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Crews live and die to sell

Young magazine peddlers nationwide face abuse, danger

By Dave Umhoefer and Meg Kissinger
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: July 31, 1999

First of a two-part series
Part 2

About the series: Journal Sentinel reporters interviewed more than 100 people for this story, including current and former crew members, car handlers, a sales manager, company executives and publishers. They reviewed hundreds of pages of court files, witness statements given to law enforcement agencies, congressional testimony and a videotape put out by the industry to train workers. Their reporting took them to Iowa, Oklahoma and New York.

The reckless driving, sweatshop conditions and drug abuse that led to the deaths of seven young magazine sellers near Janesville last spring plague America's door-to-door magazine sales trade, a four-month Journal Sentinel investigation has found.

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Locations of other accidents

At least 42 sales agents have died or suffered injuries in eerily similar auto crashes nationwide since 1992. In addition, two sellers and two customers have been killed by magazine salesmen this decade, and two women customers have been sexually assaulted since 1997, the paper found.

Because the incidents appear isolated - one woman killed in Jackson, Miss.; two agents stoned to death in Batavia, N.Y.; five injured in a crash in Illinois - the industry has escaped glaring headlines and scrutiny.

The door-to-door magazine sales business is an efficient money machine for publishers who distance themselves from - but sanction - the work of crews that routinely rely on intimidation, beatings and mental abuse, deceptive recruiting and the hiring of laborers as young as 14, according to the accounts of dozens of former agents and ex-managers.

Field managers tolerate and, in some cases, encourage illegal driving, drug use and soliciting, agents said in interviews with the paper and in statements made to law enforcement investigators.

"That is the kind of job it is: Your kid can end up maimed or dead, and in any case indentured," said Earlene Williams, who has tracked door-to-door abuses for Parent Watch in New York City for 17 years. "There's overwhelming anecdotal evidence that these problems stretch from sea to sea."

It is a heartless business. Agents who fall ill are left to fend for themselves at bus stations. "If you're sick, die and prove it," one boss is fond of saying. When crew members were killed in crashes in Janesville and Madison, the bosses gathered the belongings of the dead and dispensed them as bonuses.

"They just disappeared, never even gave us his belongings, and nobody (on the crew) would help identify the body," recalled Ben Bissell, one of three brothers of Kevin Bissell, who drove for Publishers Clearing Group of Atlanta until his death in an alcohol-related crash in Dane County seven years ago.

Devann Knox of Tulsa watched the clothing and jewelry of her dead friends being passed out just hours after the Janesville crash.

"Sick," Knox said of the practice.

That crew, named Y.E.S., is a subsidiary of Subscriptions Plus. The Oklahoma-based company, owned by Karleen Hillery, is under investigation in Wisconsin and recently agreed to pay a $10,000 fine for labor violations in Oklahoma.

For all the recent bad publicity, the industry is booming. As many as 100,000 young adults and minors are recruited yearly into magazine field sales by some 40 companies running hundreds of crews, according to estimates based on information from industry insiders.

On any given day, some 30,000 or more are on the street, the same sources say, and some publishers say keen competition will prompt them to rely even more on old-fashioned door-to-door sales in the future.

The big winners - aside from publishers of some of America's best-read magazines - are the agents who grind it out for years and become managers or run their own multimillion-dollar companies. Insiders estimate that magazine field sales take in anywhere from $60 million to $200 million a year.

The American Way

Industry executives interviewed by the Journal Sentinel acknowledged some problems in the industry but defended their own firms' practices as clean. They said it was hard to control groups of teenagers out in the field.

"The good outweighs the bad," said Mark Shumate, a former sales agent who runs crews out of Indiana.

Officials portray the industry as a unique opportunity for poor or disadvantaged youths to apply themselves and get ahead.

"It's the American way," said Jack McGreevey, director of the National Field Selling Association, a door-to-door industry trade group. Subscriptions Plus remains a member of the organization.

One of the industry's best-known figures, Thomas Mack Hall, said he condones no drug use on his crews and fires people instantly for violations. His insurance company keeps a close eye on his drivers' records, he said.

"It's a good business," said Hall, a 50-year veteran of magazine sales who raises horses and runs Alliance Service Co., of Arlington Heights, Ill. He runs the association's membership committee.

"I'm very sorry (the Wisconsin crash) happened," he said. "My sympathy goes out to all the families."

McGreevey and others said part of the industry's image problem came from malcontents who couldn't make the grade. He questioned whether other industries like trucking might have similar death rates on the road.

But a national child labor advocate active on field sales issues said the death and injury toll unearthed by the Journal Sentinel's investigation was probably conservative.

"I think you're just scratching the surface," said Darlene Adkins, a child labor expert with the National Consumers League in Washington.

Both sides agree that most recruits to the trade are troubled. They are lured by the chance to make a buck, travel or party hard. The vast majority drop out quickly and are replaced just as fast. Most are in their early 20s or younger, some as young as 14.

"I always say we get the bottom of the pickle barrel, the dropouts, kids that resent their parents," Hall said. "Most of these young kids are lost. They have no place to go."

Hall said one of his crews recently hired a guy found sleeping on a park bench, but he lasted only two days. More typically, companies recruit through newspaper ads as they move from town to town.

"Some of my better employees come from Milwaukee," Hall said.

The Road Life

The Journal Sentinel's investigation found time-tested business rituals and a consistently rough-and-tumble culture.

"It's like an alternate reality - no bills, the travel," according to Michele, an agent from Kenosha who worked for more than a year for Mountain Subscriptions but did not want her last name used. "The only problem was someone practically owned us. They tell you where to go, when to go to bed."

Shumate was candid about the trade's most visible problem - the Journal Sentinel found 15 deaths from accidents alone since 1992. But he blamed agents, not company managers.

"Everybody in this industry has problems with car wrecks," said Shumate, co-owner of Indiana-based Great Lakes Circulation. "I feel fortunate we've never had a fatality. Young people take risks and are irresponsible."

When Shumate ran his since-dissolved Mountain Subscriptions last year, one of his crew members crashed a van in Illinois speeding in a rainstorm, police records show. Five agents were injured, three severely. Among the injured was Lynn Webster, 18, of Oneida, Wis.

Two passengers said in interviews that the van was beat up and its tires were balding. They also said a crew member pretended to be the driver after the crash because the actual driver had a suspended license. Records confirm the license suspension.

"Anyone who drives has to have a driver's license," Shumate responded.

That certainly wasn't the case in the March rollover crash near Janesville on the Y.E.S. crew working for Subscriptions Plus.

Jeremy Holmes, who abandoned the driver's seat at 80 mph, had a terrible driving record and a suspended license but was rewarded with a promotion to car handler.

Holmes smoked pot the day of the crash, tests showed. Crew members told Wisconsin state investigators they were expected to score drugs for field manager Choan Lane, Kay Hillery's ex-husband. A favorite expression of his, they said, was "cash for hash, points for joints." Lane has not responded to numerous interview requests since the Janesville crash.

"It's a formula for fatality," said Chelsea Stone, whose daughter, Amanda Spurr, a member of another of Hillery's crews, was killed in a crash in Kansas a week before Christmas last year.

"It's unreal to think that companies like this could be operating in 1999," said Carol Stankovich. Her daughter, Amber, was killed Oct. 27, 1997, in Jackson, Miss., when the van driver fell asleep behind the wheel.

Run and Hide

The reality, after 12- to 16-hour days, is that exhausted agents have to compete for a bed or the floor each night according to their sales, numerous former crew members said in interviews.

Laura Minteer, 21, of Niagara Falls, N.Y., recounted how scabies, venereal disease and lice spread through the crews because of the unsanitary conditions. It was not uncommon to sleep four or five to a room. Other crew members tell of having to sleep on the floor while their fellow crew members had sex in the beds.

Many agents said they had spent at least one night sleeping in even worse conditions - in jail. Doing time for illegally soliciting without registering with local authorities is a common occupational hazard, interviews with agents suggest.

Mariah Weinmeister, a Colorado woman who has permanent back and neck problems from the Illinois crash, said Mountain Subscriptions never obtained required local permits to sell.

"The biggest thing was to avoid the cops at all costs," said Weinmeister, now 21. "We were instructed to run or hide."

Shumate, the Great Lakes Circulation owner, acknowledged he pays for soliciting permits only in the rare instances when they can be issued quickly.

Shumate himself was jailed in Georgia after dropping off crew members in Peachtree City without permits to solicit, 1993 police records show. He had no driver's license when stopped, and proceeded to curse out the officer, saying he'd "sued plenty of police departments, and (Peachtree) was next."

Ex-agents from several companies said in interviews that they rarely registered or pulled permits before selling. Others said it was hit and miss.

"It's a time issue," Shumate said. He said many companies do buy the permits when they are required. Some cities, such as Milwaukee, do not require registration.

His own policy, Shumate admits, has put his agents behind bars. He said he does not charge bail money to the agents after the company arranges for their release.

Shaun Phillips, 20, was arrested for soliciting without a permit a few weeks after he joined a Subscriptions Plus crew run by Ken Cook in November at a mall near his house in Freeport, Fla. Phillips said Cook posted the $500 bail for him, and told him not to worry about it. The crew then moved on to Houston. Eventually, Phillips quit and moved back home. A few months later, a bill for the municipal violation arrived, along with a fine for jumping bail.

"Now I have a record, too," Phillips said. "It stinks."

Others seem willing to put up with that, and more.

Adam Stehm, a car handler on the Iowa-based Y.E.S. crew, says he made money "here and there," maybe $3,000 or $4,000 in eight months, and liked it despite being pushed around by manager Lane. He also said he had participated in a driver switch at 70 mph, and spent time in an Iowa jail after a soliciting arrest.

"There's a little disappointment when you get thrown in jail, but the business was fun. I miss it," Stehm said, recalling Christmas in Daytona Beach.

There are other hidden costs of being in the business. Knox, who joined the crew of Y.E.S. in Tulsa in February, six weeks before the Janesville crash, was left paying the $500 phone bill that fellow crew members had racked up on her cell phone.

Carla Nealy of Oklahoma City spent nearly a year on the Y.E.S. crew before she was convicted of arson in Concord, N.C.

Nealy spent six months in jail and an additional 81 days in boot camp in Fayetteville, N.C. She was ordered to pay $4,000 in restitution and court costs. She gets a reminder each month when her paycheck arrives with $180 garnisheed to repay the debt.

She blames the incident on the man she was training who, she says, set a trash can on fire in the hallway of an apartment building after a woman refused to buy one of the magazines.

Minteer, the agent from Niagara Falls, said that her bosses never filed forms with the Internal Revenue Service and that she is now having her wages garnisheed for $4,000 in back taxes and penalties.

She worked for All-Star Promotions on the same crew involved in the crash that killed Amber Stankovich. A year earlier, two All-Star agents stoned two fellow crew members to death after the victims refused to help pull off a robbery in Batavia, N.Y.

On the Books

Many interviewed by reporters and investigators complain they don't get their commissions, that much of their earnings are kept out of their hands and "on the books" during their travels.

Others, however, like Daniel Lines, say the business can be a real money-maker.

The 27-year-old Floridian, who drives for one of Hillery's Subscription Plus crews, said he worked his way up from sales agent and now makes $800 to $1,200 weekly to send back home to his fiancee and child. Drivers typically make $1 to $2 for every subscription sold by the agents they drop on territory.

"You do make money in this business, and you do see the money," he said.

Lines said he lived on the streets for two years as a teen and got into trouble. Now he has learned self-discipline and has aspirations of making manager. He wouldn't dream of "driver switching," calling it stupid.

Lines praised his boss, Hillery, as a pioneer in improving the industry. He said he'd had dinner with Lane from the Y.E.S. crew and found him a nice, level-headed guy.

Jeremy Holmes, another car handler, has a very different tale to tell.

A week before he was arrested for driving without a license in the Janesville crash, Holmes told Madison police that he made "approximately $100,000 a year as a recruiter and driver" for Y.E.S.

His father, Dan Holmes, begs to differ.

"He never got any money as far as I know," Dan Holmes said. "He told me he had $1,000 on the books. He'll never see any of it."

The younger Holmes worked for Y.E.S. for two years.

A Fresh Start

Holmes is now serving a seven-year prison term for vehicular homicide. Advocates for reform of the industry are pointing to the tragic crash as evidence that legislative changes are needed.

Two ideas that child protection advocates say Congress should consider: giving agents the same protections as migrant workers, and creating a nationwide minimum work age of 18 in magazine sales by classifying traveling crew labor as hazardous.

Self-policing by the sales companies and the publishing industry has failed in the past, critics say.

For now, subscription companies are running a little scared because of all the publicity after the Wisconsin crash, but Parent Watch's Williams wonders whether it will last without meaningful action.

"Their bad case of nerves has always been coupled with an arrogance, because they've always beaten the rap," she said.

Indeed, even before Oklahoma authorities announced their action to boot Subscriptions Plus out of that state, Hillery was making plans to keep on truckin'.

"Kay will pay a fine and get a cease-and-desist order in Oklahoma, but it won't affect her one bit, because she's moving the business out of the state," her divorce lawyer, Tom Cummings, said. Added her publicist, Deborah Mash: "It will be reincorporated, obviously."

By all signs, door-to-door magazine sales continue to flourish. As of last week, Lane, the Janesville crash crew boss, had changed the name of his crew to Atlantic Coast Sales and was traveling through the Midwest. the crew was in Michigan in mid-July and headed back to Iowa.

Hundreds of young, eager sellers are signing up each day. Shawn Kelly, whose skull was crushed in the Janesville crash, was recuperating in Los Angeles when a knock came at the door. Would he like to buy a magazine? the young man wanted to know.

"I couldn't believe it," said Kelly, who spent three months in a nursing home and may never regain full cognitive function.

Kelly invited the agent in, showed him articles about the crash and also the scars on his shaved head.

"I'm not sure the guy got it," he said.


Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Aug. 1, 1999.


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