Internet detectives attempting to solve high profile crime mysteries in their bathrobes is a growing phenomenon on social media sites like Reddit. And if this amateur sleuthing can sometimes create a real mess (e.g. Pizzagate), in other instances it can be quite illuminating.
Take the kidnapping case of California “Super Mom” Sherri Papini, which may be perfect for such an investigation. It’s sensational, bizarre and has left detectives scratching their heads. The Internet, however, thinks they’ve got this one solved.
To recap, blonde and beautiful Sherri, a 34 year old married mother of two living in Redding, California, disappeared while jogging on Nov. 2. She reappeared on the side of a highway near Sacramento on Thanksgiving Day, beaten and bloody with her hand chained behind her back. Sherri reportedly told police she was kidnapped by two Hispanic women in a van who tortured and starved her.
While the police haven’t been forthcoming with details, Sherri’s handsome husband Keith gave an interview to ABC in which he said his wife’s captors beat her, cut off her hair, and starved her. He claimed Sherri had lost 15 percent of her body weight and that the captors had “branded her”. This branding comment has led to speculation that the kidnapping was part of a sex trafficking operation.
Sherri was taken to the hospital for her injuries but (oddly) was discharged without even spending one night. She and her family have since skipped town for an undisclosed location to avoid media attention (leaving their dogs behind) and Sherri has not been seen once by the media since her disappearance.
So what happened here? Many people on Reddit are scouring social media for clues about the mysterious kidnapping and most are coming to the consensus that Sherri is making the whole thing up.
Speculation began when a user on /r/MarkMyWords posted a long screed (with cited evidence) poking holes in Sherri’s story, saying “Mark my words: Sherri Papini is lying about her abduction just like she did in 2006.”
Here are some of Reddit’s findings and allegations, which are simply that — allegations:
- Sherri allegedly wrote about getting in fights with Latinos on a skinhead blog
Posting on a skinhead blog in 2003 with her maiden name Sherri Graeff, she told a similar story of getting jumped by a group of Latinos after getting in a fight with a Latina woman. The blog entry notes that Sherri was persecuted by Latinos at her high school for being of German descent, and that she was “white and proud of my blood and heritage.”
I totally agree with Skinheads that girls should not fight. They should stand by their men. But, sometimes, I guess, you have to do what is necessary, when a Skinhead isn’t on hand … Being white is more than just being aware of my skin, but of standing behind Skinheads — who are always around, in spirit, as well — and having pride for my country. Being white is my family, my roots, my way of life. It’s always there. There’s no denying it. It’s nobility. It’s strength. It will be there to lift me up when I really need my pride, when I need to “keep walking.”
Sherri’s ex-husband (Keith is a later marriage) recently claimed the post was not written by her and was actually fabricated by a jealous friend intent on smearing her. However, Redditors are fairly convinced that the detailed post is not a forgery, with one commenter who says they knew Sherri at the time absolutely convinced she is the author.
- Sherri allegedly staged her own abduction before.
- The Papinis made $50,000 through a GoFundMe page after her disappearance.
This would give a profit motive to an (allegedly) fabricated abduction. Many commenters observe that Keith’s job at Best Buy could not support the family’s lifestyle (Sherri is a stay at home mom) and that the family may have been motivated by financial exigencies.
- Sherri has possible ties to white nationalism
In addition to the aforementioned skinhead blog posting, Sherri also appears to have made a few posts on Pinterest that can be described as “anti-Muslim” and “pro-white”, under a group euphemistically called “Cultural Differences”.
Redditors also point out that the public statement made by Keith used neo-Nazi language. He described those who didn’t believe in his wife’s story as “subhuman.”
“Rumors, assumptions, lies and hate have been both exhausting and disgusting,” he said. “Those people should be ashamed of their malicious, subhuman behavior.”
(The Nazis used the word subhuman, or Untermensch, to refer to inferior peoples such as Jews, Slavs and Roma.)
It’s also interesting to note that while Keith calls the family’s critics “subhuman”, he does not use such strong language for his wife’s attackers.
Keith also brought up the idea, unprompted, that the kidnapping story was definitely not a way to spark a “race war.”
“I understand people want the story, pictures, proof that this was not some sort of hoax, plan to gain money or some fabricated race war.”
Some internet sleuths believe these circumstantial connections to white nationalism discredit Sherri’s story, which they believe was fabricated to smear Hispanics.
- A self-described former acquaintance of Sherri says she has a history of making things up and odd behavior.
An anonymous Redditor who claims to know Papini says she would repeatedly bring up a spurious heart condition whenever she wanted attention.
I used to know her in 2002-2005 or so and she had this “heart condition” that would often flare up and cause her extreme pain.. always seemed to happen when she wasn’t getting enough attention.
Once, she was camping with a bunch of our friends and another girl got hypothermia from the ice cold lake. While the group was taking the girl to the ER.. Sherri’s heart happened to flare up right then…
I think this speaks greatly of her character and what kind of lies she’s capable of brewing.
- Keith alleges that Sherri’s hair had been cut off by her kidnappers, but the driver who found her on the highway says she had long blonde hair.
“I saw a woman, a woman with long blonde hair by the side of the road frantically waving what looked like a shirt,” the woman told Good Morning America. “I figured if she was willing to risk being hit by a car she must really need help.”
- Claims of Sherri losing lots of weight during her captivity are suspicious.
When Sherri went missing she weighed about 100 pounds and was 87 pounds when she was found, according to Keith, who also said she was “emaciated” from the weight loss.
The Redditor claims Sherri had an eating disorder (“extremely anorexic and bulimic”) in high school and was probably less than 87 pounds at the time. The user claims that Sherri would not have been emaciated at that weight, which could also explain why she didn’t stay at the hospital overnight after being found. Someone who was “emaciated” would probably have a longer hospital visit.
“I honestly didn’t look awful or noticeably sick until around 87lbs, so she could’ve been passing as slim, healthy Sherri and now claim to be emaciated.”
- The short hospital visit was odd.
Keith claims that his wife was starved and severely beaten, yet her hospital stay following her appearance was very short and not overnight. If she had been emaciated like Keith claims, some contend, that the hospital should have at least kept her around for observation. And if Sherri had been “branded” they certainly would have wanted to take a fair amount of time to check out her burns.
- Breast implant rumors.
One Redditor claims there are rumors around the town that Sherri had gotten breast implants two weeks prior to the kidnapping. Most freshly augmented women don’t go out jogging so soon after their surgery.
- Rumor Sherri trimmed marijuana plants.
The media has dubbed Sherri the “Super Mom” even though there is not much out of the ordinary about her mothering and she puts her kids in daycare two days a week, despite being a stay at home mom.
And that being said, some allege Sherri had a job trimming marijuana plants. We do know she used to have an unspecified job in Humboldt County, the marijuana growing capital of the USA.
During a press conference, Sherri’s sister was asked by a reporter if Sherri was employed and she answered that “I don’t have an answer to that question.” That’s odd considering the sister could have simply stated that Sherri was a stay at home mom.
Some are therefore contending the incident is “drug related”.
- The hostage negotiator who offered to help find Sherri is really shady
A bizarre part of the case is the supposedly elite international hostage negotiator (who happens to also live in Redding) who stepped in to try to get Sherri back from her kidnappers.
This guy, Cameron Gamble, has filed for bankruptcy and his business license for his company “Project Taken” has expired. He also appears to conduct most of his hostage negotiations through Youtube. Weird.
One Redditor speculates that Gamble is either in on it or being manipulated by Sherri (like Neil Patrick Harris’ ill-fated character in Gone Girl).
- An anonymous donor who offered to pay a ransom was even more sketchy.
An anonymous donor briefly offered $50k in ransom money through an online message, despite the fact that no ransom was ever demanded by the kidnappers.
Gamble claimed he was in contact with this donor.
The donor also put a message for the kidnappers online, saying he was a visitor to Redding and was willing to meet them in order to exchange the cash for Sherri. The donor gave a deadline of 5:00 am on Wednesday Nov 23 before the money would be rescinded. One day later, Papini reappeared.
- Similarity to other kidnapping cases.
Sherri’s “kidnapping” shares many similarities with other high profile cases both manufactured and genuine.
Some are also comparing Sherri’s kidnapping to the notorious “runaway bride” from 2005. A Georgia woman ran away to avoid marrying her fiance, but claimed she was kidnapped and assaulted by a Hispanic man and white woman. Her wild story created a media circus, but when the real facts of the incident were revealed, the woman was charged with a felony.
Some also compare Sherri’s case to that of Diane Downs, a woman who claimed a stranger hijacked her car and killed her children. It was found out later that she had shot her children herself.
And many other Redditors are comparing the case to the fictional story in Gone Girl, the book and movie in which (spoilers here) a beautiful blonde woman fakes her kidnapping as an attention-getting ploy and revenge act on her philandering husband.
- This doesn’t feel like a kidnapping.
Reddit investigators find it improbable that a thirtysomething woman like Sherri was simply left on the side of the road after weeks of mistreatment, with no attempt to collect a ransom. Sherri is a very unlikely target for sex traffickers, who tend to target much younger, unconnected women. And it’s the unfortunate fact that women of Sherri’s ilk who are kidnapped while jogging overwhelmingly end up dead at the hand of some creepy, male sex offender.
In toto, a Reddit community made up of armchair sleuths and people who claim they actually know Sherri well have come to what they are convinced is the answer to this tabloid mystery: it’s a hoax.
As for actual law enforcement, they’ve made no such statement. The closest they’ve come is one comment to the Huffington Post (quickly backtracked on) that a hoax hasn’t been ruled out. Law enforcement officials have said publicly they have no reason to doubt Sherri.
Reddit, for what it’s worth, says otherwise.