How a Minnesota woman found peace crusading for 6 murder convicts

This is the story of how the incarceration of 6 Wisconsin men brought freedom to a Blaine, Minn. woman named Joan Treppa.

More than two decades ago at the James River Paper Mill in Green Bay, a mill worker named Tom Monfils was found at the bottom of a vat, a jump rope tied around his neck and to a weight. Several days earlier, Monfils had called the police warning them that a coworker named Keith Kutska might retaliate if he found out about a 911 call he made.

Monfils had called police, and told them Kutska was going to take home some mill property. The city said they wouldn't release the recording, but they did.

Mike Piaskowski was one of the workers who heard the recording and confronted Monfils for being disloyal to the union. The next day, Monfils was found at the bottom of the vat. A medical examiner said he died of asphyxiation and had been beaten.

Now a judge, John Zakowski was the district attorney when Monfils died. It took him more than two years to charge 6 men at the mill with murder, alleging Kutska was at the center of an attack on Monfils. The jury found all 6 guilty. They were sentenced to life in prison.

Ardie was Kutska's wife. She said it's difficult to visit him in prison, but he gets to see his son and grand kids sometimes. Two decades later, Kutska and the others still maintain their innocence.

Piaskowski was one of the 6 convicted of murder, but in 2001, a federal judge exonerated him, and he was freed. Piaskowski is still the only one of the six released from prison.

In 2009, authors Denis Gulickson and John Gae published "The Monfils Conspiracy," arguing all 6 workers were innocent. This is where Treppa comes into the story. She started writing to the men. She even found Johnny Johnson, a retired investigator, who had just bought a motorhome with the intention of traveling the country. Instead, he'd travel to Green Bay and re-interview witnesses and gather evidence.

"There was merit in everything she said, and coupled with her ability to carry it emotionally, I was touched. I was convinced. I was convinced she knew something that she didn't really know yet," Johnson said.

Treppa wasn't done. She convinced the Minneapolis firm Fredrikson and Byron to help. Attorney Steve Kaplan filed a 152-page brief arguing for Kutska to get a new trial. There were plenty of documents in his office and in Piaskowski's basement. The brief's main arguments are that the bruises and cuts on Monfils' body came from the blades in the vat -- not from any attack – and that the key witness recanted and Kutska's alleged confession was fictitious. In addition, the brief claimed there were problems with the lead detective's interrogations and the timeline. Most importantly, the brief claimed it was a suicide.

The brief brings up something never mentioned in the trial: Monfils was suicidal, mortified by his 911 call, and even left behind notes, an argument supported by Monfils' own brother. Lawyers argue that Monfils was fascinated with drowning since his Coast Guard days where he learned to tie the knot found around his neck.

The state's reply calls the brief "entertaining, arguably compelling" that "reads more like a well-written work of fiction," which is a reminder that the future for these five men is still uncertain. As for the past, just a few years ago, before Treppa took up this cause, she was shy and afraid, lost in the mix as one of 13 siblings. Now, she only just realized why the 6 strangers in Green Bay were no strangers at all.

"Realistically, I could relate to people who'd been wrongfully convicted because those are the same characteristics they have. They feel lost in the mix, they feel left out, they feel forgotten," Treppa said.

Now, thanks to the crusade, she found a new feeling: Hope, because there is one little girl who is now free.

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