BY Denis Gullickson
What can one person accomplish?
A whole lot, if you follow the story of Joan Treppa — a story of determined footsteps that have led to miles of success.
Let’s start with the recent “Walk for Truth and Justice” at the Brown County Courthouse on Saturday, October 25. That walk — the fifth annual — was first held in 2010 to commemorate the October 28, 1995-evening when participants say wrongful convictions were delivered in the Monfils murder trial.
That motion was filed in Brown County Court by Attorney Steve Kaplan of the Minnesota law firm of Fredrikson and Byron in conjunction with the Minnesota and Wisconsin Innocence Projects and several private attorneys across the Badger State.
Growing Up in the UP
Let’s shoot back to the beginning, where this journey began. Things weren’t so easy for Joan. Born in Laurium, MI — home of the legendary “Gipper” — on September 28, 1958, she was the thirteenth of sixteen “Locatelli kids.”
Laurium is a small town located in the heart of Upper Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. Today, its population is just under 2,000 after climaxing at 8,500+ in 1910 in the midst of a shipping, logging and copper mining boom.
Indeed, Laurium was once the home of many wealthy members of Keweenaw society. The vast majority of structures standing today were constructed during its heyday between 1880 and 1915 and its population has been tumbling ever since. In 1960, it was just over 3,000.
While Joan’s father was — by all outward appearances — a successful local businessman, things weren’t all that tidy or successful at home. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom, said Joan, who ran things “like a demilitarized boot camp or something similarly chaotic.
“I remember feeling alone and lost and I don’t remember experiencing much in the way of individuality, ever. An adequate amount of nurturing was uncommon and was replaced by insecurity and fear.
“We comprised a body of sixteen siblings from a single set of parents. Mom addressed us as ‘you kids,’ always lumping us together as one entity so no matter who was caught doing what, it always became a collective matter and we were all punished.”
As radio personality and “technical engineer,” her father helped start one of the first radio stations in “Copper Country” — WMPL (Miller, Paulson and Locatelli). “The radio station is still in existence in Hancock, MI,” said Joan. “My dad was the sole owner by the time it was sold in 1969 to the present owner.”
While resources were often tight, music was one means for members of the Locatelli brood to distinguish themselves. “My parents both played musical instruments. Mom played the piano and dad played the clarinet and violin. Most of us kids either played an instrument in band or sang in the high school choir. I was in the choir.”
Winters were harsh in Laurium and the walks home after school or choir practice were especially bone-chilling. At Catholic grade school, Joan was bullied incessantly for her tattered clothes — the girls there chanting “cat got your tongue?” when she shut down; at home, she disappeared beneath the bedlam of a jam-packed household. Her father was usually gone; her mother was typically frustrated and overwhelmed.
In 1969, when Joan was just eleven, her father abandoned his family — not that things were good before that. “The years leading up to that time became a public display of marital disagreements between my parents.”
The divorce became final in 1972.
“There were eight of us kids still at home and things really went downhill when dad finally left. We didn’t know whether to feel relief that the fighting had stopped or sadness because of my dad’s absence. Mom went between fits of rage over the separation and deep depression and the house became a hoarder’s paradise. We pretty much raised ourselves from then on.
“My older brothers and sisters whom we all relied upon for both emotional support as well as everyday physical needs had all graduated from high school and gone on to find their own way in the world. It was hard for them to come back into the dismal atmosphere after they had, as we all now say, ‘escaped.”
Joan’s own “escape” wasn’t far off. She started her freshman year at Calumet High School in 1972, but dropped out after becoming pregnant at age 15 in January, 1974. Her son, Jared Manninen, was born on September 10, 1974. “I blame my early pregnancy (with a man seven years older than me) on looking for “love” from that father figure,” she said.
“I kept silent, rendering myself helpless in my defense and all the while, no one came to my aid until the damage was done.
I struggled with feeling different, left out, left behind and forgotten and as a result, much of my young adult life consisted of a myriad of misguided mishaps.
“Life overall seemed to be one struggle after another even though there were little intervals of victories along the way. The insecurities I experienced vastly outweighed any accomplishments so the euphoria did not have a lasting effect on my overall mental health.”
Eventually, she attended night classes at Houghton High, earning her diploma in the spring of 1979. Having endured much by age twenty-one, Joan was taking steps forward. “My son Jared was 5 years old at the time,” she said. “I was starting to come out of my shell and feeling good about this accomplishment.”
A Better Direction
With a new-found bounce in her stride, Joan looked toward college. “I attended Suomi College (now Finlandia College), a two-year community college in Hancock, MI from 1980-1 and received an associate’s degree in Human Services.
“I took a journalism course and wrote poems for the school newsletter. I graduated with honors and was recognized for my life experiences as a non-traditional student. I also volunteered at a 24-hour, phone-line crisis center called Dial Help, all the while being a single mom. But I was surviving and making more friends that I could relate to.”
Dial Help turned out to be a two-way street as Joan stepped further and further away from the lonesome corners of her past.
“There was only one volunteer to man the phones for each eight hour shift. Calls came in occasionally and covered everything from suicide, sexual assault and drug abuse to individuals who were just lonely.”
Helping others helped Joan. At Dial Help, she also met Mike Treppa.
“Mike and I both worked at Dial Help as volunteers. Mike volunteered for about a year and I was there for three years. For me, this opportunity was in direct line with the type of classes I was taking in college, so I felt it was a crucial experience. For Mike, it was a way to help people but without having to commit too much time or energy so he could focus mainly on school.”
The connection was more than just a common cause found on a phone line.
“Mike and I each had a sense for reading people’s emotions and it was intuitive for us to be able to reach them and help them deal with more underlying issues. Our personalities were and are very similar in our desire to help people. I began to appreciate the talents I had.”Mike and Joan met at a volunteer meeting in the summer of 1983. They started dating when they reconnected at a Christmas Party at the home of a Dial Help volunteer.
“It was our first chance to really get to know each other. I was a local who knew the area so I was a designated driver for that evening for the college students working at Dial Help. Mike made sure that he was one of my passengers on the drive home after the party. While dropping him off, my car broke down in front of his apartment!
“He felt sorry for me so after helping me get my car situation under control, he took me out to meet some his friends who were in the midst of an evening get together. We started dating regularly after that. It was a big deal that someone like Mike thought of me as a worthy companion.”
Soon, Joan’s path took a dramatic turn. The two dated “on and off” for about eighteen months; Mike was wrapping up his senior year at Michigan Tech with a schedule that was hectic and overwhelming with little time for romance. “However, we knew we were meant for each other and had already discussed the idea of marriage,” Joan said, “But there were details to be worked out and Mike had to find a job.”
The next steps were especially delicate.
“Jared was excited about moving and about Mike being his new dad. Mike found a job in Minnesota when he graduated in November of 1984 so he moved there first to find a place for us to live.
“At that time I was on public assistance and working part time as a housekeeper at a hotel. I quit my job and Jared and I were on our way to Minnesota in January. Jared and I both believed that when Mike left for Minnesota, he would be back to claim us. Mike and I got married seven months later, on August 17, 1985.”
Joan’s social worker at the time predicted failure when Joan told her she was pulling up stakes and taking steps in a brand new direction. “Why bother?” Joan remembered the worker asking, “You know it isn’t going to work out anyway!”
A Detroit native, Mike’s mother insisted on paying for a ceremony at the same downtown church where she and her mother had been married. “It was the wedding of my dreams since my first marriage was through a Justice of the Peace,” said Joan. It “laid the ground for a total shift in my whole disposition and having the support of a loving husband caused so many things inside of me to blossom.”
To visit the Treppa’s in suburban Blaine, MN is to visit a modern couple. Urbane, successful, intelligent, aware — Mike and Joan complement one another and their marriage is reflective of individual passions forming synergy.
There is more than three-hundred and fifty miles separating Joan’s life today and her Laurium-childhood. It’s a distance she’s walked and, sometimes, ran. A distance marked by doubt and darkness. A distance broken by unanticipated pregnancies and broken-down automobiles.
Mike, an engineering supervisor, tends to his vegetable garden — keeping the rabbits and deer at bay while Joan puts the finishing touches on her blog for the day. They have embraced the verve of the Twin Cities.
Joan is a “packing assistant” for “Gentle Transitions” helping elderly folks pack up their belongings and transition to a new residence. “When we are finished,” Joan said, “the client has a new dwelling that is all stocked, organized and ready to move in.”
In 2009, this writer and coauthor, John Gaie, published “The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men” after eight years reinvestigating the death of Tom Monfils and the resulting arrests, trial and convictions.
This writer recalls one of the early public meetings regarding the Monfils case and meeting Joan and Mike, afterward. While that introduction was cordial enough and Joan expressed her dismay at the injustice represented in this case, no one could have expected what came next. Or next. Or next.
Joan’s interest in the case prompted questions and phone conversations and emails and more questions and boxes of copies of the book — which she then sold or put in the hands of everyone willing to give her a minute. She stopped at schools and talked to principals, churches where she bent the ear of ministers, law firms where she buttonholed anyone who’d glanced her way.
One take on the Monfils case kept her moving: “Since I was bullied as a child, I viewed this case as a big bullying campaign and was compelled to defend those whom I saw as victims of the same … I have very little patience for those who mimic the bullies in grade school. When I see treatment of others similar to how I was treated back then, there are no restraints that will hold me back from coming to their aid.”
A copy of “The Monfils Conspiracy” was never out of reach. A year into selling and distributing books, Joan made a chance acquaintance — at her own mailbox. That meeting would lead to the involvement of a crack private investigator in the case.
“It was summer and I was grabbing my mail when the neighbor pulled up next to the mailboxes to get his. Johnny Johnson was in the passenger seat. I started talking about the book and the case and Johnny was intrigued. It turned out that he is a retired Veteran with a 30-year career in law enforcement and private investigative work. This idea of wrongful convictions was new to him but he bought a book from me and read it three times.
“He wanted to get involved when he learned that the exoneree [Mike Piaskowski] was also a Vet. He wanted more info, so I introduced him to the authors and the exoneree. He was convinced that this was a travesty and an affront to what he stood for in his 30 years. So we decided that he would investigate this case even further and I would be his assistant.”
Together, the duo compiled “a mountain” of documentation about the case and went searching for legal help. That brought them to an annual benefit for the Minnesota Innocence Project. There, Johnson met Kaplan, who was very sympathetic to the victims of wrongful convictions and who had just completed a case involving Damon Thibodeaux, the 300th DNA exoneree. At the same time, Joan made a connection with Audrey Edmunds, another Wisconsin exoneree.
At a book signing Joan hosted at her home for Edmunds, Joan asked Kaplan about who could help with the Monfils case. At Kaplan’s suggestion, Joan and Johnny found their way to the offices of Fredrikson and Byron, where Kaplan was in the process of retiring. The person they were scheduled to meet with was ill. However, Joan wasn’t leaving “until we talked to someone, so we asked for Steve.”
During a three-hour meeting, Kaplan expressed profound interest in the case and promised to look at that mountain of paperwork Johnson had brought with him. Kaplan, had also promised his wife a vacation to mark his retirement, Joan recalled. “Upon returning, Steve went back to the firm and has since worked on this case full time for twenty months.”
A Motion Filed
On Friday, October 31st, Kaplan filed his motion for new trials in the Monfils case. Joan Treppa’s journey had hit a major milestone.
It was, she said, reflective of her “innate sense of independence and ability to lead, things that were surreptitiously rooted in my character all along … there really was nothing that set me apart from the other kids all along except that I allowed debilitating emotions to control my life.“Even though I am humble, I accept the idea that I have the capacity to inspire and the ability to be a strong leader. I am able to maintain an irrefutable amount of strength and perseverance in the face of adversity and I am intent on using those talents to help mend the lives of others less fortunate.”
Surely Joan didn’t do this alone; there have been innumerable hours turned in by dozens of others. A phone call by Madison attorney Ed Garvey to the Wisconsin Innocence Project … thirteen years of effort by exoneree Mike Piaskwoski … hundreds of hours of work by this writer and coauthor John Gaie … marches, meetings and fundraisers by the “Family and Friends of Six Innocent Men” group … and untold steps by various attorneys and innocence groups.
Still, Joan Treppa’s impact cannot be underestimated. A journey of thousand miles, as they say, begins with a single footstep. Early footfalls may have been those of a lonely girl bracing herself against the cold winds off of Lake Superior, the bullying of other kids in a small town and the emotional ravages of a dysfunctional family. Today, however, Joan’s pace is strong, purposeful and amazingly effective.
Kaplan is under no delusions about the uphill battle facing this most-recent effort on behalf of the six former paper mill workers who remain incarcerated in Wisconsin prisons. The legal team he spearheads is pressing for new trials, which supporters believe will lead to findings of not guilty.
Until then, Joan Treppa will keep on walking — picking up fellow marchers along the way who are just as dedicated to the steps of truth and justice.
Denis Gullickson is an educator, speaker, farmer and horseman. He writes and lectures on these topics, as well as philosophy, history, football and Packers history. He talks about the Packers in Wisconsin Public Television’s “Hometown Stories — Green Bay.” His books include “Before They Were the Packers: Green Bay’s Town Team Days,” “Vagabond Halfback: The Life and Times of Johnny Blood McNally,” and “The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men.” He is currently working on a stage play on Johnny Blood as well as several book projects.