To a dessert shop customer, the severed fingertip found in a pint of frozen custard could be worth big dollars in a potential lawsuit. To the shop worker who lost it, the value is far more than monetary.

But Clarence Stowers (search) still has the digit, refusing to return the evidence so it could be reattached. And now it's too late for doctors to do anything for 23-year-old Brandon Fizer (search).

"I'm not saying who has it, but somebody has it," Stowers said this week in a telephone interview, refusing to let on where the fingertip is now.

Soon after Stowers found the finger in a mouthful of chocolate soft-serve he bought Sunday at Kohl's (search) Frozen Custard in Wilmington, he put it in his freezer at home, taking it out only occasionally to show to television cameras.

He refused to give it to the shop's owner and refused to give it to a doctor. Fizer accidentally stuck his hand in a mixing machine and had his right index finger lopped off at the first knuckle.

Medical experts say an attempt to reattach a severed finger can generally be made within six hours.

But according to the shop's management, Stowers wouldn't give it back when he was in the store 30 minutes after the accident.

"The general manager attempted to retrieve it and rush it to the hospital," reads a statement posted Thursday on Kohl's Web site. "Unfortunately, the customer refused to give it to her and declared that he would be calling the TV stations and an attorney as he exited the store."

Officials at Cape Fear Hospital said their efforts to retrieve the finger also failed.

Dr. James Larson, director of emergency medicine for UNC Hospitals, who was not involved in the case, said once Stowers took the finger home and froze it, it was too late to even try for reattachment.

"You can't freeze it. It kills the cells," Larson said.

The doctor said the best way to preserve a severed limb is to wrap it in saline-soaked gauze, place it in a plastic bag and store that in ice water.

Stowers' attorney, Lee Andrews of Greensboro, wouldn't say if a lawsuit against Kohl's is planned, saying he needed "to get some more facts."

But Andrews said his client is concerned about possible disease in the fingertip and kept it because he wanted someone to test it for "all the diseases that are out here now."

"He's upset to the point that he's been debilitated to some degree," Andrews said. "Emotionally, it's been very upsetting to him."

Even if Stowers decides to sue, an expert in medical law said the fingertip could easily have been returned while preserving the evidence.

"The man who lost the finger has the superior claim," said Paul Lombardo, who teaches at the University of Virginia's law school. "It's his finger and he might be able to use it."

Lombardo said Stowers could have photographed the fingertip, taken a bit of flesh for DNA analysis or gotten an affidavit from the surgeon who would have reattached the digit.

"There is nothing that would prevent preserving the chain of evidence," Lombardo said.

Fizer is dealing with his loss in private. The Carolina Beach resident's mother, Sheri Fizer, said the family had been instructed by an attorney not to talk about the case.

Public opinion seemed to be running against Stowers.

"It's a mystery how that customer can live with himself after he refused to return the finger so that doctors might try to reattach it," said an editorial Thursday by the Star-News of Wilmington.

"Unless he offers a better explanation for that decision, people will assume that customer Clarence Stowers cared less about another person's loss of a body part than about his chance to squeeze some bucks out of the custard stand."

The case came not long after a Las Vegas woman made headlines with a claim that she found a finger tip in a bowl of chili at a Wendy's restaurant in San Jose, Calif. Investigators have called her claim a hoax and charged her in connection with millions of dollars in losses to Wendy's in northern California. The woman denies it was a hoax.

For Kohl's, Sunday's fingertip amputation was the second time in less than a year that a worker lost a finger on the same frozen custard machine. The worker was found by investigators to have been negligent in the July 2004 incident, and the state Labor Department cleared the company of wrongdoing.