Five Down, One to Go
Michael Johnson Set Free, Marking Fifth ‘Monfils 6’ Release
BY JOAN TREPPA
“Mike Johnson’s wife, Kim Johnson, nearly had to be carried from the courtroom. She sobbed on the courthouse steps as her daughter, Dawn, held her.”
That’s a quote from the October 29, 1995 edition of the Green Bay Press-Gazette when it hit newsstands the day after six guilty verdicts were handed to Keith Kutska, Dale Basten, Michael Johnson, Reynold Moore, Michael Piaskowski, and Michael Hirn inside a Brown County, Wisconsin Courtroom. The jury decided the six men had all conspired to murder their co-worker, fellow paper mill employee Tom Monfils.
Two and a half decades after that fateful day, as I sat at my desk putting the final touches on a writing project, my mobile phone pinged, alerting me of a Facebook notification. It was from Joan Van Houten, Michael Johnson’s stepdaughter. I stared at the bold letters in the short message: “Joan, Big Mike got his parole.”
Joan and I first met in 2010 when there was first talk of highlighting the case of the so-called “Monfils 6” more publicly. We discussed plans of holding a first-time rally for the six convicted men on the very courthouse steps where her mother, Kim, had collapsed in disbelief and grief the day of the verdicts. Joan and I also eventually partnered up to co-manage the Voice of Innocence Facebook page, a resource dedicated to ongoing developments in the Monfils case.
Michael (Mike to everyone who knows him) had told Joan and I that his release from prison was imminent. We were confident he was right because of his co-defendant Michael Hirn’s unprecedented release (on parole) in December 2018. I say unprecedented because anyone with knowledge of how the Department of Corrections (DOC) operates understands that prisoners who maintain their innocence are typically barred from being released on parole. Mike and the other members of the Monfils 6 have always maintained their innocence—from day one.
Before becoming familiar with these men and this case, I didn’t comprehend the particulars of what goes on behind those obscure concrete and steel structures called prisons. Nor did I understand that when a prisoner is finally released on parole they have to meet certain criteria, which help transition them back into society.
Tom Monfils and the so-called ‘Monfils 6’ as they appear on candles at a rally for the release of the six men (left to right): Tom Monfils, Dale Basten, Mike Johnson, Mike Hirn, Rey Moore, Keith Kutska, Mike Piaskowski. Five of the six men have now been released from prison; Kutska is the last to remain behind bars.
For instance, some of them must enroll in anger management classes to help curb problematic behaviors that may have landed them in prison in the first place. They maintain jobs and learn trades in order to find decent employment upon release. Certain offenders are eligible for what is known as the Community Custody Program which means they have access to jobs within the surrounding community while under strict monitoring by the DOC. This prospect greatly increases their familiarity and ability to interact with citizens living on the outside. During these transitional periods, prisoners are also typically transferred from maximum or medium security prisons to minimum security facilities equipped with more relaxed and humane settings.
Up until 2019, Mike Johnson had been denied parole 10 times. His continued assertion of his innocence was an affront to the DOC. Maintaining one’s innocence suggests a prisoner refuses to admit wrongdoing, and is therefore unwilling to show remorse for the given crime. But Mike stayed focused. He never lost faith that he would one day be released. He worked toward that day through self-motivation, pushing himself to work, and to do what he needed in order to obtain eventual freedom. His diligence paid off and, at long last, the DOC finally issued him an actual release date.
Mike Johnson (left) in one of his official prison inmate photos; Joan Treppa (right) visiting Mike Johnson in prison in the early 2010s.
However, that date was twice postponed. A third date was then scheduled. And to our relief, July 3rd 2019 became the day in which Michael Johnson took his first breath of freedom in 23 years.
For the uninitiated, I’m a social justice advocate who’s been pushing for the release of the Monfils 6 for years. I’m part of an ever-growing group of citizens who believe that all six men were wrongfully convicted. We believe the entire case against them was—and is—blatant malfeasance.
Mike Johnson’s alleged link to the death of Tom Monfils stems largely from a supposed repressed memory of yet another paper mill worker, six months after Monfils’ body was found. He told authorities that he suddenly recalled seeing Mike and co-defendant Dale Basten hunched over, as if they were carrying something heavy toward the paper pulp vat (where Monfils’ body was found), the day of Monfils’ disappearance. Those of us who believe in the innocence of the Monfils 6 also believe this “memory” was a complete fabrication, conjured up to save the other mill worker’s own hide. Side note: this same man was convicted of killing his own brother 13 months after Monfils’ death.
The paper mill pulp vat (left) where Tom Monfils’ body was discovered in 1992; Tom Monfils (right) pictured shortly before his death.
In the 2009 book, The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men, Mike told the authors, “As a Christian man, I recognize the trials and tribulations I must face and endure in this world (2 Tim. 3:12). I realize that as I continue to profess my innocence, I will never be allowed to leave prison. Already this prison system has sought to withdraw my medium-security classification and send me to a maximum-security institution because I continue to claim I am falsely accused and unjustly convicted of a crime I did not commit or have any knowledge about. I wait patiently for my Lord to rescue me (Luke 18:7 and Rom. 8:28). I know I didn’t harm Tom Monfils. God knows I didn’t harm Tom Monfils.”
For the last few years, Mike had been housed at the Sanger B. Powers Correctional Center in Oneida, Wisconsin, a minimum-security facility a few short miles west of Green Bay—just one of many prisons in which he served his time over the years. Due to its close proximity to Green Bay, I suspected there’d be a number of local media outlets present on the day of his release—and my assumptions were confirmed when I was contacted by a few print and TV reporters asking if I’d be there.
I’d discussed media presence with the Johnson family beforehand, to gauge their reaction to this unavoidable attention. Because of the overwhelming trauma they’d experienced from the media frenzy in the early 1990s, their concerns of undue scrutiny were quite real—and warranted. As with Hirn’s family, they understood that this heightened attention stems from this being a high-profile case. They also understood the probability of bringing their beloved home without public scrutiny was simply not going to happen.
Mike Johnson’s final stop during his 24-plus years in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections: the Sanger B. Powers Correctional Center in Oneida, Wisconsin, a minimum-security facility a few short miles west of Green Bay.
And while we as outsiders easily characterize these events (releases) as positive and celebratory for these folks, we neglect to realize the negative impact of the past two and a half decades and how something as positive as this event can induce amplified recollections of the somewhat faded but ever-present horrors of the nightmare. So, to the media I urged caution. To the family members I offered to bridge the gap between them and the journalists.
I was one of the first to arrive on the day of Mike’s release. My cell phone soon rang, and it was Kim Johnson, Mike’s wife, on the line. Kim was her usual talkative self. Her voice was full of both excitement and anxiety. She and her sister were on their way to the correctional center. By then, reporters from multiple Green Bay news outlets, as well as one from the Post-Crescent newspaper in Appleton, had arrived and started to get situated. As I stepped out of the car near the shoulder of the highway, they gathered around to introduce themselves. With cameras and microphones in tow, I began my first ever press conference.
As I fielded questions from the press about which family members had come out in support of Mike and how they might be feeling, my main goal was to respect the privacy of this family. Ironically, many new faces that I couldn’t identify were among those waiting near the entrance where Mike would eventually emerge. Of the ones I did know, I resolved to identify them by determining their relationship to Mike, without using their given names. As for the overall state of mind of this family, I could only reflect on what I heard in Kim’s voice that morning.
Joan Treppa fields questions from the media outside the prison, on the day of Mike Johnson’s release.
“They’re excited that he’s getting out, but it’s also terrifying because they haven’t lived with this person for 25 years,” I explained. “And it’s like… they’re going to have to get to know each other all over again. There are traumas that have happened within these families, and in prison, that they’re going to have to work through. This is very traumatic. And I’m feeling those feelings right along with them.”
For the record, I echoed my adamant belief that, “These men are not monsters, or union thugs, or murderers.”
The press members expressed their interest in speaking directly with Johnson, or with someone from his family. I assured them I would broach this idea with them as soon as Mike walked out of the building, and was officially released.
The Reporters Inc.’s cameras were rolling when Mike Johnson was released from prison and, unlike the local media, we were invited to accompany Mike and his family to witness his first meal and conduct his first (exclusive) interview, post-prison. This event will be included in our upcoming full-length documentary about the Monfils case but, in the meantime, we’ve put together a mini-documentary commemorating the day:
I felt the attentiveness and interest of the reporters, and their willingness to listen to a side of the story that had gotten lost in the shuffle all those years ago. And when I watched their coverage later that day, I felt it adequately reflected the difficulties the Johnson family, and the families of the other men, will face going forward. One of the largest hurdles for all of them will be to gain acceptance from a community inundated in lies and misguided truths—a community that may be reluctant to exhibit compassion.
After answering questions, I walked toward Mike’s relatives gathering in the parking lot near the front door of the prison. I was able to socialize among them while the press was confined to the street, and unable to follow. I hugged Kim’s sister, Bonnie. We’d gotten to know each other over many years from attending monthly FAF (Friends and Family) meetings for the Monfils 6, and at the courthouse rallies that had become yearly events. “This momentous occasion is upon us because of many people who truly cared,” I said to her.
Members of the media line up to record Mike Johnson’s release from the road; they were prohibited from entering prison grounds.
“Kim is already inside,” Bonnie said. “She brought street clothes for Mike to change into.” His first post-prison garb in more than two decades!
Kim soon exited the front door and walked toward us. She was barely recognizable in a large floppy hat and sunglasses. A reserved smile appeared on her face as she walked toward us. She put her arms around me, holding on tight. I did my best to reassure her that all would be fine.
I met many new Johnson family members gathered there that day: siblings, children, grandchildren and in-laws. It was a delight to be a part of this poignant episode in this ongoing saga.
Our attention turned toward the building’s entrance as Mike appeared, touting a white cap, button-down shirt, and dark pants. In front of him was a flatbed cart, similar to what you’d find in a hardware store. On it were numerous cardboard boxes filled with the belongings he’d amassed behind bars. Images of a FedEx delivery man came to mind as he maneuvered the cart toward us.
Mike Johnson greets family and friends as he leaves prison on July 3, 2019.
Mike stood in awe at the sizable group standing before him. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and uttered thanks for this gift of freedom and the amount of support for both himself and Kim. In the next instant this restrained crowd livened a bit, engaging in hugs, elevated laughter, shameless tears, and vibrant declarations of joy. One thing was certain. This man was loved and there was no doubt in my mind that he’d be in great hands while navigating this new reality.
The horrific circumstances that led to Johnson’s conviction back in 1995 seemed to fade into oblivion as the sight of him relishing the bright summer sunshine, warmed our hearts. Watch The Reporters Inc.’s exclusive video of Mike Johnson’s release here.
The family planned to meet at a nearby restaurant for a bite to eat—Mike’s first post-prison meal! But before we could join them, I spoke with the press once again. I echoed Mike’s emotional state. “He’s overwhelmed a little bit, but just very happy to be walking out of there for the last time.” But I explained that none of the Johnsons were ready to speak publicly yet to the media. “They need time to absorb what has happened today,” I told them.
When a reporter asked me about the family’s reaction to seeing Johnson as a free man, I responded, “It’s kind of a bittersweet time for this family. They’re very nervous. They’re terrified of what’s ahead because when you have a loved one who’s away for so long, you don’t know what the future holds.”
I continued, “There’s a lot of transition time that’s going to happen. There’s going to be a lot of learning to do on his behalf.”
Mike and Kim Johnson (left) in the early 1990s and (right) on the day of his release.
As the questions ended, the Johnsons drove off the prison grounds and past the media, with Mike visible in the back seat, head down, as if he were engaged in prayer.
Later, at the restaurant, Mike sat at the head of a very large table, surrounded by loved ones. Seeing them all together, cracking jokes, sharing personal stories, and discussing ordinary everyday topics seemed so, well, normal. It was gratifying to know that they could again become familiar with what is normal for the majority of folks in this country.
Mike Johnson is a soft spoken and eloquent man, who finds comfort in an appropriate Biblical quote to finish his thoughts. The first order of business for him at this celebratory breakfast was to recite a prayer before mealtime.
Mike Johnson takes a bite of his first meal as a free man–breakfast at the Bay Family Restaurant in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Heads bowed as Mike offered up thanks for loved ones gathered around the table, for the amazing support he has received over the years, and for the gift of his freedom. Hot coffee arrived and before long, plates of piping hot breakfast fare were placed in front of us. “It’s great to be drinking good coffee and eating flavorsome food for a change,” Mike teased as the aroma of eggs and hash browns filled his senses.
For those of us who have never walked in the shoes of someone wrongfully convicted, or in the shoes of their family members, it’s difficult to truly appreciate the scope of this kind of tragedy and the hardships that follow. Yet when I do speak out on behalf of those who face these struggles, I do my absolute best to accurately describe the pain, the heartache, and the hopelessness that accompany these injustices.
When I left Green Bay and returned home later that day, a letter was waiting for me in my mailbox—Mike had written it to me several days earlier, and it would be the last I would ever receive from him, from behind bars. It was brief and to the point, reiterating his disinterest in speaking with the media on the day of his release, but inviting me to be there. “July 3 at 9:00 – 10:30 I walk out of prison a free man,” he wrote. Five of the ‘Monfils 6’ have now been released from prison. Our attention will now turn full-time to Keith Kutska, the last of the six men to remain behind bars.
Mike Johnson’s last letter to Joan Treppa from prison, announcing his release.
Flash forward seven months and today Mike Johnson is happy and living a fulfilling life, spending most of his time getting reacquainted with his family and friends. He’s experiencing things he only dreamed of while behind bars, like a trip to NASA in Florida with his family over the holidays, and an unbelievable sky diving adventure he went on with his two sons!
It’s hard to imagine a feeling of freedom greater than that.
Free at last, and the smiles now come easily for Mike Johnson.
Joan Treppa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow her blog at joantreppa.com. She and Mike Johnson will be speaking in Green Bay on Saturday, March 7th at 1 pm at the Lion’s Mouth Bookstore (401 North Washington). Joan will also be signing copies of her book about the Monfils case, Reclaiming Lives: Pursuing Justice For Six Innocent Men.
The Reporters Inc. is a proud member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, a consortium of more than 90 nonprofit newsrooms dedicated to serving the public interest. Our articles are syndicated and shared with hundreds of other media organizations, online magazines, top blogs, etc. Please send news, feature and investigative story tips and ideas to email@example.com.
Looking for one of our previous articles, investigations, commentaries, essays or book excerpts? Search our archives by typing key words into our SEARCH bar at the top left hand corner of our site!