County. They most likely never expected we’d get this far or that this case would actually make it back into the courts. But there it was. I imagined the clambering behind closed doors to keep their wits about them because the further this moved forward, the more media attention they’d receive. There’d be no escaping public scrutiny or the tough questions that followed. And it’d be a cold day in hell before those questions stopped. This was no longer merely a movement of family members, close friends, and two crusaders from Minnesota. This motion was spearheaded by a respectable law firm armed with an unrelenting dedication and ability to keep on keeping on.

The main points listed are directly from the original 152-page brief, and are as follows:

  • Defense counsel provided ineffective assistance by conceding the State’s homicide theory without consulting an independent forensic pathologist and investigating the evidence of suicide.
  • The State denied Mr. Kutska due process by relying on erroneous forensic pathology, and perjured fact witness testimony.
  • Mr. Kutska has presented “sufficient reason” for this motion.
  • The court should vacate this conviction in the interests of justice.

These excerpts are taken from this same document. They reveal major aspects of a failed investigation in a massively flawed case:

At approximately 7:42 a.m. on November 21, 1992, Tom Monfils—despondent, shamed, and angry—left his work area at the James River Paper Mill and walked toward an entrance of a nearby airlock passageway. As he neared the airlock, he picked up a 49 lb. weight and proceeded through the airlock. He then entered a storage area where his jump rope was hanging on a railing. With both the rope and weight in hand, Monfils walked to a large vat containing approximately 20,000 gallons of liquid. There, he climbed the steps to the top of the vat, tied one end of the rope around his neck and the other end to the weight, and entered the vat where he suffered traumatic injuries and died from drowning in the liquid.

Courtesy of the Green Bay Press Gazette

After a 2 1/2 year investigation, Kutska, and five other mill workers were convicted of first-degree intentional homicide and sentenced to life in prison for Monfils’ death. The prosecution’s theory was that after Kutska had learned that Monfils had reported him to the police for stealing a piece of electrical cord from the mill, Kutska fomented “an angry mob” of his “union brothers” that viciously beat Monfils at a water bubbler (water fountain) at approximately 7:45 a.m. and then disposed of his body in the vat at approximately 7:50 a.m. on November 21, 1992. That theory embraced the conclusions of the medical examiner Dr. Helen Young, who concluded that Monfils had been beaten and then placed in the vat where he died.

Dr. Young’s homicide determination was, however, erroneous and rested on a series of provably false assumptions, as well as her ignorance regarding the engineering design and operating factors impacting the movement of Monfils’ body in the vat. As forensic pathologist, Dr. Mary Ann Sens states in her report, Dr. Young also lacked any scientific or medical basis for reliably and accurately determining that Monfils’ death was the result of a homicide and not a suicide. Indeed, there is ample and compelling evidence that Monfils had taken his own life.

Unfortunately, residents and law enforcement officials in Green Bay remained unwilling to appreciate the implications surrounding the firm’s findings that support a possible suicide. This first round of filings caused the county to push back…hard. They resisted the notion the case had been mismanaged. They remained as steadfast as ever in a dying effort to uphold all of these convictions, including Mike Piaskowski’s, in spite of his exoneration in a federal court. At every opportunity, John Zakowski defends the biggest case of his career with toxic statements that still fuel a vengeful public. Afterward and in present day, his most vicious attacks are aimed directly at his worst nightmare come true. In reference to the release of Michael Piaskowski he flatly states, Michael Piaskowski “was not exonerated,” rather, he was “mistakenly let go” due to a poor appeals argument by the attorney general’s office. And in a recent interview he did for a documentary about the Monfils case, Zakowski stated, “People tend to say, ‘Well, it’s only circumstantial evidence.’ Circumstantial evidence is many times stronger.”

Euphoria diminished as we waited and waited for a reply from the State. When the State did finally respond, it was as expected. In their response, they argued against every measure of the firm’s brief. However, it was again the defense team’s turn to have one last say in the matter before a final decision was to be reached. The firm was ready. They filed their reply brief earlier than the allotted time…

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A Slow but Steady Pace…

A Walk for Truth; A Walk for Justice – Held on Friday, October 30, 2015 on the Brown County Courthouse steps in Green Bay, Wisconsin. For the past 5 years this event has transpired on or close to October 28-the day in 1995 in which 6 men were convicted of 1st degree intentional homicide for the murder of co-worker Tom Monfils at the then James River Paper Mill (now Georgia Pacific) in Downtown Green Bay.

The book published in 2009 that caught my attention called, The Monfils Conspiracy; The Conviction of Six Innocent Men, is described on their website as such: “Gullickson and Gaie trace the futile twenty-nine month investigation between the time of Monfils’ death and the convictions, pock-marked with dead end leads and overlooked evidence. Using solid facts, they lay bare the weaknesses, inconsistencies and secrets in the prosecution’s case and the jury’s erroneous rush to judgement. As recently as 2001, a federal judge ordered the release of one of the men, citing a lack of evidence, and further suggesting the original proof as unsound.” Six Innocent Men 

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Denis Gullickson speaking to the crowd before our march

I had traveled over to Green Bay on Thursday, October 29th. On Friday morning, my sister Clare and I were on our way to purchase candles for the event when we received a call from John Gaie. John said that Reporter Raquel Lamal from NBC 26 in Green Bay had called Denis for an interview regarding that evening’s rally. Denis had told her that he wasn’t available. John asked if I’d be willing to do the interview instead. I was excited to oblige, so I gave Raquel a call. She came to my sister’s house and expressed her intention to show the human side of this tragedy. This was great news. Raquel’s piece aired on the 5 pm newscast following the event. Raquel also broadcasted live during the event. Heartfelt thanks go out to Raquel for her efforts!

Clare Martinson, Raquel Lamal and Joan Treppa

Clare Martinson, NBC 26 Reporter Raquel Lamal and Joan at the rally

The event was filled with the usual energy and excitement. Denis Gullickson; co-author of the Monfils Conspiracy book, and emcee, started things off by sharing his usual upbeat thoughts. He walked us through the countless series of activities many of us had engaged in over the years while running back and forth between Wisconsin and Minnesota. Much of what Denis said felt like ancient history because of the inroads we’ve made since then. Way back when, we’d forged ahead during many uncertain times. It was a relief to now savor what appears to be a bright and hopeful future as each year brings additional interest and positive new developments for us to convey to the community.

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Photo taken in 2009 at a book signing at The Reader’s Loft in Green Bay. (L toR) John Gaie, Clare Martinson, Michael Piaskowski, Joan Treppa and Denis Gullickson

Denis included a major development from the past year; a 152-page motion had been filed on October 31st in 2014 by lead Attorney Steve Kaplan. It was a request for an evidentiary hearing on behalf of Keith Kutska-the main suspect in the case. The hearing itself would allow the legal team to present new findings to justify a request for a brand new trial for Kutska. That motion was granted and a 3-day evidentiary hearing took place on July 7, 8 and 22 of 2015. An astonishing 14 witnesses testified to evidence that should have been brought forth at the original trial. As of November 13, 2015, there has been no word on a ruling from that hearing.

6th annual walk 2015 - Joan with Mario amd Mike Pie

Joan in center with exonerees Michael Piaskowski (L) and Mario Victoria Vasquez (R)

I delivered a much shorter speech that consisted of my gratitude for the hard work that Denis, John, and exoneree Mike Piaskowski had put into the book. I highlighted the continuance of the bravery of the families and friends of the men. I let them know that they are a treasured part of my life and the focus of the inspiration instilled within me. My final thoughts were of two of my heroes standing alongside me onstage-two wrongfully convicted men who had been exonerated from that same county; Michael Piaskowski (from the Monfils case) in 2001, and Mario Victoria Vasquez, released earlier this year and who now supports our efforts to free the five remaining men. I stressed to those present that these two men represent real hope and are living proof that the other five have a significant chance of returning home. The crowd voiced their delight and we relished in this special moment.

Photo at end of March on Courthouse steps

Family, friends and supporters touting signs carrying messages of innocence during the rally

The families and close friends of the five men had saved old signs from past rallies and worked hard to create additional ones for us to carry during our march around the block. Signs professing the innocence of all six men were highly visible from every angle. We carried candles to illuminate this anniversary with seven of us holding special candle holders with photos to commemorate all of the men unjustly represented in this case.

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(L to R) Decedent Tom Monfils, wrongly convicted Dale Basten, Michael Johnson, Michael Hirn, Reynold Moore and Keith Kutska and exoneree Michael Piaskowski

A few folks who were not related but had heard about the case in the news came to show their support. One of our youngest participants, Reece (orange sweatshirt), came with his Dad. Reece had read the Monfils book and insisted on showing his support by attending. Another young lady, Makayla, had contacted me a few months back expressing her interest as well. She had also read the book, attended the hearing in July and is currently doing a report on the case for school. She was not able to attend that evening but said that she would be with us in spirit. I believe that these young adults represent a new generation of open-minded supporters who view this overall issue in a very realistic way. And they will take its message seriously rather than exhibit apathy.

Walk for Truth and Justice March

Supporters march around the city block. 

These events; the motion, the hearing and our rallies represent major milestones after 23 years of setbacks and denials from prior failed attempts to appeal the verdicts. There is renewed hope and encouragement for those whose lives have been destroyed, that can never be shattered. For those who have lived this nightmare, it has been nothing short of a miracle, knowing that others now believe in them and care enough to act on their behalf. Their appreciation overflows whenever we get together and their warm hugs are filled with sincere gratitude. Most importantly, the strong bond between us will never be broken. And no matter what the future holds, it will not break our slow but steady pace to true justice for all involved!

Weighing in on a Preponderance of Evidence…

People commend my persistence to aid in the relief of five innocent Wisconsin men convicted of murder in 1995. Many others seem bewildered at my desire to do so. But for me, what began as a simple humanitarian effort has turned into a battle between good and evil. I’ve been known to say that if the details of this Monfils case weren’t so tragic, they’d almost be laughable. I’ve witnessed the lives of the innocent dangling on one side of an unbalanced judicial scale as if they are somehow less important, while those on the opposing side expect us to believe in theories that require a creative imagination. My spirit grows weary from the constant rhetoric surrounding the case. And my anger soars as I ponder the reality that this is not about guilt, innocence, or justice, but about career advancement and narcissist pride on behalf of the authorities. With those elements in place, there is no true justice. It’s more about closing a case and ignoring facts-a prevailing factor of all wrongful convictions.

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Dale Basten (74 yrs old)*

A thorough examination of this case reveals both the facts and the outcome of six guilty verdicts, are erroneous at best. I’d sure like to believe had I been sitting on the sidelines as a juror in 1995 when they were told the series of events leading up to the death were incomplete and riddled with “holes” and “gaps” that could not be rectified, that I’d have immediately jumped out of my seat and headed for the door yelling at the top of my lungs,”Be sure to call me when those holes and gaps are filled!” Wouldn’t that have been sensational? But would it have made an ounce of difference? Since when is it my place to question the powers that be? And how preposterous of me to challenge those who’d like to think they’re smarter than me? But what is most unfortunate is that not enough of us demand answers for things we find preposterous.

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Reynold Moore (70 yrs old)*

There is much to absorb with the 3-day evidentiary hearing behind us. As we embark on an excruciating long waiting period, hoping the court’s ruling will be swift, I avoid contemplating the possibility that our efforts could fail, despite the evidence that was presented. Each passing day represents a harsh reminder of what my friends; Keith Kutska, Reynold Moore, Michael Johnson, Dale Basten and Michael Hirn have endured every single day for 20+ years. And there’s the nagging question regarding the exoneration of Michael Piaskowski in 2001-the only exoneration in this case so far. How is it that six men were tried together but only one of them has been freed?

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Michael Johnson (68 yrs old)*

I cannot help but contemplate other thought-provoking questions. When will this nightmare end? What will be the prevailing factor? And when those prison doors do open, will there be adequate monetary compensation?

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Keith Kutska (64 yrs old)*

In the meantime I ask that you take time to read this 90-page document filed on September 2, 2015, with its vast amount of new evidence. It supports the belief that this was not murder but a likelihood that the victim, Tom Monfils, took his own life.

In the past six years amid all the twists and turns on an unrelenting road to freedom, I’ve given up trying to make sense of the madness. And I’ve yet to get through a single one of these documents without the usual indignation…

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Michael Hirn (51 yrs old) 

*All images courtesy of Artist Jared Manninen