Four years later, Sherri Papini’s kidnapping is still one of the most bizarre unsolved cases to date. How did a young “supermom” from California vanish from the face of the earth for three weeks, only to appear in chains on the side of the road one Thanksgiving morning?
Sherri claimed she was out on her usual jog when she was abducted by two Hispanic women, who threw her into an SUV and drove her all the way to some dreary dungeon where she was starved and battered. But her story has an infinite number of unusual plot twists and inconsistencies that make people wonder – is she really the victim? Or was it all a hoax to cover up a hidden secret?
November 2nd began like any other ordinary day for the Papinis. Sherri, a 34-year-old stay-at-home mom, went out for an afternoon jog and texted her husband, Keith, to inform him she would be out for a while. Usually, Sherri would wrap up her jog and go pick up her kids from daycare. But this day played out differently.
Keith arrived home from work at 5:00 p.m. and was surprised to discover that his wife and kids were nowhere to be found. But perplexity shifted into hysteria once he found out that his kids had never been picked up from school. He anxiously called Sherri’s phone numerous times but to no avail. At 5:51 p.m., Keith reported her missing to the police.
Sherri’s distraught husband used the Find My iPhone app to successfully locate it at the intersection of Sunrise Drive and Old Oregon Highway. The phone was on the ground with the headphones neatly wrapped around it. At this point, Keith was about to lose his mind. He explained, “she could drop her phone, but she would never in a million years not pick up our children.”
Keith had no reason to believe Sherri would leave him and the kids. He was fully convinced that she was taken against her will, and he quickly opened a GoFundMe page titled “Help Find Sherri Papini.” People were horrified by this young mom’s disappearance and didn’t hesitate to help. The campaign raised more than $49,000.
Search teams scoured the area for days on end, and the desperate family offered a $50,000 reward to anyone who had a clue about what might have happened. It was such a creepy event that the public was instantly enthralled by it, and police received numerous tips on her potential whereabouts.
Two weeks into her disappearance, a man named Cameron Gamble rose to the plate and identified himself as a hostage negotiator. He posted a YouTube video announcing that there was an anonymous donor willing to pay $50,000 for Sherri’s return. Even if Gamble was genuinely trying to help, his whole mystery donor story just made things a lot creepier.
On Thanksgiving morning, three weeks after her disappearance, a passing motorcyclist spotted Sherri on the side of a road 150 miles away from her home. She was alive, but her emaciated body was completely battered, full of scars and multi-colored bruises. She had a chain around her waist linked to both her wrists and her long blonde hair was chopped off and dirty. Disturbingly, she was branded on her right shoulder, but the message was unclear.
Sherri was rushed to the hospital, and her family was informed of her return. When Keith arrived at the scene, officers warned him before letting him in. The view was terrifying. Sherri’s husband confessed on Good Morning America that, “My first sight was my wife in a hospital bed, her face covered in bruises ranging from yellow to black because of repeated beatings, the bridge of her nose broken.”
According to Sherri, she was abducted by two Hispanic women who pointed a gun at her from the rear side window of their dark-colored SUV. One woman had long curly hair, thin eyebrows, and wore hoop earrings. The second one was older, with thick eyebrows and straight black hair.
Sherri’s skimp description didn’t give the police much to work with, and they were struggling to draw an accurate picture. It took them 11 months to finally release sketches of her alleged kidnappers, but the result was an obscure drawing of two women with bandanas covering half their face. For months, police were on the hunt “for a dark-colored SUV with two Hispanic females armed with a handgun.”
Police and detectives dug deep into Sherri Papini’s bizarre disappearance. But there was a lot of secrecy surrounding their investigation, which made the public even more confused than they already were. If Sherri spoke the truth, it meant that two armed women were still out on the loose. So why weren’t the police warning the public of the looming danger?
Officers were busy authoring search warrants and examining cellphone records, but they never disclosed the reasons behind their investigative actions. The bottom line was that they couldn’t reach a definite conclusion, and they felt like they lacked enough ground to announce certainties to the public. On top of everything, they were about to discover some findings that would make their investigation a whole lot harder.
This is where Sherri’s story starts to get super weird. The DNA found on her clothing and skin tested both female and male, even though Sherri never mentioned being in contact with a man. A puzzled officer confessed, “It’s one of those little pieces that’s just a weird anomaly of information that I can’t explain, it is just weird.”
At this point, officers were hoping that the male sample might match Keith’s DNA, but they were terribly disappointed when it didn’t. They fell into more despair after they uploaded the samples to the DNA database and found zero matches. They were running out of answers, and the public’s speculation was growing day by day.
The investigation took an eerie turn when officers discovered that Sherri had been exchanging messages with a man in Michigan before her disappearance. Before you jump to conclusions, it’s unclear whether their relationship was romantic. All officers really knew was that the texts dated back several months before the incident.
Police tracked down the mysterious man about a week after she disappeared. Their two-day trip to Michigan didn’t reveal anything too scandalous, and once again, police kept the acquired information to themselves. All they announced was that “It was a prior contact that she had years before. Somebody she met and kept in contact with. A male acquaintance she was talking with through texting.”
There are several other things about this case that simply don’t add up. For one, Sherri stated that a fight with her abductors led to a deep cut on her foot. But when she was inspected at the hospital, the alleged slash was nowhere to be seen.
Two, her phone was found with the earbuds neatly wrapped around it, but with strands of blonde hair tangled in the cords. This unusual finding makes it seriously difficult to picture the moment of the kidnapping. She grappled with her abductors, they pulled at her hair, and the earphones maintained in perfect shape with the phone nicely placed on the ground? Sounds bizarre.
Officers openly admitted that this case was (and still is) a complete enigma. Former FBI director, Giacalone, made it clear just how bewildering the whole story sounded to him. “To attack somebody, kidnap them, tie them up, take them 150 miles and then leave them on the side of the road, it just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
But not all officers added fire to the public’s speculations. Many came to Sherri’s defense and stressed how natural it was for her to trip over her words here and thereafter going through such a traumatic experience. Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko expressed his concerns, “People need to realize she was held captive for three weeks and that was a traumatic and emotional experience in itself.”
Sherri is a 5ft 3in a petite woman with babyish facial features. Could it be possible that her abductors mistook her for a child? This theory rose to the surface after a source close to the investigation raised his fears that the case might be cartel-related. He explained that a common practice in sex trafficking is branding their slaves with a message, much like the one on Sherri’s right shoulder.
Cameron Gamble (the questionable YouTube “hero”) sided with this idea and stated that Papini lives in one of the most dangerous areas for women in the US. But even though Sherri’s right shoulder did have a weird scar on it, is that enough to claim she was kidnapped by two Hispanics who, upon discovering her real age, beat her up and threw her back out?
A blog post allegedly written by “racist” Sherri Papini began to circulate online. It was posted in 2003 on a pro-white website called skinheadz.com and was a full-on rant by Sherri about the dangerous Latino kids in her neighborhood. This led to theory number two – the Hispanics wanted payback.
She begins with, “My dad had a reputation for being my biggest fan but, also, for standing up against Latinos,” and ends with, “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.” But this theory was debunked by Papini’s ex-husband (they divorced in 2007), who set the record straight and said that the post was written by someone else as a prank in high school.
Papini was released less than two days after Gamble doubled the offer in exchange for her return. The “kidnapping expert” credited himself for her release and claimed that the videos he uploaded had probably reached the abductors and saved the young woman’s life. But the public wasn’t having it, and his videos were, to say the least, creepy.
One of them showed a young blonde woman (basically a Sherri-look-alike) locked in some dark dungeon and tortured by a male captor. At one point, Gamble appears on the screen and begins to consult with the frightened lady. And there you have it – theory number three: Sherri was part of a publicity stunt and fell prey to Gamble’s piteous way of advertising his consultancy business.
Well…this theory isn’t totally preposterous. The amount of times when husbands are responsible for their wives’ disappearance is disturbingly high, and close relatives are usually the first ones to be scrutinized. But Papini’s husband, Keith, had nothing to hide and cooperated fully with the police’s requests.
He successfully passed the polygraph test, and his whereabouts at the time of Sherri’s disappearance were confirmed. Keith was no longer a suspect in the case, but he still suffered some snarky comments. People suggested that he had killed Sherri so he could escape with an alleged lover. In return, Keith stated, “Rumors, assumptions, lies, and hate have been both exhausting and disgusting. Those people should be ashamed of their malicious, sub-human behavior.”
Here’s another plot-twist. A while after Sherri returned, the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office received a call from a mysterious man who claimed that the abduction was a total hoax and that Sherri was with him for the entire 22 days. But considering the horrendous state, she was found in… the call just felt too unreliable.
Investigators were baffled, but they tried not to jump to any conclusions. One little phone call wasn’t enough to point fingers at Papini and accuse her of a deceitful crime. Despite all the bizarre speculations, police still didn’t feel like they had a good enough reason not to believe Sherri’s word.
Internet detectives claim it could go both ways. Theory number one – Mr. Papini was having an affair and was looking for an easy way out of his marriage, so he murdered Sherri and staged the whole thing. This seems pretty unlikely, considering the fact that Sherri didn’t die, and the couple is still together.
Theory number two, it was Mrs. Papini who had an affair, and she ran off to be with her lover for three weeks. Which means that her bruises and scars were just a cover-up of their steamy sadomasochistic sessions. To be honest? Both sound outlandish. But people love a good love triangle.
Could Sherri’s past hold some valuable clues that might help solve this freakish puzzle? The public hoped so, and they began digging deep into this supermom’s life to see what “dirt” they might find. Turns out, Sherri had been a problematic teenager (weren’t we all?) who had been accused of vandalism, running away from home, and stealing money from her father’s bank account. Okay, maybe we weren’t all like Papini…
Sherri was acting out a lot in high school, and according to her former classmate Brandin Weese, she had her issues. But he said they were completely normal, and she was just a “teenage kid having a teenage emotional reaction.” Oh, and in case you were wondering, Papini ended up returning her dad’s money.
Sherri stated that her captors spoke Spanish most of the time, so she couldn’t understand what they were saying or why she was locked in some dreary dungeon in the first place. She claimed that there wasn’t much eye contact involved and that they covered her face with a bag and covered half of theirs with bandanas.
Other than that, Sherri hasn’t given out more information. While her poor recollection is troubling, she was found in such a bad state that it’s reasonable to assume that her brain blocked out a lot of what happened.
Sherri is doing her best to lead a quiet life. She moved with her family to a small town in Northern California and, according to her neighbors, “doesn’t go out much.” Her kids can be seen here and there running around the backyard, and her husband often drives around the area, but Sherri is terrified of the media, so she stays inside and avoids them at all costs.
Getting her life together has been far from easy. A year after her abduction, neighbors reported disturbing screams coming from the Papini household. Jim Ferrario, a retired police officer, living in the house right behind them, mentioned, “If I were still a cop, I would have gone to investigate. It sounded like she was freaking out.”
Two decades ago, Sherri’s classmate, Terry Smith, was abducted from the very same trail. She was 16 at the time, and like Sherri, had long blonde hair, blue eyes, and a small figure. Terry’s father shuddered at the similarities between both cases, “They are two good-looking blonde girls [and] were supposedly randomly picked up on the side of the road jogging.”
But there are a few differences between the two stories. The obvious one being that Sherri returned, and Terry, unfortunately, didn’t. Other than that, Sherri was kidnapped at around 2 p.m., whereas Terry’s jog was in the evening. Still, when Sherri went missing, Keith found himself seeking advice from Terry’s dad. He was desperate to know if there was anything they would have done differently in searching for their daughter.
To this day, no one has been charged or arrested for Sherri’s abduction. The case is still under investigation, and a $10,000 reward has been offered to whoever can provide useful information about the alleged abductors. Many people are frustrated and feel like “law enforcement has failed miserably.”
Four years have passed since Sherri’s dreadful jog, and although the case is open, the files are likely shelved somewhere collecting dust. A source told The New York Post that “they could be putting it on the back burner because they don’t have the pressure to solve it.” Hopefully, one day we’ll find some answers.
There are a lot of unsolved mysteries in the world. But there’s no reason to give up hope! These two brothers cracked a puzzle that people have been trying to solve for 220 years.