Tag Archives: Six Innocent Men

Foreword March…

A few weeks ago, friend and colleague, Erik Stewart posted on Facebook, some very thoughtful feedback about a large project I’m currently tackling; writing a book. Yes, an entire book that has occupied much of my time for the past three years with this past year being the most demanding.

I’ll be honest; I never thought I had it in me to compose anything more than a weekly blog. But with encouragement from so many like Erik, who are willing to devote time to scrutinizing my transcript as well as lend advice and provide me with helpful feedback, I’ve been able to fill empty pages with words that are evolving into a solid and compelling story. I’m excited that the telling of this fantastic journey of the past seven years to aid in the release of five (originally six) men wrongfully convicted of murder in 1992 is coming to fruition.

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T-shirt logo for six innocent men

My reasons for writing this book are critical at a time of extreme and unfair biases and blatant cruelty toward others no matter where we look. I believe it is imperative that we, as a society, be cognizant of the injustices that inundate the lives of those around us and realize the necessity to help correct them. If all of us experienced the depth of emotional healing and gratification that accompany selfless actions, I believe we all would become better people.

Proof of action must accompany words of wisdom which is the embodiment of this literature. Being an example and inspiring those who read it to focus more on working through problems with patience and kindness rather than misguided judgement or criticism is the underlying message. As I work through a lengthy process of creating what I call someone else’s story through my eyes, the ultimate goal is to produce a book that is honest, informative and accurate that will spur discussion about wrongful convictions and about our flawed judicial system.

As depressing as the book’s subject matter is, the story will end on a positive note even though the overall journey remains unresolved. It depicts a moment in time that catapulted a situation from devastating, to one of hope and distinct possibilities, with an appreciation that the actions of complete strangers have brought forth comfort and peace of mind to its victims for the first time in years. I’ve been told that the story I’ve composed is a seamless extension of the book that compelled me to get involved, The Monfils Conspiracy; The Conviction of Six Innocent Men.

Today I am unveiling an excerpt that sets the tone for my entire book. It is the testimonial of an individual that I deeply respect and who has maintained the highest form of integrity despite immeasurable pain and suffering for two decades. I am pleased that Keith Kutska, the main suspect in this wrongful conviction case, has agreed to compose a Foreword for my book. I am honored to share it with you now. I read it to an intimate crowd of family and close friends of the men in prison at our 7th annual Walk for Truth and Justice in Green Bay, WI on October 28, 2016.

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Joan Treppa speaking at 7th annual ‘Walk for Truth and Justice’

Please consider these thoughtful words from an innocent man:

Foreword by Keith Kutska:  

While at the James River Paper Mill on the morning of November 21, 1992, Tom Monfils disappeared from his work area and was later found dead at another location in the mill. Despite the evidence pointing to suicide, the police assumed that an “angry mob” of his co-workers had murdered him. The investigation soon centered on six men who had been working at the mill that day. I know this because I am one of those six.

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(L to R) Decedent, Tom Monfils, Convicted men; Dale Basten, Mike Johnson, Mike Hirn, Rey Moore, Keith Kutska and exoneree Mike Piaskowski

Few people, unless they or someone close to them has experienced what the “Monfils six” and their families have endured, are likely to understand the anxiety and sense of helplessness that overtakes an innocent person while he cooperates with law enforcement, only to have it call him a liar, a thug, and a murderer. Few can know what an innocent person suffers as he loses his job and becomes the subject of media stories and public contempt for a crime he did not commit. They will not experience or know the frustration that an innocent person experiences watching his family suffer as the investigation and trial continue.

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Garrett waiting for his Great Grandad, Mike Johnson, to be released from prison

Most people assume, as I once did, that even if the police and prosecutors do not know or admit the truth, the jury will surely find it in the end. In the “Monfils six” case, like in other wrongful conviction cases, this did not happen. All six of us were convicted of first-degree intentional homicide, sentenced to life in prison, and separated from our families and everything else that made our lives worthwhile. From then on, we could only hope that someday the truth would become clear and the injustice corrected. Our days would be filled with the depression, despair, and disappointment that an innocent man endures as his appeals and other legal efforts fail, and he fears that he will never regain his freedom and life.

Michael Piaskowski exonerated in 2001

Exoneree Michael Piaskowski hugging his daughter, Jenny, upon release in 2001

Staying hopeful is difficult. Because I have been convicted, the struggle is uphill. That is something that every wrongfully convicted person soon learns. What I have also learned is that an innocent person can choose to maintain his own integrity. That is one thing that the system cannot take. I will continue to speak the truth and declare my innocence, just as the other members of the “Monfils six” have.

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Signs carried by supporters in 2016 Walk for Truth and Justice

After I had been in prison for more than fifteen years, I received a letter from Joan Treppa, a woman I had never met, but whose life was also changed by this case. She became a champion for all of us and for all wrongfully convicted people. If we regain our freedom, it will be because Joan cared and acted when she saw an injustice. I hope that this book inspires others to follow her path and become advocates for the wrongfully convicted.

–Keith M. Kutska

 

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Meeting Keith Kutska for the first time in 2015

Defined Distinctions…

We had traveled on this road before. Its familiar contrast of green fields flanking either side of a winding road led to a rather unattractive building. “The fields are so alive and plush and then you get to bare concrete,” I said to my husband Mike. Crops in their prime of life, malleable to the warm summer breeze, defied the drab character of the stone façade held captive by steely gates. In 1941 this building in Oregon, Wisconsin, which is approximately 10 miles due south of Madison, became the second location of a reform school for delinquent and orphaned girls. It was established in 1876 but its current function is a minimum security prison called Oakhill Correctional Institution which now houses two of our five innocent men, Michael Johnson and Michael Hirn. We had visited Michael Hirn at this location in 2015 and on Sunday, June 26, 2016 we were about to meet Michael Johnson. Johnson had been transferred here only recently.

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Oakhill Correctional Institution

Personals secured in locker…check. Sport bra…check. Sleeved shirt…check. Long pants without belt…check. Ziploc bag of quarters…check. We felt like pros on this fifth visit in our quest to meet the five men still in prison for the death of paper mill worker, Tom Monfils.

We recognized Michael as he entered the visitor’s lounge. We waved. He was all smiles as he approached us after completing his check-in. “Bless you my sister,” he said as we shook hands.

Many inmates find God during their incarceration. Michael already had long before this ordeal started. And he continues to be a steadfast Christian in spite of it. Reading the Bible daily helps him to cope, to forgive, and to find peace. It helps him to isolate a different existence that truly defines him from the one that was chosen for him.

“Did Joan tell you about my vision?” Michael asked. “Yes she did,” I said. Michael was referring to his stepdaughter, Joan Van Houten and a vision he had shared with her years ago after his murder conviction. This is an excerpt (which I also refer to in an earlier blog):

“I spent approximately eight months in Brown County Jail. While I was in county jail waiting for the jury to return their verdict, is when the Lord gave me this vision. This is a very stressful time in my life, having been stripped of everything that was dear to my life. I believe the Lord was comforting me with this vision. The vision was in a time in the future and I did not yet understand it. I believed at the time it was of the Rapture. It was ten years before I correctly understood the vision. It began with me walking amid rubble, as I looked down I wondered why I wasn’t being cut or hurt by what I was walking on. The presence that was with me said: “It is because I am guiding your feet.” I then looked up and it was a summer day, the grass was green and the sky was blue with puffy white clouds. Before me was a blacktop road with a woman running on it up to a Control Tower screaming and waiving her arms in the air. Then I looked up and the clouds were rolled away and Jesus was looking down at me and was smiling. This vision was of the institution I am currently incarcerated in (Stanley Correctional Institution), yet this institution had not yet been built at the time I had this vision. I believe this woman was running to the authorities with some kind of information, the truth about the Thomas Monfils murder. I was reminded that a woman holds the Scales of Justice in front of the courthouse.”

Thinking of Joan brought tears, causing Michael to reclaim his composure. I spoke up about the time Joan had told me about this vision in 2010. “Joan said that both of you thought the woman was her at first, but then changed your minds after I became involved in 2009,” I said. I fell silent, thinking about how that conversation with Joan had defined my duties as an advocate and how I had participated in passing along a single torch in an effort to find legal assistance for all five of the men wrongfully convicted.

Michael spoke of his family with longing. The unfairness, the consequences of being absent from their lives, but knowing that he will return home one day, are truths that each of the five men share; thoughts all of them desperately cling to.

Mike went to purchase drinks for all of us while Michael headed toward the restroom. After both returned Michael looked down at the palm of his hand and chuckled. He then turned his palm outward. “I wrote some things down that I wanted to cover and I smeared them when I washed my hands,” he said. But as we conversed, topics we covered triggered his memory, allowing him to recall most of what he had written down. I reassured him that the law firm representing Keith Kutska has turned this case on its side to learn everything there is to know about what happened. “They are very capable,” I said.  “And they will continue on with this fight for as long as they are needed.”

Joan and Mike Treppa w Michael Johnson at Oakhill Correctional, 6-26-16

Joan and Mike Treppa with Michael Johnson

In a recent podcast interview, Joan described evidence that should have been used to prove Michael’s innocence. She said that during the investigation Michael had been approached by a local reporter who asked him if he knew Tom Monfils. Michael told him that he did and that Monfils was a nice guy who brought homemade popcorn into work to share with everyone. He stated that at work, Tom Monfils was known as the popcorn man. It was later determined that Michael was incorrect and that the popcorn man was actually someone else. Despite these documented facts, the video of that conversation with the reporter was never disclosed during the trial.