By Diana Hefley Herald Writer
EVERETT — An Everett man, whose family’s risque espresso stands have created a stir in Snohomish County for years, is now facing criminal prosecution in connection with the goings-on at his roadside bikini coffee huts.
Prosecutors late last week charged Bill Wheeler Jr. with sexual exploitation of a minor based on information gathered after the arrest of a 16-year-old barista at one of his Grab-N-Go stands.
Everett police working an undercover operation reported that the girl was seen exposing herself to customers. Prosecutors allege that Wheeler knew the girl was a minor and was aware that she was flashing for tips.
Wheeler, 29, had installed surveillance cameras inside the stands, allowing him to watch a live-feed from his cellphone, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Matthew Baldock wrote.
Under a federal grant Baldock is specially assigned to prosecute people accused of being involved in the sex trafficking of minors.
It’s against the law for anyone to employ a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct, knowing the behavior could be photographed or part of a live show.
In February, Everett police arrested several baristas at Wheeler’s stands for violating the city’s adult cabaret laws and engaging in lewd conduct. Police said they began investigating the two stands, one on Broadway and one on SE Everett Mall Way, after receiving complaints from citizens. Four adult baristas have been charged in connection with the sting.
In 2009, when Wheeler’s dad owned the Grab-N-Go espresso stands, Everett police investigated allegations of lewd conduct at the coffee huts. Five baristas were arrested for prostitution. The women’s arrests drew national headlines as the older Wheeler publicly defended his businesses and denied any knowledge of wrongdoing at the stands.
The elder Wheeler was never prosecuted in connection with the prostitution sting. He was reported missing a year later, after failing to return from a business trip in Las Vegas. His mysterious disappearance sparked a feud between his son and his wife, both battling for control over his personal and business holdings.
Bill Wheeler Jr. told The Herald in February that he enforces strict policies at his stands.
“They have to be dressed a certain way,” he said. “Their crotch has to be covered up. They can’t expose their areolas.”
Violation of the rules is grounds for immediate termination, he said.
The 16-year-old told police a different story.
She said Wheeler didn’t pay the baristas an hourly wage. Instead, they were allowed to keep any tips they made. However, the boss expected them to make him at least $70 during a weekend shift and $220 on weekday shifts. If it wasn’t there, the baristas were required to make up the difference from their tips, Baldock wrote.
The teenager said “she learned from other baristas that the only way to make enough money during their shifts was to perform ‘shows’ for customers,” Baldock wrote. She explained a show meant exposing private parts.
The girl told police that Wheeler knew she was 16. He had been helping her fill out the paperwork to become emancipated from her parents, she said.
Police reviewed the girl’s cellphone, finding text messages from Wheeler, some indicating that he watched her from across the street while she was working, court papers said.
Detectives also searched Wheeler’s phone records. They reportedly found an application on his phone that allowed him to watch live-feed surveillance footage from the stands. They discovered at least one image showing one of the baristas exposing herself to a customer, Baldock wrote.
Wheeler, who is out of custody, is scheduled to appear later this month in Snohomish County Superior Court to answer to the charge.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.