Kids dropped by Zerwas's northwest Denver duplex several times over the past two summers, peddling $7 boxes of chocolates. They didn't look like they came from his neighborhood, and the boxes gave no clue as to the cause any sales were supporting. But Zerwas didn't think much about it until the kids started showing up more and more frequently -- and after dark.
As a new father and a teacher who works with at-risk kids, Zerwas is sensitive to child-safety issues. And while kids selling magazine subscriptions or candy door-to-door are a common sight, something didn't feel right about this bunch. "We had a girl come by when it was dark, at around 8 p.m., and she said she was working until 8:30," says Zerwas. "They say they're working with a group that keeps kids off the streets and teaches them responsibility, but when you ask them where the adults are, they say that 'the van' will come by and pick them up at a certain corner later on."
The kids' sales pitch goes something like this: "I just need to make a few more sales to make my goal for the night, and then we get to go to a Broncos game or on a trip to California." Some of the kids told Zerwas they've actually gone on trips and that when they get paid in cash, they keep $2 for every $7 box they sell.
Zerwas decided to start asking more questions. The next time a pair of pint-sized peddlers -- a boy and a girl -- came to his door, he asked where they lived. Park Hill, they said -- a long way from northwest Denver. And how did they get to his neighborhood? Why, "the van," of course.
When Zerwas asked about their employer, they said it was Colorado Leaders. But they didn't have any contact information for the group -- no adults' names, no phone number and no address. "I asked if they had anything they could give me," he remembers, "and they showed me a laminated piece of paper that says, 'Colorado Leaders: Teaching Kids Responsibility.' But they wouldn't let me take it; there's nothing they can give you."
Not one to give up easily, Zerwas did more sleuthing. In the phone book, he found a listing for Colorado Leader. But when he dialed the number, he got the publisher of a weekly publication that prints legal notices.
"I used to get two to three calls a week from people complaining about Colorado Leaders," says Colorado Leader publisher Jim Eitzen. "Some people call to complain about the kids being out after dark, and some people complain about the candy being stale. I've tried to get a lead on where these kids are coming from, but I haven't had any luck. It's a very mysterious organization."
An organization made even more mysterious by its absolute lack of public records. No such group is registered with the Colorado Secretary of State's Office, and the only similar-sounding group to turn up -- other than the weekly paper -- was Colorado Leaders of Tomorrow, which is on file with the Colorado Department of Revenue. The woman listed as the officer of Colorado Leaders of Tomorrow, Deborah Alvarez, is also an officer with an organization called Junior Sales Club of Colorado.
When Westword called Alvarez's home, she never seemed to be around. But a man who would not reveal his identity or his relationship to Alvarez was, and when he was asked if Colorado Leaders of Tomorrow is an organization that sends kids door-to-door selling candy, he said "Yes" and then asked, "Why, did something happen?"
Finally, Alvarez returned Westword's call and left this cryptic voice mail: "I'm calling you because you left me a message. I've been getting this lately because of Colorado Leaders. I used to own a business named Colorado Leaders of Tomorrow. I've gotten, I'd say, three or four messages lately on somebody using my name, on somebody else doing it. So if you want to call me, go ahead, but I think you've got the wrong person."
Further calls to Alvarez have gone unanswered.
To clear up some of the confusion surrounding money-seeking organizations, the state legislature passed the Colorado Charitable Solicitations Act in 2001. That law requires that charitable solicitors get a registration number from the secretary of state's office; provide the state with annual financial statements, which are then posted on the secretary of state's Web site; and disclose to donors whom they're soliciting for and how much of a contribution actually goes to the charity.
The law would also apply to a group that isn't soliciting for a specific charity but rather paying kids for items they sell, according to Representative Joe Stengel, a sponsor of the bill. "Regardless of what they're soliciting for, they need to register with the secretary of state as a charitable organization," he says. "And if they're soliciting and they're not a charitable organization, then they're totally fraudulent. This sounds like a scam. They're probably in violation of all sorts of statutes."
The only charitable organizations not required to register with the secretary of state are religious groups that don't file a form 990 with the IRS; political candidates; political action committees; and organizations that do not intend to raise more than $25,000 in gross annual revenue or do not receive contributions from more than ten sources.
The Denver District Attorney's Office is all too familiar with companies that send kids door-to-door. "This is a recurring problem for which there is no easy solution other than encouraging parents to think twice about providing their permission for something like this," says spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough. "There's more than one company doing this, and the ones we're aware of are not charitable organizations; they're private businesses. They go to recreation centers and youth facilities and recruit kids to sell candy, and they routinely get permission from parents. Some of these kids are well under twelve years old, they're out after dark, and they're in neighborhoods they're not familiar with.
"As recently as a couple of months ago, we got a call from a parent who had given permission for her two young kids to sell candy," she adds. "She was complaining that her kids weren't getting a fair share of the proceeds."
So far, the name "Colorado Leaders" hasn't come up in any of the complaints the DA's office has fielded, but Kimbrough says that's probably because such companies change their names frequently. Even so, it's unclear whether these groups are actually breaking the law. "This set of circumstances doesn't rise to the level of a state criminal violation," she says. "But is it something that should be regulated? Perhaps. Our concern would be the safety of these kids."
Whatever organization is behind the kids in Zerwas's neighborhood, the recent dip in temperatures hasn't deterred it from sending out the troops.
About 7 p.m. Friday, October 11, Zerwas noticed three kids standing in his street, holding boxes of candy. He asked the boys their ages -- twelve, thirteen and seventeen, they said -- and how they got involved with Colorado Leaders. They told him that an adult in a van had stopped in their Park Hill neighborhood and asked if they wanted jobs. All of the boys said they'd gotten permission from their parents to sell candy. Before Zerwas went back inside his house, he took down the boys' names.
Contacted last week, a woman who identified herself only as the aunt of the twelve-year-old said that his mother made him quit selling candy because the group was keeping him out too late. Gina Duran, the mother of the seventeen-year-old, confirmed that her son is selling candy and that he is getting paid, but said she didn't know how much. Nor did she know any more details, she said. "His supervisor said the news people have been asking questions and that he'll be happy to talk to you," she added. "He doesn't got nothing to hide, so he'll call you."
That call hasn't come.
So what is it with this group: Trick, or treat?