Associated Press

Group defends six convicted in paper mill death

December 26, 2010

ALLOUEZ, WI (AP) - It started as a book proclaiming the innocence of the men convicted of the 1992 murder of Tom Monfils in a Green Bay paper mill. The book, "The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men," helped bring together the friends and families of the five men still in prison and the sixth man, Mike Piaskowski, who was freed in 2001 when a federal judge overturned his conviction. Now those friends and families and Piaskowski are hoping their unified voices will help spread the book's message, free the remaining five and perhaps have an even wider impact on the criminal justice system.

"We're calling ourselves Truth In Conviction Alliance-Brown County Chapter," said Joan Van Houten, stepdaughter of Michael Johnson, one of the convicted men. "We're looking for accountability for police and courts. We'll need groups in each county.

"Our prime goal is to bring these five home, but along with that, we can't continue asking for help, saying ‘listen to us,' if we're not listening ourselves," she said. "We want everyone to know this can happen to you, too."

Johnson, Piaskowski and four others - Keith Kutska, Michael Hirn, Dale Basten and Rey Moore - were convicted in a Brown County courtroom of conspiracy to murder Monfils.

Monfils, 35, disappeared Nov. 21, 1992, while he was working at the then-James River Mill. His body was found a day later at the bottom of a paper-pulp vat with a weight tied to his neck.

The defendants and members of their families have claimed from the onset of the investigation that the six men had nothing to do with Monfils' death.

Their claim received a boost last year when Denis Gullickson and Piaskowski's former brother-in-law, John Gaie, published "The Monfils Conspiracy" book that spells out what the authors see as flaws in the case. The two men, with Piaskowski's help, spent eight years researching the case, reading police and court documents and interviewing people.

Their book claims that overzealous and shoddy police work caused investigators to develop a faulty theory about an altercation at the mill in the hour before Monfils' disappearance and then to connect the six men to that altercation.

The state claimed all six men were inextricably linked, and if that's true, the book says in effect, Piaskowski's innocence exonerates the other five. The federal judge overturned Piaskowski's conviction because of a lack of evidence.

Brown County District Attorney John Zakowski, who prosecuted the original case, stands by the police work, the investigators' theory and the convictions. Zakowski says the federal judge erred in overturning Piaskowski's conviction, a claim that rankles Piaskowski and members of Van Houten's fledgling group.

"He must be above the law, right?" said Brenda Kutska, who is married to Keith Kutska's son.

Gullickson, who along with Gaie and Piaskowski, is also a member of Van Houten's alliance.

The three men made a habit of meeting weekly to do research for their book and organize it and, later, to strategize about marketing it and continuing to work to clear the remaining defendants' names. Families of the other defendants also were working behind the scenes, trying to contact lawyers to continue appeals processes.

It wasn't until the book was ready for publication in fall of 2009 that the authors and family members all got together.

"We figured it was strategically important to get everyone together, and then we realized it was the first time the families have all been together since the trial," Gullickson said. "Something poignant about that was, each of the families knew their loved one was innocent but didn't know the others were" until they learned collectively of the authors' findings.

Since then, they've been trying to meet regularly, to share information and tips, offer each other moral support and strategize.

So far the strategy has involved trying to raise public awareness through writing letters and promoting the book. Gullickson said they've gotten the book into the hands of several elected leaders and judges, and it helped them enlist a Minneapolis private investigator to look more deeply into the case.

The investigator, John Johnson, said he's helping the effort at no charge after having read the book three times. He said he has put together a task force of engineers, a forensics expert and three retired federal investigators to look at evidence in the case.

In October, the group organized a candlelight vigil to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the men's arrests. Recently, the group's third formal meeting involved the development of the group's name, the Truth In Conviction Alliance, and discussion of how to involve families and groups who are fighting for the exoneration of other convicted men.

"It's a learning process," Van Houten said. "None of us really knows what we're doing, it's all trial and error, but if we can help provide information we've learned, we can help you with your legal issues.

"There's hundreds of innocent people in prison. .. You have one group working here, another working there, and if you look at all these groups, instead of having all those micro-groups, you have one big group, now it's a full-force campaign."

Innocent Imprisoned
Truth in Justice