More than a week after Shasta County mom Sherri Papini was found battered but alive on a Yolo County highway in the predawn hours of Thanksgiving morning, debate over the legitimacy of her harrowing tale of kidnapping and abuse continues to rage online. The comments got so cutting this week that her husband, Keith, felt compelled to issue a statement in an effort to quell accusations of a hoax.
Experts say the skeptical response isn’t so surprising given that the details sheriff’s investigators and family members so far have relayed about Papini’s account don’t fit patterns typical for kidnapping scenarios. But they also caution that while many elements of Papini’s story are admittedly odd, that doesn’t mean detectives – or the public – should assume it doesn’t hold up.
“I’ve had some pretty bizarre but righteous cases, where people look at it and say, ‘That didn’t happen.’ Well, it did,” said Mary Ellen O’Toole, a former FBI agent who specialized in criminal profiling.
Papini has told investigators that the two people who abducted her near her Mountain Gate home Nov. 2 were both women and that she didn’t know them. They held her captive for three weeks, sometimes transporting Papini by car, according to authorities, and during that time worked to conceal their identities. She was beaten and branded with a “message,” said Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko, then released without explanation.
An anonymous donor offered a ransom that ultimately morphed into a six-figure reward for Papini’s return – but detectives said that played no role in her release. At least for now, Bosenko said, there is no known motive for the abduction, saying he has no specific information indicating her capture was related to cartels or sex trafficking.
Earlier this week, investigators conducted two lengthy interviews with Papini. They have provided no further information since a Wednesday news conference in which Bosenko provided a limited description of the abductors.
Experts say one embarrassing – and potentially costly – kidnapping case undoubtedly on the minds of Shasta County detectives as they investigate Papini’s disappearance happened only a few hours’ drive from where Papini was taken.
In September, Matthew Muller pleaded guilty to the 2015 kidnapping of Denise Huskins from her Vallejo home. Huskins was home with her boyfriend, Aaron Quinn, when Muller broke in and abducted Huskins. The kidnapper left Quinn behind, tied up and drugged, and warned he was being watched by video camera. He freed himself and reported the kidnapping to police.
Huskins was released in Huntington Beach a couple of days after her disappearance, and Vallejo police initially looked at Quinn as a suspect, then concluded the kidnapping was a hoax – a determination they later conceded was incorrect.
Evidence ultimately would show that Huskins had been abducted and sexually assaulted, then released. Vallejo police apologized to Huskins and Quinn, both now 31, but the couple have filed lawsuits against the department.
O’Toole, the former FBI agent, was among several experts contacted by The Sacramento Bee who said the details released in the Papini case do present a bizarre scenario. Among the stranger elements: Papini said she was abducted by two women.
“Two women alone in this kind of a case is extremely rare. It’s usually two men or a man and a woman,” O’Toole said. “Women don’t commit those kinds of crimes typically, because it involves an element of predatory behavior.”
Kenneth J. Ryan, a former police officer who teaches criminology at California State University, Fresno, said the branding allegation – the notion of kidnapping someone to “send a message” – is also rare. He equated it with retaliatory behavior typically associated with motorcycle gangs.
Ryan also was struck by the efforts Papini’s abductors apparently made to shield their identities. In general, he said, kidnappers who hold their victims for a protracted time, intent on assault or sexual crimes, don’t go out of their way to hide their identities.
“I know of no other cases like this,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that it’s not legitimate.”
That’s because rare doesn’t mean never. When it comes to the two-women scenario, for instance, there have been cases in which women worked together to commit a heinous crime.
James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University, pointed to the case of Gwendolyn Graham and Cathy Wood, who were employed at a Michigan nursing home in the late 1980s. They were convicted of smothering five patients to death as part of a lovers’ pact.
At the same time, the experts noted, there also have been high-profile cases in which a woman has alleged a horrific attack that turned out to be faked. And some women have put themselves through immense physical discomfort in an effort to pull it off.
Take, for example, the case of Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old African American girl from the New York City area who created a media firestorm after she told detectives she was raped by six white men.
When she was found, she had “KKK” written across her chest, a racial slur on her stomach and her hair was smeared with feces. She was so traumatized, according to news reports, that for a time she could answer only yes-or-no questions by blinking her eyes. But a seven-month investigation, involving thousands of pages of testimony, revealed the story was fabricated. A former boyfriend later told reporters Brawley had invented the story to avoid a beating after she ran away from home.
In another case, Darlie Routier told investigators in Texas that on a summer night in 1996 an intruder clad in dark clothing and a baseball cap entered her house, stabbed her two sons to death and slashed her neck and shoulder with a knife. She was convicted after prosecutors proved she killed the boys and inflicted her own injuries.
Since detectives are releasing few new details in the Papini investigation, experts said they’re watching the case closely for updates – just like everyone else. But unlike some of the armchair denouncers who have raised the “Gone Girl” storyline and accused Papini of lying, they’re keeping an open mind.
“There’s no one thing that you can look at that says, ‘Oh, this didn’t happen,’ ” O’Toole said. “Although it’s very unusual, you can’t say that unusual (equates) to it didn’t happen.”