Tag Archives: Green Bay Wisconsin

Brown County’s Last Comedic Stance…

In an earlier post, I mentioned that a ruling had been reached in the July 2015 evidentiary hearing for Keith Kutska. I also noted that on January 13, 2015, our lead attorney, Steve Kaplan, was contacted by a reporter from the Green Bay Press Gazette, looking for a comment on the ruling. At that time, Kaplan was unaware of the ruling because he had not been informed. The reporter kindly sent him a copy of the official document. Then came the second blow; a denial of further action in the matter. There was not going to be a new trial for Keith Kutska.


Logo design on T-shirts

My initial reaction was one of disbelief toward the blatant disrespect of Brown County. My second reaction bore mixed feelings as the reality of the situation set in. After thinking about it, this ruling was expected all along and the opposition was reacting with the same insolence they had displayed throughout the entire process. They were never going to acknowledge defeat. There was never going to be a new trial. Because that would suggest mistakes had been made and there was nothing to be gained by admitting to such incompetency.

However, this denial is not a bad thing for our men. Because of the way the hearing had been conducted, it was clear, even back then, it was never going to end favorably for Keith. In my opinion there seemed to be a tag team dynamic going on between the prosecutor and the judge during the entire ordeal. It was quite revealing to me and most unfortunate for Keith and his family. What was shameful was seeing the current prosecutor and the former Assistant DA involved in the original trial (a father and son team) both sitting at the same table during this hearing.

But in all reality, this ruling is encouraging.. It’ll take the case out of this biased town, away from this ridiculous progression of judicial recourse. It’s now headed for the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. I believe that justice lies somewhere in the broader judicial spectrum. Proof of this lies in the first and only exoneration to date in this case which was granted to Michael Piaskowski in 2001 when his case landed in a federal court. A federal judge aptly cited the trial evidence as unsound and labeled it as “conjecture camouflaged as evidence.” It was a big stain on the prosecution’s pristine record.

Michael Piaskowski exonerated in 2001

Michael Piaskowski exonerated in 2001

Photo courtesy of the Green Bay Press Gazette


This document, in my opinion, epitomizes a wide gap between what’s right and what’s wrong with our entire legal process. I’ve been known to say that if these circumstances were not so tragic, they’d almost be laughable. After injesting the hypocrisy in this document, I rest my case.

Here is the complete 29-page document of the ruling from Brown County:


Steady As She Goes…

The promise of a new year incites good intentions, great new beginnings and a longing to leave undesirable baggage behind. A new year….a new us, right? Gym memberships soar, diets commence and monthly planners designed to organize our crazy lives fly off the shelves. These are great concepts that seldom pan out. Why? Because our hearts are not sufficiently vested. And the actual energy needed to maintain them becomes overwhelming because all that has really changed is the calendar year.

But the good news is that we are a resilient species. We never give up entirely. And we believe that our persistence will produce something fruitful.

With that said, I’d like to introduce you to someone very special to me; someone I feel could be a poster child of tenacity and determination; someone who came into my life and taught me how to withstand terrible odds. I met her while advocating for the same cause; the plight of six innocent men from Green Bay, Wisconsin. Coming from opposite sides in a common fight; mine as an outsider and hers being an insider, our friendship has become strong and steady. It has helped us to maintain hope that her situation will eventually improve.

Joan Van Houten started this New Year off the same as she has for the past 20+ years—positive and determined despite a significant and ongoing conflict she deals with daily. Joan remains steadfast in her mission to free a loved one from prison; someone she believes…she knows is innocent. And her 2016 resolutions precipitate being more active and successful at this one thing.

Each year Joan pushes herself that much harder to win this impossible fight. Each year she resolves to never abandon her stepfather, Michael Johnson; an innocent man sentenced to life in prison for a murder he did not commit.

6th annual walk 2015 - candles

Michael Johnson (as he looked during sentencing) is third from the left

Joan recently wrote these brutally honest and powerful words about her plight. Having collaborated with her in this tragic circumstance, I have witnessed how hard it is for her to relive the painful moments that continue to persist and will do so until Michael’s sentence is vacated. So I felt her voice needed to be featured on my blog… 

Note: Michael Johnson is the only one of the five men my husband Mike and I have not visited in prison. We plan to do so in early 2016.

A New Year Brings Renewed Hope

By: Joan Van Houten

Another year has gone and we are left to make choices about how we plan to face the months ahead. Do we look back with disdain and sorrow and pain while looking ahead seeing only more of the same? Or do we choose to hold on to the progress made, all the love, effort and passionate actions of those who have so fully given of themselves to help our families?

Families of those wrongly convicted are not delusional. We would not still be fighting … over twenty years of fighting … because we’re too thick headed to believe someone we love is guilty. There are too many of us who know something went terribly wrong with the investigation into the death of Thomas Monfils. It’s not just one family. It’s not just two families. Six entire family units have been fighting to expose and to right what happened to all of us. And all six families remain committed after all these years. Can anyone still believe that each of us is out of our mind?

Year after year of watching our men in pain. Year after year as their children grew to graduate high school and college, have families of their own and children of their own. Year after year of Wisconsin Court officials turning their backs to the truth. So many of us, from different backgrounds, different histories and different experiences … still here and still fighting. It would be so much easier to just move on. To let go and accept that this is a fate that cannot be changed would be a less heartbreaking road to follow. And yet … we fight. Still.

It’s uncomfortable – talking to reporters from both television and print media. None of us work in that field. None of us are accustomed to standing out in the crowd. We’re everyday people with all the normal problems everyone has. To top that off, we’ve been fighting for the release of men who were convicted of murder. Murder! Though wrongly convicted in a case riddled with horrendous acts that go completely against the ideals set forth for our judicial system … convicted none the less. It can still cut deep when assumptions are made about what drives us to continue on – when our motives are shaved down to nothing more than pure lunacy and grief. To be judged in full public view is a hard thing to go through and the ugliness of some coming with all fangs bared and dripping with hate is something that makes me cringe. And yet … we fight. Still.

It’s been a long road and there is a long road ahead. Looking back, I see the monstrous valleys and paths riddled with boulders – I see the flooded gateways and pitted glaciers covering the earth. All these things that seemed insurmountable … unclimbable … unpassable. And yet, here we are … all those things behind us.

Our numbers have grown and continue to do so. With the book, The Monfils Conspiracy, The Conviction of Six Innocent Men by Denis Gullickson and John Gaie, and the merciful presence of Joan Treppa, a Citizen Advocate who adopted our plight as her own, our supporters reach out, to us and for us, more and more with each passing week. Outrage has finally begun to break through the disbelief and the voices of our men are finally reaching the hearts and ears of the masses.

In the months ahead, Truth will be our banner once again. It will be raised higher than ever imagined and ring louder than corrupt ears will be able to bear. With a new year comes renewed hope. And with Hope, all things are possible.


Joan Van Houten

Joan Van Houten is the step-daughter of Michael Johnson, one of six men wrongly convicted in the death of Thomas Monfils, detailed in the book; The Monfils Conspiracy, The Conviction of Six Innocent Men written by Denis Gullickson and John Gaie. Instrumental in bringing her step-father’s plight of innocence to the attention of renowned attorney, Lawrence Marshall, who took on the fight pro-bono, she continues the work of bringing awareness of the six wrongful convictions to light.


Links to more information on the book and this case:

Click here for all the latest news and video footage in The Monfils case.

The Voice of Innocence is a FaceBook page Joan VH and I jointly maintain.


Did You Hear What I Heard?

Said the Advocate to the Parole Chair….

Each year for Christmas, I strive to find a unique gift to send to the five incarcerated Wisconsin men I advocate for. It’s a challenge to find something meaningful beyond a cheerful note and a suitable Christmas card. But each year the perfect gift does come to mind.

This year, their gift was one of action. Since all of them have now been granted parole hearings, they ask friends and loved ones to send letters of support to the parole commission on their behalf. So I did what I felt was most effective. I went straight to the top and sent a letter to the Chairperson of the Parole Commission himself; Mr. Dean Stensberg. Accompanying the letter was a summary compiled from notes I had taken during a recent evidentiary hearing from last July for Keith Kutska, one of the men convicted in the Monfils case.

Here’s the letter: 

December 15, 2015 

Mr. Dean Stensberg

Wisconsin Department of Corrections
3099 E. Washington Ave.
P.O. Box 7925
Madison, WI 53707-7925 

Dear Mr. Stensberg, 

I trust that this message finds you well. 

My name is Joan Treppa. I am a citizen advocate for the wrongfully convicted. I live in Minnesota but for the past six years, I have advocated for the release of the five Wisconsin men convicted in the Tom Monfils murder case who remain behind bars; Keith Kutska, Reynold Moore, Dale Basten, Michael Hirn and Michael Johnson. 

I was compelled to get involved in 2009 after reading the book; The Monfils Conspiracy. Despite my lack of education in the field of law, I recognized that this case was handled in the worst possible manner. In an attempt to find something that would cause me to believe that these convictions were justified, I talked with the authors of the book and I met the exoneree in the case, Michael Piaskowski. I then met with the family members of the men.  But I found nothing. In fact, I found the opposite; the more I learned, the more I was convinced that this case is riddled with corruption and that all of these men are truly innocent.   

In 2011, I hired a retired crime scene expert to re-investigate the case files. He did so thoroughly. And he confirmed my suspicions with the knowledge to make such a determination. So he helped me to find a law firm to represent one of the men, Keith Kutska—the lead suspect in the case. 

In 2013, we were successful. We hired Attorney Steven Z. Kaplan from the law firm of Fredrikson&Byron, PA in Minneapolis to study the case. He spent more than two years combing through the details. His evaluation matched ours; that the case was suspect. But Mr. Kaplan went a bit further in his assessment when he was convinced that the victim, Tom Monfils, had indeed committed suicide. 

Much of the evidence that was available at the time and that pointed to a possible suicide was never addressed during the trial. It should have been. Even Cal Monfils, the victim’s own brother tried to convince the lead detective that the knots on the rope and weight were most likely tied by his brother Tom. But the detective dismissed that notion and assured the one person who knew his own brother better than anyone else that they had already looked into it, when in fact, they had not. The rope and weight were sent to the crime lab. But when the crime lab came back with a recommendation to send the evidence to the Coast Guard, because the knots were determined to be nautical knots, that action was never taken. Let me clarify; those critical pieces of evidence were never sent to a lab that could have properly identified them. 

A thorough investigation would have also included doing a psychological evaluation of Tom Monfils. That was never done. If one had been done, it would have been clear that he had emotional issues and that he was a prime example of someone with suicidal tendencies; he had been in counseling, he kept to himself, his marriage was in shambles, and now he was being chastised for snitching on a co-worker. He died in a manner familiar to him from his Coast Guard days. He was part of a team that retrieved fellow officers who had jumped ship by tying heavy objects around their necks in an attempt to commit suicide. 

A case like this is tragic beyond words. Many lives have been devastated because of it. And the injustice continues as each parole hearing comes and goes with no relief for any of these men. There is no consideration of the actual facts. There is no recognition of the flaws that have been laid out in a recent evidentiary hearing for all to see. There is no justice for these men. 

These men do not lie when they profess their innocence. But in the criminal justice system, there seems to be no patience for those who stand by that claim. But these men do so, despite their understanding that it will mean a longer prison term. Is it so hard to understand that they will never fail their own conscience; that they will never sacrifice their integrity and that they will never admit to something they did not do? 

I stand by these men and will do so as long as they seek freedom. I believe they will see that day come because I believe in them. I believe in everything they stand for. And I believe they are innocent. 

I’ve included a summary I compiled last summer in regards to the evidentiary hearing. I hope you take the time to read it and learn about the many facets of this case that were never covered properly. 

When these men do come up for parole, it should be clear to those who stand in judgement of them exactly why they stand firm in their innocence. My aim is to provide that knowledge. And I urge the commission to release all of these men as soon as possible. 

Thank you for your time.

Happy Holidays. 

Update: A week later, on December 22nd, Mr. Stensberg called me on the phone to acknowledge my letter. He was pleasant and expressed his appreciation for my support of these men. He explained that my actions are an important aspect of the parole process, etc…but what was clear to me was that my letter had struck a chord. After all, he could’ve brushed me off with a formal and hollow response. So I expressed my gratitude and allowed him to continue.

Mr. Stensberg voiced his concern about taking the proper legal steps on behalf of the men. I felt he had missed the jist of my detailed letter. He then contended that it is not the responsibility of the parole board to determine guilt or innocence but to decide through a number of factors whether adequate time has been served, given the crime committed. He did not specifically identify those factors but my recollection of them as stated on the parole commission website, are as follows:

Criteria for parole:

  • Reached the Parole Eligibility Date in his or her sentence.
  • Served sufficient time for punishment of his or her crime(s).
  • Shown positive changes in behavior as well as documented progress in programming, treatment and/or educational achievement.
  • A viable parole plan which offers the offender realistic opportunities for a stable residence, employment, and programming, if needed.
  • An acceptably reduced level of risk to the public. The criteria for determining risk include past criminal and incarceration record, probation and parole violations, security classification, and any unmet treatment or programs needs.

As he spoke, I thought of how all of these men have satisfactorily fulfilled these directives, some having gone well above and beyond and how they’re still being denied parole. But the reality for those truly innocent, like the men in this case who refuse to admit guilt for a crime they didn’t commit, this program is merely a façade, a formality, giving outsiders the impression that it’s about rehabilitation.

Who within this organization would ever admit to an unwritten rule preventing early release for inmates asserting their innocence? On the contrary, this is viewed as an inmates inability or outright refusal to show remorse. Just ask any exoneree.

During our discussion my impression of this man wasn’t reassuring as he firmly stressed the integrity of his office and the seriousness with which they enact the commission’s responsibilities. There was no point in pushing back. It was hopeless and served no purpose. For the time being, keeping this communication line open, did.

In conclusion, Stensberg reassured me,”We are watching the Monfils case closely and we are concerned with the aging men.” But as I listened, my understanding was that Mr. Stensberg was trying to convince me of something far fetched. I wasn’t buying it and I realized that nothing would ever change for these men regarding parole.

My last statement to this man was one of urgency to release these men as soon as possible. But now, in a recent visit to the Wisconsin Dept. of Corrections website, I noticed Mr. Dean Stensberg is no longer Commission Chairperson.