Tag Archives: sexual assault

A New Chapter…

Meeting someone who’s been in prison for a crime they did not commit is very humbling. But observing within them, an attitude more positive than many of us not affected by our judicial system, is surprising…and noteworthy. Mario Victoria Vasquez is such a person. He is conscientious, thoughtful, kind, patient and grateful for his new found freedom and for the outpouring of support he has received through his terrifying ordeal. Mario is also proud. He harbors anger because of what happened to him but he does not let it dominate his overall temperament despite these past circumstances…

“On February 5, 1998, the parents of a four-year-old girl took her to the St. Vincent’s Hospital in Green bay, WI because she had been complaining for two days of pain while urinating. The girl told a nurse that “Mario” had touched her. Based on a physical examination which revealed sores and vaginal irritation, hospital staff determined the girl had been sexually assaulted. A swab was taken and tested positive for genital herpes. The girl’s mother believed she was referring to 34-year-old Mario Victoria Vasquez, the babysitter’s brother-in-law who lived at the babysitter’s house. However, the uncle had disclosed to authorities that the girl sometimes referred to him (the uncle) as “Mario”. A Green Bay Police Detective questioned the girl alone. According to him, she volunteered that she had been touched by her uncle, father and babysitter’s husband as well, but on February 6, 1998, Vasquez was the one arrested and charged with first-degree sexual assault of a minor. Tests were never performed to determine where the disease originated from and the defense counsel was negligent in requesting that an expert be called in to debate; (a) the validity of the testimony of a four-year-old; (b) her obvious confusion of the facts throughout the process, (c) evidence of interviewer bias.  

Mario had served close to seventeen years of his twenty-year sentence, all the while, maintaining his innocence. He was unexpectedly released from prison on the evening of Friday, January 30th, 2015 after a hearing earlier that day to request a new trial. The assault victim, now an adult, had finally come forward to disclose who her true assailants were.

Although this was reason enough for Mario to celebrate, the circumstances surrounding his actual release were not. Mario walked out of the Brown County jail in the middle of a chilly wintry night…alone. He was equipped with inadequate clothing–a light jacket, no hat or gloves, and no means to contact a family member to pick him up. He was forced to go back into the jail to ask if he could use their phone. It was sheer luck that he remembered his son James’ phone number.

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Exoneree Mario Victoria Vasquez and Joan Treppa

Up until the present, I had only known Mario through letters. We had corresponded since August of 2013 because of a conversation I had with his ex-wife, Darcy. Both Darcy and my sister Clare live in Green Bay and were friends at the time. Darcy became upset one day while the three of us chatted at my sister’s house and I brought up my recent involvement in the Monfils case. “I cannot be concerned over that case when no one cares that my ex-husband Mario also sits in prison for a crime he did not commit.” she said. “Tell me about him,” I said. Our conversation prompted me to start writing to Mario.

I told my sidekick, Johnny about this case and he did an investigative evaluation of the facts. He confirmed that Mario’s case was fraught with the same kinds of issues and inconsistencies as the Monfils case and we found out that the same prosecutor and assistant DA worked on both cases within a few years of each other which sent up red flags. Mario was already under the guise of the Wisconsin Innocence Project (WIP) by then and though he felt discouraged because of how long it was taking to get his case through the courts, I encouraged him to give them time. I assured him that they were doing their best for him.

The essence of Mario’s letters embodied the utmost respect. He struck me as an educated and well versed individual. I sensed he was hard working and motivated to continue on with a productive and meaningful life. He had maintained integrity despite his misfortune. His letters were similar to reading poetry. In them, he shared acts of kindness toward other inmates through mentoring and friendship. The more I learned, the more I looked forward to eventually meeting him. 

Then on the evening of Tuesday, February 10, 2015, I came face to face with my pen pal. For a moment, Mario and I stood there, staring at each other as though this was a dream. We marveled at the ability to share a handshake, a joke, laughter, tears and a hug. Still, Mario’s fate hung in the balance. There was a hearing the following day to determine whether or not this nightmare was over. Although I was optimistic, Mario would not be at peace until he received word from the Judge that he was absolved of all charges. There was an edginess in his temperament. I did my best to grasp what he was feeling and I reassured him that no matter what, I would stand by him.

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A Family Reunited; Darcy, James and Mario

My sister Clare hosted this gathering of close friends and family on Tuesday evening. Darcy, their son James and James’ girlfriend, Sarah, were present. It was the first time this family had been together since Mario was charged in 1998. We all savored the moment…that evening…this miracle.

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Exonerees Mario and Mike “Pie”

We had also invited Michael “Pie” Piaskowski, the exoneree from the Monfils case, along with his girlfriend, Teresa. Mike Pie and Mario became fast friends. They sat together, sharing individual stories. Many emotions were felt that evening; anger, sadness and disgust for a system gone awry. But we focused mainly on new possibilities and an optimistic future for Mario, Mike Pie and for the many innocent people in prison who have yet to be vindicated.

WIP attorney's Cristina, Katie, Kyle and Curtiss

Mario (center) with WIP Attorneys; Cristina, Catie, Kyle and Curtis

The next day, the hearing for Mario commenced at 1:30 pm in room 200 of the Brown County Courthouse. Cristina, Mario’s lead attorney from the WIP had mentioned that the proceedings would be brief so we arrived early. Mike Pie, Clare, Darcy and I waited in the hallway with approximately 25 of Mario’s family members. Excitement grew when the innocence project team walked in. Their presence lent a sense of comfort and excitement similar to the climax of a tense western film when the cavalry rides in to save the day! Mario was ecstatic to see all of us. This was his moment. We were his bravado!

We all entered the small courtroom. We sat and waited. In walked the former Brown County Assistant District Attorney, Larry Lasee, with a sour look on his face. He kept his gaze lowered as he sat in his designated chair and began scribbling furiously on the notepad in front of him. We rose and settled in again after Judge Hammer entered. Cristina rose and began by defending Mario’s innocence. Mr. Lasee clarified his view in regard to Mario’s absolute guilt. He then added that the DA’s office would not be pursuing a new trial in this matter. The Judge displayed a puzzled look and defined the series of events prompting this hearing-that Mr. Lasee had, in fact, interviewed the witness, now an adult, who disclosed the true identities of the perpetrators. I could not make out the muffled response by Mr. Lasee but I had heard all I needed to. It was clear. There would be no more prison time for Mario. He would be free to rebuild his life.

The last thing we heard was what we, as supporters, had hoped for. The Judge looked at Mario and said,”Mr. Vasquez, you are free to go.” We clapped loudly as Lasee quickly found his way to the door. Now it was time to focus on Mario’s transition. It was exhilarating to think that what had started on paper for the two of us was about to continue on with a new chapter in living…

Find a detailed description of Mario’s story here:

A Tall Order to Emulate…

On a recommendation from an exoneree friend, Michael Piaskowski, my husband Mike and I invited a distinguished stranger into our home in October of 2012. We were planning to attend a Benefit for Innocence in Downtown Minneapolis and it was suggested that we invite this exoneree. I looked into his case profile and found these details…

In June of 1989, a woman was kidnapped from her home, raped several times and abandoned along the side of a road in Bluff Siding, Wisconsin. Fred Saecker who was 6’3” tall and very thin with a full head of hair at the time, DID NOT fit the victim’s description of the attacker at all. However, since he was in the victim’s neighborhood around the time of the attack and (according to the summary I read) had been drinking they focused their attention on him. He was charged with burglary, second degree sexual assault and kidnapping. At trial a truck driver testified that he saw Mr. Saecker wearing a blood stained T-shirt and a forensic analyst testified that pubic hairs found on the victim’s body were “microscopically similar” to his.

Fred Saecker was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He would serve seven years of that sentence before DNA evidence would absolve him of the crime. I must clarify that last statement because of its significance. Four years into his sentence DNA proved his innocence but it took another three years for the authorities to sanction his release! Read on…

In 1993, Fred’s Mother paid for DNA testing. Although the tests concluded that he could not have possibly been the perpetrator, his request for a new trial was denied until 1996 when the District Attorney finally dismissed all charges based on this DNA evidence…  

Fred arrived at our house after a five hour drive from Wisconsin on the day of the benefit. He’s tall and thin making him mindful of hitting his head on the tops of doorways and low ceiling lights and fans in our home. He towered over both of us but his demeanor was nonintimidating. In fact, he was soft spoken and thoughtful. He expressed his gratefulness about being invited. Although Mike and I immediately grew fond of him, I also felt nervous. Not because of the accusations against him I believed were false but because I was very naïve about this whole exoneree experience and somewhat vague about the willingness of them to revisit past nightmares.

We had time to get acquainted with Fred before friends would arrive before the event. So we broached the subject of his wrongful conviction. We knew nothing other than a few details and what our friend Michael had told us about his character. Fred was open and honest about his experience despite this being our first encounter with him. I wondered how it was possible for the authorities to target him despite him not fitting the description of the real perpetreator. I also wondered how they managed to not get a sense of his true nature when it was so obvious to us. Ever since that little chat in our home, we knew that Fred would always be our friend. He has joined us on at least one other occasion and we’ve continued to stay in touch ever since.

I think in many ways, exonerees like Fred remain vulnerable to some degree, due to the lasting effects of their tragedies. They are keen when it comes to defining who is truthful and honest, but for some, the risk of being fooled by those whose intentions are tainted, is ever present. I am mindful of the mission I’ve been given and of the importance of not taking these people for granted or underestimating their emotional state. These days, I feel much more comfortable when meeting an exoneree for the first time but the humanity I feel by being in the presence of great courage and endurance, despite all odds, never goes away.

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Exonerees Koua Fong Lee, Audrey Edmunds, Fred Saecker, Damon Thibodeaux and Michael Piaskowski

Sometime ago, Fred sent me a thoughtful message stating, “Joan, you are incredible. I really mean that.” As accepting of those words as I am, from someone I admire very much, there’s no doubt in my mind that the best deserved accolades go to this gentle giant of a man who stands tall, not only in stature but in the wake of extreme misfortune.