SCRIPT: Those Were Our Children 2/99

Tonight, an explosive investigation. The incredible story that is emerging from a catastrophic accident. When an 18-wheel truck and a family van filled with sleeping children crossed paths on a Midwest highway, profound tragedy resulted and a huge political scandal erupted from the flames.

The headlines in Chicago shouted bribery, outrageous cheating on the truck driver's licensing test and allegations that powerful, high-profile people knew or should have known what was going on. Was public safety being compromised for political gain? Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross with a tragedy that led to a search for justice.

BRIAN ROSS, ABC News

There have been lots of good times at the Parkwood Baptist Church on the south side of Chicago.

JANET WILLIS, MOTHER

Hey, are you sure you know how to hold babies?

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS, FATHER

Sure.

BRIAN ROSS

But none better than when its pastor, the Reverend Scott Willis, and his wife, Janet, came home with their ninth child, Pete, in September of 1994. At the age of 47, Janet had already seen three older children grow up but still had six little ones at home.

JANET WILLIS

I was either pregnant or nursing most of the last 15 years. It just seemed very normal for me.

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS

You can put it on the record that she was barefoot and pregnant most of the time.

BRIAN ROSS

There were laughs all around that day as the youngest Willis children welcomed their new brother.

SAM WILLIS, SON

My name's Sam.

JANET WILLIS

Who are you?

BEN WILLIS

Ben.

JANET WILLIS

And who's that? Who is the little guy?

BEN WILLIS

Pete.

BRIAN ROSS

But this would be one of the last of the good times for the Willis family.

ELIZABETH WILLIS

Elizabeth.

JANET WILLIS

OK. And that's Hank.

HANK WILLIS

Hank.

BRIAN ROSS

A little more than a month after this home video was made, these six children would all be dead, killed in a tragic highway accident involving a dangerous truck and a driver with a suspect license, an accident that first devastated the Willises and now has led them on a long, difficult search for justice.

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS

There was no accountability. If our children had been murdered, we would expect justice to be served. And in this case, we would expect also that justice, accountability would be taken care of.

BRIAN ROSS

And there wasn't accountability?

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS

There wasn't accountability. It seemed like it was avoided. It was not only avoided, but it was being stifled.

BRIAN ROSS

And now Janet and Scott Willis have found themselves up against some very powerful people as they dare to ask questions about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of their six children, which responsible authorities had, until recently, failed to.

JANET WILLIS

There is a sense of this is something we have to do. It would be a whole lot easier just to let this all go by and let us go on with our life.

BRIAN ROSS

What's involved are questions about a system that allegedly put thousands of unqualified truck drivers on the road and then ignored warnings of danger.

TERRY BRUNER, CHICAGO BETTER GOVERNMENT ASSOCIATION

Someone had to die. There had to be an awful accident. And that's exactly what happened. I mean, it was predictable if you think about it.

BRIAN ROSS

Questions about state employees exchanging truck driving licenses for bribes and campaign contributions from trucking companies and truck driving schools.

TAMMY RAYNOR, STATE LICENSING EXAMINER

I thought to myself, my God, this is not only for campaign contributions. This is cash and carry.

JUDGE

Do solemnly swear...

BRIAN ROSS

And questions about the man whose campaign fund benefited from the alleged scheme and who just last month was sworn in as the Governor of Illinois. George Ryan, who as Secretary of State for eight years, oversaw truck driving licenses but says it is ridiculous to think that his employees would do anything illegal for him.

GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN, (R) ILLINOIS

People I don't even know. Why would they risk their home, their life, their whatever they do to go to jail so they could give me a couple hundred bucks?

BRIAN ROSS

Before the accident, Janet and Scott Willis would have seemed unlikely candidates to be leading the charge in uncovering political scandal. Sweethearts since the seventh grade, Janet and Scott were a devoted couple: he a Baptist minister, she a full-time mom who taught her children at home. On the day of the accident, theirs was a life of God and family.

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS

It was election day in '94, and we got in the van, went out. We were having a great time.

BRIAN ROSS

The Willis family was headed north out of Chicago that day on Interstate 94, off to Wisconsin to celebrate one of the boys' birthdays.

JANET WILLIS

I looked back, and it looked like they were all sleeping as far as I know, and then I laid back. Scott said we better get some rest.

BRIAN ROSS

A short distance ahead on the highway, a piece of a truck trailer was about to fall off, and other truckers were trying to warn the driver.

LARRY PETOSKEY, TRUCK DRIVER

I knew that it was going to fall off sooner or later, and someone was going to get hurt.

BRIAN ROSS

Yet, according to Larry Petoskey, a truck driver for 30 years, the driver didn't respond to repeated warnings over a 10-mile stretch.

LARRY PETOSKEY

Finally got up alongside of him, blew the horn at him, motioned like this to the back, "You've got a problem." And he kind of looked over to me like that and just continued on his way. Tried to get a hold of him on the CB and no response.

BRIAN ROSS

The loose steel piece broke off about 100 feet ahead of the Willises' minivan, and Reverend Willis says he had no choice but to drive over it.

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS There was no way at that time I could move out of the way then. The next thing I knew that there was this sound, it wasn't real loud, but it was just a boom, a thump. And the car went into -- went sideways. And we realized later that the gas tank had exploded into the car, right to where the children in the back were. They would have had the impact of the explosion.

JANET WILLIS

And immediately, I heard Scott shouting, "Get out of the van. Get out of the van." But as soon as I got a few feet away from the van and looked back, it was engulfed in flames, like an inferno.

BRIAN ROSS

Asleep and strapped into their seat belts, five of the children, including 6-week-old Pete, died in a matter of moments while their father watched helplessly.

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS

I ran to the van, began to beat on the windows, and my hands were already burned. So I began to hit with my elbows and kick with my feet. It was futile, and I knew it. And it had been clouded in there so I didn't see in, but I knew what had happened. I knew that the children had died.

JANET WILLIS

I fell on my knees, and I just started saying, "No, no," as though God would just stop it and make it all go away.

BRIAN ROSS

A sixth child, Benny, the oldest, got out of the van, badly burned.

JANET WILLIS

His hair was gone, and they were taking his clothes off because they were smoldering, and he was saying, "My feet are hot," and they couldn't get his shoes off.

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS

He asked about the others. He said, "How are the others?" I couldn't answer. And somebody said, "They're all right."

JANET WILLIS

Then he said, "Dad, tell me a joke." And that sounds goofy, but that's our family.

BRIAN ROSS

Benny died in the hospital that night.

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS

I must tell you that we hurt in sorrow as you parents would for your children. The depth of pain is indescribable. The hardest part of all was visiting Benny in intensive care knowing he was alive, but that he would not make it. Around midnight, his big brother and hero, Toby, was with Ben when he died. Toby came back and said to me, "Benny's in heaven."

BRIAN ROSS

In the investigation that followed, Wisconsin police determined there was no basis to file any criminal charges. When they tracked down the truck driver, this man, Ricardo Guzman, a resident alien from Mexico, he claimed his CB radio wasn't working and he never realized the piece was coming loose.

LARRY PETOSKEY

If this gentleman couldn't see that, he had to be blind or a very unqualified driver.

BRIAN ROSS

In fact, several questions have now been raised about how qualified Guzman was to drive a big truck. Police in Wisconsin made special note of the fact that Guzman was not fluent in English and needed a translator, even though federal law requires truck drivers to read and speak English sufficiently to respond to official inquiries.

As well, Guzman had been involved in six other accidents in the just two years since he had received his truck driver's license at a state licensing office in Illinois.

TERRY BRUNER

Thousands of people who should not be driving 18-wheel trucks on our highways got licenses in Illinois.

BRIAN ROSS

It was no surprise to Terry Bruner that a driver like Guzman could get his truck driver's license in Illinois. Bruner is the executive director of the Chicago Better Government Association, a civic watchdog group, which had tracked a steady stream of non-English speaking applicants brought to state licensing offices by certain truck driving schools and trucking companies.

TERRY BRUNER

They couldn't speak English. They were all brought in, in groups. They were run right through the process.

BRIAN ROSS

And behind it all, according to a lawsuit Bruner's group has now filed against George Ryan, were hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to Ryan campaigns from truck companies and truck driving schools which, Bruner says, wanted to make sure their people passed. Something Bruner says Ryan knew or should have known.

TERRY BRUNER

Mr. Ryan was running for governor, and he needed the money.

BRIAN ROSS

In fact, Bruner discovered some 154 Polish immigrants from New York and New Jersey had been checked into this Chicago motel by a truck driving school, and within days, all had received their commercial driving licenses, called CDLs, at a nearby secretary of state licensing office.

TERRY BRUNER

Now, 154 people from a driving school, all with the same address -- a Motel 6 -- Polish passports and a motel receipt or a New York driver's license, this ought to make somebody say, bang, the lights go on. What's this all about?

But the secretary of state never did anything about it. They didn't want to find it. Because they knew clearly what was going on with these driving schools, because they were making huge campaign contributions back to them.

BRIAN ROSS

And all this was public before that accident in 1994?

TERRY BRUNER

It was all public. No one was that interested at the time. But as soon as the accident happened and it became clear one of the contributing factors to that accident was the fact that the driver couldn't understand English while the other drivers were trying to speak to him to tell him that things were falling off his truck -- when that happened, then, of course, all hell broke loose.

BRIAN ROSS

Particularly at what's known as the McCook licensing facility outside Chicago, where some employees soon realized that it was here the driver in the Willis accident had received his license from two supervisors they suspected of being corrupt.

TAMMY RAYNOR

It was a horrible feeling to think that we had witnessed something that contributed to that.

BRIAN ROSS

State licensing examiner Tammy Raynor says that she and a co-worker had long feared just such an accident. She has now come forward to tell 20/20 of how she says her supervisors, the same ones who passed Guzman, helped non-English speaking applicants from certain trucking companies and truck driving schools get their licenses with special, premarked tests.

TAMMY RAYNOR

These people were processed expediently.

BRIAN ROSS

And they always passed?

TAMMY RAYNOR

They always passed. The special applicants got the special tests.

BRIAN ROSS

With the answers marked?

TAMMY RAYNOR

There was like an ink mark dot. And the dot would be placed next to the appropriate answer.

BRIAN ROSS

So not too hard to pass the test?

TAMMY RAYNOR

Impossible to fail.

BRIAN ROSS

Something she now admits she, for a while, went along with out of fear of losing her job.

Pass them even though they shouldn't have passed?

TAMMY RAYNOR

Or face repercussions, serious repercussions if I didn't.

BRIAN ROSS

So you did it?

TAMMY RAYNOR

I had to. And as few occasions as possible. But yes, sadly to admit there were occasions when it was kind of do or die, and I basically had to do it.

BRIAN ROSS

But Tammy Raynor says when she had tried to blow the whistle on such corruption, she was told by an investigator in the inspector general's office that the allegations could hurt the career of George Ryan and that she should keep quiet.

TAMMY RAYNOR

I was told that the last thing they wanted to do is have people thinking that George Ryan had a bunch of "thieves and whores" I think is kind of an old term that he used working in the secretary of state's office.

BRIAN ROSS

None of this, none of the questions about suspect truck drivers' licenses or questions about the driver of the truck in their accident was known to Scott and Janet Willis. Until there began a series of late-night phone calls.

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS

They would call anonymously and tell us that they knew some things that we needed to know.

(Commercial Break)

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS

You don't go a day without remembering the kids.

JANET WILLIS

We were a very, very close family. And we had a lot of fun. We had a lot of goof-around time.

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS

Just watching them play. Those common things are very, very precious. And I wish I had listened more, wish I had spent more time with them.

JANET WILLIS

The abrupt cutting off of all our hopes and dreams was just, I remember thinking to myself that all I had worked for, and all -- you know, frankly having nine children was a lot of hard work, and I loved it. I loved being a mom. But I thought to myself it was all a waste.

BRIAN ROSS

More than four years after the accident that killed their six children, there are still a lot of lonely days for Janet and Scott Willis and a constant fight against anger and bitterness.

JANET WILLIS

You know, as this has unfolded, it's a struggle to not get bitter. It's a struggle as we see that there was, in some cases, deliberate wrongdoing, it is more difficult.

BRIAN ROSS

Wrongdoing that started to come to light for the Willises in the anonymous late-night phone calls about how the driver of the truck in their accident allegedly got his license.

JOE POWER, ATTORNEY

It took me less than a half hour to realize that it stunk.

BRIAN ROSS

Joe Power, a lawyer hired by the Willis family, started handling the anonymous phone calls and then a bundle of documents that soon showed up.

JOE POWER

The documents outlined hundreds of payoffs that were made to certain individuals -- people with clout, names of contributors to Mr. Ryan's campaign, trucking companies, driving schools.

BRIAN ROSS

Including contributions from the first of several trucking companies Ricardo Guzman worked for. Both the trucking company and Guzman, who still has his license, would not agree to appear on 20/20, and both have denied any wrongdoing. But the Willis family lawyer says he can prove an unqualified Guzman was pushed through the CDL licensing process.

JOE POWER

He's a poor immigrant who came in here, and I believe the evidence will show, through clout and payoffs, got his CDL.

BRIAN ROSS

The documents and phone calls soon led the Willises' lawyer to focus on this woman, Marion Seibel, a former assistant manager at the secretary of state's licensing office where Guzman got his license. Seibel, who has since been fired on unrelated charges, is now at the center of the truck licensing scandal.

And that is your signature?

MARION SEIBEL, FORMER LICENSING OFFICE EMPLOYEE

This is my signature. That's my signature.

BRIAN ROSS

It was Marion Seibel who signed off on Guzman's license test, but she claims she has no memory of the man, and both she and her supervisor deny allegations they ever helped anyone cheat on a test.

MARION SEIBEL

There's no way. No way.

BRIAN ROSS

But even so, Seibel says she was routinely under pressure from what she called "downtown" to pass people who weren't qualified to drive a truck.

MARION SEIBEL

That's the way I felt about it. Because why would you call and holler at me afterwards or when I called down there and said that the person didn't make it, and I know there was a couple of times where they went to another office, and we looked up on the computer, and the person passed at the other office.

BRIAN ROSS

Seibel says she wouldn't be a scapegoat for anyone in all this and told 20/20 that she even received a handful of phone calls directly from George Ryan's secretary.

MARION SEIBEL

I had gotten calls from George Ryan's secretary.

BRIAN ROSS

You did?

MARION SEIBEL

Yes.

BRIAN ROSS

Telling you what?

MARION SEIBEL

We have a person, and we want this person run through today.

BRIAN ROSS

From George Ryan's office?

MARION SEIBEL

Yes, from his secretary.

BRIAN ROSS

Governor Ryan, a Republican, says the focus on the licensing scandal is all the work of the Willises' family lawyer, who is active in Democratic politics. But Seibel's allegations about Ryan's office take the case far beyond just the Willis accident.

You've met her.

GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN

I don't know who she is. No. I've never met her.

BRIAN ROSS

You have never met her?

GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN

Never met her.

BRIAN ROSS

Ryan's press secretary first agreed to schedule an interview with the governor and then canceled, telling 20/20 we would have to find Ryan in a public place to ask him any questions, which is just what we did -- starting with Seibel's allegations that his office, his secretary had called to push certain people through to get their truck driver's licenses.

GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN

Well, I just don't believe that. She is, I think, under investigation herself. She's been fired. We fired her some time ago and, you know, these people make all kinds of accusations.

BRIAN ROSS

So she's just making that up?

GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN

I would guess that she is. I've never talked with her. Don't know her.

BRIAN ROSS

But Seibel produced three different photographs of Ryan with her. Ryan meets lots of people as a politician, but Seibel says two of these photos were taken at special events honoring select state employees who had raised the most money for Ryan by selling tickets to campaign dinners and golfing events.

MARION SEIBEL

This was taken at the restaurant where we were invited after the ticket sales.

BRIAN ROSS

So this is sort of a "thank you" from George Ryan.

MARION SEIBEL

Right. And it says, "To Marion with best wishes, George."

BRIAN ROSS

How much money did you raise in selling these tickets?

MARION SEIBEL

It was 80-something thousand dollars, like close to like $80,000, $82,000.

BRIAN ROSS

That you raised for George Ryan?

MARION SEIBEL

Right.

BRIAN ROSS

And Seibel says she kept copies of everything, which she showed us, going back five years because, she says, she wanted to make sure her bosses gave her the salary increases she says she had been promised for raising money.

Was it your idea to raise the money from the truck driving schools and the trucking companies?

MARION SEIBEL

No. I was given those names. I was given names, check, you know, contact this one, contact that one.

BRIAN ROSS

And if you sold the tickets, what happened?

MARION SEIBEL

Well, gradually, I got increases, slowly but surely, and then eventually I got the management position.

BRIAN ROSS

Because you sold these tickets?

MARION SEIBEL

That's the way I understood it.

BRIAN ROSS

They told you that?

MARION SEIBEL

Mm-hmm. Yes.

BRIAN ROSS

What about the campaign contributions?

GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN

What about them?

BRIAN ROSS

They raised lots of money for you from truck driving schools, trucking companies.

GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN

And anybody that was identified there, we donated the money back. We proved that came from those people, 70 percent.

BRIAN ROSS

When did you give it back?

GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN

$9,700. $7,900.

BRIAN ROSS

Marion Seibel raised $82,000.

GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN

That's what Marion Seibel says. Now if you can prove that...

BRIAN ROSS

She's got the receipts...

GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN

Well, let's see them.

BRIAN ROSS ... for selling all those tickets.

GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN

Then you -- I'm going to tell you, if you've got that information, you ought to take it to a federal prosecutor.

BRIAN ROSS

Someone already has. The attorney for the Willis family, Joe Power.

JOE POWER

Whatever I've said has turned out to be true, that fraud and corruption was rampant in Mr. Ryan's office and let the chips fall wherever they may.

BRIAN ROSS

And Power has turned something else over to federal prosecutors that he obtained while investigating the case, a sworn affidavit from a member of the secretary of state's inspector general's office, Russell Sonneveld, who says he was refused permission to investigate the allegations of bribery and their possible connection to the Willis accident in Wisconsin.

JOE POWER

They told him not to look into it. Don't do anything.

BRIAN ROSS

He called Wisconsin?

JOE POWER

To find out if it were true that this Guzman didn't speak or understand English. And he learned that that was true, then he was going to start his own investigation as a special agent, and they called him off.

BRIAN ROSS

Who called him off?

JOE POWER

The inspector general himself, Mr. Ryan's good friend.

BRIAN ROSS

That inspector general and a spokesman for Governor Ryan deny any investigation was stopped. Federal authorities have told 20/20 the affidavit raises some serious questions.

TELEVISION ANCHORWOMAN

Accusations of payoffs and bribery are surfacing because of a horrible accident that took the lives...

BRIAN ROSS

And now, spurred on by the Willis case, federal authorities have moved in in a big way. The assistant manager of one licensing office, the blonde woman in this picture, and four others pleaded guilty last year to selling truck driving licenses. And just last week, Marion Seibel was arrested on extortion charges and is now said to be cooperating with authorities.

BRIAN ROSS

The scandal and the Willis accident became a big issue during Ryan's campaign for governor last year.

But Ryan won after running his own commercials attacking his opponent's use of the Willis accident in the campaign.

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS

We always voted for George Ryan.

BRIAN ROSS

A long-time Republican who had regularly voted for George Ryan over the years, Reverend Scott Willis says he had a hard time believing Ryan could be involved until what he says happened when he met Ryan at a Republican prayer breakfast.

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS

I said, "Mr. Ryan, I'm Scott Willis, and I just want you to know that Janet and I are praying for you." And at that time, you know, we didn't understand what was still out there. We just knew that there were some problems. But I didn't want him to think that this was a personal vendetta that we had against him for any reason.

BRIAN ROSS

What did he say to you.

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS

He jumped all over our lawyer right away. He began to attack our lawyer. I don't remember...

BRIAN ROSS

That was his reaction?

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS

Yeah, that was his reaction.

BRIAN ROSS

You gave him a hard time when he came to talk to you.

GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN

I have never talked to Reverend Willis in my life. Where do you get your information?

BRIAN ROSS

He met you at a prayer breakfast.

GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN

Well, not that I recall.

BRIAN ROSS

Well, he talks about...

GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN

And I want to tell you that that I'm very sympathetic. I'm the father of many children myself. This fellow lost all of his children in a very tragic accident.

BRIAN ROSS

That's not what you said to him when he introduced himself to you?

GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN

Pardon?

BRIAN ROSS

That's not what he says you said to him when he introduced himself to you.

GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN

Well, I don't know what he said. Why wouldn't I be sympathetic?

BRIAN ROSS

Well, that's a good question.

AIDE

He never met him.

GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN

That's right. It is a good question. I think anybody that knows me knows that I wouldn't have anything to do with that.

BRIAN ROSS

But Reverend Willis says he recalls clearly what Ryan said and how he said it.

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS

He was in defense mode at that point. There was something to hide.

BRIAN ROSS

As the investigations continue, the Willises try to go on. Janet working with church groups and glad to have any reason to bake a big batch of cookies again. And Scott at his desk writing his weekly sermon, with the well-worn baseball gloves of his four dead sons overhead and another one 6-week-old Pete never had a chance to use.

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS

And Christmas time, somebody asked us the first year, is Christmas going to be the hardest time? I said, "No, the hardest time is going to be when Little League starts." And the guys weren't out there...

JANET WILLIS

There's a big difference in crying because you miss them and crying because you're feeling sorry for yourself. There really is a big difference between that. I think most -- 90 percent of the time the tears were just because I simply missed them. And yeah, they still come. The tears still come. But it's less and less. God is a healer.

REVEREND SCOTT WILLIS We're going to hang in there. By God's grace, we're going to stay to the end to see that justice is served.