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The strip search prank call scam was a series of incidents occurring for roughly a decade before an arrest was made in 2004. These incidents involved a man calling a restaurant or grocery store, claiming to be a police detective, and convincing managers to conduct strip searches of female employees or perform other unusual acts on behalf of the police. The calls were usually placed to fast-food restaurants in small rural towns.

Over 70 such occurrences were reported in 30 U.S. states, until an incident in 2004 in Mt. Washington, Kentucky finally led to the arrest and charging of David Stewart, a 37-year-old employee of Corrections Corporation of America, a private-commercial firm contracted by the State of Florida to provide corrections officers at private detention facilities. On October 31, 2006, he was acquitted of all charges.[1] [2] These incidents were the inspiration behind an episode of Law & Order: SVU featuring Robin Williams as the scammer.

Contents

Incidents prior to the Mt. Washington call

There were incidents in multiple states that followed the same pattern: a caller identifying himself as a police officer would contact a manager or floor supervisor on the pretense of soliciting the supervisor to assist the police in detaining a suspected criminal employee and conducting a search of the person. The caller would provide a physical description of the suspect which the supervisor would recognize. A vast majority of the calls were to fast-food restaurants but a few were made to chain grocery stores. Some notable cases include:

  • Two calls reported in 1992: one in Devils Lake, North Dakota and another in Fallon, Nevada.[2]
  • A McDonald's manager in Leitchfield, Kentucky was convinced on November 30, 2000 to undress before a customer when the caller persuaded her that the customer was a suspected sex offender and that her serving as bait would permit undercover officers to arrest him when he showed an interest in her.[2]
  • A call to a McDonald's restaurant in Hinesville, Georgia in February, 2003, in which a female manager, who thought she was speaking with a police officer in the presence of the director of operations for the franchisee GWD Management Corporation, took a 19-year-old female employee into the women's bathroom and strip searched her, and brought in a 55 year old male employee to perform a body cavity search to uncover hidden drugs. McDonald's and franchisee GWD Management Corporation were taken to court over the incident. In 2005 U.S. District Judge John F. Nangle granting summary judgment to McDonald's, and denied in part summary judgment to GWD Management Corporation. In 2006, it was appealed in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.[3][4]
  • On January 26, 2003, an Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar assistant manager victimized a waitress after receiving a collect call from someone who purported to be a regional manager.[2]
  • On June 3, 2003, a Taco Bell manager in Juneau, Alaska stripped a 14 year old female customer and forced her to perform lewd acts, at the request of a caller who claimed he was working with the company to investigate drug abuse.[2]
  • In March, 2004, a 17-year-old female customer at a Taco Bell in Fountain Hills, Arizona near Phoenix was strip-searched by a manager receiving a call from a man claiming to be a police officer.[5]

Mount Washington, Kentucky incident

The final call was made to a McDonald's restaurant in Mount Washington, Kentucky on April 9, 2004. According to assistant manager Donna Summers, the caller identified himself as a policeman, 'Officer Scott', who described Louise Ogborn, a female employee he suspected of stealing a purse. After the caller demanded that the employee be searched at the store, or taken to jail, the employee was brought into an office and ordered to remove her clothes, which Summers took to her car. Another assistant manager, Kim Dockery[1], was present during this time. After an hour Summers told the caller that she was required at the counter, and the caller then told her to bring in her fiance, Walter Nix.[2]

Nix arrived and took over from Summers, following the caller's directions for the next 2 hours. He removed the apron the employee had covered herself with and ordered her to dance and perform jumping jacks. He also ordered her to sit on his lap and kiss him, and when she refused he slapped her buttocks. The caller also spoke to the employee, demanding that she do as she was told. During this time the employee said that "I was scared for my life". After the employee had been in the office for 2½ hours, she was ordered to perform oral sex on Nix. Summers had returned to the office periodically, and during these visits the employee was instructed to cover herself up by the caller.[2]

Nix was then told he could leave, and that Summers had to find someone to replace him. After Nix left, he called a friend and told him "I have done something terribly bad".[2] The entire incident was captured on a surveillance camera in the office. Summers watched the tape later that night, and according to her attorney, called off the engagement.[2]

Summers called in Thomas Simms, a store maintenance man who had stopped at the restaurant for dessert. Simms refused to go along with the caller's demands. It was at this point that Summers, who was not aware of Nix's earlier actions, became suspicious and decided to call the store manager, whom the caller had claimed to have on another phone line. Speaking with her boss, Summers then discovered that the store manager had been napping and had not spoken to any police officers, and that the call had been a hoax. The caller quickly hung up. A quick-thinking employee dialed *69 before another call could ring in, to get the telephone number of the caller's phone. Summers, now hysterical, began apologizing and released the employee (by then shivering and wrapped in an emergency blanket) after 3½ hours of false arrest and then called the real police, who arrested Nix for sexual assault and began an investigation to find the caller.

The Mount Washington Police Department was only a quarter mile away.[2]

Although their initial suspicion was that the call had originated from a pay phone near the location of the restaurant, where the perpetrator could visually monitor police activity at the police station and the restaurant, the police later determined that the call had come from a supermarket pay phone in Panama City, Florida.

Investigation and aftermath

Mt. Washington police, doing a simple word search on the Internet, quickly realized that this was only the latest in a long line of similar incidents that stretched over a period of nearly ten years; none of which had gone as far, for as long, with as many people involved, as the incident at the Mt. Washington McDonald's.

Learning that the call had been made with an AT&T calling card, and that the largest retailer of such cards was Wal-Mart, they contacted police in Panama City, who informed them that Detective Flaherty in Massachusetts was already conducting an investigation of his own and had already pulled surveillance camera footage from a local Wal-Mart. Following Flaherty's lead, they used the serial number of the calling card used to make the call, and learned that the card had come from a different Wal-Mart store than the card used for the Massachusetts calls. Using Wal-Mart's records of the second store, the cash register, and time of the purchase of that card, the police were able to find surveillance camera video of the transaction. Unlike the Massachusetts investigation, which had gone cold when surveillance video failed to show the purchaser because the cameras were trained on the parking lot and not the registers, the cameras at the particular store where the card used in the Mt. Washington call was purchased were trained on the cashiers. [6] The buyer in the video was wearing a correctional officer's uniform for the private security firm Corrections Corporation of America. Video and stills from both Wal-Marts were compared and the same man was seen entering and exiting the Wal-Mart at the time of the earlier purchase. The police used this footage to produce a front-and-back composite image of the suspect, and subsequent queries to the private correctional company's Human Resources department led to the identification of the buyer as David R. Stewart, a married father of five children. After his arrest, Stewart was extradited to Kentucky to face charges of impersonating a police officer, and solicitation of sodomy. He was not convicted, with both the defense and prosecution attorneys saying that a lack of direct evidence may have affected the jury's decision[7].

During his questioning by police and officers of the Courts, Stewart insisted he'd never bought a calling card, but detectives found one in his house that had been used to call nine restaurants in the past year, including a Burger King in Idaho Falls, on the day its manager was reportedly duped. Police also found dozens of applications for police department jobs, hundreds of police magazines, police-type uniforms, guns and holsters, indicating that being or becoming a police officer was possibly a fantasy of the suspect.[2]

Summers ended her relationship with Nix soon after the incident, and was fired from McDonald's for violating a corporate policy prohibiting (a) non-McDonald's personnel from entering the restaurant's office, and (b) conducting strip searches.[1]

Kim Dockery was transferred to another location.

McDonald's took no further punitive action against any of the employees involved in the incident.

Nix, remorseful for his part in the crime, pleaded guilty to sexual abuse and other crimes in February 2006 in exchange for his testimony against Stewart. Because he was the principal perpetrator of the beatings and engaged in the sex act, he received a 5 year sentence, with a minimum of 2 years in prison.

Summers entered an Alford plea to a charge of unlawful imprisonment, a misdemeanor, and received one year of probation. Because she was not aware of, did not initiate, and was not present at the time of the sexual assault, she was not charged with any sex-related crimes.[8]

The victim underwent therapy to address Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder depression related to her abuse, including prescription anti-depressants. She abandoned her plans to attend the University of Louisville, where she had anticipated declaring pre-med. In an interview with ABC News she said that, after her rape, she "felt dirty" and had difficulty making and maintaining friendships because she wouldn't "allow anyone to get too close to me."

Since Stewart's arrest, police reported that the calls have stopped.[9] Stewart remains a suspect in similar cases throughout the USA.[7]

The civil trial against McDonald's

Three years after the incident, still undergoing therapy, the former employee sued McDonald's for $200 million for failing to protect her during her ordeal. Her grounds were that McDonald's corporate headquarters was aware of the danger and possibility of the hoax: it had defended itself against lawsuits for similar incidents at its restaurants in four other states that had suffered similar hoaxes at least 2 years prior to the Mt. Washington attack, and had not taken the appropriate action directed by its own chief of security as outlined in his memo to McDonald's upper management.[8]

Summers also sued McDonald's for failing to warn her of the previous hoaxes, asking for $50 million.[1]

McDonald's based its defense on four points: (1) Summers deviated from the company's management manual, which prohibits strip searches, and therefore McDonald's should not be responsible for any action conducted by Summers outside the scope of her employment; (2) workman's compensation statutes prohibit employees from suing employers; (3) Nix, who actually performed the acts, was not a McDonald's employee; and (4) the victim did not remove herself from the situation, contrary to common sense.[2]

The civil trial began September 10, 2007 and ended October 5, 2007 when a jury awarded $5 million in punitive damages and $1.1 million in compensatory damages and expenses. Summers was awarded $1.1 million. [10] The jury decided that McDonald's and the unnamed caller were each 50 percent at fault for the abuse to which the victim was subjected.[11]

McDonald's and its attorneys were sanctioned for withholding evidence pertinent to the outcome of the trial.[12]

As of September 2008, nobody has received payment on the award, as McDonald's continues to appeal the ruling. In November 2008, McDonald's was also ordered to pay $2.4 million in legal fees to plaintiffs' lawyers under a provision of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act designed to promote vigorous advocacy for plaintiffs.[13] On November 20, 2009, the Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld the jury's award.[14]

After the decision, McDonald's revised its manager's training program to better emphasize awareness of prank phone calls and protection of the rights of employees. While the training had already included such topics, none of the two managers and three junior employees involved in the hoax could recall much about it.

See also

References

Sources

Notes

  1. ^ a b c d Wolfson, Andrew (2007-09-09). "Trial to start for $200 million lawsuit over strip-search hoax". The Courier-Journal. http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-09-09-mcdonaldslawsuit_N.htm. Retrieved 2007-10-30. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Wolfson, Andrew (2005-10-09). "A hoax most cruel". The Courier-Journal. http://www.courier-journal.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20051009/NEWS01/510090392. 
  3. ^ Palmer, Alyson M. (2006-09-25). "Bizarre 'Strip-Search Hoax' Case Before 11th Circuit.". Fulton County Daily Report (Law.com). http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1158915930386. Retrieved 4 January 2007. 
  4. ^ 30 March 2005, Case 4:03-cv-00167-JFN, United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, Savannah Division
  5. ^ Cooper, Anderson (2004-03-30). "Transcript". AC-360 (CNN). http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0403/30/acd.00.html. Retrieved 4 January 2007. 
  6. ^ http://www.privateci.org/Oregon.htm
  7. ^ a b "Acquittal in hoax call that led to sex assault". MSNBC. 2006-10-31. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15504125/. Retrieved 2009-03-16. 
  8. ^ a b "Strip-Search Case Closed?". ABC News. 2007-11-30. http://abcnews.go.com/2020/Story?id=2684890. 
  9. ^ Associated Press (2007-10-05), "U.S. jury awards $6.1 million to woman in McDonald's strip-search hoax", International Herald Tribune, http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/10/05/america/NA-GEN-US-Strip-Search-Hoax.php 
  10. ^ Associated Press (2007-10-06). "Ex-McDonald's worker wins lawsuit over strip search". CTV.ca. http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20071006/mc_lawsuit_071006. Retrieved 2009-03-23. 
  11. ^ Schreiner, Bruce (2007-10-06). "McDonald's Worker Wins Strip-Search Suit". The Associated Press. http://www.redorbit.com/news/general/1091834/mcdonalds_worker_wins_stripsearch_suit/. 
  12. ^ http://indianalawblog.com/archives/2007/09/07/
  13. ^ Wolfson, Andrew (2008-11-15), "Judge: Company must pay legal fees", The Courier-Journal, http://search.courier-journal.com/sp?eId=213&gcId=64792167&rNum=4&url=http%3A%2F%2Fnl.newsbank.com%2Fcgi-bin%2Fngate%2FLCJB%3Fext_docid%3Dlou62457799%26ext_hed%3DJudge%3A+Company+must+pay+legal+fees%26s_site%3Dcourier-journal%26ext_theme%3Dgannett%26pubcode%3DLCJB%26usefield%3Dsqn&siteIdType=2 
  14. ^ http://www.wave3.com/Global/story.asp?S=11545266







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