For a mill worker, blowing the whistle had deadly results 'Justice for Tom'

May 17, 1995|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Sun Staff Correspondent

Green Bay, Wis. -- It took two days to find Tom Monfils' body, sunk to the bottom of a giant paper mill pulp vat, a 45-pound weight around his neck. It took 2 1/2 years to charge six co-workers in his murder.

When the arrests finally came last month, weary police detectives paused quietly for a beer. The Green Bay Press-Gazette put out a rare special edition. And in a tidy brick house on South Roosevelt Avenue, Joan and Edwin Monfils gave thanks that someone, at last, would have to answer for the death of their son.

"Justice for Tom," says the sign in their window.

"I would wait another year if I had to," Mr. Monfils said. "I told the police from the start: 'Do it and do it proper. Don't rush.' "

The gruesome death of Tom Monfils, a man described in the plant newsletter as "a heck of a nice guy," shook Green Bay, a mill city of 100,000, proud of its hard- working people, its solid all-American image and its football team.

"We've really been the kind of a town that's had one or two murders a year," said Police Chief Robert Langan. "We think of Green Bay, Wis. -- work-ethic, salt-of-the-earth, good, upstanding people. And usually we are."

But then Tom Monfils died Nov. 21, 1992. He was beaten and tossed into a one-and-a-half-story-tall vat in the James River Corp. paper mill, where he'd worked for 10 years. In that tank, filled with water and pulp -- a mixture the consistency of cottage cheese -- Mr. Monfils, 35, drowned.

"How could this happen?" Chief Langan wondered. "It was a shock something so vicious could happen right here in Green Bay, Wis."

The spark for his murder, police say, was a dispute over a length of electrical cable -- an item so mundane it hardly seems worth arguing over, let alone killing for.

But what apparently started as Tom Monfils' effort to be a good employee went tragically wrong. "This hurt Green Bay probably more than anything," said Police Detective Sgt. Randy Winkler. "It's so hard to believe that somebody could go to work and get killed over something like this."

Edwin Monfils worked 36 years in the same mill, until he retired less than a year before his son was killed.

"Something like this -- I can't understand," he said, shaking his head. "And other people I've talked to can't understand either."

He was fingering a large, round pin that bore a photograph of his son, dressed in a tuxedo for a sister's wedding. Tom Monfils was a darkly handsome man with a mustache, a shock of wavy hair and a jaunty smile.

If there'd been trouble on the job, he'd never mentioned it, his parents said. Mr. Monfils was a cheerful sort, a devoted husband and father of a son and daughter.

"Everybody liked Tom," his mother said.

But the police investigation found that the atmosphere inside the mill was poisonous early on the morning of Nov. 21.

"Something just boiled over," Ed Monfils said quietly, "and everything went wrong that day."

The James River paper mill is a windowless, cardboard-colored factory with an American flag flying over the parking lot.

Like the town's other paper mills, it was known as a fine place to work, where pay is good and benefits are better. People wait for mill jobs to come open, then hold on to them until retirement, Ed Monfils said.

Until his son died, James River had never had a reputation for menace. People who didn't get along, Ed Monfils said, just stayed out of each other's way.

But, according to workers who talked to police, the James River plant had its share of problems -- workers who enjoyed antagonizing colleagues. One of those employees, described in statements to investigators and in interviews, was a beefy man named Keith Kutska.

"Kutska was almost like the godfather of the mill," said a James River employee who worked with Tom Monfils and who is afraid to let his name be used. "If they see they can get to you, they'll do everything they can to piss you off."

Tom Monfils, on the other hand, was "a team player," one co-worker said, "a company man in some respects." He believed that things should be done by the rules.

According to statements in the court file, as well as interviews with friends and family, he believed he had a future with the company and wanted to help James River produce. Maybe that's why he decided to call the police when he heard Mr. Kutska planned to take a length of electrical cable from the plant.

Police documents filed at the time of the arrests last month -- in bland, just-the-facts-ma'am prose -- describe the events that led to Tom Monfils' death.

They show that the police department itself unwittingly played a part.

It started with theft

On Nov. 10, 1992, Mr. Kutska admitted in a statement to police, he decided to help himself to some electrical cable to use in his barn. He told police he paced off 10 or 15 feet of cable, hid it in his duffel bag and left the plant.

When a guard at the mill's security gate asked to search the bag, Mr. Kutska refused and kept going. The next day, he was suspended for five days without pay.

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