A Door-to-Door Salesman Has Little Regard for Life
(“Death by a Salesman,” Forensic Files)
Rodger Broadway’s decision to burglarize a house with an unlocked front door and then kill the surprised homeowner was spontaneous.
But the explanation for how the Bronx, New York, native ended up in Eskalene DeBorde’s Tennessee neighborhood in the first place offers a glimpse into a little-known industry rife with malice of forethought.
Paging help. DeBorde, a 66-year-old typist for the University of Kentucky, had no reason to suspect a van would drive into her corner of Knox County and drop off a group of ex-cons and other former offenders tasked with selling magazine subscriptions door to door.
It was 2001, when anyone desiring a subscription could order one online or go low-tech and fill out a card that fell out of any issue of Good Housekeeping or Cosmopolitan or Sports Illustrated at a newsstand.
Consumers weren’t exactly longing for Reader’s Digest salespeople to show up the way kids hope for Good Humor trucks.
The magazine publishers, however, did have a need. The decline of Publisher’s Clearinghouse and the rise of the Do Not Call List were taking a toll on subscription sales, according to a New York Times investigative report.
Shadow industry. While respectable media organizations like Hearst, Time Inc., and Condé Nast had no hand in creating magazine crews like the one that recruited Broadway, they would use a chain of middlemen to acquire subscriptions that the crew members sold to people door to door.
The salespeople tend to benefit the least from the crews, according to organizations that track and study them. Magazine crew businesses seem to function at best as multilevel marketing schemes and at worst as vehicles for fraud, indentured servitude, and physical abuse against the salespeople.
Not that this in any way mitigates the cruelty of Broadway’s actions. But it sheds light on one of many types of businesses that prey upon undereducated people looking for opportunities.
The New York Times exposé of magazine crews dates back to 2007, but The Atlantic wrote about them as recently as 2015. Currently, at least three humanitarian organizations — Polaris, Parent Watch, and the National Consumers League’s Child Labor Coalition — advocate for young people ensnared by magazine crews.
Neighborhood suddenly risky. More information about that will follow, but first, here’s a recap of Death by a Salesman, the Forensic Files episode about the Rodger Broadway murder case:
Eskalene DeBorde lived just a few blocks away from Lynn Noffsinger, her grown daughter who had small children.
DeBorde left her doors unlocked to make it easier for her daughter to drop by with her kids. Crime hadn’t been a problem in the area until August 20, 2001.
That day, one of the salesman who descended upon her Knoxville neighborhood to sell subscriptions was 21-year-old Broadway. He had once served time for “aggravated robbery,” meaning that he either committed the theft with a deadly weapon or caused bodily harm to the victim.
Worst fear comes true. He probably rang or knocked on DeBorde’s door and entered after getting no answer, because she was typing upstairs. Accounts vary as to whether he broke into her home office on the second floor or she emerged and confronted him.
Whichever the scenario, Broadway beat and raped the grandmother, stabbed her through the neck, stole her credit cards and keys, poured himself a soda in her kitchen, and fled in her car.
His explanation for the incident was reported in a Knoxville News-Sentinel article:
“She was not scared. She was feisty… I didn’t come to her house to even do none of that. I went blank because she just … made me beyond mad, she made me (expletive) angry.”
Speedy police-work. DeBorde’s daughter discovered the crime scene around dinner time and called 911. Fortunately, she didn’t have to suffer an agonizing wait for justice.
The authorities solved the crime in less than a day.
Neighbors told investigators about the magazine salesmen they’d seen walking around in white shirts and black ties.
Authorities tracked down their supervisor at a Super 8 motel and spotted DeBorde’s 1997 Mazda Protege parked nearby.
He told police that Broadway was on a Greyhound bus back to New York to tend to a family emergency.
Nailed by the evidence. The supervisor admitted that members of his team had criminal records but said they were rehabilitated.
Sheriff’s deputies in Virginia stopped the bus on Interstate 81 and arrested Broadway.
Once in custody, Broadway couldn’t refute video footage showing him using DeBorde’s card at a gas station on the night of the murder or his fingerprints on her car window and a drinking glass in her kitchen.
There was also the matter of the bloody clothes and flower-shaped diamond engagement ring discovered in his travel bag.
Later, a lab matched samples taken from the victim’s rape test kit to Broadway’s DNA.
Door-to-door danger. To avoid the death penalty, the 6-foot-3-inch 202-pound killer accepted a life sentence without parole plus 50 years.
Broadway’s story pretty much ends there, but the scourge of the magazine crews continued.
Shortly after the DeBorde attack, door-to-door magazine sellers committed two more sexual assaults in Tennessee.
At this point, it’s understandable if you can’t imagine having any sympathy for the plight of the people who sell house to house on magazine crews.
Neither could I until I found all the research showing that they’re often victims, too.
Grim rewards. The NY Times story tells of jobseekers in their teens and early 20s enticed to join “mag crews” with the promise of seeing the country, having fun, earning $500 or more a week, and accruing points toward tropical vacations.
But in reality, the better part of the commissions are kicked upstairs. Sellers can end up receiving only $10 to $15 a day, sleeping several to a room in cheap motels, being pressured to meet high sales quotas, and receiving drugs instead of wages.
According to Parent Watch founder Earlene Williams as quoted in The Atlantic story:
“Research shows these people mostly come from very low-income situations, may have had trouble with the law, and are earnestly trying to dig themselves out of a hole. They’re vulnerable because they don’t feel like they’re worth anything and the crew managers instill a culture of fear and manipulation.”
John Simpson, a former mag crew member interviewed for a video accompanying the NY Times article, said his supervisors turned him into an enforcer who would beat up team members for not producing enough sales.
(A lawyer for the National Field Selling Association said on camera that abuse claims are exaggerated.)
One former crew member named Isaac James interviewed for the NY Times video said he would filch jewelry and electronics from homeowners while their backs were turned, then use the proceeds to buy magazine subscriptions himself so he would make his quota.
Modern-day Joads. The crew leaders reportedly have abandoned underperforming members at bus stations without enough money for a ticket home. Polaris reports that 25 percent of the calls it receives about sales crews involve “workers left behind in unfamiliar areas.”
Many of the magazine-selling businesses hire crew members as independent contractors, according the NY Times, which means management has no responsibility to give them benefits. (It also relieves the selling businesses’ owners of liability for any wrongs the members may commit.)
Parent Watch, which Williams created after her own child had a bad experience on a magazine crew, offers resources to crew members and their concerned parents. She advises consumers to turn away door-to-door peddlers.
It’s not just a matter of safety. The Atlantic reported that the subscriptions, hawked with well-practiced sales tactics (“I only need 100 more points for a basketball scholarship”), cost up to $150 apiece and sometimes the magazines never show up.
Lawmakers have looked for ways to better monitor magazine crews. Back in 1999, Wisconsin Senator Herbert Kohn introduced legislation to regulate the industry, but it failed.
Next chapter. In 2014, the Broadway case was cited by a Knox County clerk pressing for better enforcement of a $55-a-month peddler license mandate for anyone not affliated with a religious or nonprofit group, or who doesn’t own a business within Knox County.
Polaris concentrates on regulations that protect the crew members from exploitation. The nonprofit defines abusive magazine crew practices as a form of human trafficking and advocates for the National Fair Labor Standards Act to cover door-to-door sales. It also pushes for magazine publishers to practice transparency regarding their supply chains.
The organization operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which offers help for victims and enables concerned observers to report suspected abuse.
Today, with digital publishing increasingly rendering Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone and other former giants of the print magazine business into shrinking pamphlets, perhaps in the near future, magazine crews will die out.
Rodger Erick Broadway has apparently already resigned himself to fading away quietly. Internet research reveals no evidence of attempts to void his sentence.
Behind razor wire. In his late 30s by now, Broadway is prisoner No. 00360958 at the Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City, along with 1,800 other inmates.
As a resident of NYC, I’m glad to know that Broadway is in a prison cell in Tennessee instead of making appearances in dark alleyways or lonely subway cars in my town.
That’s all for this post. Until next week, cheers. — RR