Sexpresso Operator's Disappearance a Mystery

His son suspects his dad's wife--or is it ex-wife?--had him killed.

As the owner of a chain of sexpresso coffee stands, a regular at nude dance clubs, and a man married five times to four wives, Bill Wheeler just might have to admit he was a womanizer. When it came to the ladies, his sister Pat Thurbush says, "Bill just had no brains. These women could talk him into anything, then turn around and blackmail him. He was looking for love and never found it." Now no one can find him. As far as anyone seems to know, or is willing to admit, Bill the woman's man has fallen off the face of the earth—or deep into it. By sunset on Wednesday, May 26, 2010, the man who became infamous for mixing lust with his lattes no longer seemed to exist. Somewhere under a darkening Nevada sky, he suddenly went missing. Wheeler arrived at Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport around 10 that morning, with the city already approaching 70 degrees. He lived two lives—one as proprietor of an Everett background-investigations agency and five Grab-N-Go coffee stands that were busted for prostitution in Snohomish County, and another as a distant husband to a wife in Vegas, where he ran a few businesses and owned two homes. Wheeler's brother-in-law, Mark Tetzlaff, picked him up at the airport about 10:15 and drove to Wheeler's wife's home in Spring Valley, west of the Vegas Strip. En route, as Tetzlaff remembers it, Wheeler talked on the phone to his wife, Carol Wheeler, who was off somewhere in town with their adopted son—who was also Bill's hereditary grandson. Wheeler owned the four-bedroom, $730,000 cul-de-sac home off Pioneer Avenue where Carol, 56, lived with the adopted grandson, 8, and her own two grown sons. Attracted by Vegas' weather and sinful allure, Wheeler had established a branch of his Everett background-checking agency there a decade earlier, and operated a sexpresso stand that eventually went tits up. Of the two Vegas homes he invested in, the Pioneer Avenue residence was understood to be Carol's, who preferred the Nevada life. Bill Wheeler had married, divorced, and remarried her, then apparently discovered happiness by living 1,200 miles away from her. Tetzlaff and Wheeler went to the garage and began working on a white Mercedes Bill stored there and was thinking of driving back to Seattle. Friends and family say it was Wheeler's intention to relocate his vehicles and other assets to Everett as part of a plan to divorce Carol—though he hadn't told Carol yet. The sedan wouldn't start, but Wheeler was able to fire up another stored vehicle, a tan 2003 Toyota Tundra. Tetzlaff eventually left for work, and Carol arrived later. She would tell police and friends that she and Bill talked amiably about money and family issues, then he left. At his second home, a vacant four-bedroom rental a few miles away off West Tropicana Avenue, Wheeler loaded a $15,000 espresso machine onto the Tundra's bed. He had salvaged the machine from the failed Vegas stand and planned to install it at a new sexpresso outlet in Snohomish County, he told friends. Sometime that night, Wheeler, his truck, and his coffee machine supposedly left for Seattle. It's unclear which route he took, but it turned out to be a road to oblivion. Three days later, along Quarry Road outside Victorville, California, about a mile off I-15 between Vegas and Los Angeles, Wheeler's Tundra was found sitting in the desert sun, a burned-out hulk. Its windows were blown out from heat that turned the tan truck a scorched gray. The charred espresso machine was still in the truck's bed, where a flammable substance had been used to start the fire. There was no sign of Bill Wheeler or his remains. It took only a few days for his family to divide into two camps: Half thought Wheeler was dead, half thought he ran away. He could be pardoned for disappearing, if that is the case. Deep in debt, Wheeler was about to lose the two Vegas homes and a third in Snohomish County for failing to keep up mortgage payments. In Snohomish County, five of his baristas were facing charges of prostitution after their arrests in late 2008. Police said they allowed customers to photograph them nude and touch their breasts from the drive-up lane. Wheeler's love life was also in typical disarray. He supported his wife, gave money to an ex-wife in California—who was under the impression she was still married to Bill—and was courting one of his baristas, whom he sometimes referred to as "my fiancee." Some of his wives and progeny were already feuding over who owned what, and his disappearance would spark a new round of property battles and dueling last-will-and-testaments. But is Bill Wheeler alive to sit back and enjoy all this from afar? Is he, as some believe, ensconced in a sunny villa overlooking white Caribbean beaches, piña colada in hand, living a third life as a wealthy playboy? "Puerto Rico is where he was sending all his money," claims Tetzlaff, who is running Wheeler's Snohomish County businesses, taken over by Carol within days of Bill's disappearance. "I think he's got a stash there." Both the FBI and IRS are looking into the possibility Wheeler has hidden a small fortune in offshore accounts. But, says Treasury agent Roberto Ustaris, who is on Wheeler's trail, "I'm not authorized to discuss any details." If Wheeler's disappearance was staged, it deserves a Tony for chutzpah. He did not let anyone in on his presumed plans, saying only that he was going to Vegas for a few days to pick up the espresso machine and return. Besides expanding his coffee business, he was preparing to open a used-car lot in Snohomish County. He had surgery scheduled in a few weeks for testicular cancer; missing it could endanger his health, if not his life. He had not used his charge card since he bought his Seattle–Vegas one-way plane ticket, not even to gas up the Tundra that had been sitting in the Nevada garage. By torching his truck and espresso machine in California, he would knowingly blow off $30,000 in assets. That's out of character for Wheeler, says his sister, who has lined up against Carol and her brother, Tetzlaff. "He just wouldn't disappear without saying goodbye to his family. He just wouldn't," says Thurbush, who thinks Carol is behind Bill's disappearance. "My brother is dead. We just haven't found his body yet." At least two of Bill's children second that. With Carol as their person of interest, they've become part-time sleuths, tracking down any sort of lead, including a blood-like carpet stain in Vegas, the bashed-in walls at Bill's rental house, and a letter sent to a Seattle radio station, purportedly by Bill, claiming he was alive and well. They're compiling evidence, consulting with psychics, and enlisting the help of cadaver dogs. The hunt is on.  Mark Tetzlaff says he got along with Wheeler, who dyed his gray hair brown to look younger than his 51 years. But deep down Tetzlaff despised him. "He's a pervert," Tetzlaff said more than once in a recent interview. "He was a regular at Honey's," Tetzlaff adds, referring to the now-razed Snohomish County strip club once owned by the late Frank Colacurcio. Wheeler, a chunky 5´9 with thinning hair and a small tattoo of a devil on his left forearm, devoted much of his adult life to employing, courting, or marrying women. He spent a lot of time on the road in his earlier years, running a small background agency out of his garage that performed employment and rental-applicant investigations. He liked Vegas for its sun and urban wildlife. After he opened an agency branch there, he was inspired by a Vegas fad: bikini-barista coffee stands. He opened one near the Strip, then drowned in a saturated market. Everett, however, proved more fertile ground. "He was going to go with something more traditional at first," says his son, Bill Wheeler Jr. "I told him, 'You need to do a theme.' The bikini theme was the only one he knew." Wheeler Sr. began buying up espresso machines, renting locations, and hiring a staff of underdressed coffee-stand girls to treat drive-up customers to a hint of T and a flash of A. "I brought a little bit of Vegas back to Washington," he said in a press release he issued after opening his first local bikini-barista stand in 2007. His finances suffered from chronic cash-flow interruptions and lawsuits, but almost immediately the revenue from serving cleavage and coffee helped him stay apace of process servers and support payments. "If he didn't have the stands, he couldn't keep his other [background-check] business open," says Thurbush. Family members and some baristas agree that even though money rolled in, the stands were poorly managed by Wheeler, who allowed the girls to get ever more daring—exposing their breasts and bottoms—because it meant more revenue. Some of his hires had drug problems, as did he, sometimes overindulging in the OxyContin he used to lessen the pain resulting from his chemotherapy, allege two employees and a family member who asked to remain nameless. Wheeler was also paying too much attention to the young women he hired, some of them teens, says Thurbush. "He wasn't having sex with his wife or ex-wives," she says. "He took a lot of women with him on trips to Vegas." When a blog post appeared on The Daily Weekly (seattleweekly.com/dailyweekly) in July concerning Wheeler's disappearance, employees and family members went at it in the comments section. One former worker claimed she was raped by Wheeler (he was never charged with any such crime), and another said he doled out "oxys" to employees when he was short of cash (his son says that's untrue; his father rarely used OxyContin, and only because he had a bad stomach). He was reviled as a "scumbag" by some, but celebrated by others as a "nice guy." Tetzlaff cleaned house when Carol took over the coffee stands, firing almost a dozen baristas. He issued a public apology in a letter sent to The Herald of Everett, stating the family was sorry "for all the community has had to endure in the past," and announcing a ban on drug use and nudity by employees. He also put a stop to the "explicit dancing" that led to the arrest of five baristas last year after they charged up to $80 a latte, a price that could include full-frontal nudity and a two-girl show (whipped cream extra—really). Prosecutors said the women, aged 18 to 24, were captured in police photos posing naked, sometimes crouching in the stand's window for a full-on shot. Four of the five negotiated delayed prosecution for prostitution, and will have the charges dropped if they're trouble-free for two years. The fifth did 20 days of home detention on a reduced charge of working without an adult-entertainment license. Wheeler was not charged, but he was outraged. He felt he was being attacked by cops with nothing better to do, and bullied by "a bunch of church groups," he said in a statement. The prosecutions and the rewriting of city conduct laws cut his business by 80 percent. City of Everett spokesperson Kate Reardon says the laws were updated to include the coffee stands as public places. Lewd conduct isn't allowed, but bikinis and lingerie still are. Lori Bowden, owner of Everett's Cowgirls Espresso, says her bikini stand preceded Wheeler's, and remains in business because she's always followed the law. In fact, Cowgirls is one of 10 bikini stands in the Everett area able to do business without breaking the law. According to business listings on bikini-baristas.com, 58 owners run more than 100 bikini stands in the Seattle/Tacoma region. Despite Bill Wheeler, the fad is not dead. But is Bill Wheeler?  Besides his family and the feds, authorities in three states are looking for Wheeler. None will say much about any progress, or whether they may be probing a possible homicide. Officially, says Snohomish County Sheriff's spokesperson Rebecca Hoover, Wheeler's is a missing-person case. Foul play hasn't been ruled in or out, and the torched truck serves most any theory: Bill's killer(s) burned it to destroy evidence of a crime, for example, or Bill burned it to make it look like a crime. Investigators indicate they have questions about what Carol and others told them regarding Wheeler's last moments. "None of their stories of his disappearance coincide with telephone reports or neighbors' testimony," they say, according to a new report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice's Missing Persons System, filed jointly by authorities in Snohomish County, California, and Las Vegas, where almost 1,000 Sin City visitors, runaways, and busted gamblers are reported missing each month. Most are soon found, some merely broke and wandering the neon streets. But vanishing citizens are a major problem in Vegas, according to a police spokesperson, who says Vegas may have the only missing-persons cold-case unit in the U.S.—one overwhelmed detective going through 600 unsolved cases. That's the unit where, if not solved soon, Wheeler's case could end up. Bill Jr. expects a break in the probe, however. He has spoken with police in all three jurisdictions, and says authorities suspect his father was murdered. "That's where the evidence is taking them," he says. Dana Fitzpatrick, a friend of Bill Sr. who worked at one of his coffee shacks, believes Wheeler is a crime victim. The day he left, says Fitzpatrick, "he told me he had to go to Vegas for a short business trip, and that he would be returning Saturday [four days later] to go to Chelan with Michelle," his girlfriend/fiancee. He'd also given Fitzpatrick the impression, over time, that he and Carol were not friendly. He showed her and other employees a picture of Carol, Fitzpatrick says, and "told us that this woman is not to be allowed anywhere near his businesses." Wheeler, who fancied designer clothes, was wearing slacks and a blue long-sleeved shirt when last seen. He was likely attired in cowboy boots and sporting a gold neck chain with a medallion of St. Michael, protective saint of, among others, cops. "Phone records indicate he checked his phone records before going to his estranged wife immediately after landing," the Justice Department report states. "[Wheeler] told his sister he would call her once he left Carol's house, and never called." Thurbush, who lives in Tennessee, can't get past that. "He had to be already dead to not call," she says. "If he said he'd call, he'd call."  Wheeler was the youngest of nine siblings, and he and Thurbush were close growing up in Chicago, she says. He first got married as a teenager, she recalls, a relationship that ended not long after his wife gave birth to twins, whom he gave up. "That was the beginning of a messed-up life with women," says his sister. "He was looking for someone like his mother, someone who cooked and cleaned and was happy with that. He was looking for that kind of a person, and he didn't find her." Wheeler did a stint in the service, worked for Sears, and met his second wife, whose parents were from Washington, where the newlyweds relocated. That marriage, which produced three children, failed as well, in 1993. A few years later, Wheeler met and married Carol, a divorcee five years older with two kids. They were divorced in 1999 after Bill became interested in another woman, Rebecca Lee Jordan. In an interview, Rebecca Wheeler says she filed the papers for Bill's divorce from Carol. Rebecca and Bill then married in April 2000. They divorced in 2001. This time, Carol filed the papers for Bill's divorce from Rebecca. Bill's sister confirms that. "I was there at the time," Thurbush says. "We were in the car and Carol had the papers with her. We went to the courthouse and Carol filed them. Rebecca was supposed to sign them. I don't know who signed them." The papers are indeed on file, with what appear to be Bill's and Rebecca's signatures. But Rebecca, who now lives in California, was surprised to hear that. She thought she was still married to Bill, and claims to be unaware of the divorce action. "That woman is ruthless!" she says of Carol. But is Carol married to Bill today? Rebecca doesn't believe so, and neither do other members of the family. Yet there is indeed a certificate of Carol's second marriage to Wheeler, issued by the state of Hawaii. It was provided to the Weekly by Carol's brother, Tetzlaff, and shows the two were remarried Sept. 26, 2003, at Waialae Park in Honolulu. Tetzlaff also provided a 2009 insurance policy that describes Bill and Carol as married, and a floral card to Carol, from last February, that accompanied a bouquet from Bill. "Happy Valentine's Day to a wonderful mother and wife!" it says. Barbara Wheeler Meadows and Bill Jr.—Bill Sr.'s daughter and son from his second marriage—dispute the authenticity of the remarriage and plan a court challenge to Carol's claims on their father's businesses. They also believe Carol is involved in Bill's disappearance. "I have no doubt she did something to my father," Bill Jr. says in a sworn court statement, a claim repeated in an interview. "She is motivated by greed and money." Carol Wheeler calls her stepson a liar and "a very revengeful young man." She and Bill Jr. have never been friendly. But with Bill Sr. missing, she is now the sole legal parent of Bill Jr.'s 8-year-old son. The boy was adopted by Bill Sr., with Carol's backing, in 2004, while Bill Jr. was in the Air Force (Bill Jr.'s ex-wife agreed to give up the child). Bill Jr. later contested the adoption, contending his father forged his (Bill Jr.'s) signature on court papers. But the adoption was upheld. Bill Jr. and Carol have already gone to court in Snohomish County since Bill's disappearance, each seeking a protection order against the other. Both actions were eventually dismissed. Carol claimed Bill Jr. had been tailing and watching her after she came to Everett to take over Bill's businesses (she has since renamed the Grab-N-Go coffee stands Carol's Espresso). "He has always had a hatred for me since his father adopted my two sons, making him no longer the oldest," she says of Bill Jr. in court papers, adding: "My 8-year-old is afraid of him for threatening to put him in his [car] trunk." Bill Jr. says that's simply untrue, and that Carol has poisoned his son against him. He says Bill planned to divorce Carol to marry his barista fiancee, which could have left Carol in the financial cold. He suspects Carol forged Bill's signature on documents she used to establish her claim to his businesses and properties, which he claims Bill wanted his children to have. Carol Wheeler did not respond to requests to comment for this story, but her brother and business partner Tetzlaff says he speaks for her. He calls Bill Jr.'s claims bunk, and provides copies of notarized documents signed by Bill Dwayne Wheeler Sr. in 2005, giving Carol power of attorney and bequeathing to her, "my spouse, all of my property, both real and personal." In the event that Carol predeceases him, the will states, his property should be shared by his attorney and various children. But not Bill Jr. "I specifically desire that my son, Bill Dwayne Wheeler Jr., receive nothing whatsoever from my estate," the will reads. Bill Sr. may have still been sore at his son for challenging the grandson's adoption. But Bill Jr. can't believe his father wanted to write him off. He points to an earlier will, on file in Snohomish County Superior Court, signed in 2002. It leaves everything to Bill Sr.'s children, including Bill Jr., and some other relatives—but Carol is not mentioned. Junior says his father wanted him to share in his businesses, and left him in charge before flying to Vegas. "My dad had no reason to run," says the son. "He was behind on bills, but he always was behind on bills, and he always paid up. His patterns were very consistent." Tetzlaff, in an interview outside the offices of Nation Wide Investigation Service, a background-check agency on Broadway in south Everett next to one of Carol's coffee stands, says neither he nor Carol hired anyone to kill Bill. "Carol isn't going to give them any money," he says, referring to Bill's kids and sister. "That's why they say she killed him." Tetzlaff claims to have found papers in Wheeler's office which indicate Bill funneled funds to offshore accounts, though Tetzlaff wouldn't specify amounts and locations, other than to speculate that Wheeler is in Puerto Rico. "He's got a shitload of money stashed somewhere," Tetzlaff says, adding that Wheeler's businesses provided a good income, but Bill mismanaged them. Snohomish County court records show recent civil judgments against Wheeler totaling close to $100,000, including a $42,000 tab for defaulting on a personal loan. He also lost his three homes to the banks around the time of his disappearance, and the taxman frequently cometh. "I just paid $50,000 he owed in back taxes," says Tetzlaff. "There's more."  So is Bill Wheeler dead? No, insists his brother-in-law. "He was running away from his life, his debts," Tetzlaff ventures. "The IRS has been all over this office. They're looking for him, too, along with the FBI." Yet Bill didn't say goodbye to friends and family. He left no clues to indicate he was heading off to wonderland. Then there's the burned truck. "Well," says Tetzlaff, "if I wanted to, that's how I'd do it." Bill Jr., 27, is certain that's not how his father did it. The son says he had law-enforcement experience in the military, and has opened a background-check firm, Sentry Investigation Services, like the one his father ran. He also opened his own espresso stand in the Everett Mall area, which he calls Grab-N-Go, like his father's. Wheeler's son spends a good part of his time tracing his father's final footsteps, starting with his 8 a.m. departure May 26 from Sea-Tac after parking his Chevy Avalanche in the airport garage. Though if he really planned to drive back from Vegas to Everett in another vehicle, wouldn't it have made more sense to take a cab or hire a van to the Seattle airport? (His son says Bill didn't like public transportation, but didn't know what Bill's plans were for retrieving the Chevy.) After arriving in Vegas, Bill made five calls to his espresso stands in Snohomish to check in, starting at 10:10 a.m., according to cell-phone records obtained by Bill Jr. and turned over to investigators. Senior made no other calls after 10:32 a.m. that day, and no incoming or outgoing calls were logged over the next two days. On May 29, according to the records, the phone was malfunctioning. What appeared to be the elements of a cell phone were found that day in Bill's burned-out truck. Bill Jr. has visited the last place his father was thought to have been, the vacant rental house in Vegas where the espresso machine was stored. Accompanied by Las Vegas police, Junior took pictures of a red-stained carpet and gaping holes that appeared to have been smashed in the walls. Several bottles of bleach were on a countertop. The door was left unlocked. To him, it looks like a crime scene. "I think that's where he was killed," says Junior. Las Vegas police will not comment. Tetzlaff says the stain is from an earlier ink spill, and the house had been left in poor shape by renters. Bill Jr. and his sister Barbara also paid to have cadaver dogs scour the California desert area where their father's truck was discovered, looking for Bill's remains. That search proved fruitless, however. Anthony Valencia, a detective with the San Bernardino Sheriff's Office, says "The dogs recently searched a wide area around where the truck was found. They didn't find anything. No body." The search was aided somewhat by psychics on psychiccrimefighter.com, who reported visions of Bill's whereabouts, responding to pleas for help from Bill Jr. and his sister. "He has passed. I am sorry," wrote one. "Bullets, something very black and white (penguin?). He knows who did this to him and was very familiar with them. Male and female energies are involved." The son also checked out an untraceable letter that arrived July 30 at The Ron & Don Show on KIRO-FM, apparently responding to the hosts' earlier discussions about whether Wheeler was alive. Yes, he was, said the letter purporting to be from Wheeler, claiming he was lying low in Nevada with a friend until the heat was off. He was thankful his disappearance had been nudged out of the headlines by Colton Harris-Moore, the fugitive Camano Island "barefoot bandit" who was being sought nationwide, allowing "my story [to] die a Natural Death." He said he missed "Everett and my Girls, but Not That Much, if you know what I'm saying!" The signature, says Bill Jr., did not match his father's handwriting. As for Puerto Rico and the offshore accounts, Bill Jr. says he went through his father's office papers before Carol and her brother-in-law arrived in Everett. Unlike Tetzlaff, Bill Jr. says he found no indication of offshore accounts. "There were no money transfers, no money trail to suggest he was planning to run and hide somewhere," says the son. Thus, for now, Bill Wheeler's existence, or lack of, is a he-said/she-said riddle. "It doesn't sound right that a man disappears like that—a man you know the way I know Bill," says Thurbush. "He would have told me, 'Sis, I'm going to take off.' "I just wish they'd find his body, that's all, so I can bury my brother." randerson@seattleweekly.com Additional reporting by Vernal Coleman.

 
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