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Copyright 2005, Santa Fe New Mexican

A road to trouble?

By Anne Constable | The New Mexican
November 13, 2005

50,000 young people work in the sometimes shady and dangerous world of traveling sales crews, such as the one involving the death of a Santa Fe man.

When Carol Salter of Colorado Springs, Colo., heard about the arrest of five door-to-door magazine salesman in connection with the death of a Santa Fe man late last month, she got a big knot in her stomach.

Salter’s 18-year-old daughter, LeAnn, had joined a similar crew selling subscriptions door-to-door in Denver and Colorado Springs.

LeAnn had quit the crew two weeks earlier, but Salter couldn’t help but think how close her daughter had come to being in Santa Fe at the time of the killing.

In late October, two crews selling subscriptions through the same company had been staying at a Ramada Inn in the Denver area, according to LeAnn. Her crew was preparing to go to Utah when she quit. The other crew was headed to Santa Fe.

While LeAnn said in a telephone interview last week that she didn’t know any of the people arrested in Santa Fe, she said the traveling-sales environment was often rough. “I’d walk into the hotel room and 20 people would be smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol,” she said. “I didn’t feel safe.”

One night, LeAnn said, the crew tried to persuade her and her boyfriend to go bowling, even suggesting it was mandatory. She declined, saying she was too tired.

LeAnn’s crew and the Santa Fe crew both were independent contractors selling subscriptions through Michigan-based World Wide Circulation, one of many clearing houses in the United States involved in door-to-door magazine sales.

Under this system, both the crew managers and crew members are independent contractors. The clearing houses aren’t responsible for the actions of crew members or subject to laws governing direct employers.

There is high turnover among the crews. Managers are constantly recruiting new members, often through ads in local papers promising young people they will have the opportunity to make a lot of money and travel the country. Most salesman are hired with little or no background checks.

The job doesn’t usually appeal to high-school graduates heading for college. But “if you’re a small-town kid and you want to travel and you can’t find a job, the ads in the newspapers look pretty good,” said Earlene Williams, director of an advocacy group called Parent Watch Inc. Williams often helps distraught parents find their children and bring them home.

LeAnn had graduated from Liberty High School and was looking for work for some time when she saw the ad in the local daily newspaper. In addition to travel, it said she could earn $200 a week.

She jumped at the chance to go to Denver for an interview. The company hired her and her boyfriend on the spot. That, Carol Salter said, was her first indication that something wasn’t quite right.

LeAnn joined one of the crews and began working neighborhoods in Denver and Colorado Springs. She was told she needed to sell eight subscriptions a day. And when she didn’t make her quota, the crew manager warned she could be fired.

According to LeAnn, a trainer advised her to fabricate a story about living in the neighborhood, attending a local university and needing to raise money for a college trip.

“When she told me that, another flag went up,” her mother said. She warned her daughter that she could be arrested for misrepresenting herself.

Carol Salter also went online and began reading about missing kids who had joined traveling sales crews. She saw reports on crimes involving crew members — or crimes committed against them.

She encouraged her daughter to get out. But at that time, LeAnn said, she was excited about going to California.

Salter said her husband, a local sheriff’s deputy, also checked out the company with the Better Business Bureau and then contacted LeAnn’s team boss in Denver. She said he warned the boss he would bring some heat down on the operation if they tried to prevent his daughter from going home.

The Salters also talked with Charles Leaf, an investigative reporter with a local Fox News channel who was working on a story about traveling sales crews. Leaf later aired a story showing a tussle between his film crew and LeAnn’s team at the Denver motel.

Today, LeAnn is working for a local crafts store in Colorado Springs.

“I’m very glad she got out of this before she ended up traveling (to another state,)” said Salter.

Life on a crew

At any one time, as many as 50,000 young people like LeAnn — and the group of young men accused of killing a Santa Fe man last month — are traveling around the country selling perfume, candy and jewelry as well as magazines and books. Most are between 18 and 24 years old.

Crews of 15 to 20 young people, and sometimes as many as 30, travel by van from city to city. Typically, about four times a day, the car handler drops them in a new neighborhood and arranges to pick them up at a specific time and place. The manager sets quotas for each crew member.

“Most kids sweat to make the quota,” Williams of Parent Watch said of the practices of some sales crews, “and if they make it, it will go up a little.”

Crew members who don’t fulfill their quotas might find themselves at a late-night meeting where the manager berates them, she said. Williams said she is aware of one company that forces crew members who don’t make their quotas to box one another.

At the end of day, crew members turn proceeds from sales over to the crew manager. The manager might give a salesman $10 or $20 to pay for food and other personal expenses and then keep a record of what percentage of sales is earned by each member.

But a person who wants to leave the crew and asks the manager for money might not get any, Williams said.

Buyers from some itinerant crews don’t always get their magazines, either, Williams said, because “a lot can happen between the sale of the magazine and the publishers.”

But she said the publishers are not particularly concerned about sales revenues anyway. They are more interested in boosting circulation so they can charge advertisers higher rates. Most of the money earned by such crews stays with the manager and the clearing house, she said.

Some of the kids are satisfied with getting just enough to buy food for the night. Even when they say they were mistreated, some report they made some of the best friends of their lives among the other members of the traveling crews. And a few come from such poor backgrounds that they’re glad to have a roof over their heads, Williams said.

On the road, salesmen are assigned four to a room (and two to a bed) with couples often rooming together. LeAnn said she was chewed out by a hotel manager and her crew manager because one of her roommates had spray-painted a message about loving pot on the roof of a hotel balcony — even though she had nothing to do with the vandalism, she said. On another occasion, she said a roommate fired a BB gun in the room. The BB ricocheted and hit her chin.

LeAnn said she finally had enough. The job didn’t seem like something she wanted to do. And during her life, she said, she had kept away from drugs and alcohol. When the manager tried to get her to work, even though she was sick, she quit. The crew manager returned her car key, and she drove home. Her boyfriend came back the next day. She was never paid.

Victims and victimizers

Life on the road is sometimes dangerous for traveling sales crews. They can be victims and victimizers.

The Parent Watch and Web sites contain many news reports of crimes by and against traveling crews. Although not all of them have a bad reputation, door-to-door sales people have been implicated in more than a dozen cases of rape or sexual assault and at least four murder cases since 2000, according to the watchdog group Parent Watch.

In Boston, one salesman was convicted of raping an 18-year-old in her home, and two others are facing trial on similar charges.

In 2002, a door-to-door salesman raped and stabbed to death a Knox County, Tenn., grandmother, and two years later, a salesman with the same company raped a LaVergne mother in front of her 2-month-old son, according to The Associated Press. All three men had criminal histories.

And a Fort Wayne, Ind., man was killed in a drunken brawl that resulted in the conviction of one traveling salesman for murder and another for involuntary manslaughter in 2002, according to a story in a local newspaper, The Journal Gazette.

Civil lawsuits have also been filed around the country claiming companies were negligent in hiring criminals as door-to-door salesmen.

There are also reports of crew members being abused by co-workers and by customers.

Parent Watch and other groups are pushing for legislation that would require traveling crews to register with local authorities. Although some municipalities such as Santa Fe require them to purchase a permit, crews often flout the law. (The crew involved in the Santa Fe homicide did not have a permit to solicit.)

Several bills to bring traveling sales crews under the protection of federal labor standards have failed in Congress. But after seven teenage employees of an Oklahoma-based magazine group were killed and others were injured in a 1999 crash in Wisconsin, lawmakers there introduced a bill that Williams hopes will become a national model. The legislation, which is pending, would require registration, would prohibit the use of independent contractors as crew members and would require at least semi-monthly payment of all wages earned.

None of the Santa Fe crew, including manager Dewell Keith LaFleur, a 30-year-old ex-Marine formerly from Louisiana, responded to requests for interviews made through their lawyers. Calls placed to World Wide Circulation in Saint Clair Shores, Mich., were not returned.

Jerry Long of Liberty, Mo., declined to talk about his son, who is charged in the Santa Fe case. But he said in a message, “Andrew is a young man with plenty of fine qualities that we love and support.”

Contact Anne Constable at 505-995-3845 or user aconstable at domain

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