Bikini coffee stand owner sentenced in sex crime

EVERETT ­— The son of the man who brought the controversial bikini espresso stands to Everett is headed to prison if he can’t undo his sex crime conviction.

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge David Kurtz on Friday sentenced Bill Wheeler Jr. to three years in prison. The judge agreed to allow Wheeler the opportunity to post $100,000 bail pending the outcome of an appeal.

Wheeler maintained his innocence, saying his conviction was based on deception, inaccurate information and a botched police investigation.

Last month it took a jury less than an hour to convict Wheeler, 31, of sexual exploitation of a minor. Wheeler employed a 16-year-old girl at his Grab-N-Go coffee huts last year. The teenager engaged in sexually explicit shows.

Prosecutors alleged that Wheeler’s entire business model relied on baristas giving sex shows at his drive-through coffee stands. Wheeler also knew the shows would be captured on the video cameras he set up inside the huts.

Lawyers on Friday tried to argue the evidence.

Defense attorney John Henry Browne once again accused the city of Everett of trying to police morality and wasting taxpayers’ money doing so. He recycled his argument that Wheeler was a victim of police entrapment.

He also accused the prosecutor of losing touch with reality by characterizing the teenager as a victim.

“We’re talking about a rebellious teenager attempting to be emancipated,” Browne said. Calling her a victim is “quite a stretch,” the Seattle attorney said.

Browne attempted to convince the judge to sentence Wheeler to a year on work release or house arrest. His client doesn’t have any previous criminal history and is a decorated military veteran. The defense gave the judge numerous letters from friends and relatives who praised Wheeler’s service in the U.S. Air Force and called him a strict employer who was trying to clean up the image of bikini coffee stands.

Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Jarett Goodkin argued against any leniency, saying the girl was the very person who lawmakers intended to protect under the statute.

“She needed someone to guide and protect her during a very difficult time in her life. Without that person, she should have at least been able to rely upon the law to protect her from the circumstances that occurred here. Instead, she found Wheeler who exploited her for his own financial gain without him considering the law and the impact it would have on (her) life,” Goodkin wrote.

Wheeler has not shown any remorse for his actions and attempts to point fingers at his employees and the victim, Goodkin said.

Jurors reached a verdict and he was going to respect their decision, Kurtz said.

“It was found that Mr. Wheeler was a businessman behaving badly,” the judge said.

Any argument that the victim or the Everett Police Department are to blame is not persuasive, Kurtz said. The focus should be on the defendant’s actions.

“Any exploitation of another human being is wrong. Sex exploitation is worse. Sexual exploitation of a minor is worse yet and constitutes a serious felony,” Kurtz said.

The purpose of the law is to protect young people from the actions of adults.

The defendant’s “actions appear calculated in nature” and motivated by money, the judge said.

Wheeler was in custody Friday. After he was convicted last month, the judge gave him a week to come up with $100,000 bail. Wheeler turned himself into the jail a few days later.

As part of his conviction, Wheeler must register as a sex offender for the next 15 years.

Wheeler took over the Grab-n-Go coffee hut name after his father mysteriously disappeared during a 2010 trip to Las Vegas.

His father and his coffee stands made headlines in 2009 after several baristas were prosecuted for prostitution. Bill Wheeler denied that the women were engaged in lewd acts while serving coffee. After his disappearance, his estranged wife took over the stands for a short time.

Other racy coffee huts popped up in Snohomish County, sending city and county officials scrambling to adopt regulations for the drive-through stands.

Wheeler is the first business owner in Snohomish County to be sentenced for criminal activities at his stands. A Snohomish woman is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty last month to promoting prostitution at her coffee businesses. Carmela Panico, a former exotic dancer, made millions of dollars at Java Juggs and Twin Peaks. Her baristas admitted that they sold sex out of the stands.

Panico is expected to testify against former Snohomish County sheriff sergeant Darrell O’Neill at his trial early next year. O’Neill is accused of trading sex with Panico for information about undercover police investigations focused on her espresso stands.

Diana Hefley: 425- 339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dianahefley.

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