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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

But at the disciplinary hearing, Mr. Kutska learned that the guard hadn't acted on instinct. Someone, he was told, had tipped the Green Bay police, who alerted plant security.

Mr. Kutska was determined to find the snitch. On Nov. 16, Mr. Kutska called the police himself. He said he'd been framed by a co-worker who had cost him a week's pay, and he asked for a copy of the tape. "He gave this sad story," Chief Langan said.

The police officer helpfully said he'd locate the recording. At work, Mr. Kutska boasted he'd soon know who had turned him in.

Mr. Monfils, meanwhile, also began calling the police -- frantically. He'd heard Mr. Kutska was out to find the guy who had tipped the security guard.

On Nov. 17, Mr. Monfils called a police lieutenant and told his story: how he'd called police, hoping they'd investigate; how the police instead had bounced the tip back to the plant security shed; how the thief now wanted the tape, and how worried Mr. Monfils was.

"Tom stated . . . he feared for his own safety if the tape would get out," the police documents say. "He stated he was worried that he would disappear some night and not show up at home. Based upon his experience with the individual involved, he stated that 'no way do I think that he wouldn't do it.' "

The lieutenant said he was sure the tape would not be released.

Three days later, still worried, Mr. Monfils called the district attorney's office and went through the story again. An assistant Brown County district attorney immediately called the police department and asked that the tape not be released.

But messages weren't relayed to the correct people, Chief Langan said.

A police officer who was unaware of Mr. Monfils' pleas checked with the Green Bay city attorney's office. Under Wisconsin law, he was told, the tape was public information and Mr. Kutska was entitled to it.

On Nov. 20, the same day Mr. Monfils was begging the district attorney for protection, the police gave Mr. Kutska the tape.

He called Marlyn Charles, president of the United Paper Workers International Union Local 327, and played the tape for him. Mr. Charles, who is charged with a misdemeanor in the Monfils case, advised Mr. Kutska to gather some witnesses and confront his accuser. Once they had a confession, Mr. Charles allegedly said, the union could take action. And if Mr. Monfils was bounced from the local, he could not keep his job at James River.

The confrontation

Nov. 21 was a Saturday, and Mr. Kutska arrived at the mill before 5 a.m. to relieve a co-worker who wanted to go deer hunting. He allegedly carried with him a cassette player and the police tape, which he played again and again for anyone who would listen.

A few minutes after 7 a.m., Mr. Kutska and Randy Lepak, who was charged with a misdemeanor in the case, confronted Mr. Monfils as he worked in a sound-proof control room, police say. Michael Piaskowski, also charged in Mr. Monfils' murder, was already in the booth.

Mr. Kutska started the tape. "Hey, Piaskowski, can you name that tune?" he asked, according to court records. Mr. Monfils, according to several accounts, didn't deny that the voice was his.

Another worker told police that Mr. Piaskowski asked, "How could you do such a thing to a union member?"

Mr. Monfils did not respond.

About 7:30 a.m., Mr. Monfils left the control room to do a "turnover," a procedure that involves taking a full roll of paper off a machine and starting a new one. It was the last time most of his co-workers saw him alive.

'A happy-go-lucky guy'

In the days before his death, Mr. Monfils did not let on to his extended family -- including three sisters and two brothers -- that he was in fear for his life.

He called a sister, Yvonne, Friday night to ask what dish he and his wife should take to the big Thanksgiving dinner the next week. He was his usual upbeat self.

"He's the most positive, optimistic, happy-go-lucky guy," said David Demro, a friend who delivered the eulogy at Mr. Monfils' funeral.

And he was funny. "If you were around Tom, then you were laughing," Mr. Demro told the mourners at Mr. Monfils' funeral at St. Mary's of the Angels Catholic Church. "No one could tell a story quite the way Tom could."

His parents, sitting at their kitchen table recently, had story after story about the third of their six children -- the kid who "just loved life" and "should have been a comedian."

When he was old enough for a bicycle, he opted instead for a unicycle -- and soon he was the only unicycle-riding newspaper boy in Green Bay.

He spent four years in the Coast Guard, stationed at Atlantic City, N.J., where he won citations for search-and-rescue work.

"He was always helping people," Mrs. Monfils said.

The month before he was murdered, Tom Monfils invited his father to go up to White Potato Lake to help work on the cottage he was fixing up. The two, who had never before spent time away together, passed a couple of days working, riding trail bikes and eating in local diners.

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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