It’s Elkhart, Indiana, 2001. Two inches of Heather Coleman's turkey club disappear from her office fridge. The thief is nowhere to be found. And Heather’s life will never be the same. In this tribute to the hit podcast Serial, we investigate the shocking true story of an office fridge food theft.
This episode originally aired on March 12, 2015, and was produced by Dan Pashman and Anne Saini, with editorial help by Chris Bannon and Leital Molad. The Serial theme song was composed by Nick Thorburn. The Sporkful production team now includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O’Hara, Johanna Mayer, Tracey Samuelson, and Jared O’Connell.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Broken Castle" by Bijou Basil
- "Immobilessence" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Private Detective" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Cautiously Optimistic" by OK Factor
Photo courtesy of Dennis Sylvester Hurd (public domain).
CLIP (SPEAKER 1): This is a global Tel Link prepaid call from …
CLIP (HEATHER COLEMAN): Heather Coleman.
CLIP (HEATHER COLEMAN): Why not eat the whole sandwich?
CLIP (BARON AMBROSIA): And this was not about food whatsoever. This was about sex.
CLIP (HEATHER COLEMAN): It all culminated with me going slightly insane.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people.
Dan Pashman: These days, true crime is all the rage in podcasting. You can’t pick up an earbud without hearing about a corpse somewhere. On The Sporkful, we were ahead of this trend. In 2015 we pioneered the field of true food crime podcasting. This was back when the show was made at WNYC, by producer Anne Saini and me. We’re replaying it now in the hopes of claiming our rightful place at the top of the true crime podcasting charts. Enjoy.
Dan Pashman: For the last month, I've spent every working day trying to figure out where a third of a sandwich went one fall day in 2001. Or if you want to get technical about it, apparently I do, for a third of a six-inch sub at a call center in Elkhart, Indiana, went one fall day in 2001. The search sometimes feels undignified on my part. I've had to ask about teenagers sex lives. Where? How often? With whom? Didn't have anything to do with the sandwich. I was just curious. For you to know why I've been doing this, I'm trying to point out something I never really thought about before I started working on this story. And that is, it's really hard to account for your meals in a detailed way, I mean. What did you have for lunch last Wednesday? Soup? Salad? Sandwich? Was the bread soggy? Are you sure? The entire day, name every single thing you ate. It's hard. Here's the case I've been working on.
Heather Coleman: I totally remember the very first time that I noticed my food was missing. And that was a Schlotzsky's personal pizza.
Dan Pashman: This is Heather Coleman. Right off the bat, I want you to know that the story she's about to tell is a true story. Seriously, it's a true story. In the fall of 2001, she was working at a call center in Elkhart, Indiana. She worked long shifts, so she'd often buy a big meal for lunch, eat half, and put the rest in the office fridge for dinner.
Heather Coleman: So my dinner shift comes up. I'm looking forward to this pizza, of all things. I open it and one slice is missing. Just one.
Dan Pashman: Heather wrote it off. Lots of people in the office ordered from Schlotzsky's. Maybe it was an honest mistake? Turned out it was just the beginning.
Heather Coleman: The six-inch sub. That's the one that nailed it. It was pretty obvious when a six-inch sub, that was definitely six inches, when you open it up and there's only four inches left. And I was just like, "What the heck is going on?"
Dan Pashman: What kind of sandwich was it?
Heather Coleman: I believe it was a club sandwich. Yeah, the mayo, the mustard, all the good stuff.
Dan Pashman: It had bacon on it?
Heather Coleman: It wouldn't be a proper sandwich if it didn't have bacon on it.
Dan Pashman: What about cheese? You had cheese on the club sandwich person or no cheese?
Heather Coleman: I am one of those people who do believe that cheese does make everything better. That's a fact. Inarguable.
Dan Pashman: Heather tried to fight back. She left threatening notes. It didn't help. She hid her food behind the salad dressing. The thief still found it. She even put a sandwich in Tupperware and wrapped the whole container in duct tape. The thief cut through the duct tape and each time only to take a piece of the food, not the whole thing. That's the part I can't figure out. It's one of the things about this case that kind of bobs above the water for me, like a disturbing booie.
Heather Coleman: God. Ugh. It's even hard to even talk about it today. It hurts that much. Sitting in my cubicle, unwrapping it, thinking, "Okay, you know, like I ... I totally outsmarted my food thief. I am so genius." So I open it. I look at it. Same frickin thing. One third gone, and it just sat there looking at that ridiculous sandwich, and I felt like a loser.
Dan Pashman: And did you eat the sandwich?
Heather Coleman: No. No, that's ... that ... that's — I don't know what's wrong with you. You don't eat that sandwich.
Dan Pashman: It was only touched by a knife. It wasn't touched by ...
Heather Coleman: But it wasn't ...
Dan Pashman: A mouth.
Heather Coleman: Cut perfectly. So, you know, there were hands all over it. My bread was ... my bread was manipulated and molested. I couldn't eat that.
Dan Pashman: Heather went to a woman named Cheryl in H.R. and broke down crying in front of her. Cheryl didn't seem all that concerned. She put a note up on the office fridge reminding people not to eat other people's food. But it didn't help. The thefts continued on and off for months. Eventually, Heather stopped putting stuff in the fridge altogether. She only eat nonperishable food she could keep at her desk. Things like canned beef stew. Yeah, I know. Brutal.
Dan Pashman: We spent a lot of time trying to figure out if Heather was being targeted, singled out. She said she didn't know for sure whether there were others. She does say there seemed to be better food in the fridge that wasn't getting stolen, things like homemade mac and cheese. Heather casually asked other people around the office if their food had been taken, but nobody spoke up. She said she didn't want to make a big deal of it. It was her first real office job out of college. She already felt like she stuck out because she's Asian in a very white town. She didn't want to rock the boat. But more than anything, she didn't speak up because she felt ashamed.
Heather Coleman: I couldn't even protect my own sandwich. I mean, what type of person can't protect their own sandwich? And I couldn't. No matter what I did, I could not outsmart that thief. You know who do I go to? There is no crisis hotline for office food thievery. Food is so personal. Like, for example, if someone used up like all my Kleenex or all my Post-its, I would just go get another one and it would be no big deal. But the touching of my food, I really felt violated. And that's when I stopped eating. And so the starvation, the violation, the anger, it all culminated with me going slightly insane. Really, really insane.
Dan Pashman: I wanted to put together a list of suspects. And for that thought, I needed to understand this food thief a little better. I reached out to Baron Ambrosia, culinary ambassador to the Bronx and host of the Cooking Channel show The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia. Baron himself is an admitted food thief. In one episode of his show, he ends up in a pull up contest with rap legend Melly Mel after swiping two pies from a neighbor. I filled him in on Heather's situation and asked him for his take on the culprit.
Baron Ambrosia: This is not a crime of hunger. I was caught stealing a pie once, as you well know. And — but I took the whole pie and I ate the whole pie. Never once would I take a portion of something. You know, and the things that I would steal most of the time would be outrageously delicious. What you're telling me here — a sandwich. Oh, is it a tuna sandwich?
Dan Pashman: A turkey club.
Baron Ambrosia: Turkey club? Okay, we know what a turkey club tastes like.
Dan Pashman: So you don't think that it's a crime of hunger? It's not a crime of culinary curiosity. It's not like, I must try this amazing food.
Baron Ambrosia: No. No.
Dan Pashman: So. So what do you think it is?
Baron Ambrosia: No, no. I mean, it's none of these things. If you look at all the facts, this is mediocre food. This person was very controlled. This person was very methodical. And this was not about food, whatsoever. This was about sex. This is about intimacy. This ... this person, what they're doing is literally like two steps above sniffing someone's chair. This is not, ooh, ooh. I want a little snack and I feel a sense of entitlement and I'm going to come in here and be the, you know, the sandwich bully. It's not that. It's certainly — it's fetishistic. This is absolutely fetishistic.
Dan Pashman: From there, I went back to Heather to get her thoughts on potential suspects.
Heather Coleman: So in my head I was thinking like one or two of the guys that I knew there that were, you know, just out of college as well. And they eat like pigs and ate a lot, so I just assumed it was one of the dudes. They would have eaten the whole thing. I mean, I — yeah. Even now, I cannot believe that somebody eats — why not eat the whole sandwich?
Dan Pashman: Right, the whole thing just feels very calculating.
Heather Coleman: Yes.
Dan Pashman: I asked Heather, does Cheryl from H.R. fit the profile? Should she be in the list of suspects?
Heather Coleman: The thing is, at the time I totally didn't think so because Cheryl was really kind and the way her office was positioned, she'd have to come down the stairs, which have been close to my desk, and so I would have spotted her. So logic tells me it couldn't be Cheryl.
Dan Pashman: Well, let's not dismiss her quite so quickly. We got to pad this story out a little bit longer, Heather. So, we have Cheryl, the H.R. woman.
Heather Coleman: Well, she does have opportunity.
Dan Pashman: Okay. Right. She has some authority.
Heather Coleman: Yes. And she was dismissive of my complaint of my food violation.
Dan Pashman: Right, which is questionable. We have the frat boys.
Heather Coleman: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Who are hungry and probably selfish.
Heather Coleman: Exactly.
Dan Pashman: Next possibility is Heather has gone insane and is stealing her own food and doesn't realize it.
Heather Coleman: Exactly.
Dan Pashman: Then is there anyone else? Let's continue to look through suspects. Is there let's say let's call him a Mr. McGuffin?
Heather Coleman: Well, there is a person that could be Mr. McGuffin.
Dan Pashman: Okay. Who's that?
Heather Coleman: It was my direct supervisor at the time.
Dan Pashman: Heather says Mr. McGuffin was a middle aged guy who was kind of bitter about his job. Meanwhile, she's this kid right out of college who keeps getting promoted. She's about to leapfrog him on the corporate ladder. She says, there was tension between them as a result. That sounds to me like a motive. And she says, there were other clues.
Heather Coleman: The fact that his lunch was always after mine. I was looking at people's lunch schedules for a while. Being in a call center, every minute of your time is logged.
Dan Pashman: That's right. There were call logs. Mr. McGovern made calls at 3:21 to Jen, 3:32 to Nisha, 3:42 to a dude named Phil, and 3:59 to Patrick. There are three calls in the call log around this time that all pinged towers near Cathy's apartment. 6:07, 6;09. and 6;24. The first two calls are for a little less than a minute. The third calls, the longest, 4 minutes, 15 seconds. Are you following all of this? Then there's some stray things about Mr. McGuffin that, eh, I don't know what they mean. Or if they mean much of anything. But I'm going to tell you about them in case. Worse comes to worst, we fill another 20 seconds of the show. Here it goes.
Dan Pashman: Number one, when he was 12, Mr. McGuffin may or may not have lied to one of his teachers. Number two, Mr. McGuffin sometimes goes streaking in the woods. Number three, Mr. McGuffin’s favorite food is red herring.
Chris Bannon: Coming up on The Sporkful.
CLIP (ANNE SAINI): I mean, it seems like, yeah, it could be done, but it seems far fetched.
CLIP (KELLY): So I just wonder where her little perspective of reality is sometimes.
CLIP (HEATHER): I lost it. I had no way of holding back, this like burrito anger I had running through my veins.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. On last week’s show, I travel to Houston and meet up with Omer Yousafzai at his restaurant The Afghan Village. Over the past year, Houston has taken in more Afghan refugees than any other American city, and this restaurant has become a place where many refugees can go for a taste of home.
Dan Pashman: Omer moved to Texas in his 20’s, then went back to Afghanistan to work for an American defense contractor during the war there. Military food wasn’t very good, but he wasn’t allowed to leave the base. So he found a workaround.
CLIP (OMER YOUSAFZAI): Probably if my supervisor hear what I did, they will not like it. We were not allowed, but we would still bribe the locals
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): And what were some of the dishes that they were bringing back?
CLIP (OMER YOUSAFZAI): Chapli kabab was one of them.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Okay.
CLIP (OMER YOUSAFZAI): And then lamb chops is another famous — they call it shinwari kebab. We had Kabuli pulao, which is lamb cooked inside rice. Some vegetables, too.
CIP (DAN PASHMAN): So the American soldiers, what were their reactions?
CLIP (OMER YOUSAFZAI): They would literally have a dance before eating. I remember a lot of military personnel from all races — I'm talking about Black, Hispanics, white. When I saw people liking Afghan food, that moment I decided if I come back, I’m going to try a restaurant.
Dan Pashman: But when he first opened his restaurant, things did not go well. Omer tells me all about it, and I sample some fantastic chapli kebabs made by his 9-year-old son Soloman. I also speak with a man who recently arrived from Afghanistan to hear about his experience. That episode is up now, get it wherever you got this one.
Dan Pashman: Okay. Returning to true crime podcaster voice, let’s get back into it …
Dan Pashman: Earlier in the show, we raised the possibility that Heather had gone insane and was actually stealing food from herself. Well, to be precise, she raised the possibility when she said, " It all culminated with me going slightly insane." This topic comes up a lot when you talk to Heather. So I talked to her friend Kelly. Kelly says Heather's really nice, funny, sweet, a great person. They didn't know each other back when all the food stealing was happening. I asked Kelly if she had ever seen signs that Heather might be out of touch with reality.
Kelly: Well, we both have dogs, and I'm always feeding my dog treats, and she's always putting her dog on a diet and telling me that her dog's chubby and my dog is cute. And my dog is a little bit chubby, but hers is not as chubby. [LAUGHS] So I just wonder where her little perspective of reality is sometimes.
Dan Pashman: So there's that. For just a minute, let's put aside the question of whether it's psychologically possible Heather was stealing food from herself. Let's look at whether it was physically possible. Like, could she have pulled it off? Heather says it took 2 minutes to get from her desk to the lunchroom. Then she'd have to remove a sandwich, slice a piece off, put the rest back, and get back to her desk. That's not much time.
Anne Saini: I don't think I could even do it if I go there and, like, CSI'd it, like sat at a desk, did a quick run through, did it — I don't think I could have completed the act in that time frame.
Dan Pashman: Gauntlet so thrown, producer Anne Saini and I gave it a shot.
Dan Pashman: All right. We're in a corner of the WNYC newsroom. The farthest possible point from the lunchroom.
Anne Saini: Right.
Dan Pashman: And that's where Heather said she sat the front of this possible spot.
Anne Saini: Right. Right.
Dan Pashman: And she said she worked with about 75 people. There's about 75 people who work on this floor.
Anne Saini: Yeah, I think that's a fair estimate.
Dan Pashman: So this is basically exactly the same.
Anne Saini: Right.
Dan Pashman: You got the stopwatch?
Anne Saini: I have the stopwatch.
Dan Pashman: Hit it. All right, we're walking in the lunchroom. We're going to walk briskly like we're in a rush, but not —
Anne Saini: But not too rushed.
Dan Pashman: Right. We don't want to attract attention. Hey, Brooke.
Brooke Gladstone: Hey, Dan.
Dan Pashman: Nothing to see here. Hey, Dubner.
Stephen Dubner: Dan!
Dan Pashman: Is that Lakshmi Singh?
Baron Ambrosia: No, no.
Anne Saini: Ohh. There's a shrimp sale at that Crab Crib.
Dan Pashman: Sometimes I think Anne isn't listening to me.
[RUNNING LUNCH TEST]
Dan Pashman: All right, we're entering the lunchroom ...
Dan Pashman: We got to the kitchen.
Anne Saini: All right, 37 seconds.
Dan Pashman: Took out my half a sub, sliced off a piece, ate it, put the rest back. Then I took it out again and ate some more cause it was good. Then I put it away again and raced back to where Heather would have sat.
Dan Pashman: Okay. And how long?
Anne Saini: All right. We are at 1 minute, 59 seconds.
Dan Pashman: Huh?
Anne Saini: I mean, it seems like, yeah, it could be done, but it seems farfetched.
Dan Pashman: Here's what I take away from my conversation with Kelly and the test Anne and I ran. I don't think Heather is insane. I just don't. I think her reaction to all this is pretty understandable. I've heard and seen her demonstrate normal human emotion towards me, like when she talks about the pain of losing all those sandwiches. But in all the other options, it's a tossup. Could she have just accidentally misplaced her food over and over again? It's possible.
Dan Pashman: Could she have made up the whole story just to get on this podcast? It's possible. Could all of human existence actually just be a dream in the mind of a giant space turtle? I asked my magic eight ball and the answer was, "Ask again later."
Dan Pashman: Back at the call center, Heather was keeping her head down and avoiding the communal fridge. Weeks went by. She hadn't moved on. She was trying to stay focused on her work. Then came the burrito. She got promoted again and a group of supervisors took her out for lunch to celebrate. They went to a place with really big, amazing burritos. Heather ate half of hers and got the rest wrapped up. She put it in the office fridge. Before she went home for the day, she went to grab it.
Heather Coleman: It was a travesty. The wrapper was just torn open. The burrito, itself, was mangled. And I'm saying mangled as in like a rabid dog went through it.
Dan Pashman: Worst of all, for Heather, only the chicken had been removed. The rest was left laying there, splayed open like a carcass on a savanna.
Heather Coleman: I haven't felt that kind of anger since like the Cubs didn't go to the series because that ball was caught by the fan. That's the type of anger I felt. But you know something? That burrito was the reason that I found out who it was.
Heather Coleman: Well, I was looking at the container that had the burrito, and within the burrito was a spork.
Dan Pashman: So you see the spork that wasn't there before.
Heather Coleman: Right.
Dan Pashman: What's your first thought?
Heather Coleman: My first thought was lipstick. There was lipstick on the spork. Yeah, it was neon orange. It was a very unique color. I knew right away. I mean, it was just like a light bulb went off in my head and all I saw was red. I mean, the anger — and the worst part is like I had no run-ins with this person. I really had no idea. Like, I — I couldn't tell you anything about this person, besides that, they wore that lipstick.
Dan Pashman: We’ll call this woman, Karen. That's not her real name. Heather says they hardly knew each other. They didn't work closely together. Outside of the neon orange lipstick, Karen was totally unremarkable. She blended in, although maybe that was part of her cover.
Heather Coleman: And so I'm holding the box with the burrito in it, and the spork is in my hand. And, like, out of nowhere, I see Karen walk by and she's going towards the restroom. And I just — I lost it.
Dan Pashman: Heather followed Karen into the bathroom, burrito and spork in hand. Karen was in a stall.
Heather Coleman: I started banging on the door and just like, "I need to talk to you." And I remember like a voice very calm saying, "Can we talk some other time?" And I was like, "What the hell? Another time? No, this is the time. This is the place. We're doing this right now."
Dan Pashman: Heather stood there, waiting with her burrito for what felt like an eternity.
Heather Coleman: I'm going to get truth out of her. She's going to admit that she's my burrito thief. She's going to admit all the atrocities that she's done to all my food. And that's all I was thinking. And I just remember sitting there staring at that stall door like, "Why won't she come out? Like, hurry up." And that's when I heard, like the crumbling sound, the crunching sound, a food wrapper ... in the stall. She was eating in there.
Dan Pashman: Wow.
Heather Coleman: Yeah. And that kind of, for a second, like, broke my crazy seeing red anger because like, what the hell, you know? And she finally did come out of the bathroom stall and there was food on her shirt. Like, she was, like brushing off crumbs on her shirt. And — well, I kept on saying like, "Why? You know, why me?" And I remember saying, "Why me?" And I remember thinking, "Oh, my gosh, that is so, you know, ridiculous and pitiful to say that," but that's how I felt. And she just went to the sink, washed her hands, and she turned around and looked at me. And she's just very calmly said, "A person who doesn't finish a personal pizza doesn't deserve to have that pizza." ... Oh. Chills, still till this day.
Dan Pashman: For many, many minutes. We tried to contact Karen to tell her we were doing this story and in hopes that she might want to talk to us. In my 20 plus days of reporting, I've never tried harder to find anyone. Phone calls. Social media. Letters in English and Korean. Even though I don't think Karen speaks Korean. Two private detectives. People knocking on doors in three different states. I even wrote her a note by cutting out words from magazines and taping them to a piece of paper to form sentences, then signing it in blood. You know, all the tricks you learned in journalism school. We never heard back from her. My best guess is that she wants no part of this, which I respect. As for Heather, she hasn't trusted a communal fridge since. She never reported Karen to H.R. They never spoke again.
Heather Coleman: It was like my private secret torture that I kept to myself. I was shameful. I didn't want other people to know.
Dan Pashman: But in a way it was almost made — perhaps, it might have also been like her — torture for her, because it's like now she has this sort of this guillotine over her head. Like she knows that you have this incriminating information on her that you're holding on to and holding on to.
Heather Coleman: Ohh. You know, I never thought about it that way. I was so self absorbed at the time. I was then just thinking about me, me, me, like, you know, how am I going to handle this? You know, what am I thinking about this?
Dan Pashman: You know, it's possible, Heather, that you had the best revenge by never doing anything. Even to this day, you lie awake thinking about her, saying "Why? Why?" But she could lie awake thinking about you. What if she finds me on Facebook? What if we end up working in the same company or in the same town again? What if I see her on the street? What if she reports it to my current boss?
Heather Coleman: Exactly. Because I'm always holding the other shoe for her.
Dan Pashman: That's right. All you got to do is drop it.
Heather Coleman: Mind blown. I never thought about it that way.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Heather Coleman: But now? Now I feel like, now, I have the upper hand, that I will drink her milkshake.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show I talk with Asma Khan, the chef and owner of the London restaurant Darjeeling Express. She didn’t start cooking seriously until she was in her 40s, when she started a supper club in her home. Now, she staffs her kitchen with all women, who don’t have traditional culinary experience, and she’s an outspoken advocate for women’s rights. That’s next week.