They broke her nose and starved her. They left her covered in scabs and bruises. They seared a brand into her skin. They chopped her long, blond hair.
And then early Thanksgiving morning, 22 days after she was abducted, according to her husband, Sherri Papini’s captors threw her from a vehicle on a darkened Yolo County highway, wearing a bag over her head and restrained by chains on her wrists and waist.
In his first public statement since the 34-year-old Shasta County woman was discovered by a motorist Thursday, Keith Papini said his wife went through hell after vanishing during a jog near her Mountain Gate home on Nov. 2.
“My Sherri suffered tremendously, and all the visions swirling in your heads of her appearance, I assure you, are not as graphic and gruesome as the reality,” he said Tuesday in a written statement to ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
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Keith Papini said detectives had tried to brace him for his wife’s injuries when the couple were reunited last week in a Sacramento-area hospital, but that he still had trouble comprehending what she must have endured.
“Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to see upon my arrival at the hospital, nor the details of the true hell I was about to hear,” he said “The mental prison I was in over the past three weeks was shattered when … my wife’s reality became known.”
Detectives have released few details about what Sherri Papini has said happened to her the day she went missing, or in the ensuing weeks. The mystery surrounding the case has fueled rampant online speculation about the events, including whether the abduction could be a hoax. Keith Papini said he was releasing his statement in an effort to put the rumors to rest.
“Rumors, assumptions, lies, and hate have been both exhausting and disgusting,” he said in the statement. “Those people should be ashamed of their malicious, sub human behavior. We are not going to allow those people to take away our spirit, love, or rejoice in our girl found alive and home where she belongs.
“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. I do not see a purpose in addressing each preposterous lie.”
Papini said his wife’s face was covered in black and yellow bruises, “because of her repeated beatings.” The petite 100-pound woman had shrunk to 87 pounds. She had “severe burns, red rashes, and chain markings,” he said.
“She has been branded, and I could feel the rise of her scabs under my fingers,” Papini said.
Sherri Papini was found about 4:30 a.m. Thursday after she flagged down a driver on Interstate 5 in Yolo County. Detectives have said she was bound by restraints, and Keith Papini confirmed law enforcement dispatch reports obtained by The Sacramento Bee that described her as wearing chains.
“She was thrown from a vehicle with a chain around her waist, attached to her wrists, and a bag over her head,” Keith Papini said. “The same bag she used to flag someone down once she was able to free one of her hands.”
Based on Sherri Papini’s description, authorities are searching for two Hispanic women armed with a handgun. Detectives say she told them the women were driving a dark-colored SUV.
In an interview Tuesday with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said detectives are continuing to question Papini and to pursue suspects in the case. Their latest interview with Papini took place Tuesday.
Sheriff’s Lt. Anthony Bertain told KRCR, a Redding television station, that investigators were disappointed that Keith Papini released so much detail about his wife’s condition.
“There's some unique information in there ... that we were hoping to keep a tight rein on as far as what we were going to release to the public,” Bertain told the station. “It’s not the first hurdle in this investigation that we’ve had. We’ve overcome many of them, not just in this case, but there’s surprises in all investigations, so this is just ... wasn't good timing.”
Bosenko told Stephanopoulos it’s still not clear what might have motivated the abduction.
Stephanopoulos asked Bosenko about a widely circulated online post on a now-defunct website called “Skinheadz.com that allegedly was signed by a “Sherri Graeff” – Papini’s maiden name.
In the post, the writer said that while growing up in Shasta Lake, she got into two fights with Latinos who targeted her because “she was drug-free, white and proud of my blood and heritage.”
Though the website since has been shut down, it’s still available through an online site that archives old web pages.
“We are familiar with that posting,” Bosenko told Stephanopoulos. “That is about 13 years old, and our investigators are looking into that as well.”
The author wrote in the post that in one fight, she slammed a woman’s head onto bleachers and was “pounding her face.”
“It took three full-sized men to pull me off of her,” the post reads. “I broke her nose and split her eyebrow.”
In another confrontation, the author said, she was jumped by a group of Latinos. During the fight, the author wrote, someone broke her leg with a board.
“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,” the post concludes. “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.’ ”
Papini’s ex-husband, David Dreyfus – they divorced in 2007 – said in an interview Monday that the post was written by someone else.
“That was not her,” he said. “There was someone who made a malicious post. That is entirely uncharacteristic of her and not her at all. As long ago as that was, people of that age are malicious. People are bullies, and it’s easy to poke at people online. With as diverse of a friends group as she and I had, that’s not her.”
Papini’s sister, Sheila Koester, told The Bee the Papinis are “very private people and they do not post things on the internet or on media.”
Also fueling online speculation about whether race might have played a role in the abduction, Papini maintained a public Pinterest account that contains a section marked “Cultural Differences” featuring memes expressing concerns about illegal immigrants and Muslims.
Before Papini was found, investigators said they had spoken with her friends and acquaintances, as well as “people Sherri has had past relationships with” in their efforts to find her. Investigators said they went out of state tracking leads. Detectives have submitted close to 20 search warrants – some of which are sealed – and said they’re examining cellphone records, bank accounts, email and social media profiles.
Investigators have declined to discuss what prompted them to file the search warrants or why detectives have traveled out of state.
In his statement, Keith Papini described being grateful for the international attention his wife’s abduction received while she was gone, but said that same attention now has become a “double-edged sword.”
“I am grateful for this system as it is what spread my wife’s face quickly throughout the world, gaining the attention of thousands,” he said. “The unfortunate side is that some people have been sitting in angering, expectant positions waiting for the gory details.”