|By Peter Dujardin, Daily Press, Newport News, Va.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jun. 2, 2004 - NEWPORT NEWS, Va., A woman who said she found a mouse in her soup at a Cracker Barrel restaurant last month News made up the whole story, the Commonwealth's Attorney's office said Tuesday.
Carla Patterson, 36, and her son, Ricky Patterson, 20, both of the 100 block of Westview Drive in Hampton, were both charged Tuesday with attempted extortion and conspiracy to commit a felony after they tried to get Cracker Barrel to give them money in the hoax, said Howard Gwynn, Newport News' Commonwealth's Attorney.
Patterson was eating at the Newport News restaurant, across from the Patrick Henry Mall on Jefferson Avenue, on May 8 when she said she discovered the mouse in a bowl of vegetable soup. Her screams prompted other patrons to leave the restaurant, and the incident caused Cracker Barrel to stop serving vegetable soup at all of its 497 stores nationwide.
The Pattersons were arrested Tuesday after a sting operation in which officials from Cracker Barrel met the Pattersons at an undisclosed location and handed them a check, with law enforcement officials witnessing the handover from nearby, Gwynn said. The police department's economic crimes unit had developed the plan for the arrest after gathering evidence in recent days, police said.
Julie Davis, a corporate spokeswoman with Cracker Barrel's headquarters, near Nashville, Tenn., said the Pattersons had demanded $500,000 from the company,
Under the deal that Cracker Barrel had arranged with the Pattersons for the sting, the restaurant chain was to turn over the money in exchange for pictures of the mouse that Ricky Patterson had taken with his cell phone camera. Also as part of the deal, Davis said, Ricky Patterson was to publicly admit that he had made up the story.
But instead of getting to keep the check, the Pattersons got arrested.
"We are very grateful for the effort of the law enforcement officials and that this fraud has been exposed," Davis said of the arrests. "We are very relieved for the employees of our stores, especially our Newport News store. They were brave and maintained an excellent level customer service despite three weeks of negative publicity, and jokes on Leno and Letterman. This restores our reputation and our good name."
The Newport News store suffered greatly in the incident, she said, with business slowing down substantially. The store's workers lost tips, and some were transferred to other stores to make up hours they lost to the slowdown.
Davis said Cracker Barrel had undertaken an in-depth investigation as soon as the mouse was found in the soup.
But when the laboratory analysis of the small, black mouse came back, Davis said, it was clear that something was amiss. "It was a very methodical investigation, and we knew that something was very wrong," she said.
For one thing, she said, the autopsy showed that the mouse had not drowned, and was not cooked. The mouse did not have any soup in its internal system. The mouse, Davis said, died of a skull fracture.
There was no evidence of rodent activity at the Newport News restaurant, she said. Further, an independent audit of the vendor that provided the soup to Cracker Barrel, she said, indicated that it would have been impossible for the mouse to make it through the soup-making process in one piece.
On Thursday, a Cracker Barrel lawyer in Roanoke contacted the Commonwealth's Attorney's office in Newport News, and laid out the evidence that the company had been gathered so far. Gwynn said that his office advised Cracker Barrel to take some additional steps, to ask some additional questions of the Pattersons. Ultimately, his office arranged the sting operation with the police department.
"There's a lot of circumstantial evidence that will come out at trial," Gwynn said of the information his office has gathered.
Carla Patterson, the vice president of athletics, for Denbigh Youth Football and Cheerleading Association., with the city's Parks and Recreation department, could not be reached Tuesday. Her son Ricky also could not be reached. They were being booked at Newport News City Jail, police said.
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