In 2005, Anna Aayala was enjoying a bowl of Wendy’s famous chili when she bit down on a human finger. The legal battle that followed exposed food tampering, fraud and attempted extortion. In this episode, we cover the Wendy’s Chili Finger Scandal
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ABC News. (2005, Mar 28). Woman Who Found Finger in Chili May Sue. https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Business/story?id=619456&page=1
Boone, B. (2021, Aug 27). The Untold Truth Of Wendy's Chili. Mashed. https://www.mashed.com/585294/the-untold-truth-of-wendys-chili/
CBC. (2006, Jan 18). Couple sentenced in Wendy's chili finger scam. https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/couple-sentenced-in-wendy-s-chili-finger-scam-1.604362
Francis, G. (2022, Mar 11). Mysteries & Histories, The Finger Chilli Scam: THAT Wendy's Lawsuit. https://audioboom.com/posts/8045141-the-finger-chilli-scam-that-wendy-s-lawsuit
Greene, J. (2010, Mar 11). NBC Bay Area. Wendy's “Chili Finger Lady” Comes Clean. https://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/wendys-chili-finger-lady-comes-clean/1884507/
Mikkelson, D. (2013, Jun 5). Snopes. Was a Finger Found in Wendy's Chili? https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/finger-food/
Richtel, M. (2005, May 14). The New York Times. Police Identify Severed Finger in the Wendy's Chili Case. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/14/us/police-identify-severed-finger-in-the-wendys-chili-case.html
Rae, K. (2022, Sep 27). True Crime with Kendall Rae. The Wendy’s Finger Chili Lawsuit. https://audioboom.com/posts/8164000-the-wendy-s-finger-chili-lawsuit-scam
Wendy’s. (2018, Feb 22). ̌The History of Wendy's Chili Recipe. https://www.wendys.com/blog/chili-recipe-isnt-your-family-recipe-but-its-pretty-darn-close
Williams, S. (2013, Jun 5). Wendy’s revenge: 2005’s finger-in-chili hoaxster is back behind bars. New York Daily News. https://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/finger-in-wendy-chili-scam-lady-article-1.1364019=
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Hi everyone, I’m Becca.
S: & I’m Sarah! And you’re listening to Unsavory.
I think we can both agree that finding a foreign object in our food can be pretty repulsive. I once swallowed a piece of glass at a restaurant and I still wonder if it’s bopping around in there.
S: Yikes, that’s dangerous. I once found a loose screw in a restaurant salad.
B: The only surprise objects I approve of in my food are loonies and toonies wrapped in tinfoil and baked in a birthday cake. But even then, I feel like you’re usually given a heads up so you don’t crack a tooth.
S: Essential information.
Today we are covering a scandal that became notoriously criminal. In 2005, Anna Aayala was enjoying a bowl of Wendy’s famous chili when she bit down on a human finger. The legal battle that followed exposed food tampering, fraud and attempted extortion. We are talking about the Wendy’s Chili Finger Scandal. Have you heard this story?
S: Nope, and I couldn’t be more excited!
This one is right up there with the McDonald’s hot coffee case when it comes to fast food drama. It’s super interesting and not necessarily what you’d expect.
Anyways, let’s get into it. Are you ready?
S: Let’s do it!
Shout out to my sources for today’s episode which are all listed in the show notes at unsavorypodcast.com. I used an article by Williams in the New York Daily News, another by Richttel in The New York Times, and one by Mikkelson for Snopes. I also listened to two podcast episodes on the topic – True Crime with Kendall Rae and Mysteries & Histories, which are both worth a listen.
So we wouldn’t have this episode without Wendy’s famous chili - one of the true victims here. It’s so funny but when I was doing the research for this episode I was craving chili SO badly that I made some on a writing break. Chili is friggin delicious and even a story about human fingers in it couldn’t stop me from craving it.
S: And Wendy’s chili is actually really good!
Wendy’s was actually seen as kind of innovative when they came out with their first menu in 1969. It included burgers, fries, Frosties, soda and their chili, which was only 55 cents at the time. Wendy’s was one of the first fast food restaurants to offer chili. Even our beloved Canadian Tim Hortons didn’t add it to their menu until the 1980’s. And the initial reason Wendy’s offered it was actually to cut down on food waste. The founder Dave Thomas once claimed that they used the excess hamburger meat in the recipe rather than tossing it (Boone, 2021).
S: Also a great way to use up old veggies!
Pretty quickly, Wendy’s chili became known across North America as the perfect comfort food. To this day, it’s still a combination of beef mixed with vegetables, beans and spices. A large bowl of it includes 5g of fibre and 23g of protein, making it a pretty nutrient-dense menu option (Wendy’s, 2018).
The finger incident
Because of its popularity, when the chili fell victim to public scrutiny in 2005, the story blew up. The evening of March 22nd, Anna Ayala, a 39-year old from Las Vegas, visited a San Jose Wendy’s with her family. As she often did, she ordered the chili off the menu. After stirring some crackers into it, she began to eat.
This is a quote from her: "Suddenly I chew something that's kind of hard [and] crunchy. I spit it out. At first I wasn't sure what it was. We started investigating and poking it, [with] other people, too. That's when we find there's something that looks like a nail." So she had bitten down on what appeared to be a severed finger.
S: Oh.. my.. gosh
Ayala reported that she immediately began vomiting. Another restaurant patron, Devina Codero, said that Ayala was gasping and ran up to her and her chili saying "Don't eat it! Look, there's a human finger in our chili." Codero went up to the counter with Ayala and overheard the staff tell her it was likely a misshapen vegetable. But upon getting a glance of it, everyone agreed it seemed to have a fingernail.
The police were called in, but since there was no indication that a crime had taken place, they said that it was a case of food contamination for the Health Department; not a police matter. The Santa Clara County Health Department was contacted but they were unable to get there that evening. (S: Why, did someone find a toe in a McFlurry?) Haha. Ew. I think the government is just closed after 4pm. So the staff stuck the finger in the freezer for the next day. While Ayala’s name remained anonymous, the story began spreading like wildfire, quickly making its way into international headlines.
When the health department finally got to the scene the next day, they did indeed confirm it was a human finger. It was about 1 ½ inches long and it was well manicured, leading authorities to believe it belonged to a female. Investigators first checked with the staff who were working that day, all of whom still had all their fingers. The individual who had prepared the chili for Ayala was heavily questioned, but they were a trusted employee of over 10 years and were quickly ruled out. Investigators then checked DNA and fingerprint databases, with no matches.
Wendy’s made a statement saying “It is important to us to find out the truth."... With no leads, they offered $50,000 to anyone who could help them identify the owner of the finger. As you can imagine, Wendy’s sales began to drop, especially in the San Jose area.
(ABC News, 2005; Mikkelson, 2013).
S: I’m not surprised! Chili sounded so good at the start, but now I’m a bit turned off of chili…
As I just mentioned, up to this point Ayala remained anonymous. That is, until she did an exclusive interview on Good Morning America. In the interview she said she suffered severe distress after the incident and was thinking about suing. She was quoted saying "the thought of, you know, just knowing that there was a human remain in my mouth ... it is disgusting. It is tearing me apart inside."
She then hired attorney Jeffrey Janoff, who eventually also represented five other clients who ate Wendy’s chili at the same restaurant on the same day. He claimed it was a strict product liability case; no one expects to find body parts in their food and that something must be done to ensure that it never happens again. As if Wendy’s didn’t already know that this wasn’t acceptable. And with that they filed a lawsuit against Wendy’s (ABC News, 2005).
But some things weren’t adding up in the minds of the Wendy’s execs…They had hired Dr Lynn Bates, to conduct an internal investigation. Bates is well known in the food forensics world, specializing in forensic food microscopy. (S: Ugh… COOL!) He found multiple inconsistencies in Ayala’s story. For example, there was no saliva or bite marks on the finger even though Ayala had claimed to have bitten into it. Also, there was no way the finger could have been cooked in the chili based on Wendy’s preparation standards, which were that it must be cooked at 170 degrees for three hours. This meant that the finger would have had to have been added either DURING or AFTER the cooking process. But again, all the staff had all their fingers.
Even though the majority of the evidence pointed to the finger being added on-site at the Wendy’s, they did their due diligence and also looked into the supply chain. But no injuries were reported by any suppliers during this time period either. And it is required by law that they do so. It’s simply not in their best interest to not report these types of injuries.
They then became concerned that someone had tampered with the final food product on purpose. But who and why? They had all the staff participate in a polygraph test and everyone passed. Including the employee who had prepared and handled Ayala’s chili, who was getting some serious flack in the media. With no obvious options left, they launched a criminal investigation and began to look into Ayala.
S: A criminal investigation?
B: Ya, well they didn’t know the source of the finger, even after exhausting all avenues. Which led public health investigators to believe it was a food tampering case or possibly even the remnants of a homicide!
S: Oh wow. Where would THEY even get a human finger?
Exactly…and I’ll tell you…soon.
It took no time to dig up some pretty interesting dirt on Ayala. Turns out she had a very long history of filing lawsuits against companies and then accepting cash settlements before trial. (S: Oh no… )They found she had filed at least 13 lawsuits, some on her own and others involving her children. One of her earliest suits was in 1998, when she sued a former employer for sexual harassment on her very first day on the job. She also sued General Motors and Goodyear after a car accident she was in but that case was dismissed with prejudice - meaning it could never be brought back to court. She ALSO sued the El Polo Loco fast food chain in Las Vegas, claiming her daughter contracted salmonella while eating there; but it’s unclear if she received a settlement in this case (Francis, 2022; Mikkelson, 2013; Rae, 2022).
I would literally never even consider suing a restaurant for food poisoning in Canada…and I’ve had a lot of food poisoning. But I guess we don’t have to pay for our hospital stays here.
S: Yeah that’s interesting! I think you could if someone passed away or had long term effects from the food poisoning, but not if you just got sick and recovered.
Totally, that would be awful.
The San Jose and Las Vegas police obtained a search warrant for Ayala’s home. To the media, she claimed that during the raid, her family was thrown out of the house, her daughter was injured due to excessive force and that they were humiliated in front of their neighbors. However, some neighbors spoke out saying that that wasn’t what they had witnessed and that this situation was far less dramatic than portrayed by Ayala (Francis, 2022; Rae, 2022).
The media, who was initially super empathetic towards Ayala, began to turn on her. She quickly became the butt of every Wendy’s joke on late night TV. The headlines that once referred to her as a victim began referring to her as “that chili finger lady”. Then on April 12th, less than a month after the incident, Ayala decided to drop the lawsuit. She claimed that the whole ordeal "caused her great emotional distress and continue[d] to be difficult emotionally." She wanted to forget about it…But Wendy’s was like “oh hell no” (Mikkelson, 2013).
They had lost at least $1 million dollars A DAY in revenue since the incident. Despite offering free Frosties to patrons in locations around San Jose. Employees also had to be laid off so people were really suffering from this incident and the loss in sales. They weren’t about to just drop this. They were determined to get to the bottom of it.
Investigators soon got a call on their tip line with more juicy details about Ayala. Not only had she filed all those lawsuits, some of which had no legs, but she was also involved in some real estate fraud. According to the caller, three years earlier she sold her boyfriend’s mobile home to a woman named Bertha Davila. English was not Bertha’s first language and so Ayala translated all communications between her and the real estate agent. Ayala collected the down payment for the home and Bertha and her children moved in. Three weeks later, they received a call from a finance company stating that the home was in default on the mortgage and that they had to move out within the next three days. It turns out that Anna didn’t actually have the right to sell the mobile home and it still legally belonged to her boyfriend, something that I think must have been lost in translation in the communication with the real estate agent. When Bertha confronted Ayala she refused to refund their down payment. And Bertha ultimately lost her life savings in this scam.
S: That’s awful.
To add to this, there was also some suspicion around the involvement of Ayala’s current boyfriend, James Plascencia. He had a bit of a fishy history himself, owing over $400,000 in child support and in using false ID to avoid paying taxes. /// Both him and Anna were arrested on April 21st. But not for the chili finger. Anna was arrested for real estate fraud and James was arrested for his unpaid child support and tax fraud (Ritchel, 2005). The walls were starting to close in on them and I feel like authorities just wanted to get them in jail ASAP.
Identifying the finger
With the main suspects behind bars…for the wrong crimes, Wendy’s upped their reward for information to $100,000, which seems like SO much money. But when you consider how much they were bleeding out every day because of the bad publicity the chili finger had caused, it makes sense. More tips started rolling in (finger tips lol). And a few were seriously investigated.
First, there was a Mexican rancher who had recently lost his finger in a work accident. Mexican authorities reported it to investigators but it was quickly ruled out. (S: I feel like a rancher wouldn’t have well-manicured fingers.) Agreed. Next, a woman named Sandy Allman, called in claiming it might be her finger. She lived in Pahrump, a town only one hour from Las Vegas, where Ayala lived, and she had lost the tip of her finger after being attacked by a leopard a month before the Wendy’s scandal went down.
S: A leopard?!
She actually worked for a rescue and was in the process of rescuing some exotic animals when one took off her finger. When in the hospital, they were unable to reattach it and when the hospital staff took it away, that was the last she had seen of it. And apparently the hospital staff couldn’t account for its whereabouts either, which is definitely suspicious. Allman offered to do DNA testing but because of the size of her lost finger, DNA wasn’t taken. Hers was about half of the size of the one that Ayala had in her chili.
S: Sooo close.
Urgh I know. There was even a rumor going around that Ayala may have taken the finger from her aunt who had recently passed away. Ish got weird and dark. But ultimately, this rumor couldn’t be proven (Mikkelson, 2013).
S: Exhume her!
I don’t know how they disproved it, but there was no mention of needing to dig up any bodies…
Finally on May 13th, the owner of the finger was found. Investigators received two tips that aligned – one from an anonymous source and the other from Mike Casey, the owner of the asphalt maintenance company that James (Anna’s boyfriend) worked at. A few months earlier, in December, one of Mike’s employees, named Brian Rossiter, had lost his finger when his hand got caught in the tailgate of a truck. Apparently in January, he brought his severed finger to work – I guess to show off? /// It turns out this guy, Brian, owed Jamie some money – between $50 and $100. But Jamie basically said “give me that finger and we’ll call [our debt] even”. With some hesitation, Brian asked what he would do with the finger, and Jamie straight up disclosed his plans. He then allegedly offered Brian $250,000 if the plan went successfully.
S: That’s sketchy for Brian because if they get caught, they literally have his finger print…
TRUE! I don’t know how I hadn’t even thought of that…I guess Brian didn’t either
I am convinced Brian was the anonymous caller. I don’t know how they would have gotten this level of detail otherwise. He probably realized their plan was falling apart and wanted to collect on the reward…seeing as he likely wasn’t going to get that quarter mil. /// Anyways, DNA confirmed it. It was in fact: Brian’s finger (Mikkelson, 2013, Ritchel, 2005).
Trial & sentencing
On April 21st, Ayala was arrested on new charges for the Wendy’s case – attempted grand larceny. In September, her and her boyfriend, Jamie, pled guilty to conspiring to file a false claim and for attempted grand theft with damages over $2.5 million. It is estimated that in total, Wendy’s suffered about $21 million in lost business because of her fraudulent claim.
In January, Ayala was given a nine year sentence and Placencia was given twelve years...which is wild because I would have thought Ayala would have received more for actually committing the crime, but I guess she couldn’t have done it without the goods. She was later re-sentenced to only four years because of a technical sentencing error in her trial – the judge had apparently given her an additional five years that they shouldn’t have. The sentencing should have gone through the jury, but didn’t. So her sentence was shortened and she was released after only four years with a huge condition: she was to never step foot in Wendy’s ever again. I couldn't find any information on when Placencia was released, but he must be out by now…he’s probably just keeping a low profile.
In addition to the prison sentence, Ayala was ordered to pay a whopping $21.8 million to Wendy’s. But Wendy’s, being the kind-hearted institution that they are, said that they wouldn’t collect the money as long as Ayala and Placencia did not try to benefit financially from their story. (S: Respect, Wendy’s!) And this is likely why we haven’t heard too much about this case since (CBC, 2006; Greene, 2010; Mikkelson, 2013; Ritchel, 2005).
In an interview in 2010, Ayala later apologized for the scandal and admitted to having cooked the finger at her home before driving to San Jose and putting it in the chili. But unfortunately it was not cooked up to Wendy’s rigorous standards. Had it been, it would have opened the door to so many more possibilities within the supply chain. She may have even gotten away with this whole thing. Instead she was publicly ridiculed and sent to prison. She was then quoted saying "I learned my lesson and I just want to move on with my life." (Greene, 2010).
But she hadn’t really learned her lesson…
Yet another lie
Ayala stayed out of the limelight for a few years, until June 2013, when she pled “no contest” (they won't contest the charge; so they waive the right to a trial and allow court to treat them as though they were guilty for sentencing) to filing a false police report, being an accessory to a felony, and being a felon in possession of a firearm - for her help in hiding a gun. In 2012, her son had accidently shot himself in the ankle, but because he was on parole at the time and would have received jail time, they both lied and said that he was shot by two men. Her description of one of the men was so detailed that police had actually found a suspect. But when the two were presented with photos of this suspect, their story began to fall apart. She was sentenced to another two years in prison for her part in this crime (Mikkelson, 2013; Williams, 2013).
S: Stop lying, girl! When will she learn her lesson…
I think after this prison stint she did…
And that's the story of the Wendy’s Chili Finger Scandal.
If we’ve learned anything here, it’s that food tampering can be serious business with serious consequences…if you get caught.
In my opinion, I think their biggest mistake was going after a company with enough resources for a full blown private investigation. Had they gone after a smaller chain, it’s likely that only the police and health department resources would have been used, and they may have gotten away with it. (S: And possibly put a small chain out of business). Oh absolutely, which would have been terrible. But Wendy’s is huge and they had to protect their image. They could offer the big reward and hire the best investigators and lawyers. It was kind of silly to think that they might just pay up and let this whole thing go, especially considering it a HUMAN finger was involved and not just like a bug.
Bottom line, if you’re going to try to extort a company, maybe don’t go for one with SO many resources at their disposal to use against you. But also, don’t go for mom and pop shops either. Maybe just don’t get involved in this type of crime at all. With food forensics, it’s becoming way too traceable.
S: And leave human body parts out of it. There is something so creepy about the fact that it was actually the finger of someone she knew… Also, it’s scary how close she was to getting away with this!! Maybe if she had remained anonymous, she would have flown under the radar completely. (B: agreed!) But in the end, I think she kind of did get away with it, considering she only served 4 years and Wendy’s lost millions of dollars and employees lost their livelihoods over this.
Totally, she came out fairly unscathed from this.
Anyways, that’s it or today’s episode!
S: Super creepy and fascinating and a truly perfect story for Unsavory.
Thanks for listening.