Stories of cruel messages scrawled on restaurant checks, defaming one protected class or another, have become a fixture of the news cycle. To date none of these stories has passed the smell test. But that didn’t the media from racing to declare an Hispanic waitress the victim of the latest vile, unprovoked racist attack by a vengeful customer. In their haste to make the waitress a martyr for all things social justice, reporters may have overstepped and libeled innocent people.
At least, that looks like it could be the case with the story, which emanates from Harrisonburg, Va.
The initial incident seemed straightforward. Sadie Elledge, a native-born Honduran-American, claims she was stiffed on a tip and instead received a message on the receipt reading, in all caps, “We only tip citizens.” The patrons allegedly responsible were a couple she served at Jess’s Lunch, a diner.
Elledge’s grandfather shared the receipt online, it quickly went viral, and virtually ever outlet that covered it treated Elledge’s claims as objectively true. Many outlets also explicitly blamed both members of the couple for the racist message.
“This couple didn’t tip their Latina server. They left a hateful message instead,” blared a Washington Post headline, suggesting the message was anti-Hispanic racism.
“Customers stiff Latina waitress, write ‘We only tip citizens,” said CNN.
The story has reaped a small financial dividend for Elledge, who has received cash in the mail from supporters.
There’s obviously more to the story.
The claim was investigated by Michael Koolidge, a radio host based in Illinois, who tracked down the couple allegedly responsible for the receipt, and made an astonishing discovery: The woman who signed the receipt is herself Puerto Rican, speaks Spanish as a first language, and has an imperfect grasp of English.
“Me [sic] only, I sign my name, and that’s it,” the woman, Ada Doriot, told Koolidge in a phone conversation. “I no put nothing in the ticket, and go for the home and take a shower and go to my work. That’s it.” Doriot said she has been suffering immense distress over the incident, especially because many friends and family members have been seeing her name in Spanish-language media.
The other possible culprit for the supposed anti-immigrant message is Ada’s fiancé, publicly identified only as Tom. While mainstream media reporting on the “racist” incident naturally leaped to the conclusion that the bigots were white, Tom is actually a black man. Tom also denied writing the message.
“I didn’t do that, and she didn’t do that. And any handwriting analysis would clearly show that I didn’t do it, or she didn’t do it,” Tom said. Tom also claimed that he did, in fact, tip Elledge by leaving three one-dollar bills for her.
After the receipt’s photo went viral online, Tom returned to the restaurant and caused quite a scene over the violation of Ada’s privacy. The incident was mentioned by The Washington Post and other outlets, but Tom said those write-ups left out the fact he was also demanding to know who had written the message on the receipt.
Despite the couple’s denials, though, Jess’s Lunch manager, Tom Marchese, claims he reviewed hours of surveillance footage, and said there was never a time where Elledge or anybody else could have taken the receipt and written the offensive message.
“The receipt never reappears throughout the day,” Marchese said in an interview with Koolidge. “I watched the entire day’s footage. Sadie never takes the paper out, never lays anything down on the counter.”
Of course, the footage also provides little evidence that Doriot or Tom are responsible for the writing. The scant amount of footage released thus far by local news station WHSV shows Doriot handling the receipt for only a few seconds, and her back is to the camera, making it impossible to tell where on the receipt she is writing. Tom is never seen handling the receipt at all.
The Daily Caller News Foundation tried to contact Marchese to ask additional questions about the footage, such as whether Elledge ever stepped out of the camera’s view, but was unable to reach him.
Koolidge says this lack of positive evidence, along with the couple’s denials, make it journalistic malpractice for them to simply repeat Elledge’s claims as fact.
If the receipt is a hoax, it’s in good company. In the fall of 2013, waitress Dayna Morales became a national hero, and then a villain, after it was determined she had falsely accused a family of stiffing her on a tip for being gay. That same year, a patron of Red Lobster was falsely accused of writing a slur on his receipt after being served by a black woman.
This report, by Blake Neff, was cross-posted by arrangement with the Daily Caller News Foundation.