Another “Monfils Six” Release
Michael Hirn Takes His First Steps Into Freedom
BY JOAN TREPPA
“This is a collect call from Michael. To accept charges, press one.”
Beep. Connection established.
“Hello, Joan and Mike,” said the familiar voice on the other end of the phone line.
What he said next was mind-blowing.
Michael Hirn, incarcerated for more than 23 years, was calling my husband Mike and me from the McNaughton Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison in Tomahawk, Wisconsin. The previous evening Hirn had called our house three times but, regrettably, We’d missed all three; we were thrilled to connect with him now.
Between bouts of sleeplessness the night before, I had apprehensively pondered the most likely reason for his calls. Maybe he was actually going to be paroled after all? But, after all, somehow seemed too unlikely to be true, given the events of the last two-plus decades.
Hirn is the youngest of six blue-collar union workers. He was employed at a Green Bay, WI paper mill in the early 1990s when he and five co-workers were blamed for the death of another mill employee, Tom Monfils. The police theory in 1992 was that Hirn and the others (Dale Basten, Michael Johnson, Keith Kutska, Reynold Moore and Michael Piaskowski) viciously attacked and dumped Monfils’ body in a paper pulp vat. The reason for this supposed conspiracy and murder? Police said the men were retaliating against Monfils for having made a 911 call to accuse Kutska of stealing a scrap piece of wire from the mill.
When Monfils’ body was discovered at the bottom of the vat, with a rope and weight tied around his neck, authorities immediately treated his death as a homicide investigation. In 1995, following a two-and-a-half-year investigation and a joint trial that lasted 28 days, jurors convicted all six men of first-degree intentional homicide. All of them were given life sentences. And all have steadfastly maintained their innocence over the course of the ensuing years.
I too believed, and still believe, in their innocence. I’ve felt this way since the day I took an interest in this miscarriage of justice a decade ago.
Photos and headlines after Tom Monfils’ body was discovered in a Green Bay paper mill vat in November 1992. Three years later, six of his co-workers (including Michael Hirn) were convicted of first-degree intentional homicide.?
I learned of the case from my sister Clare when she told me of her longtime friendship with Moore and of her absolute belief that Reynold (Rey for short) is simply not capable of murder. In 2009, Clare met a local researcher/author who was helping to write a new book investigating what actually happened at the mill on that fateful day. When that book, The Monfils Conspiracy, was published, I got my hands on a copy and couldn’t put it down.
With each page, I became increasingly incensed, convinced that this tragedy extended beyond the death of Monfils, and the anger and grief endured by his loved ones. I felt there were victims on the other side as well, that this was a very complex story, and I became convinced that the six convicted men had been wrongfully convicted.
I agreed with the premise of the book, that the six men had been railroaded by the authorities in order to hide a crucial error made by the police department when it released a tape of Monfils’ 911 call about Kutska to Kutska. That realization by the department was the turning point, when law and order and truth and justice fell to the wayside.
The dynamics of this case and its aftermath have taught me more than I ever thought possible about the way our criminal justice system actually works, as opposed to how It’s supposed to work.In fact, my commitment to these men, and to uncovering the truth, prompted me to write my own book about the case in 2017, Reclaiming Lives: Pursuing Justice for Six Innocent Men.
I started to establish a direct connection with the incarcerated men in December of 2010 when I began writing letters of support to each of them. Hirn and the others responded with the most profound gratitude. Hirn’s letters were extensive and covered many topics about his family, prison life, and a consistent belief that he’d eventually be freed. He shared regrets of missed opportunities and being unable to experience the peace and tranquility of the outdoors. He was outspoken about the failings of a criminal justice system that had isolated him from everything and everyone he cherished, and the extraordinary trauma they all had experienced as a result.
In 2015, when my husband and I first met Hirn during a prison visit, we observed remarkable courage and integrity, but no bitterness toward his circumstances. His unpretentious sincerity, inherent goodness, and resolve to focus only on the positive spoke volumes about a man who was branded a thug and a murderer.
Mike and Joan Treppa (left) visit Michael Hirn in prison in the early 2010s; Tyler Hirn (right), Michael’s son, visits his father in the mid-2000s.
It wasn’t surprising to learn that Hirn is surrounded by a loving family whose support has never wavered. Though he never married, Hirn has a son, Tyler, with whom he has maintained a strong and steady relationship. When his mother Trudy remarried when Hirn was young, he developed a strong relationship of mutual respect with his stepfather, Mike Dalebroux. Dalebroux proudly confesses to having raised Hirn since he was seven-years-old. He recently told a reporter, “As far as I’m concerned, there’s no ‘step’ in it. He’s my son.”
During Hirn’s incarceration, tragedy struck when his mother died. To make matters more painful, he wasn’t permitted to go to her funeral. He also missed the funeral of his older brother, Jeff, who tragically perished in a motorcycle accident approximately seven years into his sentence. Hirn was, however, allowed to attend a one-hour private viewing of his grandmother Lorraine when she died. She had helped raise him.
Hirn’s Aunt Marlene and Uncle Terry Guerts are undeniably two of his staunchest supporters. They’ve traveled many miles over the years to visit their nephew. This often meant traveling to other states as he was moved from facility to facility as part of the prison transfer system. Their encouragement and constant presence in his life have provided familiarity and hope.
In a few of his recent letters to me, Hirn alluded to the possibility of parole. But I was skeptical. Although Michael Piaskowski was released in 2001 when his conviction was overturned due to a lack of evidence against him, and Dale Basten, the oldest of the men, was given what’s called a “compassionate release” in 2017 because of failing health (he was 77 at the time and died shortly afterwards), none of the remaining four had ever been given much hope they would escape their prison confines.
All of the men have had numerous parole hearings since 2010. But all have also been subsequently denied. The fundamental roadblocks for these denials have always been the parole commission’s belief that the men have served insufficient time and are unwilling to show remorse by admitting guilt. Monfils’ death is still considered to be a heinous crime in the eyes of the authorities, and they reject any and all alternative possible theories of how he might have died, including suicide. To add to the displeasure of the parole commission and to Brown County, WI officials, each of these men continues to maintain his absolute innocence nearly a quarter century later.
Years after the verdicts were rendered, and prior to his retirement in 2004, Judge James T. Bayorgeon, the original 1995 trial judge, wrote an open letter on behalf of each of the six men, to the parole commission. That letter included this recommendation: “I believe, (insertion of each name) should be granted parole at the earliest possible date.” The judge’s wishes, however, have been largely ignored.
Efforts to get the “Monfils Six” released, and exonerated, have gained momentum in recent years.
Hirn’s first bid for parole was in 2010, the same year as our correspondence began. It was denied even though, according to documents supplied by the parole commission, he was described as the “least culpable” in Monfils’ death.
The bigger picture, however, shows that this was a case plagued with missteps and illegal actions perpetrated by the authorities from the very beginning.
During the original investigation into Monfils death, Hirn readily took four polygraph tests. In fact, he and the other five men took several tests and passed them all. In my book, I describe an instance where the lead detective in the case tried (in vain) to disrupt at least some of those tests while they were being administered. Hirn also pushed for FBI involvement during the investigation. A guilty person certainly wouldn’t push for more, investigation. Although the feds were involved initially, their inquiry was brief. But why? The reason is still unclear.
Many other common-sense questions remain unanswered as well. One I hear often suggests the unlikelihood that all six of these men would remain silent, after all of these years, when sharing crucial information about Monfils? death with law enforcement could have, and still might, increase their chances for parole.
The morning following the repeated calls from Hirn, I emailed a close friend of his to find out if he knew the reason for the call. Much to my excitement, he confirmed my suspicions. “Mike was calling to let you know that He’s been granted parole,” the friend wrote. “He wanted to tell you himself,” explaining that Hirn would most likely be released within a month.
When my husband and I waited on the prison line to be connected with Hirn on a follow-up call that night, we felt like We’d stolen his chance to surprise us. Trying to imagine how he must be feeling gave me goosebumps.
Still, a voice deep within me warned to be cautious about the likelihood of his actual release because of my assumption that being granted parole required admitting guilt and showing remorse. I also knew from talking to each of the men that they would never sacrifice their integrity by admitting to something they did not do. The question remained in my mind: Was the parole board really going to overlook this non-admission of guilt?
During our brief conversation Hirn assured us that he was getting out, in just a few short weeks. After our conversation, it started to sink in. “This is a miracle,” I said to my husband.
Justifying its decision, the prison parole board cited Hirn’s “positive” adjustment to prison life. But people must understand that parole wasn’t simply handed to him. In his letters to me, Hirn had shared the various employment opportunities and other activities he fulfilled as part of a transitional program that all parole-eligible prisoners are expected to complete. He ultimately went above and beyond those obligations by volunteering for extracurricular activities, in addition to the basic requirements. He got along well with his peers. His work ethic was stellar. He was described as a “model prisoner.” Most of all he was disciplined and set high standards for himself from the onset of his prison sentence.
Hirn and his family wanted his discharge to be private. They wanted to be left alone, to relish in this triumph without the intrusion of the media or from those with less savory opinions or motives. But that idea was squashed when news stories and articles started to surface about his impending release. This was, after all, one of the most notorious cases to date in Wisconsin history.
My husband and I discussed travel plans to the remote prison in northeastern Wisconsin, a four-hour drive from our home in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area. We weren’t about to miss one of the few celebratory moments of this otherwise depressing and frustrating case.
We arrived at the McNaughton Correctional Center before 7 a.m. on a cold winter morning, this past December. The term Center rather than Institution signifies a minimum-security facility, considered to be a last stop for prisoners who participate in the transitional program. We parked on the street near the ornate stone prison gates; we weren’t allowed to actually enter the grounds. A straight, quarter-mile driveway was the last obstacle separating us from Hirn, the correctional center where he?d spent the last year of his sentence, and his impending freedom.
A Green Bay photojournalist was among those waiting with us. He interviewed me, asking me to gauge Hirn’s emotions. “He’s probably feeling like a kid on Christmas morning,” I said. “We hear about Tom Monfils and his family, and that’s a tragedy in itself. But the other tragedy is that six men were wrongly labeled and sent to prison unjustly. This is tragic for them as well.”
Asked about Hirn’s plans for the future, I said, “He has always told me that he wants to help change and reform the system. Because it’s broken.”
Joan Treppa is interviewed by a Green Bay, Wisconsin photojournalist the morning of Michael Hirn’s release from prison.
A short time after the interview a man pulled up in a gray pickup and parked along the opposite side of the road from us. He glanced in our direction with a pained look. I could see he was on the verge of tears. He climbed out of his vehicle and headed in our direction.
“Are you Joan”, he asked. “I’m Randy.”
Randy, as in Randy Guerts, Hirn’s cousin. We had exchanged emails in the past, but never met in person.
“Yes,” I said.
He hugged me tight and expressed his deep gratitude, and we both did our best to contain the tears.
“My parents are inside, by the administration building, waiting for Michael to come out,” Randy said.They had been designated to pick Hirn up. I had met Randy’s parents, Hirn’s Aunt Marlene and Uncle Terry Guerts, a few years earlier when visiting Hirn at the Fox Lake Correctional Institution, in Fox Lake, Wisconsin. This was one of maybe a half dozen prisons he’d been in since his incarceration began. When asked how many prisons, Hirn had lost count. I recall Marlene and Terry opting out of photos we were taking with Hirn at the prison back then. “We are waiting until after Michael is released,” Marlene told me.
Around 7:45 a.m., we caught sight of Terry and Marlene’s bright red pickup truck driving toward us?down the driveway from inside the prison. The truck stopped just short of passing the two brick pillars that marked the facility’s entrance. Hirn, looking taller and slimmer than we remembered from our visit in 2015, exited the passenger side of the vehicle and walked calmly yet purposefully as he took his final steps on foot toward freedom. He was leaving the McNaughton Correctional Center and prison life for good, after nearly 24 years behind bars.
I felt anxious as Hirn cleared the gate and walked over to where I stood. As he grew closer, his arms opened wide and an unmistakable smile appeared on his face. “Welcome,” I said as we embraced. Silence descended around us and time stood still as a painful past quickly became history and freedom was now a new reality for my friend.
Michael Hirn embraces Joan Treppa, moments after walking out of the McNaughton Correction Center in Tomahawk, Wisconsin.
The others who had gathered for his release offered hugs as well. It was a small but emotional group. My sister Clare, who had joined us, professed, “It’s about time,” as she relinquished her embrace for the next person in line. “Hey Mike. Congratulations,” said my husband as he motioned for a handshake and a hug. Debra Belliveau, who had worked alongside Hirn as part of his off-site employment, was feeling bittersweet. She’d miss seeing him at work but was ecstatic for his well-deserved release. Finally, Randy, stepped up. They both held on tight with tears threatening once again.
The Green Bay photojournalist asked Hirn for his thoughts. “I’m looking forward to my first Christmas with family in more than two decades and to put up the Christmas tree at home.” Hirn said. “I’m going to enjoy this moment and take one day at a time.” He explained how it felt surreal to actually say “I’m a free man” and that he finally had the opportunity to establish some normalcy in his life.
I describe Hirn’s steps out of prison as his “final” ones because he had taken so many of them over the years, in order to achieve his freedom. I believe that, in moving forward, being angry over something he cannot change will never define who this man is.
With only the utmost respect for someone who I know is destined to become an effective spokesperson for other wrongfully convicted prisoners, I offer this recurring mantra found in many of Hirn’s letters to me over the last few years: “I’m serious about my intentions to be an advocate for prison reform once I’m exonerated,” he would write.
I truly believe that Hirn’s understanding of the dynamics of this case, his ability to curb his anger over these unlawful convictions, and his sheer determination to forge ahead, will open up new avenues to exoneration for many, including the three who remain imprisoned in connection with Monfils’ death.
Right before all of us drove away from McNaughton Correctional that day, Hirn thoughtfully waved goodbye to the prison correctional workers and the warden who also stood by in the cold to witness his release. He thanked them for everything. And they, in turn, wished him good luck. It was clear that all were sincere, and meant what they said.
The Reporters Inc.’s cameras were rolling as Michael Hirn was released, and we then accompanied Hirn and some of his family and friends to a nearby restaurant where he ate his first meal as a free man. To watch our exclusive video of the event, CLICK HERE.?The Reporters Inc. is profiling this case as part of an upcoming documentary series about wrongful convictions. For more information, ‘CLICK HERE.
We all piled into our vehicles and drove to a nearby restaurant to witness Hirn’s first meal as a free man. He ordered biscuits and gravy, and a giant cinnamon roll, and savored their presentation, their aroma, and their freshness before finally digging in. Seeing this display of appreciation and gratitude was refreshing, and a good reminder for those of us who rush through our daily routines, to do the same.
Hirn was especially courteous to the wait staff and to those who passed by our table. We couldn’t help but brag to them about the celebrity in our midst. We laughed and celebrated, and made toasts to commemorate this historic day. We talked about the future and all of the technology that Hirn needed to catch up on, like cell phones and computers.
Michael Hirn digs into his first post-prison meal–a breakfast combo of biscuits and gravy, and a giant cinnamon roll.
Hirn was looking forward to spending the rest of the day at his Aunt Marlene and Uncle Terry’s house, a place he hadn’t been to in decades. He was looking forward to seeing his stepfather who would be meeting them there in a few hours, to bring him back home to Green Bay.
With Hirn’s unexpected release, I’m extremely encouraged that the pendulum seems to have swung in favor of true justice in the Monfils case. People who have interacted with Mike Piaskowski since his release have long seen him as a man of integrity, and not a murderer. With Hirn joining him in freedom, I am certain they will view him in that same light.
I am hopeful that the public will begin to question the lack of integrity of this entire case and rethink the aspects of it that simply do not add up. And I urge those who hold the key to the fate of the three remaining men, Keith Kutska, Reynold Moore, and Michael Johnson’to grant them their long overdue freedom as well.
Before we parted ways on that December morning, I simply had to point out to Hirn’s Aunt Marlene, “Now you can finally have your photo taken with Michael!”
A huge smile crept across her face as Marlene, with newfound joy in her heart, and tears filling her eyes, clung to her beloved nephew that morning as she posed for that photo (along with Terry, Randy, my husband and me), that long-awaited photo, giving new life and new meaning to that old idiom, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
Following his release, Michael Hirn poses with (l-r) Mike Treppa, his cousin Randy Guerts, his aunt Marlene Guerts, Joan Teppa, and his uncle Terry Guerts.
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