It disgusts me to observe the harsh portrayal of six paper mill workers from Green Bay, WI, convicted of a so-called murder in 1995. Often when this topic surfaces, whether in conversation or in the news, these men are characterized as “monsters” and “union thugs”. Having befriended all of them in the past six years and meeting three of them in person, my impressions are vastly different.
I told you about the incredible visit my husband Mike and I had in February with Keith Kutska, the so-called ring leader of the “angry mob” that supposedly gathered on November 21, 1992 to beat up Tom Monfils. On Saturday, April 18, 2015 we drove to Oregon, WI which is just South of Madison, to the Oak Hill Correctional Institution. This time we were visiting Michael Hirn, the youngest of the six men. My husband took this video prior to our entrance onto the prison grounds.
To add a little background that separates Michael from the others, back when this case was being investigated, Michael Hirn readily took four polygraph tests. He passed all of them. But these tests are rendered inadmissible in court. Michael Hirn also pushed to have the FBI involved in the investigation. The FBI did come but did not stay long. I am not aware of the circumstances that caused them to leave. But like all the others, Michael Hirn found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time the day Tom Monfils went missing.
This time we were under ‘special visit’ status due to Michael’s full visitation list. We had completed the requirements for a one-time visit only. We approached the front desk and presented our ID’s. However, the guard could not find the form in the designated blue folder. He was apologetic as he searched for the paper that would confirm our visit and he acknowledged our long drive. He made a call to another guard who finally found the missing form in another location and after a sigh of relief, sent us on our way to the visiting room.
We were directed to table #30 off to the side of the room. Many tables near us were occupied and like our visit with Keith, the atmosphere was relaxed. We waited a few minutes before Michael appeared. I waved to signal our presence. We exchanged a smile while he checked in. This experience was oddly familiar given it was only our second visit to a prison.
As Michael approached he shook hands with my husband. They hugged. Then it was my turn to receive a hug. We were delighted to finally meet Michael. We had been scheduled for a visit a month earlier but when the form was being processed, Michael was unexpectedly transferred from Fox Lake Correctional to Oak Hill, a medium security prison. The paperwork had gotten lost but thanks to Ms. Miller, Michael’s Social Worker at Fox Lake, the process was expedited.
Michael, like Keith is kind, thoughtful, courteous and talkative. We knew from his many letters that he is outspoken about our judicial system and very intent on working to correct its many flaws as soon as he is able. We’ve told him that we will be there to support him when that time comes. We discussed the new developments in the case and enjoyed seeing him smile.
Forty minutes into our visit a guard came to our table. “Is it okay if two other visitors join you?” he asked. Michael’s Aunt Marlene and Uncle Terry had arrived. Michael was pleasantly surprised and we, of course, were eager to meet more of the clan. They were anyone’s aunt and uncle. Mike and I immediately felt like family. We hugged and laughed. Mike and I learned that they had visited often over the years. Michael introduced me as the instigator in the legal proceedings. Marlene, now sitting next to me, thanked me and offered another hug as tears fell. She then looked directly at Michael. “I don’t know how you maintain such a positive attitude under such circumstances,” she said. Michael told her, “It is because of the support from so many that keeps me strong,” he said.
My heart wept for Marlene and Terry’s pain over so many years. It was obvious they relied heavily on each other for support. I felt grateful for that. They didn’t dwell on anger but exhibited concern for Michael’s welfare. Their genuine love for him shone.
The three-hour visit progressed rapidly. I wanted to have pictures taken. The apropriate form was filled out. We were soon called by an inmate who’d be taking the photos. Unlike the photo experience during our visit with Keith, I was successful in getting them both to smile. Marlene and Terry opted out of the pictures. “We are waiting for the day when Michael is released,” they said. We purchased and devoured ice cream bars. How good it felt at that moment to be a part of this mission and these lives.
In the lobby following our visit, we spent time speaking with Marlene and Terry. We exchanged contact information. They felt inadequate in their expression of gratitude toward what we were doing for Michael. They thanked us for taking the time to visit their beloved nephew. The story of Marlene and Terry is the story of thousands who have lost precious years with loved ones due to a wrongful conviction. The resounding constant is the level of resilience and courage all of them possess.
Just before this visit, I had done as I always do-sent my most recent blog piece to all of the men. This latest described our visit with Keith. In Michael’s letter he referenced our upcoming visit and mentioned that Keith had set the bar pretty high and he was feeling the pressure to make sure we had an even better visit. Honestly, Michael had nothing to worry about. Any expectations we may have had were greatly overshadowed by actual events that day. We’ve again been blessed with an insight into the integrity of another courageous soul…and his family.
Mike and Joan Treppa with Michael Hirn
Photo courtesy of Oak Hill Correctional Institution