Police investigating how a human finger ended up in a woman's bowl of Wendy's chili declared the claim a hoax after she was arrested on charges of attempted grand larceny.
The arrest of Anna Ayala at her home outside Las Vegas was the latest twist in a case that has become a late-night punch line, taken a bite out of Wendy's sales and forced the fast-food chain to check its employees for missing fingers.
She was accused of attempted grand larceny because of the financial losses Wendy's restaurants have suffered since Ayala made the claim. The loss to Wendy's in the Bay area is US$2.5 million, according to the felony complaint against her.
Ayala, 39, claimed she bit down on the well-manicured, 4cm-long finger in a mouthful of her steamy chili on March 22 in San Jose. She had hired a lawyer and filed a claim against the Wendy's franchise owner, but dropped the lawsuit threat soon after suspicion fell on her.
When asked whether police considered Ayala's claim a hoax, David Keneller, captain of the San Jose police department's investigations bureau, said yes.
"Our evidence suggests the truest victims in this case are indeed the Wendy's owner, operators and employees here in San Jose," Police Chief Rob Davis said.
At a news conference Friday, police refused to say where the finger originated and exactly how the hoax was carried out.
Ayala -- who has a history of bringing claims against big corporations -- has denied placing the finger in the chili. She is being held in Las Vegas after her arrest Thursday.
According to a person knowledgeable about the case who spoke on condition of anonymity, the charge stemmed from San Jose police interviews with people who said Ayala described putting a finger in the chili. The source said the interviews were with at least two people who did not know each other and independently told similar stories.
The criminal complaint also sheds more light on the incident at the restaurant in San Jose, where Ayala was visiting relatives.
None of Ayala's family members saw the finger fragment in her mouth, noticing it only after Ayala pointed to the object in the bottom of her chili cup, according to the document. She told a brother-in-law that she had spit it out.
Her father-in-law and mother-in-law told police they saw Ayala throw up, but there was no such evidence at the scene, the complaint says.
The Santa Clara County coroner's office also concluded that the finger "was not consistent with an object that had been cooked in chili at 170?F for three hours."
During the investigation, police and health officials failed to find any missing fingers among the workers in the restaurant's supply chain. Wendy's hired private investigators, set up a hot line for tips and offered a US$100,000 reward for information leading to the finger's original owner. Employees who were working that day at the restaurant also passed lie-detector tests administered by police, the complaint says.
The furor caused sales at Wendy's to drop, forcing layoffs and reduced hours in Northern California. Joseph Desmond, owner of the local Wendy's franchise, called the ordeal a nightmare.
"It's been 31 days, and believe me it's been really tough," he said. "My thanks also go out to all the little people who were hurt in our stores. They lost a lot of wages because we had to cut back because our business has been down so badly."