Consider Wally the Beer Man free.
A Hennepin County jury on Tuesday morning acquitted longtime stadium beer hawker Walter McNeil of charges that he sold alcohol to a minor during a sting last fall.
However, it's uncertain if his familiar "Cold beer here!" will echo again across Target Field.
After about five hours of deliberation Monday and Tuesday, a jury of two men and four women agreed that the popular 76-year-old vendor was tricked Sept. 30 when he sold a Michelob to a 19-year-old decoy working for Minneapolis police. Although seven other vendors were cited in the sting, McNeil's drew the most attention; fans wore "Free Wally" T-shirts and started Twitter feeds and Facebook pages that gained thousands of followers.
The acquittal does not mean McNeil is automatically entitled to return to work at Target Field. Asked whether he'd like to go back, McNeil said, "Don't quote me on anything yet."
The same jury convicted McNeil's co-defendant, Ed Stepnick, 52. The two turned down plea deals and stood trial together.
Stepnick testified that he looked at decoy Whitney Daniels' birthdate on her identification and thought she was 21. In fact, the birth date was that of an 18-year-old.
McNeil testified he did not ask decoy Anthony Pasquale for identification but asked him his age. He said Pasquale told him he was 21. Pasquale testified that McNeil didn't ask for identification and didn't ask Pasquale's age, which was 19.
McNeil's attorney, Peter Wold, called the acquittal "a promising sign for baseball in Minnesota." However, he said there is no certainty that McNeil's employer, Delaware North, will hire him back. The company did not respond to requests for comment.
"I'll expect to see him there," Wold said after the verdict.
Minneapolis city prosecutor Judd Gushwa declined to comment afterward, but Martha Holton Dimick, deputy of the criminal division for the city attorney's office, said in a statement later: "While we are disappointed that we received a guilty verdict in only one of these two cases, we respect the jury's decision. Underage drinking is a serious issue that too often brings tragic consequences, and that's why law enforcement and prosecutors work hard to keep alcohol out of the hands of minors."
District Judge Peter Cahill sentenced Stepnick to pay a $300 fine and $78 surcharge. The judge also reduced the conviction to a petty misdemeanor, the equivalent of a traffic ticket. Cahill noted that Stepnick may have had a "bad night" because when cited he was waiting to hear whether he had cancer [he later learned he did not]. Cahill also noted that Stepnick, a machinist who for more than two decades worked as a beer vendor at night, had no criminal record.
"Life goes on," said Stepnick after the trial. He will no longer be able to sell beer at Target Field but continues to work as a vendor for the Minnesota Vikings. Asked whether he was frustrated to receive a conviction while his friend was acquitted, he only shrugged.
"I wasn't in the jury room," he said. "I don't know what happened."
One juror, who did not want to be identified, said the jury sided with arguments that McNeil was entrapped, and they believed Stepnick simply erred in figuring the decoy's age. They based their decision strictly on testimony, he said, adding that the acquittal had nothing to do with McNeil's celebrity.
The juror said they doubted the credibility of Pasquale, a college student and aspiring police officer, because on the witness stand he seemed too well-rehearsed or coached.
McNeil has carried beer up and down the steps of Minnesota sports venues for 41 years. He's given away baseball cards with his picture on them and been the subject of countless profile stories.
McNeil was adamant after the verdict that he violated no policy when he relied on Pasquale's word that he was 21 rather than asking for his identification.
"The policy is you've got to use your judgment in a crowd of 40,000 people," he said. "You've seen me at the ballpark; how many people come around me? I have to use some of my judgment after 41 years."
He wouldn't say whether he felt vindicated or whether his experience will change the way he does business. "I haven't learned anything yet," McNeil said. "We had to cross this bridge first."
Abby Simons • 612-332-2145