Midwestern Mom on a Mission: Bringing Justice to Wrongfully Convicted
Editor’s Note: Joan Treppa, a married suburban Minnesota mother, thought her life’s path had been set but that all changed in 2009 after a chance encounter with the author of a book about six imprisoned Wisconsin men. They’d been convicted in the mid-1990s of killing a co-worker (Tom Monfils) inside a Green Bay paper mill. Described as an egregious miscarriage of justice, the case so enthralled Treppa that she decided she just had to get involved. Joan’s efforts over the last eight years to help free the men–men she firmly believes have been wrongfully convicted–prompted a new legal effort to do just that. (The Monfils case is also featured in The Reporters Inc.’s upcoming documentary series about wrongful convictions.) Joan has now detailed her quest to reveal the truth in her new book: Reclaiming Lives: Pursuing Justice for Six Innocent Men. The Reporters Inc. is pleased to present this exclusive excerpt.
“John is writing a true crime story,” my sister Clare told me on the phone, describing the new book being coauthored by John Gaie, a retired scientist and researcher she’d recently met.
“He’s collaborating with his former brother-in-law, exoneree Mike ‘Pie’ Piaskowski, along with Denis Gullickson, a local writer,” she explained.
Clare, who lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin, went on to lay out the details. The book, she said, unveils an incident from November 1992 at a Green Bay paper mill in which a millworker, Keith Kutska, ignored company policy by taking a scrap piece of electrical cord home. Eleven days later, Kutska was in possession of a police recording with the voice of a co-worker, Tom Monfils. On it, Monfils could be heard snitching on Kutska about taking the cord.
Kutska confronted Monfils at work, with the recording in hand, and Monfils went missing soon after. His body was found the following evening submerged in a paper pulp vat with a rope and weight tied around his neck. Two and a half years later, six men, including Mike Pie and Keith Kutska, were convicted of murdering him.
Left: a police photo of the paper vat where the body of Tom Monfils was found in 1992; Right: Tom Monfils
“I know one of the six men personally as well,” Clare said. “And I’m certain he’s no murderer either!”
Clare visited my husband Mike and me in Minneapolis weeks later. Accompanying her was John Gaie. I was especially interested in hearing more about his motivation behind writing the book, which was titled The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men.
“Writing began in 2001 following Mike Pie’s exoneration,” John explained. In Pie’s appeal to a federal court, the judge ruled the evidence against him was insufficient to sustain the conviction. His case was dismissed that same year. “We had proof that Pie is innocent but the other five men remain in prison for something we believe they didn’t do. Our intent is to disprove the untruths plaguing each one of them through this book,” he said.
John gifted me a copy of the 487-page book in September. The overall concept of being wrongfully convicted was foreign to me but it immediately captured my attention and curiosity. As I read further into the story, I began to sense an additional underlying theme: bullying. These men were bullied by police and prosecutors. They and everyone around them were hounded and harassed for months, prior to any arrests. They were blue-collar workers, unsophisticated if you will, and vulnerable to persuasion and even trickery as investigators relentlessly pursued them despite any real evidence linking them to Tom Monfils’ death. This was bullying, all right–an adult version of playground cruelty.
Bullying was something my childhood was inundated with. Bullies had made fun of me, defamed my character, and blamed me for things I didn’t do. My mental state was reduced to feelings of shame and self-pity and I’ve spent years trying to restore my self-esteem. I read those same iniquities in this book. But this time, bullying had resulted in far more devastating consequences. Innocent people had landed in prison! This situation infuriated me and provoked a level of indignation within that would not be quieted. I simply had to do something about it.
As I continued to explore this deep sense of connection I felt with these complete strangers, I realized that the bullying I experienced as a young girl had never been fully resolved. And it was then that I decided that helping these men and their families fight this legal and criminal justice bullying could also be a chance for me to work through my own lingering issues.
I was compelled to act on their behalf, to be their voice. I had been degraded and ultimately silenced but I wasn’t going to let the same thing happen to them. As an ordinary suburban wife and mother, I was an unlikely candidate for this task. But after some consideration I decided, “If not me, then who?”
I finished reading the book by Thanksgiving before a planned holiday trip to Green Bay. By then, Clare had heard plenty from me regarding my disgust for this travesty. I was anxious to attend a book signing scheduled at a local Green Bay bookstore where I’d have an opportunity to meet Denis and Mike Pie.
At the signing, both John and Denis explained the many challenges the families of the men still in prison face. One was the inability to continue on with their appeals. “They have no money to hire new legal counsel to take their cases to the federal courts and they’ve lost all hope of ever obtaining the necessary funds it would take,” John said. “If we sell enough books we will be able to contribute a portion of the proceeds for that purpose.”
I was also moved by a statement Mike Pie had made during a lengthy discussion between us. “I was fortunate enough to have been freed but the other five men are still in prison, and it’s my duty to help them however I can,” he explained. He went on to talk about his first-hand experience regarding his incarceration. His reality was frightening and heartbreaking to me. I was inspired by his commitment and the tears that shone in his eyes as he spoke. And as I thought about the other five still living the nightmare Mike Pie had described, I became more resolute in my decision to support this noble effort.
Left: Denis Gullicksen and John Gaie, authors of?The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men; Right: Mike Piaskowski (the only one of the six men convicted of killing Tom Monfils who’s been legally cleared and released from prison) with Joan Treppa
Yet not knowing, at this point, what else to do, I offered to take books home to sell in Minneapolis as a way to create additional awareness about the case and to possibly find and put a book in the hands of an attorney who could revive the stalled appeals process. I started by selling to close friends and acquaintances at various gatherings, to coworkers, and to anyone who’d lend an ear. I poured my heart into this effort and apparently my passion and enthusiasm paid off because they reaped frequent sales, as well as moral support from those who read the book. In less than six months I had sold more than 100 books.
A year into this mission, I was out checking my mailbox one day when a vehicle pulled behind me. I heard chatter coming from inside my neighbor Ken’s SUV. I waved but kept walking. A boisterous retort came from Ken’s passenger, Johnny Johnson. “Hey Treppa!” he yelled, compelling me to turn around. I’d met Johnny before, but didn’t know much about him other than he was a retired Army veteran. Ken had also been in the Army and had mentioned Johnny was helping him with personal veteran-related issues.
As I would soon learn firsthand, Johnny was trustworthy, generous, and a truly respectable guy. He lived in the moment. He was flamboyant and a bit mysterious; he reminded me of Colm Meaney, the actor from the Star Trek series, with his round face and small, squinty eyes.
Many of my conversations during the past year had focused on one thing: spreading the word about the Monfils case, and selling books. That day was no different. As I explained my mission to both of them, a contemplative look appeared on Johnny’s face. He sat there listening intently before he phrased this question: “You don’t know what I did for 30 years, do you?” he asked.
Johnny revealed a vast career in law enforcement. Turns out, he was once a police officer who later became a private investigator. He also shared an aversion to dishonesty. “I pride myself on being one of the good guys,” he said. “But I know bad ones exist because I’ve worked with several.”
Johnny seemed intrigued by the Monfils case, as I explained it from my perspective. But I felt uneasy about discussing lofty legal matters with a criminal justice expert. I had no formal training in the law, only the persuasive views of the authors and Mike Pie–the man who had lived the nightmare–along with my own deep-rooted sense that these people had been and were still being mistreated and bullied. So I backed away from the vehicle, tactfully excusing myself. But as I watched Ken and Johnny disappear into Ken’s house, a nagging feeling consumed my thoughts, compelling me to grab a copy of the Monfils book and race across the street. I knocked on Ken’s door.
“Please read this,” I said, forcing the book into Johnny’s hands.
Johnny was taken aback, but he obliged and even paid for the book.
“Call me. My card’s inside,” I said as I ran off.
A week later, I heard a vehicle pull up to my front door. I heard a door slam shut. Then the doorbell rang, followed by a banging on the window. It was Johnny.
As I opened the door, he barged in, holding up the Monfils book. “I went through this book three times,” he said. “I want answers!?”
He continued, “I’ve worked more homicide cases than I can count. There are things amiss with this one! Where’s the evidence? Where the hell are the witnesses to the confrontation between Monfils and the six men?” he demanded. His voice was high pitched, agitated as he drew imaginary diagrams on my wall. “I’m trying to decipher how this so-called confrontation went down,” he said. “Too many critical details are missing!”
The five Wisconsin men who remain imprisoned in connection with the death of Tom Monfils (left to right): Keith Kutska, Dale Basten, Rey Moore, Mike Hirn and Mike Johnson
I shared my limited knowledge of the technical aspects. “The book’s authors can answer your questions with more clarity,” I said. “I’ll ask them to drive over.”
Johnny resumed his outburst. “I need to do research,” he said. “You and I will have to investigate. But schedule that meeting first.” Before he left, he urged, “Set it up soon. Keep me informed. We need to get going on this.”
Out the door he went, waving as he sped off. “Wait until the guys hear about this,” I thought.
Together, Johnny and I became a kind of unstoppable force over time. Neither of us could dismiss this travesty knowing these people needed our help. Assisting them also made our own lives more meaningful, purposeful and complete. Together, we’d do our part to help expose the corruption, the trickery, the deceit of those who perpetrated this injustice. We were determined to find the attorney to help free the five men. It sounded so romantic to me at the time. How naive of me to think it would be that easy.
A few weeks later, John, Denis and Mike Pie arrived at my Minnesota home to share information and to strategize with Johnny and me. We all agreed to continue with book sales, using the Monfils book as the main avenue toward finding legal assistance.
“We will need an attorney who acknowledges the prevalence of wrongful convictions,” I contended. In researching the issue, I had come across an organization called The Innocence Project –a non-profit entity whose mission is to free those convicted of crimes they did not commit and to prevent future wrongful convictions from occurring. We agreed that I would schedule a visit with the Innocence Project of Minnesota (IPMN).
A few days later, Johnny and I entered the main lobby of the IPMN, located in a Minneapolis suburb. We were there to see Erika Appelbaum, the executive director.
It was a relief to meet her. “Finally, someone who understands our specific needs,” I told her.
But Erika cautioned, “We’re understaffed and backlogged with cases,” she explained. “I don’t think we can take this on.”
But then, Julie Jonas, the legal director, appeared. She was fascinated with our story and mentioned a benefit hosted by the IPMN in October. “You should attend,” she said. “Maybe you’ll meet an available attorney.”
“Hundreds of guests — attorneys, judges, and media personalities will be there,” Erika added.
On the day of the 2012 Benefit for Innocence in Minneapolis, a number of us (Johnny, me, Mike Pie, and our spouses) entered a large reception area with people gathered in small groups. As we scanned the room, Johnny noticed a commotion near one young man in particular. Johnny made a beeline that way to see what was up.
Exoneree Damon Thibodeaux was surrounded by people wanting to meet him. He appeared reserved, almost frightened. We learned he’d been released a week prior to this event after spending 15 years on death row in Louisiana’s Angola Prison, wrongfully convicted of murder.
“He’s the 300th person nationwide, and 18th from death row, to be exonerated by DNA evidence,” declared a soft-spoken man standing near Damon. His name, I would learn, was Stephen Kaplan; he was Damon’s attorney.
Leave it to Johnny to zero in and engage in conversation with one of the most celebrated legal minds present that evening. “Hey Joan,” Johnny called to me, “this is Steve Kaplan from Fredrikson & Byron, a Minneapolis law firm. I’ve been telling him about the Monfils case.”
Steve’s pride for his client was evident as he talked about the 12 years it took to secure Damon’s freedom, and the joy and relief that he was now free. It was inspiring to hear such dedication. I wondered if we’d find someone as devoted to helping our five men.
Afterward, we all drove home in silence, my mind preoccupied with our immediate dilemma. Despite all the people we’d met that evening, we still lacked an interested attorney to help us. Now, three years into this mission, I felt as if I’d barely made headway. Throughout the evening we learned how improbable it is for most wrongfully convicted inmates to achieve freedom. But we also heard astonishing stories from exonerees that seemed to prove goodness can and prevail. “Which will be the outcome in our case?” I wondered.
In the days following the benefit I thought often about Audrey Edmunds, another exoneree we met that evening. A married mother of three young girls, she had been wrongfully convicted of shaking a baby to death, a child who she’d been babysitting. Prosecutors had based her case on faulty science related to Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS). Years later, new and more accurate data about the causes of SBS surfaced. Audrey was contacted by the Wisconsin Innocence Project (WIP) and was told that her case was eligible for review. She was soon exonerated, but not before serving 11 years of an 18 year sentence.
Audrey and I became good friends and had lunch together on occasion. It was during one of those lunches when she told me about the book she had written about her ordeal: It Happened to Audrey: It Could Happen to You.
“I’d like a copy,” I said, “and the honor of hosting a book signing for you.”
We scheduled the signing for early December in 2012. Online invitations went to friends, as well as people like Erika Appelbaum, Julie Jonas, and Steve Kaplan. I extended Steve’s invitation to include Damon Thibodeaux.
Steve, Damon, and his guest, Pam Wandzel, arrived. “Pam is the director of the Pro Bono and Community Services program at the law firm where I work,” Steve said. We all spoke briefly before Audrey’s presentation.
Audrey was delightful but her story was disheartening. She explained how she could never abuse a child that it was against her very nature. She shared the devastation of having to leave her three daughters (all under the age of five) behind when she was convicted.
Following Audrey’s presentation, I was anxious to resume my discussion with Steve and Pam about the Monfils case. Steve’s first question to me was a familiar one: “Why was one of the men released, and not the others?”
“That is the mystery!” I responded.
I broached the subject of legal assistance, treading lightly. After Steve’s latest victory with Damon’s case, he was planning to retire. I asked for his advice on how to find an attorney. He suggested I make an appointment with Pam. Pam agreed, and the following week we scheduled a meeting.
To prepare for the meeting at Fredrikson & Byron, Johnny sorted through two years’ worth of documentation he had collected during his investigation of the Monfils case, filling a sizeable cardboard box. The day of our appointment Johnny and I ascended to the 40th floor of the downtown Minneapolis law firm in tense silence. In the lobby, Johnny set the box down on a nearby table with a thud. I approached the receptionist with a smile, making light of the commotion behind me. “We’re here to see Pam Wandzel,” I said. “She’s expecting us.”
Left: Joan Treppa and Johnny Johnson are interviewed for The Reporters Inc.’s upcoming documentary about wrongful convictions; Right: The 1995 headline in a Green Bay newspaper the day after the six paper mill workers were convicted of killing Tom Monfils
“Pam wasn’t feeling well this morning, she said. “She’s gone home for the day. Can you reschedule?”
Johnny and I looked at each other, disappointment setting in. Then I leaned over to him and said, “We’ve been waiting a long time for this opportunity and we just can’t leave without talking to someone. Hang on, I have an idea.” I turned again to the receptionist and asked, “Is Steve Kaplan in today?”
She offered to check, as she picked up the receiver once again. Johnny and I crossed our fingers. As she hung up, she said, “Steve will be right down.” Johnny and I sat and waited. We contemplated this new development, this shift of fate. Steve Kaplan, a man of integrity, compassion and expertise–the type of attorney needed to win this fight for freedom–was on his way to hear us out.
For additional information about this case, and about Joan’s upcoming new book, Reclaiming Lives: Pursuing Justice for Six Innocent Men, visit her website: http://joantreppa.com/
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