Strip search phone call scam
The strip search phone call scam is a series of incidents that extended over a period of about ten years before an arrest was made in 2004. The incidents involved a man calling a restaurant or grocery store, claiming to be a police officer and then convincing managers to conduct strip searches of female employees and to perform other bizarre acts on behalf of "the police". The calls were most often placed to fast-food restaurants in small towns located in rural areas of the United States.
Over 70 such occurrences were reported in 30 U.S. states until an incident in 2004 in Mount Washington, Kentucky (population 9,117), finally led to the arrest of David R. Stewart, a 37‑year-old employee of Corrections Corporation of America, a firm contracted by several states to provide corrections officers at private detention facilities.
Before the Mount Washington scam
There were numerous prior incidents in many states which followed the pattern of the fraudulent call to a McDonald's restaurant in Mount Washington, Kentucky. Most of the calls were made to fast-food restaurants, but a few were made to grocery stores.
A caller who identified himself as a police officer or other authority figure would contact a manager or supervisor and would solicit their help in detaining a female employee or customer who was suspected of a crime. He would provide a description of the suspect, which the manager would recognize, and he would then ask the manager to search the suspected woman.
Some notable incidents were:
- Two calls were reported in 1992: one in Devils Lake, North Dakota, and another in Fallon, Nevada.
- On November 30, 2000, a female McDonald's manager in Leitchfield, Kentucky, undressed herself in the presence of a customer. The caller had convinced her that the customer was a "suspected sex offender" and that the manager, serving as bait, would enable undercover police officers to arrest him.
- On January 26, 2003, an Applebee's assistant manager subjected a waitress to a 90-minute strip search after receiving a collect call from someone who purported to be a regional manager for Applebee's.
- In February 2003, a call was made to a McDonald's in Hinesville, Georgia. The female manager (who believed she was speaking to a police officer who was with the director of operations for the restaurant's upper management) took a 19‑year-old female employee into the women's bathroom and strip-searched her. She also brought in a 55‑year-old male employee, who conducted a body cavity search of the woman to "uncover hidden drugs." McDonald's and the GWD Management Corporation were taken to court over the incident. In 2005, U.S. District Judge John F. Nangle granted a summary judgment to McDonald's and denied, in part, a summary judgment to GWD Management. In 2006, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgments.
- On June 3, 2003, a Taco Bell manager in Juneau, Alaska, undressed a 14‑year-old female customer and forced her to perform lewd acts at the request of a caller who had claimed he was working with Taco Bell management 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 description provided by the caller) into an office where she was to be strip-searched. The cashier was forced to undress and pose in various positions as part of the search. The incident 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, was strip-searched by a manager who had received a call from a man claiming to be a police officer.
The Mount Washington scam
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." The caller gave Summers a vague description of a slightly-built young white woman with dark hair, who was suspected of theft.
Summers believed the description provided was that of Louise Ogborn, a woman who was currently on duty at the restaurant. Ogborn had just turned 18 years of age.
The "police officer" demanded that Ogborn be searched at the restaurant because no officers were available at the moment to handle such a minor matter. Ogborn was brought into an office and ordered to remove her clothes, which Summers then placed in a bag and took to her car, as instructed. Ogborn then put on an apron to partially cover herself. Kim Dockery, another assistant manager, was present at that time; Dockery believed she was there as a witness to the search.
Dockery left after an hour, and Summers told the caller that she needed to be working at the restaurant's counter. The caller then told Summers to bring in someone whom she trusted to assist with the investigation.
Summers first asked Jason Bradley, one of the restaurant's cooks, to watch Ogborn. When the caller ordered Bradley to remove Ogborn's apron and describe her, Bradley refused but did not attempt to call the police.
Summers then called her fiancé, Walter Nix Jr., who went to the restaurant and took over from Summers. After being told that a police officer was on the phone, Nix can be seen obeying the caller's instructions for the next two hours.
Nix removed the apron that Ogborn was wearing and ordered her to dance and perform jumping jacks while she was naked. Nix then ordered her to insert her fingers into her vagina and expose it to him as part of the "search." He also ordered her to sit on his lap and kiss him, and when she refused to do so he spanked her until she promised to do it. The caller also spoke to Ogborn and demanded that she do as she was told or face worse punishment. Recalling the incident later, Ogborn said that, "I was scared for my life."
After Ogborn 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 times Ogborn was instructed by the caller to cover herself up with the apron. Nix became uneasy about what was happening. The caller then permitted him to leave on 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 having left, and short on staff due to the dinnertime rush, Summers needed someone to replace him in the office. She spotted Thomas Simms, the restaurant's maintenance man, who had stopped in at the restaurant for dessert. She told Simms to go into the office and watch Ogborn.
Simms, however, refused to go along with the caller's demands. At this point, Summers became suspicious and decided to call a higher-level manager (whom the caller had earlier claimed to have been speaking to on another phone line).
Speaking with her boss, Summers discovered that he had been sleeping and had not spoken to any police officer. She realized that the call had been fraudulent. The caller then abruptly ended the call. An employee dialled *69 before another call could ring in, thus obtaining the number of the caller's telephone.
Summers was now hysterical and began apologizing. Ogborn (shivering and wrapped in a blanket) was released from the office after three and a half hours. The police were called to the restaurant; they arrested Nix on a charge of sexual assault and began an investigation to find the perpetrator of the scam call.
The entire incident was recorded by a surveillance camera in the office. Summers watched the tape later that night and, according to her attorney, broke off her engagement with Nix.
Investigation, arrest, and trial
Mount Washington police, after doing a simple word search on the Internet, quickly realized that this was only the latest in a long series of similar incidents that extended over a period of about ten years. None of those incidents had continued as long, or with as many people involved, as the one in the Mount Washington McDonald's.
Although their initial suspicion was that the call had originated from a pay phone near the McDonald's restaurant (from which the perpetrator could see both the police station and the restaurant), police later determined that the call originated from a supermarket pay phone in Panama City, Florida. Having learned that the call was made with an AT&T phone card and that the largest retailer of such cards was Walmart, they contacted the police in Panama City.
The Panama City police informed the Mount Washington police that detective Flaherty in Massachusetts was already conducting an investigation. Several similar scam calls had been placed to Boston-area restaurants, and Flaherty had already pulled surveillance camera footage from a Walmart in Panama City.
Following Flaherty's lead, the Mount Washington police used the serial number of the phone card to find out that it had been purchased from a different Walmart than the Walmart which sold the card used for calls to Massachusetts restaurants.
Using the records of the Panama City Walmart, which showed them the cash register and the time of purchase of the phone card, Mount Washington police were able to find surveillance camera footage of the purchaser of the card. The Massachusetts investigation had gone cold when their surveillance video failed to show the purchaser — the cameras had been trained on the store's parking lot and not on the cash registers.
The purchaser in the Panama City video was wearing a correctional officer's uniform of the kind used by Corrections Corporation of America, a private security firm. Videos and still photographs from the two Walmarts were compared, and the same man was seen entering and exiting the Massachusetts Walmart at the time when a phone card was purchased there. Police used these images to produce front-and-back composite images of the suspect. Subsequent queries directed to the private security firm's human resources department led to the identification of the phone card buyer as David R. Stewart, a married man with five children, who was arrested.
Stewart was extradited to Kentucky to be tried on charges of impersonating a police officer and solicitation of sodomy. On October 31, 2006, he was acquitted of all charges. Both the defense and the prosecution attorneys stated that a lack of direct evidence may have affected the jury's decision to find him not guilty.
During his questioning by police, Stewart insisted he had never bought a phone card, but detectives found one in his home that had been used to call nine restaurants in the past year, including a call to a Burger King in Idaho Falls, Idaho, on the same day when the Burger King's manager was reportedly duped by a scam call.
Police also found in Stewart's home dozens of applications for police department jobs, hundreds of police magazines, and police-style uniforms, guns, and holsters. This was thought to indicate that the suspect had fantasized about being a police officer.
Louise Ogborn, the victim, underwent therapy and medication to address post-traumatic stress disorder depression. She abandoned her plans to attend the University of Louisville, where she had anticipated becoming a pre-med student. 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".
Donna Summers ended her engagement with Nix soon after the incident. She was fired from McDonald's for violating corporate policies prohibiting strip-searches and prohibiting anyone not employed by McDonald's from entering the restaurant's office. She 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 crime.
Kim Dockery was transferred to another location.
Nix, remorseful for his part in the incident, 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 beating and had engaged in the sex act, he received a five-year prison sentence.
Three years after the incident, still undergoing therapy, Louise Ogborn sued McDonald's for $200 million for failing to protect her during her ordeal. Her grounds for the suit were:
- that McDonald's corporate headquarters were aware of the danger of a possible hoax because they had defended themselves against lawsuits over similar incidents at their restaurants in four other states
- that McDonald's had been subjected to similar hoaxes at least two years before the Mount Washington incident and they had not taken appropriate action, as directed by their own chief of security and as outlined in his memo to McDonald's upper management
Donna Summers also sued McDonald's, asking for $50 million, for failing to warn her about the previous hoaxes.
McDonald's based their defense on four points:
(1) Summers deviated from the company's management manual, which prohibits strip-searches, and therefore McDonald's should not be held responsible for any action of Summers outside the scope of her employment;
(2) workers' compensation law prohibited employees from suing their employer;
(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 Ogborn $5 million in punitive damages and $1.1 million in compensatory damages and expenses.
Summers was awarded $1 million in punitive damages and $100,000 in compensatory damages.
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 their attorneys were sanctioned for withholding evidence pertinent to the outcome of the trial.
In November 2008, McDonald's was also ordered to pay $2.4 million in legal fees to plaintiffs' lawyers.
On November 20, 2009, the Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld the jury's verdict but reduced the punitive damages award to Summers to $400,000. McDonald's then appealed to the Kentucky Supreme Court. While their petition was pending in 2010, Ogborn settled with McDonald's for $1.1 million and abandoned her claim for punitive damages.
After the court decisions, McDonald's revised their manager-training program to emphasize awareness of scam phone calls and protection of employees' rights. Although their training program had already included these topics, none of the McDonald's employees involved in the Mount Washington scam were able to recall much about them.
The Mount Washington McDonald's scam has been the basis of three media depictions:
- The 2012 feature film Compliance, directed by Craig Zobel.
- A short film Plainview, which played the festival circuit in 2007–2008.
- Episode 17 of season 9 of the television show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (April 29, 2008) featured Robin Williams as the caller. The character played by Williams identified himself as "detective Milgram," a reference to the famous Milgram experiment, which studied unreasonable obedience to authority.
- Wolfson, Andrew (9 October 2005). "A hoax most cruel". The Courier-Journal.
- Wolfson, Andrew (9 September 2007). "Trial to start for $200 million lawsuit over strip-search hoax". The Courier-Journal. Retrieved 2007-10-30.
- 30 March 2005, case 4:03‑cv‑00167‑JFN, United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, Savannah Division
- 28 September 2006, D. C. Docket no. 03-00167‑CV-4, 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
- Cooper, Anderson (30 March 2004). "Transcript". AC-360 (CNN). Retrieved 4 January 2007.
- "Acquittal in hoax call that led to sex assault". MSNBC. 31 October 2006. Retrieved 16 March 2009.
- Associated Press (5 October 2007). "U.S. jury awards $6.1 million to woman in McDonald's strip-search hoax". International Herald Tribune..
- "Strip-Search Case Closed?". ABC News. 30 November 2007.
- Associated Press (6 October 2007). "Ex-McDonald's worker wins lawsuit over strip search". CTV. Retrieved 23 March 2009.
- Schreiner, Bruce (6 October 2007). "McDonald's Worker Wins Strip-Search Suit". The Associated Press.
- Wolfson, Andrew (15 November 2008). "Judge: Company must pay legal fees". The Courier-Journal..
- "Appeals court upholds $6 million award in McDonald's strip search case". www.wave3.com. 20 November 2009.
- "McDonald's and strip-search victim settle lawsuit". The Courier-Journal. 26 March 2010.
- "COMPLIANCE, writer-director, Craig Zobel". Filmmaker Magazine. 21 January 2012. Retrieved 2012-01-27.
- Cialdini, R. Influence: Science and Practice, Allyn & Bacon, 2000
- Milgram, S. Obedience to Authority, Harper & Row, 1974
- "Restaurant Shift Turns Into Nightmare". ABC News. 10 November 2005. An ABC News report on the Mount Washington, Kentucky, scam call.
- "A hoax most cruel: Caller coaxed McDonald's managers into strip-searching a worker". By Andrew Wolfson.