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Wisconsin man pushes for labor reform 20 years after crash

April 6, 2019

MILTON, Wis. (AP) — It has been 20 years since a van crash on March 25, 1999, that left seven young, traveling door-to-door magazine sellers dead and scattered across the southbound lanes of Interstate 90/39 near a rest stop north of Janesville.

In Verona, Phil Ellenbecker, now 70, still grieves bitterly over the death of his daughter, Malinda Turvey.

Turvey was 18 when she left home to sell magazines after seeing a newspaper advertisement for Y.E.S., an Oklahoma-based magazine subscription sales company who beckoned her with promises of a $500-a-week “blue jean job!” that offered “fun in the sun!”

Two days after she started work in traveling sales out of a Y.E.S. crew van, Turvey was killed.

The sun was hours from rising when just after midnight March 25, 1999, Turvey and 11 of her young co-workers were thrown from a green Dodge crew van with no license plates after it rolled over at 81 miles per hour on I-90/39 north of Janesville.

The van’s driver was trying to switch seats with a passenger to avoid earning a speeding ticket, police said.

Along with its death toll, the 1999 van disaster left five others maimed. Details of the crash and the circumstances under which it happened live in stark relief in volumes of police, state and federal labor commission and department of justice reports, and criminal court documents — a tome that details illegal and abusive labor practices by magazine-subscription-seller Y.E.S. that put young people — some of them minors — in jeopardy.

Ellenbecker, who now is an activist who exposes illegal operators in the traveling door-to-door sales industry, said young people in that industry continue to die.

The most recent deaths, Ellenbecker told the Janesville Gazette , came Feb. 16 in a two-car crash in Montgomery County, Indiana, that happened after a vehicle occupied by three traveling door-to-door sales crew lost control on a freeway overpass.

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department could not immediately provide The Gazette details on the crash, but it killed two people, according to local media reports.

“They were all working for a magazine (subscription) sales company,” Ellenbecker said.

In the moments leading up to the 1999 van crash near Janesville, the van’s driver, Jeremy Holmes, 20, of Clinton, Iowa, was trying to switch seats with a passenger after a local police officer stationed at an emergency turnaround was attempting to pull the van over for speeding.

Holmes, a Y.E.S. employee, had multiple driving violations in Iowa and was driving on a revoked license, according to reports.

Most of Holmes’s 14 co-workers in the van were asleep after spending hours on the road.

The late John Conger, then a town of Milton police officer, was pursuing the speeding van the night of the crash.

He watched as the van veered on and off the highway and then overturned, sending 12 passengers flying out the windows. Conger was the first officer to arrive on the grisly scene, where bodies lay all over the road. Authorities had to set up four helicopter landing zones to transport the victims, according to reports. Six of the victims, who ranged in age from 16 to 25, were killed immediately.

“Those kids were just thrown. Their bodies hit the highway at 81 miles per hour,” Ellenbecker told The Gazette in a recent phone interview.

Holmes, who limped from the crash with bumps, bruises and scratches, served four years in prison after pleading guilty to seven counts of negligent vehicular homicide and five counts of causing great bodily harm to others hurt in the crash.

Y.E.S. was found guilty of negligent vehicular homicide after an investigation by the state Department of Justice and was ordered in 2000 to pay fines of $132,000 and restitution to the van crash victims and their families.

Subscriptions Plus, a sister company of Y.E.S., was fined $15,050 by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2000 labor violations involving a survivor of the crash who was paralyzed.

Ellenbecker has been fighting since 1999 to get laws passed to crack down on the traveling sales industry. His nonprofit, Dedicated Memorial Parents Group, canvasses the U.S. daily for new cases of abusive and exploitive labor practices within traveling door-to-door sales, which often involve sales of magazine subscriptions or spray cleaners.

It took 10 years and a fight against lobbyists for Wisconsin to crack down on a sales industry that Ellenbecker and others say lures young people, sometimes minors, into a world of low-paying and abusive work that can subject them to physical abuse and sexual assault and pay them in illegal drugs.

Ellenbecker, who works in tandem with advocacy groups that monitor human trafficking, said bad actors in the traveling door-to-door sales industry operate as “organized crime.”

In 2009, lawmakers, including Wisconsin Sen. Jon Erpenbach, pushed Malinda’s Law, which was named after Ellenbecker’s daughter.

The law requires employers who recruit or use traveling sales crews in Wisconsin to register with the state Department of Workforce Development.

The law also requires traveling sales crews be paid regularly, and all traveling sales crew vehicles must meet state code certification.

Conger, the town of Milton police officer who witnessed the van crash, worked with Ellenbecker to press for the law changes.

Conger died in 2013 from an apparent suicide, according to police investigation reports. The Gazette was unable to reach Conger’s family at home for comment on Conger’s work on Malinda’s Law.

In Wisconsin, Ellenbecker said, Malinda’s Law has eliminated crimes and deaths related to door-to-door traveling sales.

“For the last 10 years, we haven’t had a single door-to-door magazine and spray-cleaner sales crime in Wisconsin,” he said. “They just don’t come here anymore. It’s because of the rigorous laws passed here.”

In some other states, traveling door-to-door selling continues to operate with little regulation. An Alabama company that Ellenbecker said had two traveling salespeople killed Feb. 16 in Indiana has had 52 complaints registered through the Better Business Bureau in the last three years and has a “F″ rating by the trade advocacy group.

Ellenbecker said it would take his group “100 years” to get law changes similar to Wisconsin’s Malinda’s Law passed in every other state in the U.S. Ellenbecker’s nonprofit is now working to use the Wisconsin law to craft a federal Congressional bill that would regulate door-to-door traveling sales, possibly under the First Amendment.

In a park at the southbound rest stop along I-90/39, there remains a memorial parents have set up under two trees to honor the seven killed in the 1999 van crash.

The site was recently decorated with stuffed dolls and figurines. One stuffed doll, a toy monkey, was clad in a small t-shirt that read “Explore.” The doll’s fur and plastic eyes were desiccated and faded by the elements.

Ellenbecker said he hasn’t been to the memorial site since 2015. Every year, it gets harder for him to revisit the place where Malinda Turvey’s future, her ability to explore the world, and her life, were stripped away forever.

Turvey would’ve been 38 years old. But for Ellenbecker, she’ll always be an 18-year-old who lives only in photographs.

Ellenbecker said he’ll never stop fighting for his daughter.

“I promised her when she died, I bent over and kissed her forehead. And I told her, I told her I’ll stop these people for the sake of other kids,” he said. “And that’s what I’m doing. And I will continue to do that until the day I die.”

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Information from: The Janesville Gazette, http://www.gazetteextra.com