March 31, 2004 -- Restaurant managers across the country have been receiving strange phone calls from someone urging them to strip-search employees or customers to see if they have stolen property.
The latest incident occurred last week in Arizona, when a Taco Bell manager received a call from a man claiming to be a police officer who urged the manager to strip-search a female whom the caller said had stolen a pocketbook.
Authorities said the male manager pulled aside a 17-year-old female customer who fit the description given by the caller and then carried out the search, which included a body cavity search.
"We have a very bizarre situation occurring not only in Fountain Hills, Ariz., but across the nation, a very bizarre scheme," said Sheriff Joseph Arpaio of Marciopa County, Ariz. "My detectives are working full time on this investigation."
Investigators say that there have been dozens of similar cases going as far back as 1999, involving Burger King, Wendy's, Applebee's and other restaurants. In addition to Arizona, similar incidents involving both male and female managers conducting searches have been reported in Massachusetts, South Dakota, Indiana, Utah and Ohio.
No arrests have been made in connection with the calls in Arizona.
South Dakota Manager Acquitted
In Rapid City, S.D., a former fast-food restaurant manager was accused of holding a 19-year-old female employee against her will and forcing her to strip during a three-hour search in the restaurant's back office. Allan Mathis was acquitted last month of kidnapping and second-degree rape charges in connection with the June incident.
Mathis said that he was following the direction of someone on the telephone who claimed to be a police officer.
"I never wanted to be there, I never wanted to do it in the first place," Mathis said today on Good Morning America. "I was just doing what he told me to do."
Prosecutors said a videotape showed Mathis sexually assaulting the woman. The woman testified that Mathis made her exercise naked, sit on his lap and submit to a body search that included breast and genital touching.
"He was very convincing, very demanding, he had answers for everything," Mathis said about the caller who had instructed him. "Every question that I came up with he had answers that made sense to me."
Defense lawyer Randy Connelly told the jury Mathis was the unwitting victim of a "freak who plays God."
"What the caller is able to do is appeal, not to reason, but to fears," Connelly said on GMA. "The caller manages to appeal not to their reason but to their fear of losing their job, that they'll go to jail, that there will be adverse repercussions."
Both Females and Males Targeted
The hoax caller usually poses as a police officer, but sometimes the caller claims to be a district manager, Arpaio said. The caller then instructs the manager to search a young female of "generic description," he said.
Police suspect that the hoax is the work of one person, calling from a distant location.
"We feel that the manager and the victim are not involved in this scheme," Arpaio said.
In February, a Wendy's restaurant employee filed a sexual harassment complaint against a female supervisor for strip-searching him.
The woman was among supervisors at four Wendy's restaurants south of Boston who strip-searched employees, saying they were told to do so by a phone caller who said he was a policeman. The other incidents occurred in Whitman, West Bridgewater and Wareham. No criminal charges have been brought.
Wendy's has suspended all four supervisors involved in the incidents for violating rules against searches that involve touching or removing clothes.