January 18, 2006

Couple gets long sentence in Wendy’s finger scam

SAN JOSE, California (Reuters) - A couple who planted a
human finger in a bowl of chili at a Wendy's fast food
restaurant was sentenced in California on Wednesday to nine
years in prison.

"Greed and avarice overtook this couple and they lost their
moral compass," Judge Edward Davila said of Anna Ayala and her
husband Jaime Plascencia in handing down the nine-year

The scam caused a sharp fall in sales at the third-largest
U.S. burger chain, resulting in millions of dollars in lost
revenue and a lingering impact to this day, officials say.

Plascencia was given another three years and four months
for not paying support for the five children he has with
another woman in an unrelated case, giving him a total sentence
of 12 years, four months behind bars.

Davila also ordered the couple to pay almost $22 million in
restitution but Wendy's officials indicated to the court they
would only seek to collect approximately $170,000, representing
the wages lost by employees at the San Jose restaurant where
working hours were cut back after a downturn in business.

"The crimes committed by the defendants have done
immeasurable damage to Wendy's image, not only in northern
California, but across the country," Denny Lynch, a Wendy's
senior vice president, told the court.

"We cannot put into words how it feels to have the company
you've devoted your career to be subjected to grotesque humor
on the late night TV talk shows in front of a national viewing

Investigators determined Plascencia obtained the piece of
finger from a co-worker who had lost the top of a digit in an
industrial accident at a Las Vegas paving company. The man had
turned over the finger fragment to settle a $50 debt.

Wendy's International, based in Dublin, Ohio, paid a
$100,000 reward for information to help establish the source of
the severed finger.


"I am truly sorry. I owe Wendy's and its employees an
apology," a sobbing Ayala told the court. "Wendy's had always
been my family's favorite fast food restaurant."

She called her actions "a moment of poor judgment," and
told her family: "For all the shame I brought upon them I am
sorry, I am so sorry."

Ayala, 40, who had been a Las Vegas resident, had said that
she discovered the finger after buying the bowl of chili last
March. She complained about the experience on national
television and hired a lawyer, attracting wide attention to the
bizarre incident.

Ayala's attorney Rick Ehler accused prosecutor David Boyd
of using the media attention to get a tough sentence. "It seems
as though the prosecution tried to exert some judicial pressure
through the media," Ehler said.

"I am extremely remorseful," said Plascencia, 43, who, like
his wife, wore prison clothes to the hearing at which
television cameras were permitted.

Plascencia's attorney Charles Kramer said the probation
department's recommendation of 11 years for his client was

"I was quite surprised at the harshness of the probation
department's recommendation," Kramer said. "Judge Davila going
over and above that shocks me even more."