On November 22, 1992, the body of 35-year-old Thomas Monfils was found at the bottom of a two-story pulp vat at the James River Paper Mill in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He had been severely beaten and a 50-pound weight was tied around his neck. An autopsy showed he died of suffocation after ingesting paper pulp.
Green Bay police suspected co-workers were involved because of an incident that occurred about two weeks earlier. On November 10, police received an anonymous phone call from a man who said that Keith Kutska, a mill worker, planned to steal a 15-foot electrical cord from the plant at the end of his shift that day. Kutska was stopped by plant security as he was leaving that day, and he refused a demand to open his duffel bag. For refusing, Kutska was suspended without pay for five days.
An angry Kutska then sought to obtain a copy of the tape of the call. In what was later called a “bureaucratic screw-up,” police gave him a copy of the tape, despite the plea of Thomas Monfils, who had made the call, to remain anonymous.
On November 21, Kutska brought the tape to the mill and played it for a number of co-workers, including Monfils, who admitted that he made the call. Two other workers were present—including 43-year-old Michael Piaskowski. All of the men were upset because they were union workers and believed that Monfils had crossed the line of union brotherhood.
Police investigated the case for more than two years without success. But a break came in April 1995, when Brian Kellner, a worker at the mill who had been deer hunting on the day Monfils disappeared, told police of a conversation he had with Kutska during an alcohol-fueled conversation at a tavern. Kellner said that Kutska told him he and five other workers had confronted Monfils near a water fountain in the plant on the day before his body was found.
According to Kellner, Kutska, after drinking 40 beers, drew a diagram showing where he stood with five other workers, including Piaskowski, as they confronted Monfils. Kellner said that Kutska told him someone slapped Monfils and that another worker, Michael Hirn, shoved him. Ultimately, Kellner reported that Kutska had said those present included Michael Johnson and Dale Basten.
On April 12, 1995, fueled by Kellner’s statement, police descended on the mill and arrested Kutska, Piaskowski, Hirn, Reynold Moore, Michael Johnson, and Basten on charges of murder.
Police believed that Monfils had been attacked by a mob of co-workers angry at him for informing on Kutska. After beating him, according to police, they put his body in the pulp vat. Police would later say they decided to drain the vat because Monfils’ car was still in the mill parking lot the day after he was reported missing. Had they not done so, police said, Monfils's body would have disintegrated and disappeared.
The six men went on trial in September 1995 before a jury picked in Racine, Wisconsin and moved to Brown County Circuit Court in Green Bay. The prosecution argued that the men had conspired to severely beat Monfils and later to cover up the beating by dumping the body in the vat.
Kellner testified to his conversation with Kutska. Only one other witness testified about the confrontation with Monfils--James Gilliam, a jailhouse informant who had been Moore’s cellmate prior to trial.
Gilliam testified that Moore told him that he, Kutska and unidentified others had decided to scare Monfils. When they confronted Monfils, Kutska punched him and Monfils fell to the floor and tried to protect himself. Moore, according to Gilliam, said he “just do it like everybody else” and began punching Monfils.
Gilliam said Moore told him that after the beating, everyone went back to work and that he was shocked to later discover Monfils was found in the pulp vat.
A co-worker said Piaskowski was irate when he learned Monfills had made the call to police. Another co-worker said Piaskowski reported Monfils missing within minutes after the beating was said to have occurred, which prosecutors contended showed he knew what had happened.
And another co-worker, David Weiner, testified that he saw Basten and Johnson carrying something heavy toward the pulp vat on the day Monfils disappeared.
All six defendants testified and denied beating Monfils and dumping him into the vat.
Kutska testified that he and his wife went to the Fox Den Bar with the Kellners and that they talked about Monfils' death. Kutska denied making the incriminating statements to Kellner, saying he was talking hypothetically. The two owners of the bar testified that there were no other customers there at the time, except for a couple of quick carry-out sales. The owners testified that Kutska was describing "what-if" scenarios.
On October 28, 1995, the jury convicted all six men of the murder. Piaskowski and Basten, who, unlike their co-defendants, had been out on bond, were taken into custody immediately. All six were sentenced to life in prison.
In February, 1997, Kellner recanted portions of his testimony during a hearing on a new trial. Kellner testified that he lied because a Green Bay police officer had threatened to “have me locked up, take my children away and see that I lost my job. The officer denied making the threats and said he “tricked” Kellner into making his statement.
Kellner said the officer said his statement merely verified what police already knew and demanded that he go along with them to be a witness in the case.
At the hearing, three prison inmates also testified that Weiner, who had subsequently been convicted of killing his brother, had told them that he was the one who put Monfils’ body in the vat. Weiner, who was never charged in the murder, denied making the statement.
The motion for a new trial was denied.
A federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed on behalf of Piaskowski and in January 2001, U.S. District Judge Myron Gordon reversed Piaskowski’s conviction, ruling there was insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction.
Gordon ruled that the prosecution’s only evidence against Piaskowski was a statement that he reported Monfils missing minutes after Monfils disappeared and that Piaskowski was with the five other defendants just before the beating and with some of them a few minutes after the beating.
Piaskowski was released on bond on April 3, 2001 while the state appealed Gordon’s ruling. On July 10, 2001, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the decision. The Court remarked on Kellner’s recantation of his testimony—which was especially relevant to Piaskowski’s case—and said that “inconsistencies in Kellner's trial account of Kutska's story render his credibility marginal at best,” adding, “The jury’s conclusion that Piaskowski participated in the beating and/or conspired with the other defendants to kill Monfils is speculation.”
The Court of Appeals also upheld Gordon’s ruling that Piaskowski could not be retried and dismissed the case.
The family of Monfils later obtained a $2 million judgment against the Green Bay police department for releasing the tape of Monfils’ call to police.
– Maurice Possley