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Woman Jailed in Wendy's Chili Case

Questions Raised About Finger Story

By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page A03

LOS ANGELES, April 22 -- A woman who said she bit into a severed human finger while spooning into fast-food chili at a San Jose Wendy's last month was arrested after investigators found inconsistencies in her story of the gruesome discovery, officials said Friday.

Anna Ayala, 39, was arrested Thursday night at her Las Vegas home and charged with attempted grand larceny. She was also charged with grand larceny in an alleged real-estate swindle not related to the Wendy's case.

San Jose Police Chief Robert Davis, center, fields questions at police headquarters after Anna Ayala was arrested on grand larceny and attempted grand larceny charges. (Ben Margot -- AP)

The arrest ends a public-relations nightmare for the national burger chain, which saw sales plunge at least 30 percent at its San Jose-area franchises after the March 22 report. Yet the investigation continues, as police said they still do not know exactly where, or whom, the finger came from.

San Jose Police Chief Robert Davis said at a televised news conference that state health officials did an "ingredient trace back investigation" that found no evidence the well-manicured digit entered the chili at any point of the preparation or storage process, all the way back to the places where the tomatoes and beans were canned.

"What started as a public health investigation . . . subsequently turned into a criminal investigation," he said.

Police would also not say what led them to suspect Ayala other than unspecified forensic tests and "gumshoe detective work." In an article posted on its Web site Friday, the San Jose Mercury News cited documents provided by sources stating that tests by the county medical examiner found the finger had not been cooked for three hours at the 170 degrees required for Wendy's chili.

The newspaper also cited sources saying investigators could find no witnesses outside Ayala's family who saw her spit the finger out. The Associated Press on Friday cited sources close to the investigation saying at least two people told police they heard Ayala describe placing the finger in the chili.

Davis said at the news conference that police "still believe there are people in California and Nevada who may have information."

The incident fueled morning DJ chatter and some grotesque late-night talk-show jokes while the investigation twisted and turned in some unusual directions. Last week, a Pahrump, Nev., woman made a splash when she briefly laid claim to the finger -- hers was chomped off by a leopard she kept on her ranch and later vanished from the hospital. But investigators discounted the theory after learning the finger tip she lost was barely three-quarters of an inch -- half the size of the one in the chili.

Wendy's officials, who recently boosted a $50,000 reward to $100,000, expressed relief on Friday. "We're thrilled that an arrest has been made," said Tom Mueller, president and chief operating officer for the Dublin, Ohio-based chain.

Joseph Desmond, owner of the franchise where the finger appeared, described his month of frustration during the police department's news conference. "When I heard of it I just couldn't believe it could happen because we have many, many guards against anything like this happening in our business," he said.

He noted that the restaurants had been forced to lay off some employees during the downturn of the past month, and beseeched customers to "please come back to Wendy's."

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