By Diana Hefley Herald Writer
EVERETT — The owner of two controversial bikini coffee stands in Everett was convicted on Friday of sexually exploiting a 16-year-old barista who flashed customers for bigger tips.
The 10-day trial was the first attempt by Snohomish County prosecutors and Everett police to hold a coffee stand owner responsible for lewd conduct at the drive-through coffee huts.
It took jurors less than an hour to convict Bill Wheeler Jr. of sexual exploitation of a minor, a felony.
He faces up to 3 1/2 years in prison when he is sentenced next month. Wheeler, 31, has until the end of next week to post $100,000 bail or he will be taken into custody.
Wheeler, who owned the Grab N Go stands, was accused of “inviting or causing” an underage girl to engage in sexually explicit conduct. Prosecutors also had to prove that Wheeler knew that the girl’s behavior would be part of a live show or would be photographed.
Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Jarett Goodkin argued that Wheeler used the girl to make money, knowing that she’d be forced to expose herself to earn the kind of tips she needed to stay employed with him.
“All of the evidence in this case tells us Mr. Wheeler had a plan. This was all part of him making money and increasing his sales,” Goodkin said.
The baristas told cops that they weren’t paid wages. Instead they kept any tips they made so long as there was $300 in the register at the end of each weekday or $150 on the weekends. The minor told police she learned from the baristas the only way to make that much money was to do sex shows.
Wheeler’s attorney, John Henry Browne of Seattle, accused the state of wasting time and resources on policing morality.
“There’s nothing illegal about a 16-year-old working at a bikini barista stand as long as she keeps her clothes on,” Browne said.
His client knew the girl’s age but the state failed to provide any evidence that the stand owner knew that the teenager was giving sexually explicit shows, Browne said.
Other baristas testified that Wheeler warned them not to expose themselves. At least one barista signed a document saying she wouldn’t engage in lewd conduct.
“If we convict someone in this country on guessing, we might as well wrap fish in the Constitution,” Browne said.
Wheeler did not testify.
Browne attacked the police investigation, saying the only video the cops found of the girl giving a show was when the detective, working undercover, encouraged her to flash him her breasts for money.
The Everett detective didn’t know the girl was underage until after her arrest in February 2013.
Browne showed jurors the letter provided by the state Attorney General’s Office that essentially granted the detective immunity from prosecution so he could testify at trial.
Under the law, officers are protected from prosecution if they commit certain crimes as part of a legal police investigation. Sexual exploitation of a minor is not protected under that statute.
Browne argued that the only evidence that the girl engaged in a sexually explicit show was the video footage taken from a camera in the detective’s undercover vehicle.
Goodkin said that’s because Wheeler erased video footage after several baristas were arrested in February 2013. The detective witnessed the girl engage in sexually explicit conduct with other customers but none of that footage was there when police reviewed hours and hours of video surveillance from the stand, Goodkin said.
Detectives were able to recover more than 400 screenshots from Wheeler’s phone that showed scantily-clad baristas.
Wheeler “knew exactly what was going on.” Goodkin said. “He exerted control over the stands whether he was there or away.”
For years Everett police have wrestled with the Wheeler family business. In 2009, when the stands were owned by Wheeler’s father, five baristas were arrested for prostitution. The raid made national headlines but the elder Wheeler was never prosecuted in connection with the prostitution sting. He went missing a year later, after failing to return from a business trip in Las Vegas. His disappearance has never been explained.
Reporter Rikki King contributed to this story.