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Sales crews still dying as reforms stall

Frustrated families confronting publishers
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: March 18, 2000

In the year since a van crash threw a dozen young people onto a Wisconsin highway and exposed the dangers of door-to-door magazine peddling, at least three similar accidents and a killing have taken six more lives.

That grim anniversary scorecard has not translated into federal legislative reforms, any concerted changes by major publishers or the prosecution of the company involved in the Wisconsin crash.

Upset at the inaction, the grieving families of former sales agents from 18 states are confronting U.S. publishers that have continued to accept orders sold by traveling crews. They want publishers to acknowledge the growing evidence of sweatshop conditions, recruitment of minors and routine reckless driving among crews that jump from state to state, pushing 14-hour work days or longer.

"You must stop this now," says a letter signed by 330 people and mailed Friday to 27 publishers. "We suffered injury and loss while you profited. . . . Look ahead and ask yourself what the chances are that we will see your magazine(s) on the sales list pulled from the wreckage of the next fatal accident."

Magazines put out by those 27 publishers were on agents' sales lists in the Wisconsin crash on March 25, 1999. That wreck killed seven sales agents and severely injured five others in a van packed with 14 sellers ages 15 to 22. In that crash, a habitual traffic offender tried to switch out of the driver's seat at 81 mph after spotting a police officer, forcing the rollover on I-90 near Janesville.

Those magazines showed up again on sales lists last month when a different sales crew in a truck plunged over a cliff on a winding California highway, killing two agents, according to Earlene Williams, director of Parent Watch, a Manhattan-based organization that tracks child labor abuses. Williams is organizing the letter campaign.

The Death Toll Climbs

In addition to those tragedies in Wisconsin and California, the Journal Sentinel has learned of these additional deaths in the last year:

  • On Oct. 4, Melissa Whitehair, 19, of Mount Vernon, Ind., and Daniel Ziegler, 21, of Chicago were killed when the van they were riding in swerved out of control outside Phoenix. The two were thrown from the van, which carried Colvin Sales agents selling through Palmetto Marketing, a Coral Springs, Fla., magazine clearinghouse. Whitehair was four months pregnant with the baby of her crew chief.

  • Another Palmetto worker, veteran crew manager John W. Skyles III, 31, of Little Rock, Ark., was found shot to death Wednesday night inside the Norfolk, Va., motel where his crew was staying. Police arrested a local suspect. Vincent R. Pitts, Palmetto's owner, was not available for comment.

  • On Jan. 16, Joshua Gould, 23, of Woodstock, Ill., apparently fell asleep behind the wheel in Texas after driving more than 700 miles on I-10. Gould, a Precision Sales crew member for World Wide Circulation near Detroit, was married with two children, including one who was scheduled for bone marrow transplant that week. Gould was traveling with three other crew members in their boss' Range Rover.

About 17 hours before the crash, Gould had been ticketed for speeding - going 85 mph in a 75 mph zone - in Benson, Ariz., some 700 miles from Junction.

"How many more kids have to die before someone steps forward and stops these crews?" said Diana Wild of Lacombe, La., whose son, Joe, 21, was killed in the Janesville crash.

No Resolution

A Journal Sentinel investigation last summer concluded that 42 sales agents had died or suffered injuries in similar auto crashes nationwide since 1992. Drug abuse, dangerous driving, poor pay and grueling conditions are common on crews, the paper found.

The crew and the clearinghouse involved in the Wisconsin crash continued to operate afterward, according to state investigators and sales agents. Crew manager Choan Lane, an Iowan, simply steered the crew to the next state and quickly changed its name from Y.E.S. to Atlantic Coast, according to agents and investigators. Newly recruited agents included several minors, former Atlantic agent Derek Hansford of Topeka, Kan., said.

Lane reported to Kay Hillery, owner of a subscription clearinghouse known as Subscriptions Plus Inc. Hillery reportedly has moved from her Iowa home to the Rock Island, Ill., area in the Quad Cities. Hillery has claimed no responsibility, saying agents are independent contractors.

Over a three-year period, Subscriptions Plus - just one of 40 companies running crews in the United States - employed 3,000 laborers, estimated U.S. Labor Department officials who recently fined Subscriptions Plus $15,050 for child-labor and other violations. Industry experts estimate that as many as 30,000 agents, some as young as 14, operate throughout the country on any given day.

Last April, the Wisconsin Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Department requested that Attorney General James Doyle seek an injunction blocking Subscriptions Plus from doing business in Wisconsin. Its investigation accused the firm of misleading customers at doors. It recommended fines up to $2 million.

In addition, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development in July referred to Doyle allegations that Y.E.S. had committed 49 law violations related to exploiting minors, failing to pay minimum wage and other labor problems.

But Doyle's office has taken no action yet on the agencies' referrals or the attorney general's own investigation. Doyle declined comment for this story; his spokesman, Jim Haney, suggested that the office's inquiry is close to wrapping up.

Neither Hillery nor Lane could be reached for comment.

Industry watchdog Williams said loopholes in federal law protected the field sales industry.

In Congress, Sen. Herb Kohl's bill aiming to regulate the industry has been referred to committee. Williams, the force behind congressional hearings in the 1980s on magazine peddling, is backing the bill from Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, has put forth a broader bill that would address some aspects of door-to-door sales.

"Until we get a proper law, these kids will continue to die without dignity," Williams said.

The state labor commissioner in Oklahoma - which banished Subscriptions Plus from that state, where it used to be based - said publishers' lobbying clout clouded the chances of federal action.

"Most politicians want to take a hands-off approach," Brenda Reneau said.

She called on the industry to seriously police itself or face tighter government scrutiny.

Parents Grieve

Scattered around the country, parents and friends of agents who died on the job are angry about the lack of action and still struggling with their grief.

Dee and Butch Roberts built a memorial park next to their DeWitt, Iowa, farm for their son, Marshall, who was 16 at the time of his death in the Wisconsin crash.

Dee Roberts regularly reads an Internet site, //, that was begun after the crash by a former crew member who was outraged at the industry. The site monitors activities of the industry and includes chat rooms where crew members and former crew members can relate their stories.

Phil Ellenbecker of Verona, Wis., says he hasn't been able to save enough money to buy a headstone for his daughter, Melinda Turvey, who was 18 at the time of the crash. He and his 8-year-old son, Dustin, visit her grave often, Ellenbecker says.

When he does get enough money for that headstone, he said, he would like to put these words on it from a card the Roberts family sent him:

"My death is not my own but yours. Its significance depends on what you do with it."

Pam Christman of Virginia Beach, Va., drawing from the experience she had of donating her son's organs, now volunteers at an organ donation bank near her home.

"I like to think that Peter is living on through that," she said.

Y.E.S. never sent the personal effects of the dead back to their families. Crew members said they packed them up and divided the belongings among themselves.

"The only thing I got back was the clothes that the coroner cut off him," Christman said.

As for the survivors of the Wisconsin crash:

  • Monica Forques of Madison, now 16, is paralyzed from the waist down. She has full movement in her right arm but only limited mobility on her left side. She frequently suffers from respiratory infections, says her mother, Nancy Ashton. Monica was an eighth-grader at Sherman Middle School in Madison at the time of the crash. She plans to begin her studies at Madison East High School on Monday.

  • Craig Fechter, 23, of Belvue, Kan., was so disfigured by the crash that his mother could identify him only by looking at a lock of hair his sister had dyed a few months before. He is now mostly recovered, said his mother, Connie Fechter. He works at a furniture store and has some pain from his sinuses' being shattered.

  • Staci Beck, 23, now lives in a halfway house for the mentally ill in Loveland, Colo. She has suffered from bipolar disorder most of her life, she said.
    "I'm doing great," she said.

  • Shawn Kelley, 21, moved to California after he was released from the Janesville nursing home where he stayed for more than three months after the crash. He moved back to his native Springfield, Mass., in the fall.

He said he still has headaches and walks with a limp. He stocks grocery store shelves and attends night classes at a technical college. He said he has made it a daily ritual to look through the newspaper for ads luring kids to sign on as traveling magazine crews so he can confront those companies and tell them how wrong they are.

"I'm just praying for them to come to my town," he said.

Kelley stays in touch with the families of the dead crew members, especially Dee Roberts, Diana Wild and Pam Christman.

"I'm going to light a candle on March 25 and let it burn all day," he said.

  • Kaila Gillock, 20, of Louisville, Ky., was the only one not injured in the crash. Gillock rejoined the crew the next day and moved with them to Baltimore, where she was arrested as a material witness and made to return to Wisconsin for the arraignment of Jeremy Holmes, the driver of the van. She then went back on the crew and stayed until late July. She is now working in telephone sales, says her mother.

  • Niki McDougal, 17, of Fitchburg regained most of the brain function that was damaged in the crash and is living with her grandmother.

  • Jeremy Holmes, 21, of Clinton, Iowa, is in a state prison in Racine for youthful offenders. He is not talking to the media.


The sadness and shock is still new in the more recent fatal crashes.

Melissa Whitehair, a victim of the Arizona crash, "was just a kid who was sick of school," said her stepfather, Steve Roberts. "She saw an ad in the Evansville paper promising her a chance to see the world, and that was it. She was gone."

In her six months with the sales crew, "Missy" traveled through more than 20 states, including Wisconsin, Roberts said.

The crew is expected to be back in the area later this month, recruiting, said Missy's mother, Jean Roberts.

As for the Texas accident, Barbara Mroz-Perez, who runs Worldwide Circulation, told the Journal Sentinel that Joshua Gould, the driver killed in the crash, was an excellent driver. The company feels his loss deeply, she said.

But Officer Brian Payne of the Texas Highway Patrol "had his eyes opened" to the heartlessness of the magazine sales business when, minutes after the crash, some fellow crew members drove up. As one man identified Gould's body, the other crouched in the field to gather the golf clubs of the crew manager, who was not involved in the accident. The clubs had been strewn about by the impact of the crash.

"This is going on before the body was picked up," Payne said. "I'm taking pictures of the body, and they're picking up golf clubs."

Van Crash

Photo/Photo courtesy of the Redding Record Searchlight

This Ford Explorer, shown at the Trinity County office of the California Highway Patrol, went over an 80-foot cliff on Feb. 5, killing two in a sales crew from a magazine subscription clearinghouse.

"How many more kids have to die before someone steps forwardand stops these crews?" -- Diana Wild of Lacombe, La., whose son, Joe,21, was killed in the Janesville crash.

"(Melissa Whitehair) was just a kid who was sick of school. She saw an ad in the Evansville paper promising her a chance to see the world, and that was it. She was gone." -- Steve Roberts, stepfather of Indiana girl killed in Arizona accident.

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on March 19, 2000.

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