Reclaiming Lives, Round Two
Justice Advocate Brings New Hope to Wisconsin Men Convicted of Murder
Editor’s Note: Joan Treppa is a mild-mannered, married, suburban Minnesota mother—someone who, at first glance, you wouldn’t mistake for a tenacious investigative reporter. Yet when Treppa learned about “an egregious miscarriage of justice” a few years ago, the case so enthralled her that she just had to get involved.
Joan’s tireless efforts to help free and exonerate six men she firmly believes have been wrongfully convicted prompted a new legal effort to help them. Joan detailed her quest to reveal the truth in her 2017 book: Reclaiming Lives: Pursuing Justice for Six Innocent Men—and she’s now revised and updated it in a just-released second edition.
The Reporters Inc. sat down with Joan for this exclusive Q&A.
THE REPORTERS INC.: What exactly does Reclaiming Lives: Pursuing Justice for Six Innocent Men investigate?
JOAN TREPPA: I wrote the book to bring to light a terrible injustice that occurred in 1992—one that to this day has yet to be fully corrected. My intent is also to inform readers about wrongful convictions, how they can and do occur, and to illustrate how easily any one of us can get caught up in a similar situation. However, this story is about so much more.
In November 1992, the mysterious death of a paper mill worker (Tom Monfils) in Green Bay, Wisconsin led to the wrongful convictions of six of his co-workers. There are detectives, prosecutors, lawyers and judges who—to this day—argue otherwise, but I firmly believe in the innocence of all six men.
Prior to his death, Monfils made a 911 call to report a theft by a fellow mill worker, Keith Kutska. As a result, Kutska was suspended from work and learned about the 911 call during a disciplinary hearing; he wasn’t told, however, who had made it. Afterwards, Kutska set out to discover the caller’s identity.
A Green Bay Police Department officer gave Kutska a copy of the recording despite repeated requests from Monfils asking that his identity remain private. Kutska then confronted Monfils at work with the tape the following week. Soon after, Monfils disappeared from his work station and was found the next day at the bottom of a paper pulp vat inside the mill, with a rope and weight tied around his neck.
In 1995, six of Monfils’ paper mill co-workers (Kutska, Mike Piaskowski, Mike Johnson, Mike Hirn, Dale Basten and Rey Moore), were convicted of murder, each accused of taking part in the killing of Monfils. The six were tried jointly, during a 28-day trial. Each was sentenced to life in prison.
Above: Tom Monfils and the paper vat where his body was found.
Below: Headlines that followed Monfils’ death and the convictions of his six co-workers.
I learned about this case in 2009. I’m not a legal scholar but I immersed myself in the details, fascinated. In the process, I discovered that most people hadn’t heard the full story, or all of the facts. What they did know, in fact, was erroneous at best. Fifteen years had passed by then. Only one of the men (Piaskowski) had successfully appealed and achieved exoneration, in 2001. The others remained behind bars.
My book chronicles a collaborative effort, by a select few, to obtain legal assistance and eventual freedom for the remaining five men. I became convinced that something had to be done in order to correct this situation, to right these wrongs—and maybe even prevent something like it from ever happening again. Certain aspects of the Monfils case, such as the investigation, the trial, and the verdicts, made big headlines back in the ‘90s while other details were overshadowed. I wanted to share those equally important elements of the larger story.
The book delves into the living nightmare of these convictions, not only for the men, but for their loved ones. It explores the financial difficulties the families faced upon losing their main income producers to prison, and the hopelessness and anger that literally invaded and sometimes conquered their very spirits. All of this is intertwined with personal details of my own life; I bridged an emotional connection with these people. Though I’d never met any of them prior to 2009, I felt as if they’d all been maliciously treated, much as I had been (in albeit different ways) earlier in my life.
The second edition of Joan Treppa’s Reclaiming Lives: Pursuing Justice for Six Innocent Men was released earlier this year.
Our efforts prompted a thorough legal review by a prominent Minnesota attorney who had previously worked with the Innocence Project on other cases. The sordid details of the Monfils case were once again put under a microscope, and damning new details emerged—details that had never before been disclosed. It’s not that this information was unknown. But facts and evidence were ignored or dismissed as insignificant during the initial investigation, because they didn’t coincide with police and prosecutors’ theories at the time.
Due to the notoriety of this case, it made its way back into news headlines. Journalists reported on the new evidence contained in the appeals briefs that were filed—revelations that indicated a suicide had occurred, rather than a murder. I believe that all of these actions helped put pressure on the State of Wisconsin to release these men from prison.
This case, the trials and tribulations of investigating it in a search for the truth, and the absolute drive to right wrongs, all intersect to create a most compelling and hopeful story. If nothing else, this book demonstrates that dire situations and circumstances like these call for nothing short of sheer persistence and determination to make change and overcome injustice.
THE REPORTERS INC.: How was the first edition of the book received when it was released in 2017? What kind of impact did it make?
JOAN TREPPA: My main concern was the kind of interest it would generate within the Green Bay community, where the book could certainly have the most impact. There was significant interest in readership in that area. I received invites to hold public signings, speak to attendees at events at local book stores and libraries, and make presentations at book festivals.
There are those who’ve rejected the new information I’ve presented, and the idea that the case has been handled incorrectly. But I’ve also received messages of gratitude from those who know, or had known, one or more of the men (or their family members). They’ve shared their ever-present doubts about the guilty verdicts and the helplessness they’ve felt to change the outcome.
After the six men received copies of the book, they all expressed their appreciation of the time I’ve devoted to this project. They were thrilled that a book has been written presenting new, factual, in-depth details about the case—one that also includes the hardships faced by their loved ones.
In addition, I believe that the non-aggressive tone I purposely set for my book, and the untold story it represented, resonated with people who read it. Based on the reaction, it’s become abundantly clear to me that the book has been read by many in our legal and prison system.
There are also those who‘ve questioned why someone with no apparent personal ties to this case, or the people involved, would bother to put forth so much effort on behalf of strangers. My answer is simple. I see something that needs to be corrected. And if not me, then who? If not now—when?
Joan Treppa (center, in blue jacket) attends a Green Bay march and rally in support of the convicted men in the early 2010s.
THE REPORTERS INC.: Why write an updated second edition? What’s changed?
JOAN TREPPA: Much has happened since the book was initially released. The efforts of those who became involved in this mission to free the six men, coupled with my desire to document those actions, have prompted real change.
This version updates readers on all that’s transpired in the last few years. The text has been revised and rewritten in many parts, and it’s infused with additional new content as well. The final chapter is my favorite. It’s filled with insights from the six men regarding the initial investigation, thoughts about those they say wronged them, and details about where their lives stand now.
THE REPORTERS INC.: Why should readers and fans of the first version check out the second edition as well?
JOAN TREPPA: Even though this version contains much of the same content as the first, it picks up where the previous book ends and proceeds to tell a more complete story. It takes the reader on a continuing journey, full of more ups and downs, and of exciting new developments. And because the case is so complicated, reading the second edition serves as a good refresher before delving into the more recent content.
THE REPORTERS INC.: What’s changed with the six convicted men since the first book was released?
JOAN TREPPA: I don’t want to spoil the exclusive specifics the book shares, but it’s public knowledge that four of the men—Dale Basten, Mike Johnson, Rey Moore and Mike Hirn—have now joined Mike Piaskowski as free men! Unfortunately, their time on the outside doesn’t mean that all of their lives are playing out happily ever after. They haven’t been exonerated, and Keith Kutska remains behind bars despite extensive new legal efforts to free him.
At the same time, I can also say that we’re very hopeful another major development in this case may be forthcoming in 2022.
One of the convicted men, Mike Johnson, hugs a supporter after his release from prison in July 2019. Joan Treppa (in pink sleeveless top) was there to share in the moment as well.
THE REPORTERS INC.: You’ve followed this case for years. Why are you so convinced these men are innocent?
JOAN TREPPA: The simple answer is that I’ve never heard or seen anything that convinces me otherwise. In addition, I worked with two experts with years of legal and criminal justice experience: Johnny Johnson, a 30-year veteran of law enforcement, and Steve Kaplan, a well-respected attorney who—with the approval of his employer, a large Minneapolis law firm—decided to look into the case in 2013.
The three of us began an independent, in-depth inquiry that led us to new evidence. In the end, Johnny and Steve became as convinced as me that all six of these men are innocent. I should mention that during an initial meeting with Steve, he stressed that if the investigation leaned toward the men being guilty, he wouldn’t take the case. Ultimately, not only did he and his firm get on board, but they offered their services pro bono!
Among our findings: In discussions with Tom Monfils’ younger brother, he revealed that the people closest to Tom believed he wasn’t actually murdered—that he might very well have committed suicide instead. This information never came up during the trial.
Joan Treppa’s colleagues, private investigator Johnny Johnson and litigator Steve Kaplan, at an Innocence Project benefit in 2013.
Concern surrounding the only physical pieces of evidence—the rope and weight found around Monfils’ neck—also became significant pieces of the puzzle during our investigation. We learned that the types of knots used on that rope were rare—yet Monfils had been taught to tie those very specific knots when he served in the U.S. Coast Guard. This fact was also never addressed during the trial.
Although the coroner concluded, decades ago, that a deep gash or wound on Monfils’ head likely killed him, and was caused by a blunt object, no such object was ever found. However, during our investigation, we learned that a cast had been made of Monfils’ head wound soon after his body was retrieved from the paper vat. The size and the dimensions of the cast are a perfect match with the size and dimensions of the blades used to stir the pulp in the vat. This crucial information wasn’t included in the coroner’s report; nor was it disclosed during the trial.
THE REPORTERS INC.: Have you ever had any doubts about the six men’s insistence that they’re innocent? Even a tiny one?
JOAN TREPPA: I’ve never had any doubt. Factual details aside, I’ve met all of the men face to face. I’ve maintained communications with them since 2011. I’ve seen how they conduct themselves around others and how they’ve never wavered in their claims of innocence, no matter how many times they’ve been pressured to take responsibility. I’ve never witnessed a darker, more sinister side to any of them. I’m also acquainted with their families and many of their friends, all of whom have continued to defend them without question.
With that said, are they sometimes angry about their circumstances? Yes. Do they show it on occasion? Absolutely. A quarter of a century has been stolen from them. They’re still looked upon by many as murderers. Yet they manage to remain level-headed and optimistically hopeful about what their futures hold.
Throughout the past decade, Joan Treppa has visited (top left) Mike Hirn, (top middle) Mike Johnson, (top right) Dale Basten, (bottom left) Keith Kutska, and (bottom middle) Rey Moore in their respective Wisconsin prisons. She’s also spent time with Mike Piaskowski (bottom right), who was released in 2001.
THE REPORTERS INC.: The book details why you’re so drawn to the case, given your own life trajectory. Still, you’ve never been wrongfully convicted, or accused of a crime. What’s the connection?
JOAN TREPPA: It’s true that I’ve never been arrested or even accused of a crime. There’s no way that I can personally know how that feels. But I can easily relate and empathize with one key aspect of this case.
My impression, from the very beginning, was that the convicted men had been bullied by law enforcement officials. Harassed, intimidated, threatened, humiliated, etc. For a significant period in my life, I felt that I was bullied similarly. No, not with something as horrifying as a wrongful conviction, but I was robbed of my voice, my dignity, and my sense of self due to bullying. I was picked on, made fun of, called names, and also accused of wrongs I didn’t commit.
What helped me overcome my years of bullying-related trauma was the kindness and generosity I received from good people who entered my world, later in life. Because of that benevolence, I felt an overwhelming sense of duty and commitment to help these people, the same way I’d once been helped. Given my past, I felt well-equipped to stand tall and fight for them.
All human beings face facets of injustice, of one kind or another, at some point in their lives. Taking a stand on behalf of these men and their loved ones helped give them hope, while it simultaneously helped me further heal as well—on both emotional and spiritual levels.
I almost feel as if the mission to free them found me, as opposed to it being an endeavor I simply chose. Because one never forgets what it feels like to be bullied.
THE REPORTERS INC.: In what other ways has this case changed your life?
JOAN TREPPA: Becoming an advocate and an author is an unexpected deviation from the simple satisfaction of my life just a few years ago. To commit to a cause so much larger than me, that’s allowed me to make an actual difference, is an indescribable feeling I wish upon everyone.
This mission to help better the lives of these men and their families hasn’t always been easy, but the determination to stick with it is greater than the impulse to abandon it. I now have a purpose that’s given me more confidence in myself and my capabilities, in all aspects of my life, than ever before. While I think the lasting effects of bullying have often kept me from reaching my full potential, advocating on behalf of others has motivated me to exceed my own previous expectations.
Joan Treppa speaks to reporters outside the Sanger B. Correctional Center in Oneida, Wisconsin, prior to Mike Johnson’s release in July 2019.
THE REPORTERS INC.: Anything else you’d like to add?
JOAN TREPPA: When we decide to abandon ignorant or misinformed judgments, and make conscious efforts to learn about and really understand the difficulties of others, we contribute to the kind of world in which we’d all like to live. Education is a necessary step in reaching that goal.
When I spoke at a local university recently, responses to the book were overwhelmingly positive. That inspired me to now promote it as a teaching tool for students interested in pursuing careers in the legal sector. My hope is that the straight-forward nature of this book could be beneficial in helping provide some of that education.
And maybe, just maybe, Reclaiming Lives: Pursuing Justice for Six Innocent Men will also help prevent some future wrongful convictions. That would be the book’s greatest legacy.
THE REPORTERS INC.: And finally, where can we purchase the second edition of Reclaiming Lives: Pursuing Justice for Six Innocent Men?
Joan Treppa can be reached at . Joan is also a Reporters Inc. Board Member, and you can read more about her on our Team page. The Reporters Inc. is including the death of Tom Monfils in an episode of its upcoming documentary series about wrongful conviction. Read more about it here.
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