New law brings fresh tears to annual memorial

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Sunday, March 29, 2009
— For 10 years, the power of a promise has pushed Phil Ellenbecker to do things no parent could imagine.

It has given him the strength to talk to strangers, often through newspapers and television cameras, about his loss.

It has given him the strength to work tirelessly to keep the slow wheels of government turning.

But for a couple of minutes Saturday afternoon, that promise brought Ellenbecker to tears. For a minute or two, he was just a dad who misses his little girl.

Ellenbecker of Verona joined other parents, family members, public officials and a survivor Saturday afternoon at a memorial service at the rest area on Interstate 90/39 north of Janesville.

The site marks the spot where Ellenbecker’s daughter, Malinda Turvey, 18, and six others died in a horrific van crash March 25, 1999. Five people were injured in the crash.

The van passengers were part of a traveling magazine sales crew.

Ellenbecker promised Malinda at her grave that he would fight the traveling sales industry.

Many at the tree-side memorial service shed tears when Ellenbecker read a prayer out loud, reiterating a promise that Malinda and her coworkers “would not die in vain.”

Reading that line was the only thing that made Ellenbecker cry during the event.

This year’s service was especially poignant because this week the promise became reality.

On Tuesday, the state Senate and Assembly soundly voted in favor of a bill strictly regulating traveling sales crews that work in Wisconsin. Gov. Jim Doyle signed the bill into law Thursday.

“Malinda’s Act” aims to clean up or eliminate the companies that recruit young adults to cross the country in teams selling magazines and other items.

Ellenbecker has immersed himself in research about traveling sales crews. He has learned that many companies exploit teen workers, forcing them to work long hours for little or no pay. Some are sexually or physically abused if they don’t make enough sales. Others are left on the side of the road when they want to go home.

He also learned of cases where salespeople with questionable backgrounds beat, raped or killed homeowners.

Law supporters say it will protect teens and consumers. Opponents say it could negatively affect legitimate companies.

Sgt. John Conger of the Milton Police Department joined the families Saturday at the memorial. Conger doesn’t regularly attend the annual service because he doesn’t want to disturb grieving families.

But the accident has had a lasting effect on him.

Conger was the town of Milton police officer that tried to stop the speeding van on I-90 in March 1999. The driver, Jeremy Holmes, didn’t have a valid license and tried to get one of the van’s 13 other passengers to take the wheel.

Over the years, Conger has joined Ellenbecker in fighting for regulation of traveling sales crews.

Locally, the crews aren’t as common as they were before the 1999 crash, Conger said.

“We still see them from time to time,” Conger said. “But the publicity this event got really squashed it a bit in this area.”

Ellenbecker’s goal is to use Wisconsin’s new law, which is the toughest in the nation at regulating sales crews, to encourage similiar laws across the United States.

“It will be much easier now that Wisconsin has passed this law,” Ellenbecker said. “We’re leading the way.”

Last updated: 9:47 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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