suntimes
TOUGH 
Weather Updates

Family hit by licenses-for-bribe tragedy perform on ‘America’s Got Talent’

AMERICA #39;S GOT TALENT -- Newark -- Pictured: The Willis Clan -- (Phoby: Eric Liebowitz/NBC)

AMERICA'S GOT TALENT -- Newark -- Pictured: The Willis Clan -- (Photo by: Eric Liebowitz/NBC)

storyidforme: 67461050
tmspicid: 24044952
fileheaderid: 11833713

Updated: July 8, 2014 6:15AM



Howard Stern compared the 12-member family band to “The Partridge Family” and noted “you’re so much more talented” than the Osmonds.

Spice Girl Mel B said when the siblings harmonize, it’s beautiful. “You can tell you’re all related because it all blends.”

And Howie Mandel called them “impressive.”

But what was not mentioned when The Willis Clan dazzled the judges on “America’s Got Talent” earlier this week was the tragic backstory of their family.

The members of the Tennessee-based band are the grandchildren of the Rev. Duane and Janet Willis, who lost six of their children in a fiery van crash in Wisconsin. Their immense loss in 1994 became a tragic symbol of the licenses-for-bribes scandal that would lead to the downfall of former Gov. George Ryan.

The band members’ father, Toby, is one of the Willis’ surviving children, said the band’s manager, Brinson Strickland.

On Tuesday, The Willis Clan performed on the talent show and drew rave reviews from the judges after a performance of a countrified rendition of “The Sound of Music’s” “My Favorite Things.”

The siblings — who span the ages of 3 to 21 and whose names all begin with the letter J — sing, play instruments and even dance (the youngest, Jada, did a little jig during the performance).

Strickland said some times the parents, Toby and Brenda, join in the performance.

“They’re the most wonderful, wonderful family in the world,” he said.

In November 1994, a piece of an 18-wheeler’s rig fell onto a Milwaukee-area expressway and into the path of the Rev. Duane and Janet Willis’ minivan, which ignited and killed six of their children, ranging in age from six months to 13. Duane and Janet Willis survived the crash with severe burns. Toby Willis and two siblings were not in the van.

It was learned that the driver of the truck, with the help of an intermediary, obtained his trucker’s license by bribing a corrupt worker at an Illinois state licensing facility.

The federal investigation into corruption at Secretary of State facilities in the bribes-for-license scandal eventually ensnared the governor, who was convicted of racketeering and fraud. More than 75 people were convicted in Operation Safe Road.

Ryan was not charged in the crash that killed the Willis children, but his trial included testimony about him putting an end to an investigation into the role corruption played in the children’s deaths when he was secretary of state.

Ryan was released from prison last year.

The Willis grandparents now live in Tennessee.

Their grandchildren will appear on “America’s Got Talent” again in July for judgment week, which determines which contestants will continue on to perform live at Radio City Music Hall, an NBC spokeswoman said. Performers are vying for a $1 million prize.

It’s not the first time the Willis grandkids have been on TV.

Last year, the family appeared in a reality show, also called “The Willis Clan,” on Great American Country.

And it seems they may be staying on as contestants on the talent show.

“This is exactly what America’s Got Talent loves,” shock jock Stern said.

Contributing: Lori Rackl

Email: bschlikerman@suntimes.com

Twitter: @schlikerman



© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit www.suntimesreprints.com. To order a reprint of this article, click here.