Joan Treppa is a married mother who resides in Blaine, Minnesota. As a citizen advocate devoted to fighting wrongful convictions, Joan focuses her efforts by helping family members of the wrongfully accused deal with the devastating effects and aftermath of a wrongful conviction. Joan is currently writing a book about her experiences.

A newspaper headline from 1995, when six Green Bay, Wisconsin men were convicted of killing a fellow paper mill worker.

How I Became a Citizen Advocate

Wrongful Conviction of Six Wisconsin Men Captured My Attention, Changed My Life

November 2015

BY JOAN TREPPA

Six years ago, my life was perfect–and by perfect I mean that it had a suitable balance of life’s ups and downs, moving along at a slow and steady pace towards whatever the future had in store.

But as satisfying as my life was back then, it was much too predictable for a spirited soul like mine, and it was only a matter of time before all hell would break loose.

Sure enough, that happened in the summer of 2009 when I met researcher and writer John Gaie and he opened my eyes to an intriguing social justice cause. John co-authored a book entitled The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men.

I found myself irresistibly fascinated with his true crime story, a book that profiled the 1992 death of a paper mill worker, Tom Monfils, and the subsequent wrongful convictions of six of Tom’s co-workers in 1995. John’s former brother-in-law Michael Piaskowski was, in fact, one of the men put on trial in the town of Green Bay, Wisconsin where the incident happened. John always insisted he knew that the evidence against Michael and the others didn’t add up. He adamantly told me, “Mike would never involve himself in any murder. If anything, he would step in to stop it.”

John explained that the incident threw the entire town of Green Bay, with a population of roughly 120,000 people, into shock. Murder didn’t typically happen in this close-knit community and the absence of any arrests for two and a half years instilled a rising tide of panic among its residents. As time went by, law enforcement and the local media focused more and more attention on the mill workers. To some, it was clear that these “murderous union thugs” were to blame.

John said that one of the most damning facets that influenced the outcome of the 28-day trial in this case was the verdict in the infamous O J Simpson trial, which was playing out at the same time in the 1990s. The belief that a murderer had been allowed to go free in L.A. prompted a jury from Racine, Wisconsin to decide that nothing like that would happen in their so-called backyard.

Only one of the jurors had more than a high school education, and another admitted years later that she couldn’t tell the six defendants apart, two weeks into the trial. They were sequestered during the entire 28 days and some were seen catnapping while being subjected to endless mundane particulars about the daily activities inside a paper mill, and precise details of how paper machines operate.

They listened to testimony from 81 witnesses—three of whom were key to the prosecution’s case.  Unbeknownst to this jury, one of those three later confessed to testifying falsely after being coerced by the lead detective, claiming the officer threatened to have his child custody and job terminated. Another was nothing more than a paid informant (jailhouse snitch) serving time for killing his wife, and the third was also in prison for killing his own brother.

Regardless of the absence of solid physical evidence or definitive eyewitness testimony, the six men were convicted of first-degree intentional homicide and given life sentences on October 28, 1995.

The jury was quick in their deliberations. They spent a total of eight hours determining the fate of six blue-collar mill workers. It was blatantly clear; these jurors were more than ready to go home and get on with their lives. In essence, a joint trial that was meant to save taxpayer money and cause minimal trauma to the grieving family of the victim gave little credence to the innocent lives that were being destroyed in the process: the families and friends of the accused and the men themselves–innocent men–according to the evidence John laid out in his book.

However, five years after the guilty verdicts were delivered, an unexpected development occurred. Piaskowski was not only released but he was absolved of all wrongdoing by a federal judge and fully exonerated. His family was able to raise the necessary funds to land his case in a different courtroom away from the county where the trial took place. The reasons for the now-deceased Senior Federal Judge Myron L. Gordon of the Eastern District of Wisconsin to overturn Piaskowski’s conviction were twofold: lack of evidence to show he was involved in the crime and the fact that none of the three key witnesses named him specifically during their testimony. Judge Gordon wrote, that a guilty verdict in Piaskowski’s case “required the jury to pile speculation on top of inferences that were drawn from other inferences…such a verdict is not rational.”

This ruling meant that Piaskowski was free to live his life to the fullest. He could vote, buy a firearm and never be prosecuted for that specific crime again, making it quite safe for him to come forward with any information–good or bad–with no significant consequences. Instead of fessing up or laying blame on the other men, Piaskowski became instrumental in the completion of The Monfils Conspiracy, which he feels accurately depicts what really happened. John Gaie’s purpose with the book was to lay out all of the facts from all viewpoints.

We all have issues we feel strongly about. Most often they stem from our own personal experiences or those of close friends or relatives, like this one did for John. I could have climbed on board with any number of causes that have shaped the course of my life but it wouldn’t have mattered because this one ultimately chose me somehow, and took precedence. After reading The Monfils Conspiracy I became a so-called “citizen advocate” for the wrongfully convicted, connecting people who are equally concerned about the problem, and creating awareness about the issue.

I had no legal background and my knowledge about the subject was nil before I read that compelling book. But I’ve successfully stepped in to help carry the torch to the next level.

What did I do? What do I do? Well, before I could even think about getting involved, I did my research. I attended a book signing in Green Bay to get to know the other two people who helped co-write the book, author Denis Gullickson and the actual exoneree, Michael Piaskowski. The observations I made during that event were enough to convince me that their stories had merit. Denis’ compassion for the Monfils family, accompanied by his outspoken concern that a terrible injustice had been forced upon the convicted men and their families, was unmistakable.

Michael Piaskowski looked me in the eyes that day and proclaimed, “I was fortunate enough to have been freed but the other five are still in prison and it’s my duty to help them however I can.”  Piaskowski could have left this nightmare behind and moved on, but he did not. I was awestruck by his commitment and it sealed the deal for me—I was firmly on board to help in any way I could.

I started conversations with my friends that might possibly lead to connections with people they knew in the legal community in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area, where I live. The book was a great tool to get discussions started–so I started selling them. Successfully! I also traveled to Green Bay to meet with, and prompt, the friends and families of the men to conduct a rally in the heart of downtown Green Bay on or near October 28, when the guilty verdicts were read. I felt an annual event like this would help these supporters feel empowered and remain hopeful in their quest for justice.

I also wrote impassioned letters to people such as the attorney general of Wisconsin with a plea of urgency, to take a fresh look into this flawed case. I eventually started to write to the men in prison to introduce myself and keep them abreast of any activities we engaged in. I set up book signings in Minneapolis for the authors and contacted local media outlets to cover this story.

In 2010, one year into my mission, I sold a book to an individual who had spent his entire career in law enforcement. His expertise as a former police officer and licensed crime scene field investigator was vital to our mission and he soon became an invaluable ally. His reaction after researching the details of the case on his own time, and getting a better understanding of how it was handled, was one of disgust and loathing for the law enforcement community in Green Bay. So, together he and I set out to find a respected and capable attorney in Minneapolis that could reopen the case.

Our lengthy search ended in 2013 and, two years later, this new legal team presided over a three-day evidentiary hearing. The case was being re-examined. A miracle was taking place before our very eyes.

The purpose of the hearing was to request a new trial for Keith Kutska, the lead suspect in the case. New evidence was presented and a total of 14 witnesses testified, including the detective who led the initial investigation from 1992 to 1995.

The judge who presided over this hearing is the same judge from the original trial in 1995. We’re currently awaiting a decision from him, waiting to find out if Kutska will indeed be awarded a new trial.

What truly compelled me to get involved in this fight for justice might surprise you. It stems from childhood. I was made fun of and laughed at by fellow classmates when I was in grade school. This caused me incredible anxiety; I was often unable to utter a sound in response. Kids would then bark phrases like, “Cat got your tongue?” I felt helpless and alone. Having grown up in a family with 15 siblings I also felt left out, lost and ultimately forgotten. Even though I believe my parents did their absolute best, it was impossible for them to give adequate attention to all of us, and the results were damaging.

From my perspective, these wrongful conviction cases resemble an extreme bullying campaign, much like the one I endured. I made an overwhelming connection to the plight of these people. And by helping them, strangely enough, it’s helped me to confront and finally heal from my past wounds.

We as individuals don’t need to have all the solutions in order to make a difference. We simply must allow our passions and, most importantly, our personal tragedies to guide us into the unknown–into the lives and circumstances of people we might otherwise never know. We need to realize that we have more inner knowledge than we might initially understand. Sometimes it’s concealed, just waiting for the right opportunity or circumstance to reveal itself. And it usually appears unexpectedly, when it’s truly needed.

Since becoming involved in the Monfils case, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet actual exonerees–those who’ve spent years behind bars for crimes they did not commit and are finally free. The amazing courage and normalcy they possess, despite the devastating trauma they’ve endured, can help us all to realize that what happened to them can and does happen to most of us on varying levels. (Again, for me, it was the prison of my childhood.)

And the assumptions we have, that we could never be caught up in the same extreme circumstances of a wrongful conviction, disappear when spending time with exonerees and seeing common irrefutable qualities in every one of them that mimic our own. Before being sent to prison, these people were full of life. They had jobs, families, houses, hobbies, pets. They spent precious time with their children, dealt with mundane household chores, and took relaxing vacations. Things we take for granted every day.

When you start to learn the details of these many cases, you become truly aware and concerned. You realize you actually could find yourself, very easily, in a similar circumstance, and sent to jail for a crime you didn’t commit.

Eyewitness misidentification is high on a laundry list of causes of wrongful convictions. Some of the more prevalent include false confessions, faulty forensic science, bad lawyering, and law enforcement misconduct. Simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time can land you in prison for life.

The possibilities are endless and very real for each one of us, which is precisely why I’ll continue to create a necessary awareness about this issue and use my voice to represent those who no longer have one.

For me, it’s an inescapable and awe-inspiring path.

Joan Treppa can be reached at jctreppa@gmail.com.

For more about Joan, check out https://about.me/JoanTreppa. For more information about the book, The Monfils Conspiracy, check out http://www.sixinnocentmen.org/. And for further info about the entire Monfils case, check out http://jaredmanninen.com/truecrime.html .

Discussion

13 people commented on "How I Became a Citizen Advocate"
Feel free to join the conversation and leave a comment as well.

  • Johnny says:

    WOW! Joan is “Mother Theresa”. A awe inspiring factual story spearheaded by a wonderful human being. Many accolades to come for Reporters Inc. on this amazing travesty of injustice. I am empowered with new knowledge. We can talk about it all day long but you folks make things happen. The purveyors of Humanity you are!

  • Heather Gatheridge says:

    In 2012, my brother was accused of a crime he didn’t commit, that of inappropriately touching his daughter (her initial description). For reasons that are too voluminous to go into here, we as a family knew these accusations to be untrue. Unfortunately, one month prior to my brother’s trial (he had refused 2 plea offers) our mother was diagnosed with advanced stage pancreatic cancer; she was a major witness. One week after her diagnosis my brother was offered another plea that amounted to 10 years of probation, time served, not having to register, and that he would enter an Alford plea. Although he did not want to take a plea of any kind, he ultimately decided to take it so he could spend more time with our mother, who subsequently passed away not quite 3 months later. When researching for other cases of false accusations I came across the case of Charles Farrar, a Colorado man who had been sentenced to 145 years in prison on multiple counts of child sexual abuse against his step-daughter in 2002. I found an article online indicating the step-daughter had recanted her allegations one year later, but Mr. Farrar remained in prison after being denied a new trial with the trial judge’s belief that the recantation would not produce an acquittal at a new trial. I started corresponding with Mr. Farrar in June of 2014 and have been advocating for him ever since. Through further research, I have found at least 55 exonerations of individuals imprisoned due to false accusations that also involved the alleged victim(s) recantation. Mr. Farrar was picked up by the Colorado Innocence Project and his lawyer has filed a writ of habeas corpus in the Federal courts. It is my sincere hope that the Federal courts will see the injustice of his wrongful conviction and subsequent denials of a new trial and grant him that, or his freedom.

  • Lynn Moller says:

    Until the fall of 2008, I naively believed that if you were charged and convicted with a crime, you must have done it. I thought police and prosecutors were the best in our society, making sure we were safe from criminals. These thoughts came to a rushing end when, in Sept. 2008, in the course of my work as a family child care provider, I was falsely accused of harming a child in my care. When the police came to my door, I foolishly invited them in, only to fall into a state of shock when I heard what they were accusing me of, and how they believed it. Even though I was able to eventually prove what the instigator of the accusations said was not possible, the police and DA had added so many other false charges that it was impossible to defend. How do you defend a negative? I was acquitted on the first charge (that started it all), but found guilty on three other added charges. I was now a felon! Me! The mildest mannered, quiet, patient person around! My faith in the legal system was shattered.
    My life savings was used up for defense and living expenses, once my day care job was stripped from me. This was a job I loved and wanted to do until I retired. I had degrees in child development and early education. I had to serve six months in jail, assigned only because the judge said I wouldn’t take responsibility or show remorse for what I “had done.” My children, at the time in their teen years, have been negatively affected and their high school experiences will forever be tainted by the turmoil of my charges and convictions.
    I became aware of other child care providers falsely accused around the same time as this was happening to me. It was a major eye-opener. Once accused, you are doomed.
    I contacted Joan Treppa through a mutual friend, and cannot say enough positive things about this wonderful person. She has not had any personal experience being accused of a crime, yet she has a passion and commitment for those of us who have. Most people are like I was before being accused—if it isn’t happening to you, you are removed from the situation and don’t have anything at stake. Joan embodies the true definition of advocate. Her work is outstanding, and I am proud to call her a friend.
    I am in the process of writing my story, as the more attention we can draw to the wrongly accused and convicted, the better. Thank you to The Reporters for helping to give us the avenues to do so.

  • Jennifer Thompson says:

    Thank you Joan from all of us that find ourselves peeling back the layers of our lives to find that passion and commitment in lifting up the voices that get lost. You are amazing and inspiring and I am so grateful you are in the fight.

  • Deb Schultz says:

    I am an RN who was wrongfully convicted by a plastic surgeon who continues to stalk me 9 years later. I began working in a plastic surgery office to help build the esthetic biz (botox/fillers). I didn’t realize the pathology of the woman I signed on with until much later. I thought she was quirky and funny when in reality she was probably psychotic. She began stalking me immediately after I left her practice and 3 years later filed a criminal complaint that I used a signature stamp to obtain product. Crazy, no doubt but crazy or not I was convicted because this a “doctor”. I’m a lowly nurse. Never mind that she has harmed innumerable patients, she is a pillar of society. Although I have tried to move on and rebuild my life, this woman continues to stalk me undermine. She has slowed me sown but has not stopped me and I encourage anyone in this situation to keep moving forward. You can prevail!!!

  • Tammy Donnally says:

    My name is Tammy Donnally i am from Florida, currently advocating for a young latino boy by the name of Steven Castanedo #S26539, he was coerced into a lengthy prison sentence at the age of 16, when I learned of Stevens case it brought tears to my eyes and melted my heart, then I knew I had to help, I contacted him to send me all his paper work he had and took off from there but have not got the help that we need. i am new to this(1 year) i am trying my best to get justice for this young man but it has been a nightmare for me & very hard to bring to the public eye, i have contacted reporters, 60min, 48 hours trying to get a story written on him or a interview but i am getting know where, i have written about 15 different innocence projects but have been denied in a few do to all d.n.a they took came back negative which i see is a good thing & a bad thing, good thing to have d.n.a cause it could exonerate/overturn a sentence. In stevens case they took d.n.a found d.n.a but all came back negative, but still convicted him without proven beyond a reasonable doubt and sentenced him to 35 years with 25 mandatory at the age of 16 for the death of his friend. When I first started advocacy I was told to contact the best advocate there was & she goes by the name of “Joann Treppa’ so I got on my journey to contact her and found her on fb I wrote her & told her of how I heard of her & she was really surprised of how her name got to Florida when she is from Minnesota, I said I don’t know but your name is going around in Florida prisons of “THE WOMAN TO CONTACT” lol she is my inspiration, just shows there still is good people out here that is willing to go above and beyond. Keep up the good work Joann :) if interested you could find Stevens story at: http://www.scoop.it/t/justice-must-be-served

  • Teresa Tario says:

    As a member of the Friends and Family (FAF) group in Green Bay, I am humbled and grateful to have met Joan Treppa. Just to know that we have her “batting on our team” is a tremendous relief and inspiration to ALL of us to keep our chins up and don’t give up hope for the release of the remaining five men who are still incarcerated for something they DID NOT do.
    We must never give up the ship and always believe, as hard as it may be, that the innocent will be FREE.

  • Denis Gullickson says:

    Thanks for your ongoing, tireless efforts on behalf of these six innocent men, Joan. Thanks, as well, to the efforts of the many others involved in the Friends and Family Group and to the outstanding legal team spearheaded by attorney Steve Kaplan. Denis Gullickson, coauthor, “The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men.”

  • Michael Piaskowski says:

    Hello to Everyone,
    As Joan Treppa noted above; after being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to ‘life in prison’ for a crime that I did not commit, I was completely exonerated and ordered released by the United States Federal Court system; all of my citizenship rights restored. In simpler words the United States ‘legal system’ worked for me. The system made a mistake. The system recognized the mistake. And the system corrected that mistake. I am again ‘free’ to pursue all the rights and liberties bestowed upon all of United States citizens.
    Unfortunately that very same legal system has failed the other five men in this case. We (the other five defendants and I) are ALL innocent of this crime. All six of us were convicted of an incident that never took place. I repeat: It never happened. Thomas Monfils’ death was caused in some other way. The Green Bay police investigators got it completely wrong. I do not know how Tom died, but I do know that it did NOT happen the way we were convicted of it happening.
    That’s where wonderful people like Joan Treppa come in; to pick up where Justice Myron Gordon left off and, at least in this case, to continue the fight for true ‘Justice for Tom’.
    With the help of John Gaie, Denis Gullickson, Johnny Johnson, Steve Kaplan and Cal Monfils; and organizations like the law firm of Fredrikson & Byron, The Innocence Project of Minnesota, The Wisconsin Innocence Project, and the Family and Friends of The Six Innocent Men group here in Green Bay; collectively, we fight this just cause. It’s the American way.
    On behalf of the wrongfully incarcerated everywhere; Thank-You Joan for your dedication and perseverance,
    MikePie

  • Manuel A. Juarez, Esq. says:

    Joan Treppa is truly a god sent advocate for the rights of the wrongfully convicted. Her passion for helping the wrongfully imprisoned is undeniably amazing. This world would be a better world by having more people like Joan Treppa. No one is immune from wrongful prosecution, as Joan said, being in the wrong place at the wrong time is all it takes. Joan is my inspiration for slowly leaving the practice of civil law and entering the practice of criminal law in pursuit of Justice for the wrongfully accused. Here is to you, Joan!!! Keep up the good fight and never stop your journey, no matter the odds. I will be the first person to buy your book when you publish it.

  • Jeannie says:

    I am a widow living on very little but I would like to know of opportunities to work as a citizen advocate in the san diego area. I was once falsely accused myself and only through the behind the scenes work of good people who recognized the injustice did I escape. I want so much to give back like that and be like those people. if you could help direct my steps I would appreciate it. thanks for your service to those in need. you are a truly remarkable individual.

  • Lisa Chloros says:

    Thank you for all that you do for the wrongfully convicted and their familes. This happens all to often and is happening in military courts as well. Honorable service members are also fighting for the very freedoms they honorably served to provide our great country. They are Prisoner’s of (their own) War – POW’s on American soil.

  • Norbert Quintanilla says:

    I need your help Joan! Email please I tell you the details of the case. Thank you!

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May 2014 | By Kate Stein / "Dacosta and Lewis : Helping the Homeless is Sometimes Hard to Do "
April 2014 | By Vanessa Nyarko / "Valuing Education : How My Grandma in Ghana Helped Me Reclaim My American Dream"
March 2014 | By Carol Larson / "The Retiree Revolution : 'Some Of Us Are Ticked Off'"
February 2014 | By Bénee Mickles / "Lessons from Splitsville : A Double Divorcée Dishes Up Heart-Mending Remedies"
January 2014 | By Tenzin Tharchen / "125 Self-Immolations : Why Suicide By Fire Protests Continue in Tibet"
December 2013 | By Timothy P. Munkeby / "What if? : Fighting doubt about decision to have kids"
November 2013 | By Kari Iverson / "Six Decades Later: : My Grandpa Reveals His Holocaust Secret"
October 2013 | By Melissa Suran / "Tenure Tyrants: : When There’s No Escaping Bad Teachers"
July 2013 | By Vicki Kunkel / "A Medical Myth? : Investigating Toxic Home Poisonings"
June 2013 | By Jim McCleary / "Society’s Going to Pot : Maybe Now I Can Get Some Rest"
May 2013 | By Anonymous / "Mother Reflects on Second Adoption : Am I Up for the Challenge Again?"
May 2013 | By Pirkko Tavaila / "If It Happens to Your Child : How Positive Energy Can Solve Bullying"
April 2013 | By Timothy P. Munkeby / "A Loving Legacy : Teach Kids Financial Literacy"
April 2013 | By Kamil Zawadzki / "A ‘Gen-Y’ SOS : Where Are Our Financial Gurus?"
March 2013 | By Kent Greene / "Note to Congress: : Consider Firearms Liability Insurance"
March 2013 | By Joan A. Peterson / "32 Homicides a Day : My Sister Was One of Them"
March 2013 | By Mark Saxenmeyer / "Letter from the President : Preventing Gun Violence"
March 2013 | By Derick White / "Father, Hunter, Gun Owner : I Can't Stop Thinking About an Answer"
February 2013 | By Mark Saxenmeyer / "Letter from the President : The Deep Sting of Loneliness"
February 2013 | By Donald Ross / "Where’s Opie? : Heartache in the Heartland"
January 2013 | By Mark Armburst / "Goal Setting in 2013: : Make Most Realistic, One ‘Big and Hairy'"
January 2013 | By Mark Saxenmeyer / "Letter from the President : So Much to Discover, Even in the Alley"