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Jury Smells Rat in Extortion Scheme

December 16, 1997 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ A doctor was convicted Monday of trying to extort $5 million from McDonald’s by planting a fried rat’s tail in a Happy Meal he bought for his son.

Michael F. Zanakis took a rat’s tail from the medical research laboratory where he worked, had it fried and then placed it in a package of french fries he bought at a Long Island McDonald’s on Jan. 15, 1996, federal prosecutors said.

``He planted the tail and thought he would get away with it,″ said Assistant U.S. Attorney Leonard Lato. ``The next day he was on the phone with McDonald’s. We had him on tape demanding money.″

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A federal jury convicted Zanakis, of Harding, N.J., of three counts of mail fraud, six counts of wire fraud and two counts of extortion for the scheme targeting McDonald’s and Tri-Mac Management Inc., which owned the franchise restaurant.

Prosecutors alleged that he threatened to go public with accusations that McDonald’s served the fried rat’s tail to his 2-year-old son, who he said had bitten into and swallowed part of the tail.

Lato said prosecutors became convinced Zanakis had planted the tail when they discovered that it came from an albino rat of the species rattus norvegicus, the same type of animal he worked with as an associate professor at the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine, in East Orange, N.J.

``He asked for too much money, that was the bottom line,″ Lato said. ``You ask for $5 million, they’re not just going to write you a check.″

Jeh Johnson, Zanakis’ lawyer, said his client had not planted the tail and that his statements to McDonald’s were appropriate.

``He didn’t threaten to blow up a McDonald’s, he didn’t threaten to break anybody’s arm,″ Johnson said. ``What he said he was going to do was put a spotlight on something McDonald’s wanted kept in the dark.″

Zanakis was also convicted Monday in a 1993 scheme to defraud Coca-Cola and the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of New York by falsely telling them he had ingested ``small bits of greasy particles″ when he drank from a can of Coca-Cola Classic.

The companies eventually paid him $4,600 to prevent him from making the accusation public. Prosecutors said Zanakis himself put the grease in the soda can and did not ingest any greasy particles.

Zanakis, who now works at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in East Orange, N.J., planned to appeal Monday’s verdict. He was free pending his Feb. 20 sentencing, at which he could receive a term of up to 46 to 57 months in prison.

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