Sex and coffee? That may seem an improbable combination, like love and sodium pentothal. But here in caffeine-sloshed Seattleland, mixing nudity with a cuppa joe has turned the bikini-barista trade into cash-happy enterprises and led to a string of crimes including assault, arson, prostitution, and money laundering. One former owner is even thought to have been murdered.
Imagine if late Seattle mobster Frank Colacurcio had opened a string of drive-up nudie coffee huts instead of expensive strip joints. At one point, so much cash came into his Seattle, Shoreline, Everett, and Tacoma club tills, he had to rent a house to store it in. How much could he have made with a low-overhead chain of Frank’s Jittery Jugs?
No need to imagine. Carmela Panico, one of Frank’s protégés, did go into the low-rent java-strip business in 2008. And in the past three years, prosecutors revealed last week, the 52-year-old former stripper deposited more than $2 million into her financial accounts.
The baristas at her eight Java Juggs coffee-and-nudity stands—most lining Highway 99 between Seattle and Everett—pulled down good money as well. The scantily clad baristas flashed for tips from customers who regularly paid $20 for a $6 coffee. Employees at one stand performed on a stripper’s pole; others sometimes had sex with customers. Several women reported earnings of $15,000 to $30,000 a month; one barista said she earned half a million dollars in recent years.
Though Panico didn’t need an extra house to store her money, investigators did confiscate $250,000 during a raid at her Snohomish home, some of which she stashed as literally cold cash. According to the Herald of Everett, our sister paper, “Her bankers told police that the money often had a foul smell, and that Panico told them it was because ‘she maintained these denominations in her freezer at home with fish.’ ”
Panico, who has sold off or is leasing some of the stands now that she’s under indictment, is set to be arraigned this week in Snohomish County Superior Court on charges of money laundering and promoting prostitution. In the same courthouse next month, another bikini-barista entrepreneur, Bill Wheeler Jr., whose father is missing and presumed murdered, will appear to face a likely prison sentence for felony sexual exploitation of a minor.
“This was all part of him making money and increasing his sales,” said deputy prosecutor Jarett Goodkin. Wheeler’s baristas worked strictly for tips, keeping anything beyond the $300 that the owner required be in the register at the end of weekday shifts and $150 on weekends, prosecutors said.
It’s unclear whether Wheeler made the kind of money Panico did. But he stepped into the business after his father, coffee-stand founder Bill Wheeler Sr., disappeared in 2010, a year after five of the elder Wheeler’s baristas were arrested for prostitution. As we reported earlier [“Nowhere Man,” Dec. 1, 2010], Wheeler Sr., a womanizer married five times to four wives, was a millionaire who owned at least three homes but struggled with heavy debts. He was last seen alive in Las Vegas before his burned-out truck was found in the desert off the highway to Los Angeles four years ago. His sister, Pat Thurbush, told me she thought Wheeler had been murdered. “My brother is dead,” she said. “We just haven’t found his body yet.”
Wheeler Jr.’s criminal defense attorney, John Henry Browne of Seattle, tells me “I took this case because it smacked of the morality police.” A 10-day trial and an investigation/prosecution that reportedly cost almost a half-million dollars led to Wheeler’s conviction for “inviting or causing” a 16-year-old girl to flash customers and earn larger drink tips.
Browne, who is finishing a memoir about his career as a defender of clients ranging from serial killer Ted Bundy and “Barefoot Bandit” Colton Harris-Moore to Afghanistan mass murderer Sgt. Robert Bales, essentially put forward no defense for Wheeler.
“We did not put on a case, which is not unusual,” Browne says. “As a matter of fact, I rarely lose a case if I rest. Bill’s testimony would have been problematic, as he did run the stands and there were videos of ‘shows’ being performed by his workers.”
But by waiving his opening statement and offering no testimony, Browne has a much better chance of winning on appeal, he says. Prosecutors offered a plea bargain of one year in jail that “in hindsight maybe was a good idea,” he says, but his client wouldn’t accept it. Wheeler now faces more than three years in prison.
As for Panico, her attorney once represented Colacurcio in his many court appearances. And she was investigated with the help of the FBI, which agreed to get involved because of her former affiliation with the stripper king. His experiences may have helped make her a millionaire like him, but the accused madam of the coffee stands presumably hopes the similarity to the sex impresario ends there—he went to prison eight times.
Rick Anderson writes about sex, crime, money, and politics, which tend to be the same thing. His new book is Floating Feet: Irregular Dispatches From the Emerald City.