SAN JOSE, Calif. – Somewhere out there is a woman, dead or alive, who is missing a well-manicured finger about 1½ inches long.
Authorities know where the finger ended up — in a bowl of Wendy's (search) chili — but just who it belongs to is a mystery.
Anna Ayala's (search) claim that she bit down on the finger in a mouthful of her steamy stew on March 22 initially drew sympathy. But when police and health officials failed to find any missing digits among the workers involved in the restaurant's supply chain, suspicion fell on Ayala, and her story has become a late-night punch line.
"She went back there for lunch today — she's trying to collect all five," quipped David Letterman.
Jay Leno joked: "Instead of a spoon, they serve it with nail clippers."
For executives at Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy's International Inc., it is anything but funny.
Sales have dropped at franchises in Northern California, forcing layoffs and reduced hours, the company said. Wendy's also has hired private investigators, set up a hot line for tips and doubled its reward Friday to $100,000 for information leading to the finger's original owner.
"Our brand reputation has been affected nationally. We are determined to find out what really happened," said president and chief executive Tom Mueller (search). He said Wendy's employees have passed polygraph tests, and "there is no credible evidence that Wendy's is the source of the foreign object."
DNA tests are being done on the finger. A partial fingerprint failed to turn up a match in a national database.
Tips are coming in from across the country, from "folks who either have lost a finger, or know somebody who lost a finger," said San Jose police Sgt. Nick Muyo.
"Our goal is to find where that finger came from and who it came from. Is this an industrial accident, is this a homicide? Once you determine that, then we can start working backward."
Health officials said it is apparently a woman's finger, because of the long, manicured nail. But investigators will not say which finger on the hand it was.
The most curious turn yet led to a dead end this week, after the owner of a Texas animal refuge called Wendy's hot line to say she remembered seeing a leopard being kept as a pet bite the fingertip off a Nevada woman. The victim, Sandy Allman, lost the part of an index finger in February when she was bitten by a spotted leopard, one of several exotic pets she kept around her trailer in Pahrump, Nev., 60 miles from Las Vegas.
However, the sheriff there later cast doubt on the Pahrump connection after learning that Allman had lost a mere fingertip.
Ayala hired a lawyer and filed a claim against the Wendy's franchise owner, Fresno-based JEM Management. But after police searched her home in Las Vegas and continued to question her family, she dropped the lawsuit threat, saying the whole situation was just too stressful.
"Lies, lies, lies, that's all I am hearing," Ayala said after police started questioning her. "They should look at Wendy's. What are they hiding? Why are we being victimized again and again?"
As it turns out, Ayala has a litigious history. She has filed claims against several corporations, including a former employer and General Motors, though it is unclear from court records whether she received any money. She said she got $30,000 from El Pollo Loco after her 13-year-old daughter got sick at one of the chain's Las Vegas-area restaurants. El Pollo Loco officials say she did not get a dime.
The San Jose Police fraud unit joined Las Vegas police in the search of her home there, and officers have questioned her relatives. A family friend, Ken Bono, 24, said the warrant indicated police were looking for a cooler, a blue bag and "any family documents about anybody dead."
Ayala's sister Mary, who lives in San Jose but missed the fateful meal at Wendy's, has been outspoken in defense of her sister.
The police "wanted to know if I ever asked her, even jokingly, `Hey, did you do it?"' Mary Ayala said. "I said, `No, my sister wouldn't do that."' She added: "It's just a mess right now. Things are out of hand."
If police do obtain evidence that Ayala planted the finger, she could face charges of fraud, extortion or making false statements, legal experts said.
Back at the Wendy's where the chili was served, customers seem convinced the tale of the finger was a scam.
"There's too much in this country today with people trying to get things by conning them out of it. Wendy's has been good for years," said longtime customer 81-year-old Ralph Woodman. "How the hell would you get a finger into the pot without seeing it in there when you're stirring it? It had to be some sort of screwball ruse."