Tag Archives: Oregon WI

Defined Distinctions…

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.

oakhill-correctional-institution

Oakhill Correctional Institution

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 w Michael Johnson at Oakhill Correctional, 6-26-16

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:

Meeting Expectations…

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.

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Mike and Joan Treppa with Michael Hirn

Photo courtesy of Oak Hill Correctional Institution