We typically focus our attention on the immediate or more visible victims in any tragedy, such as the person who died or the main suspects of a crime. But we often forget about those in the background whose lives are torn apart as a result. In the context of wrongful convictions I’ve referred to these obscure victims as “collateral damage”-those who represent the other facet of any tragedy that are often forgotten. I wanted to share a testimonial (edited for length) that was written by one such person. Her name is…well…let me step aside so she can tell you herself…
Brenda and Clayton Kutska
My name is Brenda Kutska. I am Keith Kutska’s daughter-in-law. My husband, Clayton, is the sole child of Keith and Ardie Kutska. This was and is our lives.
Our worries started when the body of Tom Monfils was found in the pulp vat at James River Paper Mill in 1992. We all went on with our lives as best we could while the police followed Keith and Ardie around everywhere as well as watched their house. Keith and Ardie were already under a lot of stress and financial strain, but getting by.
Keith helped us to buy our first house in 1993 and we got married in 1994, with the birth of our first two babies being in March of 1995. Our family’s worst fears were realized in April, 1995 when Keith and five other men were arrested for Tom Monfils murder. In the back of our minds we knew this was a possibility but prayed it would not come to this. We thought the police would find the guilty party and this would just be a bad memory. I am happy that Keith was at least able to attend our wedding and see the births of his granddaughters. With Keith’s arrest Ardie faced additional financial strain. Keith had gotten a job after being fired from the mill but now there was no second income to help pay bills. We, along with friends and neighbors helped Ardie with everyday chores and house repairs while dealing with all of our own plus two newborns and the emotional strain of everything going on. Ardie received nasty phone calls and letters and some people tried to befriend her to find out information on the case.
Clayton and I were 22 years old and this should have been the happiest time of our lives even though we were dealing with health concerns with one of our babies. The additional strain of the trial looming was going on at the same time my father was having bypass surgery. My Mom tried to help out with babysitting if we needed time to ourselves or just sleep. Clayton was an emotional wreck some days and very depressed but over time he has managed to figure out how to live with what has happened to his Dad. This experience has led him to be more cynical instead of the happy young man I married. In 1996 we sold our house to buy Keith and Ardie’s house and we now live there with Ardie. It was for financial reasons as well as peace of mind for Keith.
We are dealing with the aftermath but Clayton misses Keith’s mentoring. Ardie lost a husband and friend and the time growing old together. There is no longer a retirement plan because all of that money was used to pay the trial lawyer. Keith did not get to see his only grandson until he was three years old because Keith was sent to a Tennessee prison for some years before being brought back to Wisconsin.
Keith missed his calling in life. He should have been a teacher because he loves to talk about many subjects especially the constellations in the night sky and history. He tells our kids about the stars when we go to see him but he would love to be home setting up the telescope to actually show them. We’ve taken the three kids to see their Grandpa since they were little, eventually having to explain why he is in prison. As they’ve grown they have grasped the understanding that he is there for a crime he did not commit and that he has to stay there until he is found innocent.
We have always tried to not let this experience rule our lives and our children’s lives but it has still shaped us in many ways, especially in the trust levels we have in people. To share an example, it was very hard for my husband to hear me tell the kids at their young ages that if they are ever in trouble or lost to talk to a police officer. The fact of the matter for us was the idea of being able to trust them and that they are there to serve and protect could not have been further from the truth. We are just average people trying to raise three children and live our lives to the fullest in the hope that one day this injustice will be righted.