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

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

They enjoyed the break so much that they planned to do it the next month. But a few days before he died, Tom called his father to say that "something had come up" and he'd have to cancel the trip.

His worries about the tape "must have been it," Mrs. Monfils said.

Running the tape

In the James River control room on the morning Mr. Monfils died, Mr. Kutska kept playing the tape for co-workers, according to police documents. About 7:30 a.m., Mr. Kutska said, he left the room for a smoke.

Mr. Kutska told police he last saw Mr. Monfils alive, working on the paper machine, a few minutes later.

Another co-worker told investigators that, at 7:40 a.m., he noticed Michael Johnson and Dale Basten "bent over as if they were carrying something through the room," something "of substantial weight." They were headed toward the area that housed the vat in which Mr. Monfils' body was found the next day. Both James River employees were among those charged on homicide counts.

Mr. Monfils was reported missing before 8 a.m. There was talk that, in despair over the tape, he might have left work or run outside and jumped in the river. But Sunday night, after two days of searching, a James River employee looked into the tiled vat and saw a man's body at the bottom.

The vat, which holds paper pulp until it is sent to the machines to become tissue, has a propeller at its base, to churn the pulp and water like a giant kitchen blender.

Tied around Mr. Monfils' neck was a 45-pound square metal weight, one that had been used to balance older machines. The autopsy showed Tom Monfils had died by suffocation and strangulation.

Seeking evidence

Green Bay police officers say securing enough evidence for arrests was not as easy as it might have seemed. "You can know something," Detective Winkler said, "but you've got to be able to prove it, too. Not everything you know can get into court."

Meanwhile, the pressure to solve the crime was "tremendous, more pressure than I ever felt on anything in my life." Everywhere Mr. Winkler went in Green Bay, people wanted to know when he was going to arrest Tom Monfils' killers.

The police set up an office inside the James River plant and began interviewing workers. They talked to friends of the employees. They gave lie-detector tests. And they used evidence gathered in the civil suit that Susan Monfils, Mr. Monfils' widow, filed two years ago against the same eight employees who were arrested last week. (Mrs. Monfils, who lives with her two children just outside Green Bay, does not talk to reporters.)

Then, the investigators got a break: A friend who had gone to a bar with Mr. Kutska last summer talked to police.

According to the statement Brian Kellner gave detectives, Mr. Kutska sat in the bar and demonstrated for his friends exactly what happened to Mr. Monfils. Oblivious to other patrons, Mr. Kellner said, Mr. Kutska acted out the scene.

He allegedly recounted how some workers trapped Mr. Monfils in a doorway and shook the tape in his face, shouting he was "a f----snitch." Then someone -- Mr. Kutska would not say who -- allegedly came up from behind Mr. Monfils and hit him in the head, according to Mr. Kellner. He recalled for police that Mr. Kutska mentioned a wrench.

Finally, last month, the police department made its arrests. Five of the eight charged were at work when police went for them. They were led out of the James River plant in handcuffs.

Besides Mr. Kutska, Mr. Piaskowski, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Basten, two other workers -- Michael Hirn and Reynold Moore -- were charged on homicide counts. The men have not yet entered pleas, and the trial date has not been set.

Taking a stand

In the beginning, Joan and Ed Monfils would have no comment for reporters. But then, Mrs. Monfils said, "One Sunday I was sitting in church and I thought, 'If this happened to me, Tom wouldn't be keeping quiet.' "

They began to talk, in an effort to keep their son's name before the public. They put signs, "Justice for Tom," in their windows and relatives' windows and in their car.

They made thousands of little white lapel ribbons, looped simply like the red AIDS-awareness ribbons. "They stand for justice for Tom," Mrs. Monfils said.

They kept a scrapbook of all the newspaper stories, dozens over the last 2 1/2 years. "People would say to me, 'Gee, Joan, doesn't it upset you that the papers keep bringing it up?' And I said, 'No. I'd have Tom's face on the TV or in the paper every day so people wouldn't forget.' "

Guaranteed anonymity

Because of Mr. Monfils' death, Wisconsin has a new law, a law that guarantees anonymity of people who call police. Anyone seeking the identity of an informant now must justify why they need it.

Mrs. Monfils testified at legislative hearings. Chief Langan said her eloquence pushed the bill into law.

"I told them," Mrs. Monfils said, "that the person who turned over the tape that day was the one who put the noose around Tom's neck."

Jack Yusko, the James River plant's human resources manager, said the last 2 1/2 years have been tough. "There were pockets of fear: Someone was murdered and they still might be working here. There was concern over what was taking so long."

But with the arrests, "There was a sense of relief," Mr. Yusko said. "There was a sense of disbelief: Could they really have done this? And there was puzzlement: How could this happen here?"

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