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Wendy's Off Hook In Finger Case

A finger in her chili? Officials say it was a hoax.

Wendy's Vice President says the chain's employees feel "vindicated" since San Jose Police arrested the woman who claimed she found a finger in her bowl of Wendy's chili last month. A "CSI-like" investigation is underway in the bizarre case about how the 1 1/2-inch fingertip ended up in a bowl of fast food.

Anna Ayala was taken into custody late Thursday at her Las Vegas home and charged with attempted grand larceny, police said.

San Jose Police Chief Rob Davis told the media that his department conducted a "CSI-like" investigation into how the human fingertip could have ended up in the chili. The probe involved an "ingredient trace back investigation" to see if the finger entered the chili somewhere in the food production, but determined that Ayala was involved in the incident.

He released few details due to the continuing investigation and likely court case, but the public announcement served the purpose of saying wherever the finger came from, Wendy's had nothing to do with it.

The chilling message from this food contamination case is that a corporate reputation can be dangerously fragile, CBS News Correspondent John Blackstone reports.

Wendy's Vice President Denny Lynch said Ayala's claim spiraled into a sensational story that turned off customers almost immediately.

"Putting that picture out and broadcasting it across television was incredibly damaging because it created a grotesque visual image," Lynch said.

CBS' Lora McLaughlin reports that police say the truest victims in the case are the restaurant's operator and employees who've suffered financially. Wendy's in the San Jose area reportedly have lost $2.5 million dollars in recent weeks.

"Please come back to Wendy's," Joseph Desmond, the franchise's owner said at a press conference. "We serve wonderful hamburgers and everything else."

San Jose officials are wrestling with jurisdiction issues, because Ayala claims she bit down on the finger in a mouthful of her steamy stew.

At the conference, Lynch encouraged patrons to "listen to today's news," rather than judge the restaurant upon the prior weeks' speculative reports of the finger-food find.

"We are absolutely thrilled with the announcement made today," Lynch said. "From the beginning, we said we wanted to know what really happened that night."

Ayala is also charged with grand larceny — a charge that isn't related to the Wendy's episode. Police say she tried to sell a mobile home that she didn't own.

Ayala has been held on a half-million dollars bail since late Thursday.

Ayala's 18-year-old son, Guadalupe Reyes, said he had gone to the store around 9 p.m. when he got a phone call from a friend who was back at the Las Vegas home.

"We rushed back and she was already gone," Reyes said.

Reyes said he had no other details and was waiting to hear from his mother.

"I've heard of people finding bugs in the food, hair in the food, but never a finger, ever," a Wendy's customer tells Anna Duckworth of CBS Station KPIX-TV.

Ayala's claim that she found the fingertip, complete with a well-manicured nail, on March 22 initially drew sympathy. But when police and health officials failed to find any missing digits among the workers involved in the restaurant's supply chain, suspicion fell on Ayala, and her story has become a late-night punch line.

Ayala hired a lawyer and filed a claim against the Wendy's franchise owner, Fresno-based JEM Management. But after police searched her home in Las Vegas and continued to question her family, she dropped the lawsuit threat, saying the whole situation was just too stressful.

"Lies, lies, lies, that's all I am hearing," Ayala said after police started questioning her. "They should look at Wendy's. What are they hiding? Why are we being victimized again and again?"

As it turns out, Ayala has a litigious history. She has filed claims against several corporations, including a former employer and General Motors, though it is unclear from court records whether she received any money. She said she got $30,000 from El Pollo Loco after her 13-year-old daughter got sick at one of the chain's Las Vegas-area restaurants. But El Pollo Loco spokeswoman Julie Weeks said last week that the company reviewed Ayala's February 2004 claim and paid her nothing.

Such claims can turn into corporate public-relations disasters literally overnight, CBS' Blackstone reports. So what is a company to do when faced with a claim that could lead to dramatic financial losses, regardless of legitimacy?
"The most important thing for Wendy's is to provide an alternative story," Ward Hanson of Stanford business school said.

Earlier Thursday, Wendy's International Inc. announced it had ended its internal investigation, saying it could find no credible link between the finger and the restaurant chain.

Sales have dropped at franchises in Northern California, forcing layoffs and reduced hours, the company said. Wendy's also has hired private investigators, set up a hot line for tips and offered a $100,000 reward for anyone who provides information leading to the finger's original owner.

"Is it an industrial accident, is it an unreported homicide?" said Nick Muyo of the San Jose Police Department. "Where's the rest of this body, or, where's the owner of this finger?"