Charges sought in fatal crash

Two dead, two injured from area; police say driver was switching seats

Wisconsin State Journal, March 26, 1999
By Dee J. Hall and Richard W. Jaeger

JANESVILLE -- Driving 80 mph while trying to switch places with a passenger, a 20-year-old Iowa man rolled a van on Interstate 90 early Thursday morning near Janesville, killing six people and seriously injuring six others, police said.

Two of the dead and two of the injured in the single-vehicle accident were teen-age girls from the Madison area, police and hospital officials said.

"It's a tragedy beyond belief," Rock County Sheriff Eric Runaas said of the crash, whose victims ranged in age from 15 to 25 and came from nine states.

According to authorities, the young people were returning to their Janesville motel from Appleton, where they'd been selling magazine subscriptions for a company called Subscriptions Plus of Oklahoma.

Twelve of the 14 people in the 15-passenger Dodge Ram van were hurled from the vehicle when it "barrel-rolled" in the eastbound lane about 12:40 a.m. three miles north of Janesville. None of the 14 was wearing a seat belt. Law enforcement officials say the driver, Jeremy A. Holmes, 20, of Clinton, Iowa, had lost his driving privileges in Wisconsin because of unpaid speeding fines.

"There were bodies all over the scene, including in both lanes of traffic. I'm surprised none of them were hit by other vehicles," Runaas said at a press conference at Mercy Hospital in Janesville.

Police are seeking six charges of homicide by negligent use of a motor vehicle and six counts of causing bodily harm by negligent use of a motor vehicle against Holmes. There were no license plates on the van. Holmes was treated at St. Anthony Medical Center in Rockford, Ill., and released into police custody Thursday night, hospital officials said.

School authorities and family members identified the dead from the Madison area as best friends Malinda Turvey, 18, of Verona, a former student at Verona High School; and Amber Lettman, 16, a sophomore who attended night school at Madison West High School. She lived with her mother, Bonnie Lettman, in Oregon, a family member said.

Injured was another friend, Nicole McDougal, 16, of Fitchburg, a sophomore at Verona High School, who was in critical condition Thursday at University Hospital in Madison.

Another Madison girl was in critical condition at St. Anthony in Rockford. However, the hospital declined to identify the 15-year-old, saying her family was still being notified.

Police said other victims were from DeWitt, Iowa; Lacombe, La.; Wichita, Kan.; Princeton, W. Va.; Louisville, Ky.; Holyoke, Mass.; Belvue, Kan.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Fort Collins, Colo.

As of late Thursday, authorities were still trying to reach family members and were declining to release the names of the dead and injured. The task was compounded by the fact that some of the young people were using false I.D. cards, they said.

"We are conducting a nationwide effort to locate the next of kin," said Cmdr. Thomas Gehl of the Rock County Sheriff's Department. "We've been unable to find the next of kin of four of the accident victims. We are using names provided by some of the injured, and some of the identifications we found at the scene.

"In some cases, the injuries were such that even photo identifications would not have been helpful." Anyone with information about the identities of the victims is urged to call the Rock County Sheriff's Department at (608) 757-8000.

Town of Milton police officer John Conger had clocked the van going 81 mph and was pulling out of the median with his headlights on to follow it when it went off the right side of the road, veered back onto the road and rolled twice. The van landed upright on the interstate.

Witnesses told police Holmes was attempting to switch seats with a female passenger when the vehicle rolled. That passenger, whom police declined to identify, died in the crash.

"He knew he had been seen and didn't have a license, and he knew he was going to be pulled over," Conger said.

Most of the victims would have survived or suffered less severe injuries had they been wearing seat belts, said Dr. Ed Callahan, director of emergency services at Mercy Hospital in Janesville.

Weather and alcohol were ruled out as factors in the crash, said Sgt. Brad Altman of the State Patrol. A small amount of marijuana was found in one victim's purse, and blood from some victims was sent to the state Crime Laboratory to test for drugs, he said.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation said Holmes' privilege to drive in Wisconsin was suspended in December after he failed to pay two speeding tickets, one in Columbia County and one in Fond du Lac County, in 1998.

According to the Des Moines Register newspaper, Holmes' Iowa driver's license had expired in September. The newspaper reported Holmes was classified as a habitual traffic offender and had four speeding tickets in Iowa in 1998 alone.

Thursday's crash is at least the second serious accident in which Holmes was a driver, according to the Quad-City Times newspaper in Davenport, Iowa.

In 1994, when Holmes was 15, he was driving a car in rural Clinton County when he veered into the northbound lane, over-corrected, lost control and landed in a ditch, the Times said, quoting police records. His 5-year-old stepbrother was hospitalized. Holmes, his mother, Shelly Schwartz, and another stepbrother, 7, were treated and released.

School officials said Holmes bounced between two high schools, then quit school a few years back.

A school psychologist, Eric Gettes, remembered Holmes as having some difficulties but being "a very bright kid with a lot of potential. This is really a shame."

Holmes worked for a company called YES, which sold magazine subscriptions for Subscriptions Plus.

Like the others, Amber Lettman of Oregon had answered an ad in the newspaper promising "Absolute Fun!" It told prospective employees to contact "Mr. Holmes," then gave a phone number for the Econo Lodge in Madison.

Amber's aunt, Angie Lettman of Madison, said Amber's mother made several attempts within the past few days to get Amber to return home after the 16-year-old called from out of town, saying she had joined the group.

When Amber's mother reached the company, a man there said Amber was traveling but he'd call Bonnie Lettman when Amber returned.

At 6 a.m. Thursday, Bonnie Lettman was notified that her daughter was dead.

"She (Bonnie) was stunned that they were allowed to take her child out of the area without her permission," Angie Lettman said. "She never was contacted by anyone from this company."

Angie Lettman said Amber and Amber's friends, Malinda Turvey and Nicole McDougal, were dazzled by the company's promises of trips and big money.

"She was pretty much swept into the whole thing into the independence of it," Angie Lettman said.

"Malinda and her and Nicky got this idea they were going to make millions and see the world. She had no idea it was this type of job. She was just 16 years old."

The state Department of Workforce Development is investigating Subscriptions Plus under child labor laws because minors were involved, said Mike Goetzman, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.

Members of the group, who had been staying at the Motel 6 in Janesville, said they were told by their boss not to talk about the accident.

However, one of the sales people, who would not give her name, said, "We're hurt and we're scared and we're freaking out. I can't believe this happened."

She said they were part of a contest, where one can accumulate points for selling magazines. Earning 20,000 points wins a trip to Paris, London or Acapulco and $1,000, she said. Holmes had told the group that he'd won one of those prizes.

"I don't want people to think we're this horrible cult," she said. "We're all like brothers and sisters."

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