Michael Gilliland, ex-Sunflower CEO: Guilty plea for pandering after child-prostitution sting

In February 2011, Boulder-based Sunflower Farmers Market was still dealing with bad PR over the arrest of a New Mexico employee for allegedly putting semen in someone's yogurt when company CEO Michael Gilliland was busted on suspicion of child prostitution in an Arizona sting operation. A year and a half later, Gilliland has pleaded guilty, albeit to a lesser charge: attempted pandering.

The details of the case against Gilliland shared by the Arizona Republic provide a different perspective on the child-prostitution allegations.

According to the paper, Gilliland responded to a newspaper ad created by police in Phoenix. It read in part, "Sexy brunette available now 18. Hey boys, I am a very petite l'il lady only 4 foot 9!!" -- after which it added information about what the Republic refers to in relatively demure fashion as the fictional woman's "lewd specialty."

The ad included a phone number that Gilliland dialed. A recording of the conversation that followed reportedly featured an undercover detective telling him she was only seventeen, but would turn eighteen in a couple of months. That prompted Gilliland to ask, "Is it legal?" -- a question the detective deflected by asking if he was a cop. After he insisted that he wasn't, he headed to a hotel room, where he handed $100 to the detective, who was still claiming to be just seventeen, and asked for "straight sex."

Instead of the horizontal mambo, Gilliland got a pair of handcuffs, a mug shot, lots of embarrassing headlines and, presumably, a shove out the door at Sunflower. After noting in a press release that Gilliland had resigned "from his executive positions and from the company's board of directors," Chris Sherrell, who took over as acting CEO, stated, "Sunflower appreciates the respect that Mr. Gilliland has shown for the company by his action, so that his personal affairs will not affect the company."

The release added: "Mr. Gilliland was arrested Thursday by Phoenix police on felony charges. He has informed the company that he believes he is not guilty of the charges brought against him, and that he expects to be exonerated."

Not quite. His guilty plea to attempted pandering will still net him five months in jail, according to the Republic, as well as supervised probation for what's described as "an unspecified period."

As for whether Gilliland's action had an impact on his business, note that this past March, Sunflower was acquired by Arizona-based Sprouts Farmers Market.

Granted, this deal very well might have gone down whether Gilliland had been given a post-arrest heave-ho or not, especially given the volatility of the grocery business. Note that he was involved in several other markets prior to starting up Sunflower, including one called Lolita's -- a name that recalls Lolita, the Vladimir Nabokov novel about a man obsessed with a girl not yet of age.

Of course, Nabokov's Lolita was just eleven when protagonist Humbert Humbert met her -- and that's a lot more than two months shy of eighteen.

Here's a larger look at Gilliland's booking photo:

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Today in irony: One of Michael Gilliland's first Boulder groceries was named Lolita's."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts