Commercial "cult" brings death in van

Boston Globe/March 31, 1999
By Cindy Rodriguez

Janesville, Wis. - When a stranger approached Joseph Wild at a mall and offered a sales job that would take him across the country, staying in luxury hotels and earning wads of cash, Wild packed his bags.

A day later, he found himself crammed in a Dodge Ram van with about a dozen other young peddlers, traveling from one town to the next, working 12-hour days, selling magazines door-to-door. The crew slept in roadside motels and ate fast food, all deducted from their earnings.

Despite the hardships, Wild, 21, told his mother he wanted to stay because he thought he could make money. ''They kept telling him he had the potential to make a lot of money, that he would make $200,000,'' said his mother, Dee Hodges Wild. ''He never made a dime.'' Ultimately, the job cost him his life.

Wild and six other young people died after their van careened out of control early Thursday and flipped on a stretch of highway outside town, flinging bodies to the pavement. Six others, including Shawn Kelly, 20, who may have ties to Massachusetts, were injured.

Yesterday, Kelly remained unconscious in the intensive care unit of a local hospital. Because he wasn't carrying identification, authorities don't know much about him, but they believe he may have ties to Holyoke.

Meanwhile, the tragedy has cast a spotlight on sales companies that exploit runaways, troubled teens, and unemployed students. They are paid low wages, are held to extraordinarily high sales quotas, and are victims of high-pressure tactics designed to keep them on the job.

The Wisconsin crash also spurred an investigation in Oklahoma City, where Yes Sales, which hired the young people, did business. That probe turned into a larger investigation of seven related companies that sent vans all over the United States, said Trey Davis, deputy director of the Oklahoma Labor Department. Officials with Subscriptions Plus, described as Yes Sales' parent company, did not return phone messages.

With a nomadic work culture that some specialists call cult-like, the companies typically control when the peddlers eat, when they can call home, and deprive them of sleep if they fall short of sales goals. Until the crash, officials said, most of the parents of the Wisconsin victims had no idea what their children were involved in ..

Priscilla Coates, former executive director of the Cult Awareness Network, called the sales companies ''commercial cults'' and said they use mind-control techniques to control their employees.. ''They'll punch somebody in front of the group, to scare the rest of them,'' Coates said. ''Then they're afraid to say they want to leave.''

But the abuse isn't always physical, she added.

''If they don't make their quota, they are humiliated in front of the group,'' Coates said. ''They may have to polish the other people's shoes. They make them do things that are demeaning.''

Steve Hassan [Warning: Steve Hassan is not recommended by this Web site. Read the detailed disclaimer to understand why.], 44, of Cambridge, a cult specialist and author, said businesses like Yes try to create dependent employees by gaining control of their lives. He suspects the peddlers may also have been hypnotized.

The crash in Wisconsin happened just after midnight, police said. The driver, Jeremy Holmes, was speeding on Interstate 90 when a patrol car with flashing lights appeared in his rear-view mirror. Holmes, 20, a Yes road captain with a bad driving record, apparently fearful that another violation would cost him his license, tried to switch places with another person while the van raced down the highway.

The van veered out of control and flipped twice. No one was wearing a seat belt. In the aftermath, police said, a bloodied Holmes stumbled away from the wreck. ''I didn't mean to do it!'' he cried.

Besides Wild, those who died at the scene that night were Amber Lettman of Oregon, Wis.; Melinda Turvey, 18, of Verona, Wis.; Cory Hanson, 22 of Wichita, Kan.; Marshall Lee Roberts, 16, of Dewitt, Iowa; and Crystal McDaniel, 25, of Princeton, W.Va. A seventh passenger, Peter Christman, 18, of Virginia Beach, Va., died Friday at a nearby hospital.

No one has come forward with information about Kelly, the young man who may have ties to Holyoke, said Sergeant Brad Altman of the Wisconsin State Patrol. Some of the surviving passengers said Kelly told them he had family in Florida; others told police he had family in Mississippi.

Altman said he's now trying to determine if Kelly has a sister who is a University of Massachusetts student.

Police charged Holmes with seven counts of negligent vehicular homicide and five counts of causing great bodily harm by reckless driving, said Rock County Sheriff's Detective Chuck Flood.

Holmes, who was under a suicide watch, has no permanent address and is being held on $47,500 bail.

Since the accident, Elaine McDougal has remained at the bedside of her 16-year-old daughter, Nicole, in the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison. The teenager is on mechanical life support.

Two days before the crash, Elaine McDougal said, Nicole and her friend, Lettman, joined Yes Sales without telling their parents. McDougal found out what Nicole had done when Amber's mother, Bonnie Lettman, called to tell her their daughters were on the road, selling magazines door-to-door.

The next news about her daughter was after the crash.

''No one from the company has contacted me, not even to say sorry,'' said Janet Hanson, Corey Hanson's mother. ''It's as if Corey never existed.''

After the crash, 27 other peddlers, including Yes Sales owner Choan Lane, headed to the scene, Altman said. Lane identified some of the deceased. Police asked Lane and the others to remain in the area, but they left before police could talk with them.

''I would think that if six children who are in your care just died, you would stick around,'' Altman said. ''But he just took off, and went to the next city.''

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