A beautiful blonde suburban mom vanishes while jogging, then reappears just as suddenly three weeks later with a harrowing tale of captivity and torture. There is talk of sexual trafficking — and dark speculation about a husband-and-wife hoax to scam the public. Add to this talk of drugs and ties to white supremacists, and you’ve got a Breaking Bad script waiting to happen. But this story of mystery and suspense is unfolding in real life — and one person’s Internet sleuthing is another’s irresponsible speculation.
The woman at the center of this mystery is Sherri Papini, a 34-year-old mother of two from the rural town of Redding in Shasta County, California. Papini was reported missing on November 2 when her husband Keith returned from work to find that she wasn’t home and hadn’t picked up their two children from day care. She had apparently disappeared while jogging; her cell phone and head phones were found by the trail about a mile away from her home.
After three weeks of an intensive search, the young woman was discovered in the early morning hours on Thanksgiving, by the side of an interstate highway some 150 miles away from her home; a motorist saw her trying to flag down passing cars and called 911. Papini had been reportedly thrown from a car while chained and was found badly bruised and battered, with her long hair chopped off and her weight dangerously low — though her physical condition is just one of the many things in dispute in this baffling case. However, one especially disturbing detail has been confirmed by the police: She had been branded with hot iron.
What happened? Papini has said she was abducted by two Hispanic women armed with a gun, in a dark-colored SUV — one a young woman with long curly hair, thin eyebrows, and a heavy accent, the other older, with straight, graying black hair and thick eyebrows. According to media reports, a sketch artist has been trying to reconstruct the kidnappers’ likeness, but it has been difficult because, according to Papini, they kept their faces mostly covered and she had a bag on her head much of the time. No official statement has been made as to the motive for the abduction, or for Papini’s release; the police have even refused to comment on whether Papini was randomly grabbed from the jogging trail or specifically targeted.
One theory that has been floated is that Papini had been snatched by sexual traffickers. But, as Reason writer Elizabeth Nolan Brown points out, this is extremely unlikely. Sexual trafficking of captive women certainly exists; but the victims are almost invariably undocumented aliens, runaway teens, and other people on the margins of society. Kidnapping a suburban wife and mother whose disappearance would quickly trigger a police search and coercing her into prostitution would be far more trouble than it was worth.
An even more popular theory, especially on the Internet, is that Papini’s disappearance was a hoax — perhaps for money (nearly $50,000 was raised via GoFundMe to help with the search for the missing woman), perhaps to cover up an affair. The speculation began in the social media just days after Papini was found.
The official story does have more than enough oddities to raise suspicion — starting with Papini’s seemingly motiveless abduction and maltreatment followed by an unexplained release. There is, for one, the gender of her alleged captors: kidnapping by women, especially of adult victims, is extremely rare (though it does happen). There is the fact that, according to Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko, Sherri’s cell phone and earbuds were found “neatly placed” on the grass by the trail after her disappearance. There is the branding, which Bosenko has described as “either an exertion of power and control and/or maybe some type of message.” It is also worth noting that grotesque and degrading details such as cut hair and/or mutilation of the skin have been present in some notorious hoax attacks, from the fake kidnapping and rape of Wappingers Falls, New York teen Tawana Brawley in 1987 to the made-up attack on John McCain campaign volunteer Ashley Todd in 2008.
A “white supremacist” connection adds another peculiar twist. People combing through Papini’s background online found archived posts from 2003 under her maiden name, Sherri Graef, on a now-defunct white nationalist site, Skinheadz.com, in which the poster discussed her devotion to white pride and the skinhead cause as well as her sometimes violent conflicts with Latino classmates who hated her for being “drug-free, white and proud of my blood and heritage.” Sherri’s first husband David Dreyfus, from whom she was divorced in 2007, has told the press that the post was a malicious prank and that the views expressed in it were “not her at all”; her father and an unnamed friend have said the same thing.
However, a genuine — but now deleted — board on Papini’s Pinterest account, called “Cultural differences,” included a meme that has raised some eyebrows: It made the point that blacks, Asians, Native Americans, gays, and other groups can take pride in their identity, but a white man who does the same is called racist. Did Papini pin this graphic assuming it to be nothing more than a swipe at “political correctness,” the mockery of which seems to have been the board’s principal focus? Or was it an actual nod to “white pride” and white nationalism? Could Papini have been targeted for her views? (Conservative media personality Gavin McInnes has tweeted about rumors that she was “very anti-illegal immigrant.”) Or could she have staged a kidnapping to whip up anger about crimes by Latinos targeting whites? While the authorities have not commented on whether racial issues have any relevance to the case, one 13-year-old post of disputed authenticity and one Pinterest graphic with racially charged overtones are pretty thin evidence to support inflammatory theories.
Keith Papini alluded to such theorizing in his statement to ABC’s Good Morning America when he spoke bitterly of people seeking “proof that this was not some sort of hoax, plan to gain money or some fabricated race war.” Ironically, the “race war” reference has been interpreted by some keyboard detectives as suggestive of the family’s neo-Nazi leanings — as has Keith’s remark about the “subhuman behavior” of those blaming his wife for her own disappearance.
That’s a stretch, to put it mildly. The same is true of much Internet speculation about supposedly fishy elements in the Papinis’ story. For instance, Keith has talked about Sherri’s hair being chopped off and her face being covered with bruises, while the driver who first reported seeing Sherri by the roadside, Alison Sutton, has mentioned seeing a woman with “long blonde hair” who looked “panicked and frightened” but did not notice any injuries. Sutton has clarified that she only caught a “glimpse” of Sherri as she drove past her at 70 to 80 miles an hour and that her mind could have “filled in” the long hair from the photos she had seen of the missing woman. According to some Redditors, that means Sutton is a victim of “gaslighting” who has been made to doubt the evidence of her own eyes; but in fact, such mistakes are entirely possible. Nor does the fact that Sherri was released from the hospital without an overnight stay necessarily contradict Keith’s account of her battered state. (Her injuries have been confirmed by the police and by ABC 20/20 correspondent Matt Gutman, who has interviewed Keith for the program.) The fact that Sherri’s sister could not immediately say whether or not Sherri had a job has also been touted as suspect. Yet the most likely answer is that, like many mothers with young children, Sherri was sporadically employed between home-based entrepreneurship and occasional work in nearby Humboldt County. The Humboldt County connection has given rise to further speculation — about a drug trafficking angle, since the area is known for marijuana cultivation.
Some even see a red flag in a particularly uncanny fact: nearly 20 years ago, Sherri’s then-high school classmate Tera Lynn Smith vanished while jogging near the very same spot where Sherri was allegedly taken. Tera Lynn was never found; the lead suspect, a married man with whom she’d been having an affair, was not arrested because of insufficient evidence. Sherri’s Internet detractors suggest that she is a fame hound who remembered the publicity around her missing classmate and modeled her disappearance on that tragedy. Anything is possible, of course — but life is also full of eerie coincidences.
Other claims, such as an anonymous report to the website Heavy.com that according to an extended family member Papini had staged her own abduction in 2006, are barely worth the pixels they’re written in. However, it should be noted that local authorities have given apparently conflicting responses on the fake-kidnapping scenario. On December 2, The Huffington Post reported that a Shasta County Sheriff’s Office employee who identified herself only by her first name, Kelly, had responded to a question about the possibility of a hoax by saying, “I don’t know if the words ‘ruled out’ can be used.” That story was promptly disputed by Sheriff Bosenko, who told a local paper, The Record Searchlight, that the department believes Papini and that “based on information we have, there’s no reason to believe this is not legitimate.” However, he also added that investigators in the case were keeping an “open mind.”
Since then, the Sheriff’s office has been extremely tight-lipped about the Papini case. A call from Heat Street asking for comment on Tuesday was not returned.
A Sacramento Bee article points out that the department may be extremely anxious to distance itself from talk of a hoax because of lessons from a case in nearby Solano County last year. A Vallejo woman, Denise Huskins, was abducted from her home and sexually assaulted while her boyfriend, Aaron Quinn, was left tied up and drugged. The bizarre circumstances led the police to conclude that the abduction was a hoax — but evidence later showed that the couple was telling the truth, and the perpetrator, Matthew Muller, was apprehended and pleaded guilty. The victims are now suing the police. It’s a situation no sheriff’s office wants to find itself facing.
There is, finally, an intriguing and little-mentioned piece of evidence which could point to a fake abduction — or to a very real crime dramatically different from the version Papini has given to the police. That evidence is an alleged Sherri Papini sighting during the time she was gone.
A 54-year-old marketing manager named Christine Everson has told the website Hollywood Life that she saw a woman resembling Sherri on November 22 — two days before she was found — at a travel rest stop not far from Redding, in a pickup truck with two men. Everson was struck by the fact that the men kept going back and forth into the travel center while the blonde woman who looked like Sherri stayed in the truck and looked “scared” and “worn out.” She says she approached the woman and tried to speak to her, asking if she was all right, but the woman did not respond. Everson, a mother of five who also works with an anti-trafficking group, says she called the police to report this encounter; so far, the police have not commented on the call.
Could the mystery woman in the truck have been Sherri? Was she with the men of her own free will? Or could it be that, as some experts have suggested, her abduction was real but her account of it is false because she is covering for the kidnappers out of fear?
For now, one thing is certain: The Internet speculation will continue, and the keyboard detectives will remain at their posts. If the Papinis are innocent of any wrongdoing, the rumor mill will undoubtedly make their ordeal more painful. But in a case as strange and complicated as this, it is also possible that web sleuthing will yield vital clues that will lead to the truth.