Wendy's Still Smarting from Finger-In-Chili Hoax

The woman who planted part a human finger in a bowl of Wendy's chili in a scheme to win a settlement from the restaurant chain was sentenced Wednesday to nine years in prison. Anna Ayala apologized, calling the scam "a moment of poor judgment." But officials for Wendy's say business is still hurting, thanks to the negative publicity the incident created.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Now from a company that makes up fantastic stories to a Nevada couple that tried to. Yesterday a San Jose judge sentenced Anna Ayala and her husband, Jaime Plascencia, for planting a human finger in a bowl of Wendy's chili last year. NPR's Luke Burbank has been following this story from its first gruesome minutes. Here's his report.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

After ten months and more late-night TV jokes than really any of us deserve to endure, the saga involving a bowl of Wendy's chili and the human finger that ended up there has finally come to an end. Yesterday afternoon a county superior court judge in San Jose sentenced Anna Ayala and her husband, Jaime Plascencia, to nine years in prison for perpetrating the scam that grossed out a nation.

Mr. BOB BERTINI (Spokesman, Wendy's): It's been a long ordeal for all of us at Wendy's. It's something that no one should have to go through.

BURBANK: Bob Bertini is a Wendy's spokesman. In court yesterday, the company urged the judge to throw the book at the couple. Wendy's says the scam cost it millions of dollars in lost revenue; which meant legally speaking, this wasn't just a prank, but attempted grand theft. The couple also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to file a false insurance claim. Along with the jail time they're also on the hook for $170,000 in restitution for workers' lost wages. The judge tacked on 21 million additional dollars that the couple owes the company, but Wendy's agreed not to collect it if the two agree not to try and profit off the debacle.

Mr. BERTINI: It's something that has been a very trying experience for everyone. Particularly for our restaurant employees who worked in the restaurant where this occurred.

BURBANK: Including poor Hector Pineda, the cook who made the batch of chili in question. In testimony yesterday, the veteran Wendy's employee who had nothing to do with the scam said he felt so bad for the fear of what people would think of him. Anna Ayala, the person who was responsible, apologized tearfully, calling the scheme a moment of poor judgment. But it was really more like a series of moments. First the moment when her husband brought home a coworker's severed finger, then when she decided to slip it into a bowl of chili, and lastly, when she decided to show up on ABC's Good Morning America and lie about the whole thing.

Ms. ANNA AYALA (Defendant): You know, just knowing that there was a human remain in my mouth, you know, something in my mouth; it's disgusting. It's tearing me apart inside. It's nasty.

BURBANK: Forensic tests later showed that Ayala never actually bit into the finger. Back then though, on ABC, her lawyer, Jeffrey Janoff, was steadfast.

Mr. JEFFREY JANOFF (Attorney): This is obviously not a hoax. This is very, very real; and it's very, very real to my client.

BURBANK: But of course it was a hoax. The classic boy meets girl, they fall in love, boy brings home severed finger from construction job, girl puts finger in Wendy's chili, boy and girl get serious prison time.

Anna Ayala has reportedly become a minor celebrity in prison. She's even been signing some autographs. Ironically, the scam that she pulled in a restaurant means for the next nine years she'll be eating prison food, which will likely include lots of chili.

Luke Burbank, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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