The McDonald’s strip search 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. These incidents were the inspiration behind an episode of Law & Order: SVU featuring Robin Williams as the scammer, and Monica Raymund as the victim.
Incidents before 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.
- 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.
- 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 granted summary judgment to McDonald’s, and denied in part summary judgment to GWD Management Corporation. In 2006, The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.
- 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.
- 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.
- In July, 2003, a 36-year-old Winn-Dixie grocery store manager in Panama City, Florida received a call instructing him to bring a 19 year old female cashier, who matched a physical description provided by the caller, into the office for a strip search. The cashier was forced to disrobe and pose in various positions as part of the search. The incident was ended when another manager entered the office to retrieve a set of keys.
- 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.
Mount Washington, Kentucky incident
On April 9, 2004, a call was made to a McDonald’s restaurant in Mount Washington, Kentucky. According to assistant manager Donna Summers, the caller identified himself as a policeman, ‘Officer Scott’, and gave a vague description of a slightly-built young white woman with dark hair suspected of theft. Summers believed this described Louise Ogborn, a female employee on duty. After the caller demanded that the employee be searched at the store because no officers were available at the moment to handle such a minor matter, the employee was brought into an office and ordered to remove her clothes, which Summers placed in a plastic bag and took to her car at the caller’s instruction. Another assistant manager, Kim Dockery, was present during this time, believing she was there as a witness to the search. After an hour Dockery left and Summers told the caller that she was also required at the counter. The caller then told her to bring in someone she trusted to assist.
Summers called her fiance, Walter Nix, who arrived and took over from Summers. Told that a policeman was on the phone, Nix followed the caller’s directions for the next two hours. He removed the apron the employee had covered herself with and ordered her to dance and perform jumping jacks. Nix then ordered the employee to insert her fingers into her vagina and expose her genital cavity to him as part of the search. He also ordered her to sit on his lap and kiss him, and when she refused he spanked her until she promised to comply. The caller also spoke to the employee, demanding that she do as she was told or face worse punishment. Recalling this period of time, the employee said that “I was scared for my life”.
After the employee had been in the office for two and a half hours, she was ordered to perform oral sex on Nix.
Summers returned to the office periodically, and during these visits the employee was instructed by the caller to cover herself up with the apron. Becoming uneasy with the situation, Nix was then permitted by the caller to leave, on the condition 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”.
With Nix leaving and short on available staff due to the dinnertime rush, Summers spotted Thomas Simms, the store maintenance man who had stopped at the restaurant for dessert, in the lobby and instructed him to enter the office to watch the employee. Simms refused to go along with the caller’s demands. It was at this point that Summers 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. An 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 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.
Investigation and criminal trial
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.
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 after several calls had been placed to Boston-area restaurants and he had already pulled surveillance camera footage from a local Panama City 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.
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.
During his questioning by police, 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, and police-type uniforms, guns and holsters, indicating that being or becoming a police officer was possibly a fantasy of the suspect.
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.
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. 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 five-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. She was not charged with any sex-related crimes.
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 abuse, she “felt dirty” and had difficulty making and maintaining friendships because she wouldn’t “allow anyone to get too close to her.”
Since Stewart’s arrest, police reported that the calls have stopped. Stewart remains a suspect in similar cases throughout the USA.
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 two years before 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. Summers also sued McDonald’s for failing to warn her of the previous hoaxes, asking for $50 million.
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.
The civil trial began September 10, 2007 and ended October 5, 2007 when a jury awarded to the victim $5 million in punitive damages and $1.1 million in compensatory damages and expenses. Summers was also awarded $1.1 million. 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. McDonald’s and its attorneys were sanctioned for withholding evidence pertinent to the outcome of the trial.
As of September 2008, none of the plaintiffs had received payment on the award, as McDonald’s continued 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. On November 20, 2009, the Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld the jury’s award.
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.