By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Sometimes Julie Sacharko wishes she had just stayed in California. Instead, last month the mother of three left her quiet Sonoma County home and flew five hours to Florida to find the woman who had given her up for adoption as a child. Armed with only a name from a genealogy website, she rented a car in Miami and drove down the coast to the Keys. On the second-to-last one, Stock Island, she found the address she was looking for. It was a Burger King.
The mystery thickened after she went inside. When she asked for Donna Varela — her 76-year-old mother — a young Latina employee said, "Yes, that's me." But when Sacharko explained there must be some mistake, the burger-slinger's English quickly evaporated.
Sacharko didn't give up. She tracked down the real Varela at a dingy trailer park nearby. Finally, she found her mother inside a camper the size of a minivan.
"It was horrible," Sacharko recalls. "The place was unlivable. All she had was a tiny fridge with a microwave on top. She was eating out of cans."
Even worse, however, were Varela's tales about working at Burger King. For more than a decade, she had worked 12-hour days, often seven days a week, for minimum wage. Her only reprieves came when hurricanes shut down the island.
"They took advantage of her at that Burger King," Sacharko says of her mother. "She had to sneak her lunch breaks and wear adult diapers because they wouldn't let her go to the bathroom."
When Varela couldn't take it any longer, the general manager, Kris Kwiesinski, fired her in order to hire someone younger, she claims.
"The night before, I was telling someone that I needed a vacation," Varela says. "Well, I got one. I got a long vacation, all right."
Burger King's corporate office in Miami did not respond to requests for comment. But Kwiesinski did.
"She was... she was... she couldn't follow Burger King procedures," he sputtered when Riptide contacted him. "She could take vacation whenever she wanted. It's not like she was pushed to stay."
But all alone, and with more than half of her meager income going toward rent, Varela had little choice but to man the drive-thru. She was too afraid of Kwiesinski to complain, she says. Now unemployed, she spends her days swallowing heart and blood pressure pills and telling reporters dubious tales about her past as a showgirl married to a secret agent who faked his own death.
"When I found her, I wanted to hate her," Sacharko says of her fragile absentee mother. "But she's such a sweet old lady that I can't. She's been through hell."