On the morning of Thanksgiving in 2016, a motorist driving in the rural area of Yolo County, California was flagged down by a distressed and emaciated young woman who appeared to be frantically searching for help. The young woman was blonde – though her hair had been cut dramatically short, almost down to the scalp – and appeared to be restrained by chains fixed at her waist and wrists, as well as hose clamps around her ankles, a series of devices that police would later deem “pain compliance devices”. Her body was covered in dozens of bruises varying in size and severity, and a grotesque brand had been used to burn her right shoulder – every hallmark of a victim of sexual abduction and human trafficking.
The woman, later identified as Sherri Papini, had vanished from her home in Redding, California 22 days prior while out on a jog, when her husband discovered her phone and strands of her hair after she didn’t come home at the usual time. However, as time has passed and the investigation continues, it seems that questions vastly outweigh the answers in this fascinating case. What really happened to Sherri Papini in November of 2016?
Abduction and Disappearance
November 2nd, 2016 started like any other day for “super-mom” Sherri Papini; helping children – aged 2 and 4 – get ready for daycare, seeing her husband off to work, and so on. Between the hours of 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sherri grabs her phone and earbuds and decides to go for a jog through her neighborhood, something that she was well known for doing during the day and before picking up her children from daycare. Sherri’s husband Keith would return home later that day to find that not only was Sherri not at home, but that she had also not retrieved their children – a point of some contention in the investigation, but we’ll return to this later.
At around 7 p.m. that same evening Keith would contact local law enforcement to report his wife missing, as well as offering a $50,000 reward for her return or information that would lead to her whereabouts or rescue. As the detectives and sheriff’s deputies began to investigate this very strange disappearance, they would begin by eliminating the obvious suspect – her husband, Keith.
Shasta County Sheriff’s Department detectives working the case would have Keith come in and submit to a full polygraph with no advanced warning, which he passed with flying colors. According to detectives connected to the case, Mr. Papini was “clean as a whistle” and had “very easily provable alibis during that entire day”. As such he was deemed not connected actively to his wife’s disappearance and removed as a potential suspect.
Investigators would then begin a shakedown of the known sex-offender community in the area, as well as combing local traffic and home security footage of neighboring areas, but all to no avail. “There were very little leads early on in the case”, remarks Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko, “there were just no real, viable leads”.
The standing story on how Sherri managed to find herself on the side of the I-5 that morning is that she was simply cut loose by her captors. The clamps and chains that were still attached to her as she stumbled down the interstate were apparently part of the contraption that kept her secure anytime she was in the vehicle – a system of chains and locks for transportation, according to Mrs. Papini herself. They simply removed the restraints attached to the vehicle, cut some rope and pushed her out of the vehicle.
After this Sherri managed to flag down the motorist that saved her life using a strip of cloth from her torn shirt to wave at her. “I see this blonde woman waving what looks like a brown flannel shirt up and down desperately trying to flag someone down,” Alison Sutton said. “I could have hit her because she was so close to the side of the road.” Sherri Papini was still bound at the waist by 10 pounds of chain, as well as clamp restraints on her wrists and ankles.
Once she was returned home to her family, her story immediately went viral and press coverage became something normal for the family. Everyone from local affiliates to Good Morning America were lining up to talk to the “brave, resilient super-mom of two” that fought her way out of a terrible situation and back to her family. On multiple occasions, Sherri would tearfully recount her experiences at the hands of her captors, citing numerous heinous acts that she was forced to perform, as well as the abuse she endured for the duration of her disappearance.
As Keith Papini recounts of the several talks he’s had with his wife over the incident, “She’s saying, ‘Well maybe people aren’t stopping because I have a chain that looks like I broke out of prison,’ so she tried to tuck in her chain under her clothes.” Despite her appearance, she was fortunately picked up and reunited with a terrified family.
But that is hardly the end of this story.
More Questions Than Answers
As with any investigation into a disappearance, there are several questions that need to be answered in order to consider the case solved – and many of these answers still elude investigators to this day, where the case is still considered active. But as the investigation pressed on through 2017 and here well into 2018, the questions shifted from who abducted Sherri Papini on that morning and into more curious details.
Connected Police Investigations
In the digital age, armchair investigators across the internet are able to research and gather information and data in a collaborative effort to help police – and this has even evolved into a hobby for some. In this instance, however, internet sleuths were quick to point out that Sherri Papini’s disappearance was handled very slowly by Shasta County officials. Very little in the way of case information has been released to the public, with law enforcement citing connections to other disappearances in the area – specifically referencing the 1998 disappearance of Tera Smith, a 16 year old homecoming queen from Redding, California. However, Smith would never be seen again and the case remains unsolved to this day. Any apparent connection between the two aside from disappearance remains to be seen or revealed.
Some have gone as far as to accuse the police of being complicit in a local sex trafficking ring, suppressing evidence and buying enough time for the operation to move to a different area – but there exists no substantial proof of such a broad conspiracy. Still, police actions in this case have drawn national criticism from the FBI, as Shasta County has been largely uncooperative with federal authorities.
Doubts About Trafficking
Sherri Papini has recounted more than once in interviews that she was subjected to terrible torture and acts of a sexual nature – though this cannot be independently verified because the police have released no evidence in the case. Her physical injuries, however, are a matter of record, as well as the testimony to her condition by Alison Sutton, the motorist that discovered Sherri along the I-5.
Currently the police have all but dismissed the claims that this is related to human or sex trafficking in any way. Sgt. Brian Jackson of the Shasta County Sheriff’s Department says “Just on the facts that we know it doesn’t seem to be a sex trafficking or a sexual abduction in nature, and that is what we are trying to figure out: What was the purpose?”.
We are then left to ponder the question: if this abduction wasn’t related to sex trafficking of some kind, then what was it related to?
Male DNA and the ‘Man in Michigan’
At some point between her abduction and eventual release, Sherri Papini was given a set of clothing by her captors, which was later discovered to have been partially covered with “DNA from a male individual”. Despite the hazy details about what exactly Sherri went through during her 20 day ordeal, the most reasonable assumption here is that the DNA was present on the clothing before she was given it. The nature of the DNA – hair, semen, saliva – has not been revealed to the public or press by police, so it’s hard to say exactly what this means. Generally when we hear ‘DNA’ in a case like this it is easy to assume semen, but it could have just as easily been anything else – even skin cells.
Sherri didn’t recount the presence of any males during her time in captivity – both of her abductors were hispanic females, wearing masks – but this evidence doesn’t really provide any solid leads, as testing has produced no results in the known criminal databases of DNA.
In a much more circumstantial way, the story of Sherri and the ‘man from Michigan’ was instantly intriguing to those following the case. In the month’s prior to her disappearance, it was revealed that Sherri was in an “online/texting relationship” with a close friend who lived in Michigan, though the police declined to comment on whether the relationship was of a romantic nature. Even more interesting is the fact that this friend visited Sherri in California mere days before her disappearance – though police investigation has yielded that he wasn’t in Redding on the day that Sherri disappeared. While entirely circumstantial, this evidence reinforces a popular theory that Sherri was attempting to uproot her life and start anew before changing her mind at the last second and fabricating everything else. Again, there is no proof this is the case, but it is extremely intriguing.
Final Connections and Thoughts
Depending on the type of person you are, you might be inclined to believe one version of this story over another – Sherri’s abduction and eventual release from her demented captors versus the entire thing either being a hoax or failed attempt to start a new life – but careful attention should be given to the facts and evidence in this case. Unfortunately we have very little in the way of either, and even police admit that there have been no new leads within the past year.
Also interesting is the gap in time between when Sherri was meant to pick up her children from daycare – 2:00 p.m. approximately – and the time when her husband Keith noticed she was missing, at around 5:30 p.m. As someone who helps with children from time to time, I can say with certainty that the daycare would have had both the phone numbers for Sherri and Keith and would have reached out to them. Keith Papini claims he never received a call from the daycare, while the daycare and its employees refuse to comment further on the subject.
After doing some sleuthing of my own, I thought the proximity of the Tera Smith case and the Sherri Papini incident was interesting – namely that it happened in the same town, on the same road, and in the same fashion. Add to this that Sherri went to high school with Tera Smith, and it would then be very easy to see this as an inspired hoax banking on local memories of a terrible crime in order to accomplish any of a few goals – manufactured sympathy and profits from interviews or books, as well as a failed life reboot.
Unfortunately until more evidence comes to light there is little hope that we will know more than we do now. The community around and those closest to the Papini family have been remarkably silent about the whole ordeal, where you would normally expect a full-blown campaign of ‘find the abductors, get justice for Sherri’. Instead it seems that nobody wants to talk, furthering adding credence to the suspicion that Sherri Papini hasn’t been entirely honest about the ordeal. In fact, instead of outrage at her abductors/captors, the anger is directed at the internet and media for daring to question the narrative that Sherri has put forth. This anger even extends from the Mayoral and Prosecution offices, threatening prosecution for those that intend to keep asking questions.
So in closing, what are the facts as we know them?
- We know that Sherri Papini was missing for a period of approximately 3 weeks in November of 2016. Despite physical injuries and evidence of being held against her will, there is no other substantive evidence that gives any credence to the story she has presented to the police or public at large.
- Sherri Papini had made plans to meet with a man from Michigan that police described as having an “online/texting relationship” with, though oddly financial records for the weeks leading up to the disappearance as well as the three weeks she was gone have yet to be released to the public or to investigators.
- Shasta County Sheriff’s have been practically silent on this entire matter, even admitting that ‘two hispanic females in a black SUV’ is just about the poorest lead you could have to go on. In addition, independent investigators have been repeatedly blocked from accessing information about the case.
- A GoFundMe was started by Keith Papini immediately following his wife’s disappearance, and continued to receive donations in excess of a year even though she reappeared three weeks later. Raising more than $50,000 in donations, the money was cited as being used for “therapy and the costs of recovery”, though no other indication of purchases or spending has been provided.
- Sherri Papini remembers very little about her captors, location or the events that transpired over three weeks, despite lacking the trauma generally associated with such an ordeal. Memory loss or repression isn’t uncommon, but to this degree it is certainly rare.
One of the most popular and operative working theories is something a bit more tawdry than anyone might care to admit, but it is gaining traction among independent investigators across the country. The theory has to do with the possibility that Sherri Papini was, herself, a worker in the sex industry. On an average morning, Sherri would have the hours of 8:30 a.m. to approximately 2:00 p.m. to herself, and wasn’t known for being overly visible to neighbors – remarkably absent, in fact. Witness testimony said that she would be gone for hours at a time, and the daycare center reported numerous incidents of tardiness in collecting her children from daycare – something the SCSO has been quick to cover-up or dismiss.
We also know that Sherri Papini had numerous Tinder accounts, as well as two profile pages created on Craigslist. Investigators maintained that this was simply used in the interest of having extramarital affairs, but consider for a moment that she did, in fact, work in the sex industry as an escort. It would explain someone coming from Michigan to meet her, would fit very well with her relatively free schedule and abundantly trustful husband, and would explain the presence of multiple Tinder and Craigslist accounts. She may very well have been abducted by ‘competition’ in her area when they found out that she was operating either out-of-network (read: without a pimp) or in someone else’s turf.
Unfortunately network service provider GoDaddy was very quick to remove most of these accounts from online search engines and even Google’s WayBack has very little in the way of evidence from this part of her life.
Regardless of the circumstance, Sherri Papini’s abduction and subsequent return is perhaps the most fascinating disappearance of the last few years, and rivals my own personal interest alongside now-famous cases like Elisa Lam. Time will tell whether or not the story we’ve been given is the true one, or if this was just some massive hoax or something entirely apart from either of those. What we do know is that there are dozens of questions with no clear answer. And unless Sherri Papini changes her story, the public may never know the truth.