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Van crash hasn't halted traveling magazine sales crews

Seven killed on I-90 two years ago will be commemorated today
By DAVE UMHOEFER and MEG KISSINGER
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: March 24, 2001

Two years after a seven-fatality van crash near Janesville, three of the calamity's principal figures are in prison, but America's door-to-door magazine trade rolls on down the highway unfettered by any new government oversight.

The tragedy, however, has opened a spigot of lawsuits that apply a bit of public pressure on publishers and other firms who benefit from the labor of youths hired to jump from state to state on "mag crews." And there are signs, say child labor watchdogs, that better-educated consumers are increasingly wary of the sales pitches made by young itinerant salespeople at their front doors. "We have evidence that kids are being turned away in droves, so the information must be sticking," said Earlene Williams, whose New York-based Parent Watch organization has monitored traveling crews for two decades. There is little evidence, though, that recruiting of young salespeople has fallen off. In fact, Williams believes that economic pressures on magazine publishers have made them more dependent on door-to-door sales.

Today, some of the relatives of the dead and injured in the I-90 incident of March 25, 1999, plan to gather near the scene. Among them will be Phil Ellenbecker, whose 18-year-old daughter, Malinda Turvey, had joined the Iowa-based Y.E.S. crew the day before the crash. Turvey, of Verona, died in the rollover, which came when the van's unlicensed driver switched seats with a licensed driver at 80 mph after spotting a squad car. The van carried sales agents 15 to 25 years old. Shawn Kelly and Monica Forques, who were badly injured in the crash, are expected to be there, Ellenbecker said. "It'll be sad, but we can't lose our momentum on this," he said. "As long as there are kids out there being exploited, we've got to keep our focus." Ellenbecker is working closely with Parent Watch and has created a Web site (dedicatedmemorial.org) honoring the crash victims and publicizing other tragedies involving magazine crews. "I've been able to take all that anger and grief and pour into something positive to help these kids," he said of his efforts.

A Journal Sentinel investigation in 1999 found that the reckless driving, sweatshop conditions and drug abuse on the Y.E.S. crew are common on many of the traveling crews that collectively employ tens of thousands of youths a day. At least 45 sales agents have died or been injured in auto crashes similar to the Janesville crash since 1992, including several since the 1999 Wisconsin accident, the paper has found.

Sen. Herb Kohl's bill to protect young traveling sellers has gone nowhere in Congress. He has reintroduced the legislation in the current session, aiming to change the Fair Labor Standards Act. The bill has attracted just two co-sponsors - Kohl's Wisconsin colleague, Russ Feingold, and Sen. Edward Kennedy. It's fighting currents in Congress that would like to see more salespeople exempted from the labor standards act.

Karleen Hillery, owner of the Subscriptions Plus clearinghouse that processed the Y.E.S. crew's orders, was not criminally prosecuted in the Janesville crash. But Hillery's legal luck ran out in an Iowa courtroom late last year when a judge in her repeat drunken-driving case rejected a plea bargain and sentenced her to five years in prison. She is serving the time in an alcohol-rehabilitation corrections center in Davenport and is allowed to leave for work. Hillery is still in the business, as president of a subscription clearinghouse called National Community Clearing near her new home in Rock Island, Ill., state records show. Her Oklahoma-based Subscriptions Plus was reinstated to corporate status last year.

Jeremy Holmes, the 20-year-old Iowan behind the wheel of the van two years ago, is serving a seven-year reckless homicide sentence at medium-security Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution in Sheboygan County. He is currently declining prison work assignments.

The Y.E.S. crew manager, Choan Lane, is serving time in minimum security at Fox Lake prison in Dodge County. He feeds cows on a prison work farm. Lane pleaded guilty in October to several charges connected to his management of the crew: a felony for interfering with the custody of a child and also three misdemeanor charges - conspiracy to obstruct an officer, contributing to the delinquency of a child and contributing to the truancy of a child. His prison and jail sentences total three years, seven months.

The Wisconsin attorney general's office has sued Lane and Hillery and their companies in civil court for alleged labor violations. Y.E.S. didn't contest the suit and was hit with a $536,000 judgment; nothing has been collected, however. The suit against Hillery and Subscriptions Plus is pending. State consumer protection officials hope the civil and criminal actions will limit the number of crews interested in traveling through Wisconsin.

Williams, the industry watchdog, applauded the criminal convictions but said they had little effect on the industry as a whole. "It's like a relay race," she said. "As one company lets go, another picks it up." To ease the danger to youths, Williams said, publishers must exert more pressure on the door-to-door firms to clean up their act - or simply stop accepting magazine orders sold by traveling crews. Publishers say they can't be held to account for crews that are several steps removed from them on the corporate ladder. And as long as there is money to be made, demand for the services of traveling crews will exist, publishers say. An executive with California-based publisher McMullen Argus put it this way to Williams in a letter to Parent Watch last year:

"There will always be other publishers who will rush in to fill the void to enjoy a competitive advantage."

Magazine Sales

LEGISLATION
Sen. Herb Kohl's bill to protect young
traveling sellers has gone
nowhere in Congress.
He has reintroduced the legislation
in the current session, aiming to change the Fair Labor Standards Act. The bill has attracted just two co-sponsors - Kohl's Wisconsin colleague, Russ Feingold, and Sen. Edward Kennedy.

"I've been able to take all that anger and grief and pour into something positive to help these kids".
- Phil Ellenbecker,
whose 18-year-old daughter, Malinda Turvey, died in the crash



Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on March 25, 2001.


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