Van accident haunts survivors

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Marcia Nelesen
August 17, 2015

Janesville didn't ask for it, but it became the city's story.

The speeding van that rolled over on Interstate 90/39, killing seven and maiming five for life, made national news.

Inside the van were 14 young people from around the country, all members of a traveling magazine sales crew. As the story unfolded, so did the details of an industry that often preys on young people.

At about 12:30 a.m. Thursday, March 25, 1999, town of Milton police officer John Conger was in the median near Manogue Road when he spotted the van speeding by at about 80 miles an hour.

The driver, Jeremy Holmes, did not have a valid license. Upon spotting the officer, he tried to switch places with the front passenger.

The van veered off the right edge of the highway near the rest stop north of Janesville, careened back onto the pavement, rolled twice and finally came to rest on the dividing line. Eleven passengers were hurled from the van, and their young, broken bodies lay scattered on the pavement. They were 15 to 22 years old.

“Oh my God, all these people can't be dead,” an Edgerton rescue volunteer, interviewed by The Gazette, recalled thinking upon viewing the carnage.

Those who lived carry the scars.

Monica Forgues of Madison is a quadriplegic. Nicole McDougal, also of Madison, has brain damage. One boy's face was ripped off when he hit the cement, said Phil Ellenbecker, whose daughter, Malinda Turvey, died in the accident.

The Gazette recently contacted Ellenbecker, and it happened to be on his daughter's birthday. She would have been 35.

Holmes, the van driver, had a few bruises and a black eye. He spent the next four years in prison, but Ellenbecker doesn't believe justice was served.

After the accident, Ellenbecker hired Johnnie Cochran, the high-profile lawyer who defended O.J. Simpson.

The case made it to the Court of Appeals, but two of the three justices ruled the magazine publishers were not liable.

“We failed to get into the deep pockets,” Ellenbecker said, still convinced he could have stopped the practice of door-to-door sales if the case had been successful.

Holmes and manager Choan Lane owe the victims $12 million in restitution, Ellenbecker said.

The families did win a suit filed against owner Karleen Hillery's insurance company, but most of that went to the two most seriously injured girls.

Monica Forgues' attorneys at the time estimated it would cost $9 million to care for her for 10 years, but she received a fraction of that, he said.

“That should be put on the publishers and the clearinghouses,” Ellenbecker said. “They committed the crime. They are responsible.

“I've talked to their marketing people; I've begged them to stop using door-to-door sales as a way to sell their product. They won't listen."

Ellenbecker became a passionate fighter for industry reform and for years maintained a website that tracked the violence and deaths. In 1999, U.S. Sen. Herbert Kohl, D-Wis., introduced the Traveling Sales Crew Protection Act, but it failed to pass.

The Wisconsin Legislature passed Malinda's Traveling Sales Crew Protection Act in 2009. The legislation requires companies to register with the Department of Workforce Development and post cash or bond. Workers must be paid at least minimum wage.

Advocates say a federal law is needed because the sales crews never stay in one spot for long.

Today, the operators are “still going strong,” Ellenbecker said.

The arrests continue; civil suits continue; crimes continue; deaths continue, Ellenbecker said.

Fifty-three more have died since Turvey's death. Some are homeowners who let sales crews into their homes.

Mistreatment of young salespeople has been documented and includes psychological and physical abuse. Workers often don't get the pay they are promised. They are sometimes left in cities far from their homes.

The main publishers are fully aware of what's going on, Ellenbecker said.

“They know there's a lot of death, crime, but they continue to ignore it because of the money.

“Their position is that they're not part of the problem,” Ellenbecker said. “They are actually the source of the problem.

“They can sell their damn magazines in the grocery stores, bookstores … just stop using young kids to sell your product. That's all we ever wanted from them.”

Earlene Williams directs Parent Watch in New York City, a clearinghouse of information on door-to-door sales crews.

The crews have stopped hiring minors because of bad publicity, she said. But they continue to hire young adults and others who are vulnerable and desperate, she said. Physical abuse can include malnourishment or beatings, she said.

Williams noted recent events: a lawsuit settled in Oregon that stemmed from a traffic accident in which a youth sustained brain damage; the death of a driver; and the recent suspicious death of a 19-year-old crew member in Maryland.

What should homeowners do when they find sales crews on their doorsteps?

“Don't let them in your house,” Williams warned. “They (crew members) usually haven't had enough to eat, so if you want to give them something to eat at the door while they stand on the porch, that's your call.

“Give them my phone number, please.”

That number is 917-579-4641.

Don't buy a subscription because that supports the business model, she added. Due to fraud in the industry, the subscriber might never get the magazine anyway.

Williams urged people to read an April 20 article in The Atlantic magazine and available online. It's titled “Trapped into Selling Magazines Door-to-Door.”

Ellenbecker recalled how his daughter saw the ad for the magazine sales job in the Wisconsin State Journal. She was excited, telling her dad it paid $500 a week. She said she would get to see Florida and the ocean.

Ellenbecker begged her to wait until he checked out the company. When he did the next day, he became afraid for his daughter. But she was already gone, and he had no idea where to find her.

The next day, she was dead.

She was 18.

Ellenbecker later urged publishers to stop putting the ads in their newspapers.

“No newspaper in Wisconsin runs ads for these people anymore at all because of what happened,” Ellenbecker said. “That was one of the ways we actually hurt them.”

Every year, survivors and family members travel to the memorial site at the rest stop in Janesville with balloons and their memories.

But even on the day the state Assembly passed Malinda's bill—even with all the jubilation and triumph advocates felt—there was still sadness, Ellenbecker said.

“I kept saying to myself, 'Why am I here?' I always came up with the same answer: 'Because Malinda was gone.'

“It was all for her. When she died, I promised her I'd stop these people.

“I bent down, gave her a kiss and said, 'Malinda, I'm going to stop them for you. We're not going to let them kill any more kids.

“I did my best with the legislation. It was rough. I was fighting against big companies who have a lot more resources than I do."

Nothing changes the fact that his beloved daughter is gone.

“When you lose a child, there's something that … you lose that you can't get back. A part of you goes away.

“It doesn't change the fact that I think about her every day of my life.”

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