Tag Archives: Michael Piaskowski

Ignoring Looming Threats…

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.

P1040788Triplets 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.

 P1040811

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.

P1040789

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.

P1040808Exoneree 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.

P1040822Joan 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.

P1040795

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.

P1040810                            Route 65 Pub&Grub

P1040805 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…

P1040832                                Top 10 Award  

P1040834 Best in Show Award

* ( ) Total years of sentence each exoneree served.

           

                                                

“Hotrod Breakout”…a Benefit That’s Been Places…

I’d like to share my thoughts regarding the many dedicated people engaged in the planning of a third car show/fundraiser for the Innocence Project of Minnesota. Compassionate individuals who’ve supplied hours of enthusiasm and selfless efforts on behalf of those wrongfully convicted have again created an exciting and unusual venue where tragic but uplifting stories emerge. The event is designed to resurrect reluctant voices that have been judged, criticized, condemned and ultimately silenced. Some of those voices appearing at this year’s event are: Wisconsin exonerees Audrey Edmunds, Michael Piaskowski and Mario Victoria Vasquez and Minnesota exonerees Michael Hansen and Koua Fong Lee.

P1040195

 Joan Treppa (standing) next to exoneree Audrey Edmunds 

P1040223                                                             Exoneree Michael Piaskowski

P1040684                            Exoneree Mario Victoria Vasquez next to Johnny’s classic car

Mike HansonExoneree Michael Hansen

Exoneree Koua Fong Leeows_142302270498185

We will also hear from Brenda Kutska whose father-in-law is currently in prison for a crime he did not commit. Her views from the perspective of a family member is sure to stir hearts…

Two years ago we began to highlight the Innocence Project of Minnesota (IPMN). This non-profit organization bridges the financial roadblocks of those innocently caught up in catastrophic legal woes in dire need legal assistance. We’ve combined our talents to create awareness and to solicit funds to further their mission and it is our hope that this event will eventually become a significant source of revenue for them.

P1040786Banner created and donated by Budweiser

I salute my special friends who make up the planning team; Johnny and Linda Johnson, Rosemary and Pat Bonnett, Tom Erikson (aka: EricVonSon), Chuck Brost, Jesse Hoffman and all the others who work with us each year to help make this event a success. Special mentions go to Trudy Baltazar who collected and donated numerous items for prizes given out during the day, the Bonnett’s for their willingness to provide printed programs and the super amazing car awards. We thank Chuck Brost of ‘Tunes To Go’ for keeping us ontrack with our daily schedule, making announcements with added wit between appropriate era music for the event. Let’s not forget our good friend, exoneree Audrey Edmunds, who will again energetically hand out prizes!

P1040230Exoneree Audrey Edmunds congratulating a classic car winner

A final salute goes to the staff at the Project here in Minnesota for the important work they do all year long. Executive Director Heather Ring, Legal Director Julie Jonas, Staff Attorney Marie Wolf and all of the law students and paralegals who make up the IPMN team are to be commended for their diligence and selfless commitment to providing an invaluable service to those less fortunate in their time of need.

Because the IPMN it is a non-profit, our success in aiding them is critical because much of their funding is reliant on funds from general public doners. We must never forget that these funds benefit individuals who’ve been reduced to being labeled as thugs, murderers and rapists, who, in reality, were part of a civilized society, striving for the same wants and needs as the rest of us. They were once independently responsible for their own lives before fate sent them down a much different path.

P1040202Julie Jonas, her daughter and son, Sarah and Sam with MN exoneree Sherman Townsend (from a previous car show)

It is an honor to actively work on behalf of the wrongfully convicted, and we are again proud to present the one and only… (drum roll) ‘Hotrod and Motorcycle Breakout’; 3rd annual benefit for the Minnesota Innocence Project! We are furiously getting ready to host this exciting event on Saturday, August 8th 2015 from 9 am to 3 pm. We’ve adjusted our schedule a bit this year. Instead of conducting single speeches by exonerees and advocates, we are inserting two panel discussions; one at 11 am and the other at 1 pm. We believe this format will provide an informative and educated interaction for our audience.

 

Car Show Flyer - 2015

Flyers distrubuted at other car shows

Finally, I would like to commend Route 65 Pub and Grub owner Brad Slawson and Manager Kathy Sauvageau for providing mouth-watering refreshments during the day and Route 65 Classics (under new ownership as Unique Classics) owner Gene Kohler and General Manager Sue Stang who’ve enthusiastically provided their space free of charge each year. Both businesses have made generously donated additional funds to our cause and both are already getting ready for our big day!

P1040472Kathy and Brad setting up their booth 

We hope this event will be especially successful this year and that it will go down in history as the best car show ever…one that will help drive this wrongful conviction issue back into nonexistence!

Please join us or donate to the IPMN today!

Thanks!

 

 

Providing a Safe Haven…

Green Bay Press Gazette Newspaper Headline:

December 19, 2010

Friends and families of 6 convicted in paper mill worker Tom Monfils’ death form ‘truth in conviction’ group 

‘Conspiracy’ book bolsters mission’

By Paul Srubas – psrubas@greenbaypressgazette.com

It started as a book proclaiming the innocence of the men convicted of the 1992 murder of Tom Monfils in a Green Bay paper mill. The book, “The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men,” helped bring together the friends and families of the five men still in prison and the sixth man, Mike Piaskowski, who was freed in 2001 when a federal judge overturned his conviction. Now those friends and families and Piaskowski are hoping their unified voices will help spread the book’s message, free the remaining five and perhaps have an even wider impact on the criminal justice system.

“We’re calling ourselves Truth in Conviction Alliance-Brown County Chapter, said Joan Van Houten, stepdaughter of Michael Johnson, one of the convicted men.” We’re looking for accountability for police and courts. We’ll need groups in each county. Our prime goal is to bring these five home, but along with that, we can’t continue asking for help, saying ‘listen to us,’ if we’re not listening ourselves,” she said. “We want everyone to know this can happen to you, too.”

Michael Johnson, Piaskowski and four others — Keith Kutska, Michael Hirn, Dale Basten and Rey Moore — were convicted in a Brown County courtroom of conspiracy to murder Monfils. Monfils, 35, disappeared Nov. 21, 1992, while he was working at the then-James River Mill. His body was found a day later at the bottom of a paper-pulp vat with a weight tied to his neck. The defendants and members of their families have claimed from the onset of the investigation that the six men had nothing to do with Monfils’ death. Their claim received a boost last year when Denis Gullickson and Piaskowski’s former brother-in-law, John Gaie, published “The Monfils Conspiracy” book that spells out what the authors see as flaws in the case. The two men, with Piaskowski’s help, spent eight years researching the case, reading police and court documents and interviewing people.

Their book claims that overzealous and shoddy police work caused investigators to develop a faulty theory about an altercation at the mill in the hour before Monfils’ disappearance and then to connect the six men to that altercation. The state claimed all six men were inextricably linked, and if that’s true, the book says in effect, Piaskowski’s innocence exonerates the other five. The federal judge overturned Piaskowski’s conviction because of a lack of evidence. Brown County District Attorney John Zakowski, who prosecuted the original case, stands by the police work, the investigators’ theory and the convictions. Zakowski says the federal judge erred in overturning Piaskowski’s conviction, a claim that rankles Piaskowski and members of Van Houten’s fledgling group.

“He must be above the law, right?” said Brenda Kutska, who is married to Keith Kutska’s son. Gullickson, who along with Gaie and Piaskowski, is also a member of Van Houten’s alliance. The three men made a habit of meeting weekly to do research for their book and organize it and later, to strategize about marketing it and continuing to work to clear the remaining defendants’ names. Families of the other defendants also were working behind the scenes, trying to contact lawyers to continue appeals processes.

It wasn’t until the book was ready for publication in fall of 2009 that the authors and family members all got together. “We figured it was strategically important to get everyone together, and then we realized it was the first time the families have all been together since the trial,” Gullickson said. “Something poignant about that was, each of the families knew their loved one was innocent but didn’t know the others were” until they learned collectively of the authors’ findings.

Since then, they’ve been trying to meet regularly, to share information and tips, offer each other moral support and strategize. So far the strategy has involved trying to raise public awareness through writing letters and promoting the book. Gullickson said they’ve gotten the book into the hands of several elected leaders and judges, and it helped them enlist a Minneapolis private investigator to look more deeply into the case.

The investigator, John Johnson, said he’s helping the effort at no charge after having read the book three times. He said he has put together a task force of engineers, a forensics expert and three retired federal investigators to look at evidence in the case.

In October, the group organized a candlelight vigil to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the men’s arrests. This week, the group’s third formal meeting involved the development of the group’s name, the Truth in Conviction Alliance, and discussion of how to involve families and groups who are fighting for the exoneration of other convicted men. “It’s a learning process,” Van Houten said. “None of us really knows what we’re doing, it’s all trial and error, but if we can help provide information we’ve learned, we can help you with your legal issues.” There are hundreds of innocent people in prison. You have one group working here, another working there, and if you look at all these groups, instead of having all those micro-groups, you have one big group, now it’s a full-force campaign.”

©2015 Press Gazette Media

This article appeared on the Green Bay Press Gazette newspaper’s front page. It was the first time residents were exposed to the formation of a significant group that gathered in Allouez, a small geographical subdivision of Green Bay, WI. Once a month friends and family of the men convicted in the Tom Monfils murder case meet at the home of Shirley DeLorme, a woman who realized that Mike Hirn had been in her speech class at DePere Middle School and who understood that there was more to this Monfils case than meets the eye. One day, she talked of her son’s feelings toward Michael Piaskowski that had formed while working closely with him. “…had my husband not died of stomach cancer and had I therefore not invited my son Bob to live with me, I would never have heard Bob say, “Mom, that man, is not a murderer!” Shirley was further introduced to the discrepencies in the case by her good friend, John Gaie, who co-authored The Monfils Conspiracy-the book that questioned the guilt of each of the six men. Shirley found ample reason to get involved. She did what she could by hosting monthly meetings in her home.

Friends and Family Group Photo courtesy of the Green Bay Press Gazette

Shirley DeLorme and exoneree Mike Piaskowski at Shirley’s home. Photo courtesy of the Green Bay Press Gazette

Six years later, this group still meets each month (except December) to discuss the latest developments, to keep in touch and to partake in the enjoyment of Shirley’s fabulous homemade chili, sloppy joes or special fudge. Her kindness gives relief to the friends and families, knowing they have a gathering place, shielded from the ignorance of those unwilling to accept the true facts in the matter.

This group has since changed its name to FAF (Friends and Families) and an alliance with other communities has yet to evolve. Having been to numerous meetings and witnessing an emotional bond that has cemented a comradery for many involved in this injustice, I’d say that what was needed to happen has been accomplished…for the time being. These people were set apart by their own tragedy. Acknowledging each other brought back the horror of a past that promised no future resolution. So for them it was easier to deal with things on their own. Now in the midst of renewed hope and energy, a recent meeting included conversation full of optimism-a far cry from the earlier days when the road to freedom was non-existent.

Like me, Shirley has no connection to this tragedy other than an indirect one but after learning about this injustice she selflessly stepped in to help. She’s lost friends over this matter and has devoted precious time to its success. She proudly acts as host and secretary-taking notes at every meeting and typing them up for approval and distribution to the rest of the group. She is to be commended for providing a safe haven for folks in a town not shy about airing its opinions.