Bikini espresso sexual exploitation trial begins

EVERETT — Trial began Wednesday for a man accused of encouraging an underage barista to engage in sex shows at his two Everett espresso stands.

Jurors were told that Bill Wheeler Jr., who owned the Grab N Go stands, engaged in criminal conduct to further his “desire to make money even at the expense of a 16-year-old girl.” Wheeler, 31, is charged with sexual exploitation of a minor, a felony.

It is one of the first attempts by Snohomish County investigators to prosecute one of the owners of the controversial bikini espresso stands.

Prosecutors allege that Wheeler knew the teen barista was underage and was aware that his employees were engaged in illegal sex shows. The defendant routinely reviewed video surveillance from the stands, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Jarett Goodkin said Wednesday. Wheeler could review the footage from his cellphone. Detectives also found photographs of the baristas, including of the teen, on Wheeler’s phone, Goodkin said.

Wheeler’s attorney John Henry Browne opted not to give an opening statement on Wednesday, saying he was waiting until after the state presents its case.

Browne previously moved to have the charge dismissed, saying that the cops had no direct proof that the girl engaged in sexually explicit conduct, and if that happened on the job, it wasn’t under Wheeler’s instruction.

To convict Wheeler as charged, prosecutors will need to prove he “aided, invited, employed, authorized and caused” the teen to engage in sexually explicit conduct, knowing that her behavior would be part of a live show or would be photographed.

Everett police last year launched an investigation of Wheeler’s stands, one on SE Everett Mall Way and one on Broadway, after receiving complaints from passing motorists. The undercover operation turned up evidence that the baristas were exposing their breasts and genitals in exchange for tips, court papers said.

Everett police arrested the 16-year-old and other baristas in February 2013 for alleged lewd conduct and violations of the city’s adult cabaret laws.

The baristas told investigators that they weren’t paid an hourly wage. 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.

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.

Meanwhile a Snohomish woman remains under investigation for activities at her multiple stands. Investigators say baristas engaged in sex shows and prostitution at Carmela Panico’s coffee huts. The former nude dancer reportedly made more than $1 million a year off her espresso stands, court papers said.

Former Snohomish County sheriff’s Sgt. Darrell O’Neill was arrested in connection with the investigation at Java Juggs. He is accused of warning baristas when the stands were targeted by undercover police operations. He reportedly was given sex in exchange for his help.

O’Neill, who resigned after his arrest, has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges.

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

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