The gates opened at 9 am. Rain clouds persisted as a procession with cars of all shapes, colors and models formed. Thunder rumbled in the distance but despite the looming threat overhead, the 3rd annual Hotrod Breakout Car Show/Benefit for the Minnesota Innocence Project (IPMN) was about to begin. Adults and children alike were showing up in modest numbers to experience this unique event designed to create awareness about an issue that devastates families across the country. Rain clouds threatened to ruin our activities but the real threat comes from ignoring situations that ruin lives such as the lasting effects caused by wrongful convictions.
Triplets with baby sister in tow
A structured program commenced at 10 am. Brenda Kutska spoke first. She shared her family’s personal misfortune of dealing with a wrongful conviction. Her Father-in-law, Keith Kutska was wrongfully convicted along with five other men in 1995 of a murder they did not commit. Keith and four others have been in prison for twenty years. There was no anger or malice, only hope in Brenda’s tone as she spoke of the many years her family has lived with no expectations of ever seeing freedom for Keith. Her ability to stay positive is due to renewed hope fueled by recent legal help for Keith. Each time Brenda paused to catch her breath, a respectful audience waited. Even as they heard about circumstances many of them could not relate to, their hearts were deeply touched. And after hearing about this type of injustice, something they never considered before, they applauded her candidness.
At 11 am it was time for me to try out a new platform-a 45-minute panel discussion with four exonerees; Audrey Edmunds and Mario Victoria Vasquez from Wisconsin, and Mike Hansen and Koua Fong Lee from Minnesota. Julie Jonas, legal director for the IPMN would join me in introducing our exonerees, along with giving us a sense of what her organization does. There were a few sprinkles of rain in the air, but we proceeded as planned.
Joan Treppa, exonerees Audrey Edmunds (11)*, Mario Victoria Vasquez (17)*, Mike Hansen (6)*, Koua Fong Lee (3)* and IPMN director Julie Jonas
Julie introduced Mike and Koua; two exonerees whose cases she had worked on. She quickly summed up the lengthy legal processes to free them. I introduced Audrey and Mario. I shared their circumstances and how we had met. We touched on the experiences of all four; the initial crime they were accused of, life in prison, how they found help and what their lives are like now. There was laughter and sadness. There were pleas to stay cognizant that these injustices exists and the importance of supporting organizations like the Innocence Project. Before long, the clouds dispersed and the sun appeared.
Exonerees Mario Vasquez and Koua Fong Lee
Following the discussion at approximately 11:55, something unexpected happened. I was leaving the stage when a gentleman approached. He and his wife had been driving by on the highway when they spotted our event. They felt compelled to stop. The husband presented me with a challenge to match all donations raised by 12:15 up to $1,000! He asked that I make an immediate announcement. I signaled to Chuck, our DJ, to pause the music. As I waited I wondered if we’d come close to collecting that amount or if we would lose out on this opportunity. The crowd was small and I had my doubts. But I made the announcement and hoped for the best.
At 12:15 a handful of us counted; $100…$200…$300…and so on all the way up to $1,000 and then some! We had done it and this couple assured us they would be sending a check. Although they wanted to remain anonymous, we couldn’t help but gather around to thank them for their generosity.
Exoneree Mike Hansen with girlfriend Shaylee and son Keegan
Still excited about our great fortune, I prepared for the second and final panel discussion at 1 pm with Attorney Steve Kaplan and Mike ‘Pie’ Piaskowski. They were discussing the WI Monfils case. Mike is the only one of six co-defendants (including the previously mentioned Keith Kutska) to be exonerated. Steve has been actively pursuing freedom for Keith for the past two+ years. At the last minute I asked my good friend and colleague Johnny Johnson to join us for this discussion because he is the retired private investigator who aided in compelling Steve to take on this case. I gave a quick case summary and proceeded with the discussion. Mike Pie shared his personal experience as the accused. Steve talked about the legal process of representing Keith. Johnny shared his viewpoint as an outside investigator and explained the proper techniques of interpreting evidence, conducting an investigation and his personal observations about this case. Steve also discussed the recent hearing for Keith in July of 2015 and what to expect in the coming months.
Joan Treppa, Steve Kaplan, exoneree Mike Piaskowski (5.5)* and Johnny Johnson
Both panel discussions were very informative and eye opening for those who gathered to listen. Both elicited reactions of dismay in regards to our judicial system and empathy towards the victims present that day. I felt that what we were doing was making a difference and helping the victims heal just a little bit more by affording them this opportunity.
Mario Victoria Vasquez with Julie Jonas and her children Sarah and Sam
Amenities included two food vendors and Jeff Lee of ‘Art For You’. Jeff promised to donate 15% of his earnings that day to our cause. He sold four pictures. Chuck Brost, our DJ for ‘Tunes To Go’ was amazing as always.
Route 65 Pub&Grub
Tater Boss Tater Tots
I am pleased to report I received checks from both the couple and from Jeff Lee. I had also received additional personal checks in the mail prior to and after the show. We raised a grand total of $3,080.50 which exceeded last year’s total. We are thankful to General Manager, Sue Stang of Route 65 Classics (which will be renamed Unique Classics on 65 as of September 1st, 2015) for allowing us free access of their facility.
The show ended with numerous awards for the best cars. Plaques and trophies were courtesy of friends, Pat and Rosemary Bonnett. They were handed out by WI exonerees Audrey Edmunds and Mario Victoria Vasquez. To truly appreciate this incredible experience you’ll have to come to next year’s show. I hope to see you then…
Top 10 Award
Best in Show Award
* ( ) Total years of sentence each exoneree served.