Subscription for disaster
- Todd Murphy
- Portland Tribune - News
PART I: Door-to-door magazine sales crews ensnare young, vulnerable
First of two parts.
On a sunny Monday afternoon eight days ago, on a street in the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood of Southeast Portland, 25-year-old Brittany Pierce and 20-year-old Sally Slone told the truth - finally - to a stranger.
Instead of trying to get him to buy a magazine subscription at a highly inflated cost, they hesitatingly asked for help.
And with that, the two young women found a way to break free from a slimy, violent and mostly invisible underworld - an underworld that turns homeless, naive and scared young adults from across the country into what often amounts to 21st-century indentured servants. It was an underworld that had ensnared Pierce for almost five years.
'I feel like I'm 40,' Pierce says quietly, as she sits in the shade of a Southeast Portland backyard, taking a drag on a cigarette and talking about the life she'd led for the last half-decade. 'Not 25.'
What Pierce and Slone revealed on that Monday afternoon first to Mark Freimark, an inquisitive Brentwood-Darlington homeowner, and later to the Portland Tribune, were the twisted and sordid details of life working for a door-to-door magazine subscription sales company called Integrity Program.
The company sent dozens of agents door-to-door in Portland all of last week, while basing itself out of a Gresham hotel. After a week of knocking on doors, trying to get people to buy magazine subscriptions, the company and its crew apparently left the area Sunday morning - for Denver, Pierce believes.
Industry watchers and various public records suggest that Integrity Program is closely linked to, or possibly part of, a company called Integrity Sales.
The owners and managers tied to both companies are infamous in an infamous industry - including one crew manager who's spent time in a Texas prison for felony theft and another who owned a company that was involved in one of the worst vehicle accidents in Wisconsin history, a 1999 rollover van crash that killed seven magazine sales agents.
The rollover happened when an unlicensed driver working for the magazine sales crew tried to switch places with another passenger while traveling 80 mph on an interstate highway.
But Pierce and Slone, and two other former magazine sales agents who spoke to the Tribune, suggest that sketchy backgrounds and tragic accidents are only part of the sordidness of the magazine sales industry.
To work for Integrity Program, they suggest, was to naively answer a newspaper 'help wanted' advertisement promising free travel and easy money and suddenly enter a world of violent and abusive sales crew managers who transport vanloads of young 'sales agents' from town to town and state to state.
A world of being put up in cheap hotels, where young agents are sometimes physically and sexually assaulted and often emotionally abused, and are forced to work 12 and 14 hours a day, six days a week, for $20 dollars a day or less.
And, in essence, the young people, usually age 18 to 25 but occasionally younger, have no choice - or believe they have no choice - but to stay on the job. Because crew managers won't give them the money - either the money they've earned or money they were promised when they hired on - to get a bus ticket back home.
Pierce says she asked to quit the job and to leave the Integrity Program - she knew it as Integrity Sales for most of the time she worked for the crew, she says - several times during her five years, and asked for the promised money for a bus ticket home to Illinois. Each time, she says, her crew manager refused.
The last time, her crew manager, Jonathan Tork, who has been in the business since at least the 1980s and has the theft conviction in Texas, threw her into a closet in her hotel room and raised his fist to hit her, before leaving the room, Pierce says. He later called her to his room and told her to get back to work.
As it turns out, Pierce's and Slone's details about working for Integrity Program are hardly unusual in the door-to-door magazine sales industry, according to people who've watched the industry over the years. The industry operates in a strange parallel universe that most of the public doesn't know or care about, and that law enforcement and other authorities either can't or won't do much to regulate.
'These people are devils on the face of the Earth,' Phil Ellenbecker, whose 18-year-old daughter was killed in the Wisconsin van crash two days after she joined a magazine sales crew, says of the people who own and run many of the crews.
The owner of the sales company that operated the van was sentenced to three years in prison in connection with the accident. The driver was sentenced to seven years.
Since his daughter's death, Ellenbecker has been on a crusade. 'My daughter was killed by these people,' says the Verona, Wis., telecommunications engineer. 'What I've tried to do over the years is focus my anger and my pain and my energy toward stopping these people.'
He has established a Web site, www.travelingsalescrews.info, that chronicles and monitors problems with the decades-old industry. And he has lobbied to pass more stringent Wisconsin and federal laws to govern it.
'What can be worse than a human being exploiting a kid?' asks Ellenbecker, who says his daughter joined the crew because she wanted to see the ocean. 'As far as I'm concerned, they are all very evil. The kinds of things they do to these kids … it's beyond horrific. It's criminal. It's evil.'
The man most directly involved with Integrity Program - Tork - isn't talking.
Last Wednesday morning, the Portland Tribune went to the Gresham hotel to talk to him, about Pierce's and Slone's charges and about his company. A message was left with a company official at the hotel, but Tork did not respond to it.
He also did not return messages left on his cell phone.
Meanwhile, Dan Smith, general counsel for the National Field Selling Association, the trade group that represents door-to-door sales crews, says he believes most criticism of the companies and the industry are secondhand rumor or just wrong.
'To be horribly frank, I think a lot of the comments made by Phil (and other critics) are in some respects exaggerated and based on things that may have happened many years ago,' Smith says.
• • •
Better Business Bureaus across the country have received thousands of complaints against magazines sales companies, most often from people who never received their subscriptions. But for anyone who thinks the industry is mostly about scamming people out of $40 for a subscription to Rolling Stone - industry watchers point out some numbers.
• In the last three decades, at least 32 young door-to-door sales agents - almost all of them working for magazine sales crews - have died in vehicle accidents, often in mutliple-victim incidents. At least 13 of the deaths were considered vehicular homicide because of sleepy, drunken, reckless or unlicensed drivers or poorly maintained vehicles.
Most of the deaths have happened in the last 15 years.
Seven years before the Wisconsin accident, an eerily similar one occurred: A driver of a magazine sales van with no license and little driving experience rolled into a freeway median in May 1992 near Des Moines, Iowa. The van rollover ejected nine people onto the freeway. Five sales agents were killed, and six were injured.
More recently, in September 2002, a sales van jammed with 15 people - it had seats for eight and seatbelts for six - rolled over on a desolate highway in New Mexico. The rollover killed two teenage girls. The investigating police officer says in a report that 'all four tires (on the van) … were lacking tread (bald) and had dry rot on the sidewalls.' He estimated the van was traveling 80 mph in a 55 mph zone.
Earlene Williams, whose Manhattan, N.Y.-based Parent Watch group has been monitoring the industry for 23 years - ever since her son was briefly in a crew - says the accidents often happen during 'jumps.' That's the industry term for when the sales crews move from one community, or one state, to another.
Many of the accidents happen because of reckless drivers or dangerous vehicles.
'There's a lot of drinking and drugs in a number of crews. And if they go on long jumps, they're going to change drivers,' she says. 'Sometimes they fall asleep at the wheel.'
Then there's the magazine sales agents themselves, who also can pose a danger to others.
• Ellenbecker's research has found more than 275 felony charges against door-to-door traveling sales crew members over the last few decades. He suspects the actual number of felonies is much higher. Included in that number are dozens of sexual assaults against women who answer their doors to the sales agents, and at least a half-dozen murders.
One of the more recent assaults happened in Portland.
Last October, a man who represented himself as a magazine sales agent and who was going door-to-door in Sellwood, physically and sexually assaulted a woman after knocking on the victim's door and forcing his way inside. Police say the man, age 21 to 25, was cleanshaven and wore a dark suit with a pink-striped tie. No one has been apprehended in the crime.
The problem is caused, Ellenbecker says, because the magazine sales companies do minimal or no background checks of their prospective sales agents before they hire them. 'So you've got convicted rapists and sex offenders' who are hired as agents, he says.
'They don't care. They don't care who it is,' Ellenbecker says of the magazine sales companies. 'They need the body to sell the magazine, to make the subscription sale. If they do background checks - and they say they do - they'll look the other way' if a criminal record turns up.
Smith of the National Field Selling Association says the association does recommend to its members that background checks be done on prospective employees, and believes that, as opposed to a few years ago, most association members now do them.
But it appears unlikely that a background check ever was conducted by Integrity Program for Pierce or Slone.
Slone says that Integrity Program wanted her to get on a bus, from the small town in Illinois where she was homeless, the day that she called the toll-free number to ask about a job.
As is common in the industry, the company arranged for a paid bus ticket to be waiting at the local bus station for Slone. She was on a bus, headed for the magazine crew's location in Dallas, the day after she called, Slone says.
Meanwhile, the numbers attached to the accidents or the assault cases don't speak to another, almost entirely unreported, category of violence: The assaults against sales agents by their bosses or by other members of the crew.
Jan Margosian, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Justice, who also has monitored the industry for years, says: 'There have been indications that kids are murdered. They can't find them. They're never found again.'
Ellenbecker and Williams say they also often hear directly from sales agents and former sales agents about assaults and rapes of sales agents, by other crew members and often by crew managers.
Ellenbecker says he also has photos, delivered to him by a former crew manager who became disenchanted with the industry, of boxing matches in which sales agents who had low sales were forced to box each other without gloves - 'beat the hell out of each other,' says Ellenbecker - while other crew members bet on the match. 'Like a dogfight or chicken fight,' Ellenbecker says.
In the photos, Ellenbecker says, there is 'blood coming out of their mouths … they've got bruises on their face.
Most assaults against sales crew members likely go unreported to police, the industry watchers say, because the sales agents do not know how to or don't want to or are afraid to file criminal charges.
The young agents, Margosian says, are told by crew managers: ''Don't you say a thing or we're going to come after you.' And when you're just a kid, that scares the hell out of you.'
• • •
It's 8:45 last Wednesday morning, just outside the Quality Inn near the corner of Northeast Division Street and Burnside Road in Gresham.
In the parking lot are several large white vans, and a couple of brown ones. Most of them are dented; one has tape over a broken side window.
Also in the parking lot are two large panel trucks, with 'Integrity Sales' emblazoned across the side. Painted on the side, as well, are reproductions of photos of young adults having fun - sky-diving, partying, sunning on a beach.
'Call today, travel tomorrow,' read words printed on the side of the truck. 'All expenses paid. No experience necessary. Travel and benefits. Return trip guaranteed.'
Shouts spill from a small conference room on the edge of one wing of hotel rooms. Inside are 20 or 30 people, most of them in their early 20s, listening to someone talking. They intermittently cheer, hoot, chant.
After 20 minutes or so, the people stream out of the room, and into the vans, eight or 10 to a van. The vans bolt out of the parking lot, going in several different directions, apparently to points in neighborhoods throughout Portland, maybe Gresham as well.
They will be dropped off at corners, to walk neighborhoods for two or three hours, before they are picked up again to be dropped in another neighborhood. There will be three or four 'drops' before the 12- or 14-hour day ends.
This was Brittany Pierce's normal day, six days a week, for the last five years, she says. By Wednesday, she and Slone had been away from the crew for almost two days. Thanks to Freimark, who decided he wanted to help them, they were staying in a house rented by his nephew. The nephew will temporarily stay with his uncle.
They don't know what next week might bring, they say. But they won't be going back to the magazine crew.
Pierce and Slone have both left the crew with no money.
The sales agents seldom see the money they supposedly are making - don't often see any real money at all, according to Pierce and Slone and the two other former magazine sales crew agents.
Sales agents are supposed to get a credit of $8 for every magazine subscription they sell, but generally get a maximum of $20, always in cash, at the end of every day. The rest of the money ostensibly is kept in an account, or goes on their 'books.'
That $20 - $40 dollars on Saturday, which needs to last until the end of the day Monday - is what the sales agents live on. That has to pay for all their food - they often get only a quick lunch stop at a gas station - their toiletries, their cigarettes.
And that $20 daily, a little more than $1 an hour for their work, is often the only money they will ever get from the company, say Pierce and Slone and the two former agents.
The agents aren't required to be paid any minimum or hourly wage, because the magazines sales companies consider them not to be company employees but 'independent contractors,' and they are deemed outside salespeople not governed by most federal or state labor laws.
Often, agents won't be able to sell enough magazine subscriptions to cover their daily hotel and other costs. They actually acquire a negative balance on their 'books.'
Even the agents who do well selling don't see any extra money, because deducted from the supposed credits on their 'books' are the cost of hotel rooms, 'supplies,' and 'fines' that the crew manager might have assessed against them.
Agents get fined $100 or $150 for being late to the daily 8:30 a.m. meeting, Pierce says.
'I got fined $100 once for wearing sandals,' she says.
'He makes up rules as he goes along,' Pierce says of Tork.
'You'd get weekly papers saying how much is on your books and stuff, but they would never let you draw out your entire bank account,' says Tony Wattanaparuda, who worked for Integrity Sales for six months last year before quitting in September.
Wattanaparuda is now back home in the St. Louis area.
'It's crazy,' he says of life on a magazine crew. 'It's definitely not normal.'
The low daily pay forces agents sometimes to beg for money from people they're trying to sell to - sometimes to pay for drugs or alcohol, which are widely used by the crews - but also just to eat, or buy toothpaste, Pierce says. 'They almost have to do it because they're not getting any money from the boss,' she says of agents. 'And they have to eat.'
There are no days off. 'You're not allowed to be sick,' Pierce says.
And, say the four former Integrity Program or Integrity Sales agents, there is constant yelling from crew managers, for everything from not selling enough to not making enough of the sales in untraceable cash rather than checks. And there is the constant threat of sexual assault or other violence if an agent somehow displeases the crew manager, the four say.
Pierce says she has never witnessed a crew manager beating agents, although she has heard stories, and believes it has happened. But, there was the time Tork shoved her into the closet, she says. And she says of Tork: 'I've seen him throw things at people. He's thrown lamps at people, a typewriter at people. He's thrown a table at people. I've seen him throw lots of things at people.'
Williams, from Parent Watch - which gets about five calls from sales agents or former sales agents daily, talking about their life in the industry - says she has 'a large number of complaints from people who have worked for Integrity Sales and Subscriptions Unlimited Plus,' a company owned by some of the same people who've owned or run Integrity Sales.
'Those complaints consist of drugs and beatings, management (using) drugs, no pay, stranding (of sales agents), not enough to eat, no medical treatment when they need it, reckless driving,' she says.
And she's heard other charges directly from young adults who've worked for the company, allegations strange even for this industry: 'My other complaints about this company - managers can buy and sell kids,' Williams says.
If a crew manager wants a sales agent on his team, the allegation goes, he must pay the other crew manager for the agent. And the 'sale' must be approved by Integrity Sales' owner, Robert Spruiell.
The Portland Tribune attempted several times to reach both Spruiell and his ex-wife, Karleen Hillery-Spruiell, who has been a crew manager for Integrity Sales and has owned a range of magazine sales companies during the last decade or more.
A company that Hillery-Spruiell owned was the subscription processor for the company that operated the Wisconsin van that rolled over and killed the seven agents. The man who ran that company also was a former husband of Hillery-Spruiell's. Hillery-Spruiell was not charged, but she and her companies have been banned from doing business in Wisconsin.
Messages left for Hillery-Spruiell at an Integrity Sales phone number were not returned.
Spruiell, meanwhile, reached last week on his cell phone with a sales crew in Montana, says that while he owns Integrity Sales, he has no ownership of or control over Integrity Program, the crew that was operating in Portland last week. (He says Tork bought the 'Integrity Sales' trucks from him.)
Spruiell acknowledged, however, that he takes Tork's crews' subscription orders and 'clears' them by transferring them to a magazine clearinghouse for Tork. And Pierce's Internal Revenue Service 1099 form for 2005 shows Integrity Sales LLC as her employer.
Spruiell says that 'every individual in my company … if they get fired, they get paid … and they get a (paid) return trip.'
He also says he tolerates no physical or other abuse of agents.
'If I know about it, they'll definitely be fired - zero tolerance,' he says. He then says he has to pick up an agent and has no more time to talk. He did not return subsequent phone calls.
• • •
Sometimes, Pierce says, she wonders how it became five years. Five years of dealing with violence and abuse and exploitation, and of coming up with a way to leave.
But the people who run the companies have a way of convincing people - at least some people, Pierce says - that the outside universe is just as bad as the ugly universe they're living in.
'They make you think that you have to stay there because … there's nothing out there for you,' she says. 'You're not going to be able to get a job. And you're not going to have anywhere to go.'
Some young adults - runaways, kids who are homeless, kids from abusive homes - can't come up with a real good argument against that.
Slone actually left Tork's crew last year and went back to Illinois, before joining up again in the last couple of weeks. 'Because I was homeless,' she says. 'I didn't have no place to live, and I didn't want to sleep outside no more … I was hoping that maybe, like, things had changed.'
'People that have something usually don't stay very long,' Pierce says. 'But the people who have nowhere else to go, and have no money, and that are on a lot of drugs … apparently those are the people they like,' she says. 'Those are the people they're aiming for. That makes it easier to hold them.'
Neither Pierce or Slone are drug users, they point out.
And they are no longer a part of a magazine sales crew.
By Sunday morning, the Integrity Program trucks and vans had cleared out of the Gresham Quality Inn parking lot, on their way to the next stop, their next neighborhoods, their next group of doors to pound on.
And left behind were Pierce and Slone, free at last.
'I like it a lot,' Pierce says Sunday. 'I'm my own person now.'
She and Slone are looking for jobs in Portland. And they're looking for housing.
After several nights of staying at the nephew's house, his landlord has said they must leave by Monday.
They don't know where they will be sleeping Monday night.
This is the first part of a two-part story by the Tribune's Todd Murphy on Integrity Program and the door-to-door magazine sales industry. To read the second part and its related stories, click the links below.
Subscription for disaster, Part II:
Daughter's death sets off father's crusade:
Industry complaints aren't new: