How Wonka Bars Cost Me £100K and Almost Sent Me to Prison
I lost hundreds of thousands of pounds because of Wonka Bars, but what I gained because of them is priceless.
More than a decade ago, I branched out in business and decided to open a sweet shop. We stocked over 3000 sweets from around the world, bringing treats from the likes of China, Australia and the United States to the streets of Liverpool.
Why Did We Stock Wonka Bars in the First Place?
Our vision was simple: to be the best sweet shop in the UK and give our customers exactly what they wanted.
Around this time, sweets from the US were immensely popular and one product that proved to be the most sought-after was Wonka Bars. Of course, we listened to our customers’ demands and found a supplier through eBay who could supply enough Wonka Bars to keep up with the demand.
It was surreal; customers screaming and shouting for the chocolate which was flying off the shelves as quickly as it was being couriered to the shop. There were no golden tickets packed in these bars and no incentive for the customers to buy them, but they just couldn’t get enough.
They bought upwards of 10 bars at a time, whilst children cried if we didn’t have the bars they wanted left in stock. It was like a scene from a movie. Thousands of bars were sold each month and the sweet shop was thriving as a result.
A Knock on the Door from Trading Standards
After a couple of months of crazy sales and happy customers, we received a knock on the door. It was Trading Standards.
“Mr O’Neill,” they said, “we have reason to believe that you are supplying counterfeit goods in the form of chocolate bars.”
I was dumfounded. We had been confident that our supplier was legitimate.
They seized our bars and informed us that whilst the chocolate was safe to eat, the manufacturer was making the bars whilst infringing copyright laws.
Our customers were disappointed, and our revenue dropped massively.
We were left in the dark; we tried to correspond with Trading Standards, we showed them our receipts and how and where we had purchased the products. We were open and transparent and had nothing to hide. How were we to know that the products infringed copyright?
Can you ‘Politely Decline’ Trading Standards?
I was then invited to attend an interview with Trading Standards, as a Director of the sweet shop, to discuss the matter further. As it was an invitation, and not a demand, I politely declined.
Despite having both my email address and contact number, Trading Standards decided to write to me demanding my attendance at interview and warning me that failure to attend would result in legal proceedings being commenced against me.
They sent the letter to an incorrect address.
As I hadn’t personally heard anything further, I thought the issue had been resolved and that they had accepted the evidence I had produced. I carried on as usual with the sweet shop, albeit without Wonka Bars, much to the chagrin of my customers.
A Warrant for My Arrest
Nine months later, I flew to Thailand for a rare and much needed holiday with one of my business partners. I was gone for three weeks and flew home the day before my birthday.
Tired from the long flight, we arrived back at Manchester Airport late in the evening and after collecting our bags, headed straight for security.
Airport security always unnerves me. I don’t know if it’s the armed police or the quiet, fixed stare of the staff as they clinically assess you and solemnly ask if you have anything to declare. I’m sure I’m not alone in always feeling like I do have something to hide even though I know that’s not the case.
I placed my passport in the hands of the Airport Security Officer, as was required, and he looked from the passport to my face and back to the passport again, before turning around and nodding to the police. My heart skipped a beat in my chest.
The police approached me and told me in no uncertain terms, “Mr O’Neill, there is a warrant out for your arrest. Come with us.”
I was in a state of shock. No-one would or could tell me why I had been arrested. I searched my brain to see if there was anything that this could possibly be related to as they took me to spend a night in a cold, damp cell in a police station in Manchester.
From A Holiday In Thailand to Manchester Cells
I awoke in that cell the next morning, which was my birthday. I had only the clothes I had slept in – which included a suit jacket complete with pocket square – and no means of letting people know where I was. I continued to wrack my brains to think of anything I could have done wrong that deserved arrest.
At 6am, I was taken and placed in a prison van. The Sergeant informed me I was being taken to Liverpool Magistrates’ Court. The journey would take over 4 hours, as there were multiple drops to differing Magistrates’ Courts first for other arrestees. I sat cuffed in my confined van cell, with barely the room to manoeuvre my elbows.
Some of the other men were screaming and swearing, shaking their cages, and calling the driver and officers every name under the sun. Meanwhile I sat quietly, dressed like Willy Wonka himself, and wishing I could have brushed my teeth.
A Court Hearing…Over Wonka Bars?
We arrived at Liverpool Magistrates Court around midday, still in the dark as to why there had been a warrant for my arrest. I thought of my parents and how they’d probably been calling me repeatedly to wish me a happy birthday.
At about 2pm, my name was called by an Officer. I don’t think I’ll ever forget her face. Nastiness seeped from her pores and she regarded me as if I was worthless. “Mr O’Neill, come with me,” she said. Her tone was condescending and her whole body seemed to grimace as she led the way through to the holding room. I sincerely believe she will live a miserable life.
I followed behind her. The handcuffs on my wrists felt like they were burning into my skin. The criminal life was not the life for me.
In the room was a Solicitor. I immediately asked him what I had been accused of. He began to read off a sheet. “In April…700 Wonka Bars were seized….”. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! I was here because of fucking WONKA BARS?! I asked if he was joking. This had to be a joke!
He regarded me and showed me the documentation showing that there was a warrant out for my arrest. Only, they’d sent it to the wrong address again.
The mistake made by Trading Standards meant that they had wasted police time, the court’s time, my time.
A Fight Against a Trading Standards Prosecutor
I was taken through to face a Prosecutor acting for Trading Standards. I tried to argue my point, stating time and time again that we had purchased the bars in good faith. The Prosecutor told me that my proof was worthless; it was my responsibility as a Director to exercise reasonable care, skill and diligence.
The prosecution did not accept my argument that I did not know that the bars were copyrighted, and instead suggested that I should have found out for myself. They were gunning for me.
I was told that if I were to admit my supposed crime, then I should expect to receive a fine of up to £5000.00 and a possible criminal record. If I decided not to admit, then the case would be reassigned to a higher court.
My solicitor told me to listen to the case being heard prior to mine so that I could get a feel for the Magistrate. The guy before me was absolutely walloped by the Magistrate, and so my nerves began to set in.
“Mr O’Neill,” she began, with a similar demeanour to the grimacing officer I’d had the misfortune of meeting earlier in the day, “You stand here accused of supplying illegal goods, goods which could have poisoned children”.
My mouth dropped open. I wasn’t permitted to interject; I had to stand there in the dock and listen to the Magistrate talk about how the chocolate I had sold in my sweet shop could have endangered the lives of kids.
It’s one thing to be accused of selling chocolate that infringed copyright; it’s another thing entirely to be accused of intentionally hurting kids. I’d gone from being Willy Wonka to Pennywise the clown in a single sentence.
“How do you plead, Mr O’Neill?”
I paused to inhale.
“Not guilty. Please refer my case to the Crown Court, Your Honour”.
“The Crown Court?” she said, with an incredulous look on her stern face, “that seems a little excessive for a case of this nature”.
I was not going to let one person decide my fate when I was adamant that I was innocent. I wanted a jury to decide.
I then spent over £20,000 on appointing a barrister and carrying out extensive research into the history of Wonka Bars and who actually owned their rights.
At the ninth hour, it transpired that Nestle did not want to be party to the proceedings and so Trading Standards came to us and asked if they pulled out, would we agree to walk away without pursuing them for costs.
We refused to agree; we were steadfast in our position. We had maintained our innocence from the outset and were confident. An hour before my trial was due to commence, Trading Standards pulled out.
I believe I am one of the few businessman to have taken Trading Standards on and won.
I lost hundreds of thousands of pounds because of Wonka Bar, but what I gained because of them is priceless.
To be able to gain knowledge is a gift of life and learning to me is a currency that will never suffer a drop in the market.
What Did I Learn?
From the Wonka Bars, I learnt that if you know you’re right, you should never back down. I learnt all about copyright laws. And most importantly, I learnt all about what makes Trading Standards tick, and to what extent Trading Standards are willing to go to accuse someone of a crime they have evidence they did not commit!