Part of my advocacy on behalf of five innocent Wisconsin men surfaced through letter writing. In 2010, roughly a year after committing to helping these men, I was compelled to write to all of them to introduce myself and my partner, Johnny. Not knowing much at all about them made this a difficult but essential task. These men had most likely heard about us by now from their loved ones and we felt it was time for them to hear from us directly. It was important we let them know of our intensions.
In the weeks following, reply letters started arriving from each of them. My heart raced. “Wow, they’ve written back!” We wondered what messages were inside envelopes marked with the prison stamp, THIS LETTER HAS BEEN MAILED FROM THE WISCONSIN PRISON SYSTEM. One of the return addresses indicated it had come from the oldest of the men, Dale Basten. Dale had written a brief note and included a photo of him, taken around 1961, as he stated, “…at the mill when I started there”. It was his way of introducing his younger self, someone from long ago that was no more. It was the face of a handsome young man with integrity and a little unworldliness, or dare I say, innocence that over time learned tough lessons due to being falsely accused of a heinous crime. I remember also thinking of this remarkable image as a dreadful reminder of a valuable life that had wasted away behind bars for too long. This was a family man who had once been an involved husband and a wonderful Dad to two young girls in a setting similar to other families. The only difference is that their legacy now holds only memories and remnants of a content life simply because a horrible injustice got in the way and destroyed their world.
Photo courtesy of Dale Basten (circa 1961)
The note accompanying the photo was brief but kind. It contained gratitude for my thoughtfulness and an appreciation for receiving it during an especially trying time of year-the Christmas season. Additional letters from Dale ended with well wishes for my longevity and his reassurance that there is definitely a place for me in Heaven.
For those who knew him, Dale was “…a happy-go-lucky kind of guy. He had a real good head on his shoulders. He caught onto things real fast and always had a good job. He was pretty much of a loner and a quiet person who kept to himself”. His wife publicly described Dale as “… a devoted husband and Father.” One of his neighbors said, “If you needed a favor, he would be willing to help.” – Excerpts from the book, The Monfils Conspiracy.
Sometime ago, Dale experienced serious medical issues and was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment. Initially his family was given no information about his well being or whereabouts. They later learned he had suffered a heart attack. This experience, typical of those forced onto families of the incarcerated, caused extreme trauma. It makes little sense especially for those with loved ones serving time for something they didn’t do. I see this as a crime in itself that must be remedied.
Dale who is now 73 years old, writes on occasion. He’s not the type to compose long letters but what he does say is meaningful. I believe that one day very soon, I will see a face aged beyond its years with eyes full of wisdom.
Drawing of what Dale looks like now. Courtesy of Artist: Jared Manninen