When crime knocks

Door-to-door sales industry has few regulations regarding employees

January 4, 2004

On April 22, Rodger Eric Broadway pleaded guilty in Knox County Criminal Court to the rape and murder of Eskalene DeBorde, a 66-year-old grandmother whose West Knox County home he had come to selling magazine subscriptions. Before the year was out, two more Tennesseans would be sexually assaulted by door-to-door magazine salesmen.

On May 20, barely a month after Broadway pleaded guilty to his crime, Donnell Anthony Covington, 19, raped a 31-year-old woman in front of her 2-month-old son in LaVergne, a small town south of Murfreesboro.

She bore the attack in anguished silence, because Covington vowed to harm her child if she screamed. Before he left, he tied her up, and took $235 from her purse. He was arrested a short time later, hanging around a nearby high school.

Police showed his picture to his victim in the hospital where she was being treated. It angered her so much that she knocked it out of the hands of the officer.

On Nov. 13, in Portland, Tenn., about 40 miles north of Nashville, Brandon R. Bartee, 22, talked his way into a home and, according to police, sexually fondled a 6-year-old girl — in front of her mother.

When arrested, Bartee had a card in his wallet identifying him as a registered sex offender from Texas, Assistant Portland Police Chief Richard Smith said. Bartee was charged with aggravated sexual battery.

All were a long way from home: Bartee from Brownwood, Texas; Broadway from New York City; and Covington from Chicago. All had prior criminal records. And all came to Tennessee as part of traveling sales crews hawking magazine subscriptions.

Bartee was selling for Sun Circulation, a clearinghouse based in Clearwater, Fla. But Broadway and Covington are each tied indirectly to the same outfit, American Community Services, a Michigan City, Indiana-based company that is one of the leaders in the door-to-door sales industry. Crews hawking subscriptions for that company have been linked to other violent crimes in the past.

But ACS is not the only firm linked to sales crews who have gone astray, and Tennessee is not the only state where such crews operate.

ParentWatch, a watchdog group that has been monitoring the industry for years, has compiled a list of dozens of felonies involving door-to-door salespeople. Since 2000, that list reflects 13 cases of rape or sexual assault, four cases of murder and a number of deaths from traffic accidents attributed to faulty equipment or negligent driving.

"The crimes are related to the casual hiring practices of this industry generally," said Earlene Williams, executive director of ParentWatch. "They are all in a hurry to hire as many people as quickly as they can so they can quickly get them on the road selling. Sometimes, as we can see from these cases in Tennessee, they bring in some very dangerous people."

Bartee's record shows that as a juvenile he raped a child, Smith said. Several Portland citizens whose homes he visited told police that if there was a child present, he quickly lost interest in selling magazines and focused on trying to photograph the child.

"It appears that he is a true, genuine pedophile," Smith said.

Broadway was 19 when he knocked on DeBorde's door in August 2001. When there was no answer, he walked inside and was surprised when DeBorde came down the stairs and ordered him to leave, he said in his confession.

"She was not scared," Broadway said. "She was feisty. She was feisty."

But feisty is no match for an attacker nearly half a century younger and driven into an irrational criminal rage at being challenged.

"I didn't come to her house to even do none of that," Broadway said. "I went blank because she just (disrespected me), she just made me beyond mad, she made me (expletive) angry."

Broadway savagely beat DeBorde with an ashtray and a hammer. After raping her, he plunged a kitchen knife through her neck with such force that it pinned her to the kitchen floor.

And that was how DeBorde was found by her daughter, Liz Noffsinger.

To avoid the death penalty, Broadway pleaded guilty and agreed to life in prison without parole.

Covington pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 11 years. Bartee's case is pending before the Sumner County grand jury.

Broadway was hired fresh out of prison fromhis most recent brush with the law, a robbery conviction. Covington's criminal record includes aggravated battery of a school employee, aggravated assault, aggravated battery with bodily harm.

'I can't really say 'no' '

Each year, thousands of people, mostly in the 18-24 range, join traveling sales crews that move rapidly around the country. Each day, sellers are dropped off in residential neighborhoods to peddle their wares, mostly magazine subscriptions or household cleaning agents.

But the numbers and the types of products being sold door to door are already increasing. Since the national "do not call" list has cut millions of people off from potential sales pitches, some companies have already returned to door-to-door sales, and others are contemplating such a move.

ParentWatch and other critics of the industry say that sloppy hiring practices allow, and perhaps even lure, criminals into the highly mobile and largely unregulated business of selling magazines and cleaning agents door to door.

"It would be nice if these companies would do a better job of checking these people out before they dump them in Tennessee," said Wally Kirby, director of the Tennessee District Attorney General's Conference. "And I would be surprised if the terms of the paroles of some of the people they hire would allow them to leave their state."

Civil lawsuits filed in the Knox County and LaVergne cases claim American Community Services and other defendants were negligent in hiring criminals as door-to-door salesmen.

There are conflicting accounts in various pleadings and documents as to whether Covington was hired in spite of his record, was hired without a background check, or if a slipshod background check did not turn up his record for assaults. The circumstances of Bartee's hiring are not available: officials of Sun Circulation Co. did not return a telephone call from the News Sentinel.

Broadway was hired without any background check — and might have been hired even if his record was known, according to sworn testimony of the people who hired him.

Lawyers for DeBorde's family questioned Rodney Rankins and his wife, Tolliny Rankins, president and vice president, respectively, of The Real Deal Inc., which directed the sales crew that came to Knoxville and included Broadway.

"If you knew he was a criminal and (thief) and ... knew he had been violent, or was a potential threat to your customers door to door, you wouldn't have hired him, would you?" asked Robert Pryor.

"I can't really say 'no,' " Rankins replied.

"You would have hired him anyway?" Pryor asked.

"I can't say, sir," Rankins said.

Rankins said he expects that "from time to time" some people hired as crew members will have a criminal past.

"Have you ever worried, as the manager of a sales crew ... that there will be some kind of problem or injury, or some kind of a crime?" Pryor asked.

"No, sir."

"You've never lost any sleep over that?"

"No, sir."

The lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. The LaVergne lawsuit is still pending in U.S. District Court in Nashville.

"They just didn't care what kind of person they were hiring, didn't care what kind of background he had," said Noffsinger, DeBorde's daughter, who now lives in Lexington, Ky. and has become involved in efforts to regulate traveling sales crews. "They just wanted someone to fill up the crew so they could sell more magazines. That is a scary thought."

Industry's 'black eye'

The Rankinses were also president and vice president, respectively, of The In Crowd Enterprises Inc., the entity running the sales crew to which Covington belonged.

In both lawsuits, ACS maintained it has no responsibility for the crimes committed by Broadway and Covington because they were independent contractors of separate companies that hire and run the sales crews.

"We have nothing to do with the salespeople (or) how they are hired," ACS President LeVan Ellis said in a deposition he gave in the DeBorde case.

In its answer in the LaVergne suit, ACS said it did not independently perform background or criminal records checks on salespersons hired by the Rankinses, and "had no duty to do so."

But earlier, in his deposition in the DeBorde case, Ellis indicated that ACS did have background checks done on every prospective salesperson once it receives their "terms of enrollment," the document combining application information and a signed agreement in which the applicant acknowledges that he or she is an "independent contractor."

"I think it's wise if everybody gets a background check, everyone," Ellis said. "We provide a service that as soon as a terms of enrollment hits the office, it is sent to an agency that does a background check, so that's everyone that comes in that office."

The sales organizations would be charged for the cost of running the check, he said. The common practice, he said, was to just check in the county in which the person was being hired, which costs about $25. If there were some indication or feeling that a broader check was needed, a nationwide check, which costs about $100, would be done.

In their depositions, the Rankinses indicate that ACS maintained strong influence, and in some cases direct control, over the sales organizations and the sales crew members.

They said that ACS designed the application forms for sales recruits; required that the contracts for all salespeople be sent to its office; set the rules of conduct for crewmembers; required crews to report their whereabouts regularly; helped financed the vehicles for the traveling crews; kept the books for the sales crews; and its lawyers handled incorporations of companies that run the sales crews that sell for ACS.

They also said some sales crewmembers have worn identification badges bearing the ACS name, and regularly referred to ACS in their sales pitches.

The nature or circumstances of a job may determine a company's legal responsibility for its hiring practices, said Darrell VanDeusen, a Baltimore labor lawyer who represents management and who is on the editorial board of Labor and Employment Law Bulletin.

"If I hire you to make widgets in a factory, there is less of a reason or duty (to the public) to do a background check on you," VanDeusen said. "But if I am hiring you for a job that gives you access to people's homes and a reason to get inside those homes, then there is probably a higher duty to do a level of background investigation to see if you are likely to behave yourself."

Crews selling on behalf of ACS have been linked to a number of serious crimes, dating at least to 1990,when Bernice Clark, 76, a retired beautician, was stabbed to death in her home in Bolton, Mass.

Darren Whitman of Detroit, who was convicted of the crime, had a prior record for rape.

"The dangers in hiring people like that for door-to-door sales have been well known all the way to the top of that company for years," said Pryor's law partner, Chris Coffey.

The sales crew operation in Bolton in 1990 at the time of Clark's death included Ellis, the Rankinses and brothers Don and Edward Scott, founders of ACS. All are defendants in the pending lawsuit concerning the LaVergne case.

Ellis declined to be interviewed, and did not respond to several questions faxed to his office.

But ACS is just one of several companies that rely on door-to-door sales crews whose members sometimes go astray.

ParentWatch estimates that on any given day, up to 50,000 people are selling something door to door. There are about 100 sales organizations in the National Field Selling Association, most of whom sell magazine subscriptions or household cleaning products, according to its president, Nathan T. Edwards.

"For the most part, the majority of them do have background checks," said Edwards. "Obviously, there are some that don't. We definitely encourage them to do so. That's all we can do as a trade association."

Edwards said he would consider the possibility of mandating background checks as a requirement for membership in the association.

"The overwhelming majority in our industry are good hard working people who sell their product, deliver it on time and make sure the customer is well pleased," he said. "When you have as large an industry as this, you have got to expect some problems. Incidents such as (the ones in Tennessee) are detrimental and give us a black eye."

A recipe for crime

The same advertisements that use promises of quick travel to lure inexperienced young adults into the business may also unintentionally appeal to criminals and fugitives, some law enforcement officials say.

"It offers them mobility, a hotel room, and a product to sell, which serves as an excuse to be going door to door in a neighborhood," said LaVergne Police Dept. Detective David Loftis, who investigated Covington. "A way out of town, access to new territory, and a place to stay, those are all things (that would appeal to a) criminal."

Additionally, the phrasing and order of some questions presented to prospective recruits could be read as a hint to them that the job is a way to skip town and avoid legal problems.

When arrested, Broadway had a flyer and questionnaire for prospective recruits. The flyer includes the rhetorical question, "Are you tired of not getting a job because of your past?" On the questionnaire part, "Do you have any court dates approaching?" is followed immediately by, "Is (sic) there any upcoming dates that would prohibit traveling?"

Coffey asked Tolliny Rankins in her deposition about the "upcoming dates" question.

"That's talking about court dates?" Coffey asked.

"No, not necessarily," she said. "Family events, reunions, things like that during the course of the year."

Perhaps unintentionally, the combination of advertising enticements and nature of the job "may be setting up a potentially criminal situation," said Marcus Felson, professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University in New Jersey, by combining key elements of unplanned crimes: "a likely offender, a suitable target, and the absence of an effective guardian or supervision to prevent the crime."

"Bringing people of prime crime ages into an unsupervised situation, whether they are ex-cons or not, raises that risk," Felson added. "Anything that increases an opportunity for an offender also increases the likelihood that a crime will be carried out. If you send 100 guys out there, the one with the prior record is more likely to commit the crime."

However, Felson said he doubts that many people would join a traveling sales crew just to seek criminal opportunities.

Covington, for example, "had no reason to leave Chicago to find a rape victim," Felson said. "There are lots of potential rape victims in Chicago."

"As serious as the criminal problem is, the real and more long-standing issue is how the sales crews can easily be exploited and abused," said Williams. "It is the people on the crews who are more likely to be victims of one thing or another than to be offenders," she said.
ICL #3.5413.1110047-31342 Copyright, 2004, Knoxville News-Sentinel Co..
Distributed with permission of Knoxville News-Sentinel Co.. All rights reserved.
Obtain additional permission by typing http://www.rsicopyright.com/3.5413.1110047 into any browser. iCopyright Clearance License 3.5413.1110047-31342