SAN JOSE, Calif. – No one seemed more disgusted than Anna Ayala when a human fingertip was found in her bowl of Wendy’s chili back in March.

And she should know just how disgusting it was. She put it there.

After publicly professing her outrage and revulsion about the grotesque find – her sleepless nights, her frequent nausea – Ayala and her husband, Jaime Plascencia, admitted to a Santa Clara County judge Friday it was all an attempt to defraud the fast-food giant.

Each in handcuffs, the couple waived their rights to a trial. Then, calmly, in firm clear voices – Plascencia through a Spanish interpreter – they each said “guilty” to the attempted swindle that made news around the world.

No one was happier Friday than the officials of Wendy’s International, the fast food chain that claims the repugnant – and widely publicized – discovery of a body part in their chili began to cost them $1 million a day in business.

“It is a very good day and it is very good news,” spokesman Denny Lynch said. “We said from the very first night that this incident occurred … we wanted everyone to know the truth of what happened that night, and now everyone knows.”

Plascencia, 43, and Ayala, 39, pleaded guilty to two felony charges arising from the scam: conspiracy to file a false insurance claim and attempted grand theft with damages exceeding $2.5 million. They are scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 2.

Defense attorneys for the couple and prosecutor David Boyd had spent hours meeting in chambers with Judge Edward Davila. Ayala and Plascencia’s attorneys were seeking assurance the pair wouldn’t be sentenced to the stiffest penalty possible – state prison stints of nine years, eight months for Ayala and 13 years for Plascencia, punishment that includes some counts not connected to the attempted shakedown.

They didn’t get such an assurance, but were probably right to avoid a trial. Boyd was confident in his case, and he took pains Friday afternoon to credit the detective work of the San Jose police department for making it strong.

The evidence – which included some crucial scientific finds – showed the fingertip was not cooked in chili for three hours, the cooking time for Wendy’s chili. And the fingertip had no traces of saliva on it, even though Ayala claimed she bit into it.

The prosecution also could have called on Brian Rossiter, who said he sold the fingertip he lost in a workplace accident to his co-worker, Plascencia. And Rossiter could have testified that Plascencia revealed the scheme to him.

Finally, Boyd would have shown that Ayala hired an attorney shortly after the supposed finger find, in an attempt to extort the company.

The finger-seen-round-the-world became famous in March after Ayala stopped in San Jose to drop off her in-laws after a trip to Mexico. She used to live here, but had moved to Las Vegas a few years before. With her was the fingertip she was preparing to plant.

After she made a scene the night of March 22 and complained to the staff, the police came and took the digit.

A day later, the San Jose Mercury News asked her if it might have been planted in the chili in a shakedown scam.

She said she was horrified at such a suggestion. “That is very sick, sick, sick,” she said. “It’s disgusting. You’re playing with the human race.”

Later, Ayala appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” with her newly hired attorney. She explained her reaction to the finger in the food. “There’s no words to describe, you know, what I felt. What was going through me. I mean, it’s something that’s, my God. It’s sick. It’s disgusting.”

All the while, her family rallied behind her, especially her sister, Mary Ayala, who lives in San Jose.

She wiped away tears Friday after the guilty pleas, which she had not expected. Mary Ayala declined to say if she ever discovered what her sister had done, but said she would stick by her, guilty or not.

“She’s my sister, my baby sister,” she said.

Rick Ehler, Ayala’s attorney, wouldn’t talk about the plea discussions. But he stepped briefly in front of the bank of microphones and cameras to say Ayala pleaded guilty to “do the right thing” and “put this behind her.”

He noted that she had never entered a not-guilty plea – a routine early step in many criminal cases.

“The reason was because she didn’t want to, in any way, say that she wasn’t guilty, so today she entered a plea of guilty in light of the fact that there were a lot of people that work for Wendy’s that were harmed, and she’s always felt a lot of remorse about that,” Ehler said.

Over at the Wendy’s on Monterey Highway, where Ayala claimed to find the offending finger, employees served up chili and customers ate it – but resentment against Ayala lingered.

“Of course it hurts because we are like a big family,” said Martha Guerra, a Wendy’s district manager. “We knew nobody in here would do something like this. These are longtime employees.”

Some customers said they would like to see Ayala and Plascencia apologize.

“If I could talk to her-face-to-face, I would tell her what she did was cruel,” said Liz Nieto, 40, who regularly eats at Wendy’s.

But Steve Currie, 21, said he believed Ayala all along. “I thought it was real when it first happened,” he said Friday. “I didn’t think anybody would be crazy enough to do that with a finger.”

Nonetheless, he kept eating there – figuring, he said, the odds of it happening again were pretty small.

In addition to the felony counts in the chili case, Ayala pleaded guilty Friday to an unrelated charge of defrauding a San Jose woman in a mobile home sale. And Plascencia also pleaded guilty for failing to pay child support, child abandonment, identity theft and fraudulent use of official documents.

(c) 2005, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

Visit MercuryNews.com, the World Wide Web site of the Mercury News, at http://www.mercurynews.com.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


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