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Iowa victim's family files wrongful death lawsuit

Van disaster was just last stop on hellish trip

Seven lives, seven years

Remorseful driver, grieving parents weep at sentencing

Photo/Jim Gehrz
Van driver Jeremy Holmes' sister, Jenny Holmes (left), and mother, Shelly Martin, listen during Friday's sentencing. "Jeremy never had a disregard for life - his or anyone else's," Martin told the court.

By Dave Umhoefer
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: June 11, 1999

Janesville - One year in prison for each extinguished young life.

That was the punishment Friday for the Iowa man who left the driver's seat of a crowded van doing 80 mph on a Wisconsin freeway, leading to a nightmarish crash that killed seven itinerant magazine sellers near Janesville in March.

"This was not an accident, it was planned criminal behavior," Rock County Circuit Judge John Roethe said of Jeremy Holmes' arranged attempt to switch out of the driver's seat to avoid a bust for operating without a license.

The seven-year sentence in one of the worst Wisconsin auto crashes satisfied few in a grief-drenched courtroom crowded with friends and family of the victims and supporters of the 20-year-old Holmes.

"That's not enough," a stunned Nicole McDougal, 16, of Fitchburg, who was injured in the accident, told reporters. "Seven years when seven people died, not to mention those who were hurt?"

In gut-wrenching testimony, a parade of heartsick family members carrying framed photographs of their dead loved ones asked Roethe to slap Holmes with the maximum 21-year prison term.

"What do I say to the man who killed my daughter?" said Phillip Ellenbecker, father of Malinda Turvey, 18, of Verona, who joined the magazine crew one day and died in the wreck the next. "It's time for truth, pain and justice."

Some spoke directly to Holmes, who amazingly escaped the wreck with scratches and bruises. Others criticized the dangerous and illegal tactics tolerated by the firms connected to the sales crews.

"You and the company you worked for preyed on young kids motivated by survival and greed," said DeAnna Roberts, mother of Marshall Roberts, a 16-year-old who ran away from his Iowa home to join Y.E.S., an affiliate of Subscriptions Plus, an Oklahoma company.

Ellenbecker singled out Choan Lane, who runs Y.E.S., and Karleen Hillery, president of Subscriptions Plus, as being "as guilty of this crime as you are." Both companies are under investigation for labor and hiring practices.

Holmes is eligible for parole after 21 months and might not serve half the seven years if he behaves in prison, said Rock County District Attorney David O'Leary. He will be on probation for four years upon release, and was ordered to pay restitution of $492,134.

O'Leary called the seven-year sentence fair.

But it disappointed Holmes' lawyer, Brenna Lisowski, a public defender who argued forcefully that Holmes, while negligent, was simply acting on orders from a physically abusive sales crew supervisor. Lisowski sought probation and jail time, arguing that her client had no intent to harm.

"These children were my son's friends," a distraught Shelly Martin, Holmes' mother, told the judge. "Jeremy never had a disregard for life, his or anyone else's."

Holmes was recruited into Y.E.S. the same way many of the others were: by answering a newspaper ad promising freedom, travel and money. Holmes in two years moved up to driver and recruiter after a successful sales stint.

"He had no intent to hurt anyone," his father, Danny Holmes, told the judge.

No crash survivors from Holmes' crew spoke in defense of their former boss, although one, Shawn Kelly, apparently intended to but left the courtroom early. Kelly, recovering at a Janesville nursing home, told a reporter before the hearing he was moving soon to Beverly Hills, Calif., to start his life over.

Holmes, who hung his head, cried and was nearly inconsolable throughout the hearing, helped his cause by pleading guilty to 12 criminal charges - one each for the 12 dead and seriously injured, including four Wisconsin residents.

His remorse, youth and lack of serious criminal past also were mitigating factors, Roethe said.

Trembling and wracked with sobs, Holmes stood and told Roethe he took responsibility for his actions.

"What it comes down to is, I'm sorry," he said before taking a seat and burying his head in his hands.

O'Leary sought a prison term of unspecified length. He said Holmes, who had a tumultuous childhood, was a manipulator who lied to investigators about using marijuana in the hours before the workers headed back in the van to a Janesville hotel from a day of knocking on doors in the Fox River Valley. A drug test revealed traces of marijuana in Holmes' system, but not enough to prove the driver was impaired at the time of the accident, O'Leary said.

O'Leary also pointed out that as a 15-year-old, Holmes had rolled a car with four passengers.

"In the state's mind, he's done it twice," O'Leary said.

O'Leary scoffed at testimony that Holmes had become like a counselor to the young crew members.

"He helped them learn the system, including switching seats," O'Leary said. "He manipulated law enforcement" by driving with a suspended license and trying to cover up that fact.

O'Leary said he expects the state attorney general's office to interview Holmes, now that his fate in Rock County has been decided. The attorney general's office is investigating the two magazine firms.

Roethe, in passing sentence, put the focus squarely on Holmes' decisions, not for whom he worked.

"This case is not about the magazine industry or employment relations," he said. "It's about obstruction of justice."

The others killed in the crash were: Crystal McDaniel, 25, of Princeton, W.Va.; Joe Wild, 21, of Lacombe, La; Amber Lettman, 16, of Oregon, Wis.; Peter Christman, 16, of Virginia Beach, Va.; and Cory Hanson, 22, of Wichita, Kan. McDaniel was taking control of the steering wheel as Holmes got out of the driver's seat.

The others injured were: Staci Beck, 22, of Fort Collins, Colo.; Craig Fechter, 22, of Belvue, Kan.; Monica Forgues, 15, of Madison; and Kaila Gillock, 19, of Louisville, Ky., the only van occupant to walk away from the crash with minor injuries.

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