SAN JOSE, Calif. – The mysterious finger that a woman claimed to have found in a bowl of Wendy's (search) chili came from an associate of her husband who lost the finger in an industrial accident, police said Friday.
"The jig is up. The puzzle pieces are beginning to fall into place, and the truth is being exposed," Police Chief Rob Davis said.
The discovery of the finger's owner marks a significant break in a case that has confounded authorities for nearly two months, ever since Anna Ayala (search) claimed she bit down on the well-manicured, 11/2-inch finger in a mouthful of her steamy chili.
The case became the talk of the Internet and late-night talk shows and spawned numerous bizarre tips and theories about the source of the finger, including one about a woman whose fingertip was bitten off by a spotted leopard kept as a pet.
Authorities said last month that they believed the story was a hoax, and they arrested the 39-year-old Ayala at her home in Las Vegas and charged her with attempted grand larceny for allegedly trying to shake down Wendy's. But whose finger was in the chili remained a mystery.
The owner was traced through a tip made to a Wendy's hot line, Davis said. He said the man lost the finger in December, and authorities "positively confirmed that this subject was in fact the source of the fingertip." The nature of the industrial accident was not disclosed.
Davis said the Nevada man, whose name was not released, is cooperating. The police chief would not say if the man was in on the alleged hoax.
Investigators had initially believed the finger fragment was a woman's because the nail was well-trimmed.
Police believe the man gave the finger fragment to Ayala's husband, Jaime Plascencia (search), who was arrested this month on identity-theft charges unrelated to the Wendy's case.
During the investigation, Wendy's said no employees at the San Jose store had missing fingers, and no suppliers of Wendy's ingredients had reported any finger injuries. Authorities reported that there was no evidence the finger had been cooked, and also said Ayala had a history of filing claims against businesses.
Sgt. Nick Muyo said someone other than the man who lost the finger called in the tip to the hot line.
Calls to an attorney for Ayala and Plascencia were not immediately returned. Wendy's did not immediately return a call to its Dublin, Ohio, headquarters.
Authorities are considering additional charges against Ayala and her husband, Davis said. "We are exploring all other options and avenues available to see that those involved in this charade will be investigated," the police chief said.
Wendy's has offered a $100,000 reward and has said it has lost millions in sales since Ayala made the claim while visiting her family in San Jose. Dozens of employees at the company's Northern California franchises also have been laid off.
Wendy's has not yet given out the award. Company spokesman Bob Bertini said officials need to talk with police to determine who should receive it.
In a statement, the company praised San Jose police and said the latest evidence vindicates its employees.
"We strongly defended our brand and paid a severe price," said Tom Mueller, Wendy's president of North America. "We are extremely proud of our employees and franchisees who have suffered the most, and we are forever grateful to our many customers who have supported us during this difficult time."
The Nevada agency that investigates industrial accidents has no record of a worker injury like the one San Jose police described, said Tom Czehowski, chief administrator of the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Nevada employers are only required to report deaths or injuries causing the hospitalization of three or more employees, he said.
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health was also checking its records for any workers who reported losing a finger in an industrial accident, spokesman Dean Fryer said.
The franchise where the finger claim was made saw an immediate 60 to 70 percent drop in business, said Stephen Jay, marketing director at JEM Management, which owns the restaurant. Business is still off 20 percent, he said.