We had traveled on this road before. Its familiar contrast of green fields flanking either side of a winding road led to a rather unattractive building. “The fields are so alive and plush and then you get to bare concrete,” I said to my husband Mike. Crops in their prime of life, malleable to the warm summer breeze, defied the drab character of the stone façade held captive by steely gates. In 1941 this building in Oregon, Wisconsin, which is approximately 10 miles due south of Madison, became the second location of a reform school for delinquent and orphaned girls. It was established in 1876 but its current function is a minimum security prison called Oakhill Correctional Institution which now houses two of our five innocent men, Michael Johnson and Michael Hirn. We had visited Michael Hirn at this location in 2015 and on Sunday, June 26, 2016 we were about to meet Michael Johnson. Johnson had been transferred here only recently.
Personals secured in locker…check. Sport bra…check. Sleeved shirt…check. Long pants without belt…check. Ziploc bag of quarters…check. We felt like pros on this fifth visit in our quest to meet the five men still in prison for the death of paper mill worker, Tom Monfils.
We recognized Michael as he entered the visitor’s lounge. We waved. He was all smiles as he approached us after completing his check-in. “Bless you my sister,” he said as we shook hands.
Many inmates find God during their incarceration. Michael already had long before this ordeal started. And he continues to be a steadfast Christian in spite of it. Reading the Bible daily helps him to cope, to forgive, and to find peace. It helps him to isolate a different existence that truly defines him from the one that was chosen for him.
“Did Joan tell you about my vision?” Michael asked. “Yes she did,” I said. Michael was referring to his stepdaughter, Joan Van Houten and a vision he had shared with her years ago after his murder conviction. This is an excerpt (which I also refer to in an earlier blog):
“I spent approximately eight months in Brown County Jail. While I was in county jail waiting for the jury to return their verdict, is when the Lord gave me this vision. This is a very stressful time in my life, having been stripped of everything that was dear to my life. I believe the Lord was comforting me with this vision. The vision was in a time in the future and I did not yet understand it. I believed at the time it was of the Rapture. It was ten years before I correctly understood the vision. It began with me walking amid rubble, as I looked down I wondered why I wasn’t being cut or hurt by what I was walking on. The presence that was with me said: “It is because I am guiding your feet.” I then looked up and it was a summer day, the grass was green and the sky was blue with puffy white clouds. Before me was a blacktop road with a woman running on it up to a Control Tower screaming and waiving her arms in the air. Then I looked up and the clouds were rolled away and Jesus was looking down at me and was smiling. This vision was of the institution I am currently incarcerated in (Stanley Correctional Institution), yet this institution had not yet been built at the time I had this vision. I believe this woman was running to the authorities with some kind of information, the truth about the Thomas Monfils murder. I was reminded that a woman holds the Scales of Justice in front of the courthouse.”
Thinking of Joan brought tears, causing Michael to reclaim his composure. I spoke up about the time Joan had told me about this vision in 2010. “Joan said that both of you thought the woman was her at first, but then changed your minds after I became involved in 2009,” I said. I fell silent, thinking about how that conversation with Joan had defined my duties as an advocate and how I had participated in passing along a single torch in an effort to find legal assistance for all five of the men wrongfully convicted.
Michael spoke of his family with longing. The unfairness, the consequences of being absent from their lives, but knowing that he will return home one day, are truths that each of the five men share; thoughts all of them desperately cling to.
Mike went to purchase drinks for all of us while Michael headed toward the restroom. After both returned Michael looked down at the palm of his hand and chuckled. He then turned his palm outward. “I wrote some things down that I wanted to cover and I smeared them when I washed my hands,” he said. But as we conversed, topics we covered triggered his memory, allowing him to recall most of what he had written down. I reassured him that the law firm representing Keith Kutska has turned this case on its side to learn everything there is to know about what happened. “They are very capable,” I said. “And they will continue on with this fight for as long as they are needed.”
Joan and Mike Treppa with Michael Johnson
In a recent podcast interview, Joan described evidence that should have been used to prove Michael’s innocence. She said that during the investigation Michael had been approached by a local reporter who asked him if he knew Tom Monfils. Michael told him that he did and that Monfils was a nice guy who brought homemade popcorn into work to share with everyone. He stated that at work, Tom Monfils was known as the popcorn man. It was later determined that Michael was incorrect and that the popcorn man was actually someone else. Despite these documented facts, the video of that conversation with the reporter was never disclosed during the trial.
The two-part podcast interview with Joan Van Houten: