Thirteen years before Sherri Papini told Shasta County detectives she was abducted and tortured for weeks by two female kidnappers, her mother called the same law enforcement agency to ask for help with her daughter.
Papini, her mother alleged, had been harming herself and blaming the injuries on her.
Loretta Graeff’s allegations are detailed in a December 2003 Shasta County Sheriff’s Office incident report The Sacramento Bee received after filing multiple requests under the California’s Public Records Act. The report is only two sentences long. It doesn’t say whether the department found evidence that Papini – then 21 years old – had in fact harmed herself.
Asked what happened, Shasta County sheriff’s Lt. Pat Kropholler said in an email that a deputy spoke with Graeff back in 2003 and gave her advice.
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The call by Loretta Graeff was one of several made to law enforcement by members of Papini’s family between 2000 and 2003. In 2000, her father, Richard Graeff, alleged his daughter burglarized his residence. Three years later, he alleged she made unauthorized withdrawals from his checking account. In 2000, her sister, Sheila Koester, alleged her back door had been kicked in and she believed Papini was the suspect. The reports provide no details about arrests. Kropholler did not respond to questions about whether Papini had ever been charged with a crime.
These call records are among the few pieces of information the sheriff’s department has released to The Bee about Papini, now a 34-year-old mother of two whose November disappearance while jogging near her Redding-area home ignited a media frenzy. Search warrants issued as part of the investigation into her alleged abduction remain sealed.
Investigators provided few details after Papini reappeared near Interstate 5 in Yolo County early Thanksgiving morning. She told investigators she was snatched at gunpoint by two Hispanic women who chopped off her long hair, beat her and seared a brand into her skin before they let her go.
Papini never appeared in public to describe her ordeal. No arrests have been made. No motive for her abduction has been disclosed.
Kropholler declined this week to answer questions surrounding Papini’s alleged abduction, other than to say a detective has been assigned to the case full time, and the agency is “in contact with the Papinis on a regular basis.”
“The Papini case is still active and the investigation is ongoing,” Kropholler wrote in an email response. “I realize there is a lot of interest in Mrs. Papini and the details of her case. However, I am sure you can understand the necessity of maintaining the integrity of the investigation. Please be assured that when it is appropriate to release any further information regarding this case we will do so.”
The Graeffs didn’t return a voice message. Papini couldn’t be reached for comment. Papini’s sister, Koester, who has acted as family spokeswoman in the past, asked The Bee for a copy of the the 2003 incident report to verify its authenticity. She didn’t reply to interview requests after it and the other reports were emailed to her. In past statements to the press, Papini’s husband has insisted her kidnapping was not a hoax.
“All the information that we have right now we have no reason to believe that she is making this up,” Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko told The Bee on Nov. 30.
Yet experts on police investigations interviewed by The Bee said that if the allegations her mother made in 2003 are true and Papini had a history of blaming self abuse on others, it recasts her already bizarre kidnapping story with a new shade of doubt.
“It’s certainly not proof (of a hoax), but it makes her story even more suspicious,” said James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University.
Pierced ears, thin eyebrows
Papini disappeared Nov. 2 in the Shasta County town of Mountain Gate, about two and a half hours north of Sacramento.
Her husband, Keith Papini, said he grew worried after she failed to pick up her children that afternoon from daycare, something her family members say was completely out of character.
Keith Papini used a mobile phone locator app to track down her cell phone. He found it in the grass on the side of a dirt road about a mile from her home, and not far from Interstate 5.
The phone, investigators said, was placed, screen up, with its headphones coiled neatly on top. The only sign of Papini was a few of strands of her blonde hair. There was nothing to suggest a struggle, detectives said.
As is typical in missing persons cases, detectives began questioning those closest to Papini, notably her husband. Keith Papini was cleared as a suspect after he passed a lie-detector test. Investigators said they also looked into her friends and acquaintances, as well as “people Sherri has had past relationships with” in their efforts to find her. They combed her social media profiles, emails, bank accounts and other electronic records looking for clues.
Based on travel receipts obtained by The Bee, two detectives investigating Papini’s disappearance traveled to Detroit and its suburbs of New Hudson, Northville, Plymouth and Canton between Nov. 9 and Nov. 11. Detectives have declined to say why they went out of state.
Detectives filed 14 search warrants when she was missing. They filed three more after she was turned up early Thanksgiving morning. The warrants, which would likely include detailed summaries of the investigation, remain under seal in Shasta County Superior Court. No new ones have been filed since 2016.
After his wife was found, Keith Papini told ABC News that she suffered profoundly in captivity. The bridge of her nose had been broken and she weighed only 87 pounds, down from the 100 she normally weighs. He said she was covered in scabs and bruises, had marks from wearing chains and her “signature long blond hair had been chopped off.” He said his wife had a brand seared into her skin. Sheriff Bosenko said the brand sent “a message,” but he declined to elaborate.
Bosenko said detectives have since urged the family to stop making detailed statements to the press, saying it could compromise the investigation.
Investigators have provided no new information since a Nov. 30 news conference at which Bosenko briefed reporters on the description Papini had provided of her alleged abductors.
One of the women had thin eyebrows and pierced ears, Bosenko said. Her hair was long and curly. The other, who was older, had straight black hair and thick eyebrows. Both spoke in Spanish most of the time, according to Papini’s account. They kept their faces covered, and she had no idea where she was held. Bosenko said Papini couldn’t describe the suspects’ SUV other than that it was dark colored.
Another Vallejo case?
Fox, the criminologist from Northeastern, and other experts on abductions told The Bee Papini’s account was odd because women rarely abduct other women. Kidnappers intent on assault or sexual crimes don’t usually go out of their way to hide their identities, experts said
The experts also pointed to a couple of high-profile criminal cases over the years that featured people feigning serious bodily and psychological trauma.
The most notable is the case of Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old African American girl from the New York City area who in 1987 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.
Papini’s husband told ABC News in November he was appalled by the armchair detectives who believed his wife staged a crime.
“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,” Keith Papini wrote in the statement.
A racist online post fueled skepticism about the Papini’s story.
Internet sleuths dug up a essay posted on a now-defunct website called Skinheadz.com that was signed by a “Sherri Graeff” – Papini’s maiden name. The writer said that while growing up in Shasta County, she got into two fights with Latinos who targeted her because she was “drug-free, white and proud” of her “blood and heritage.”
Bosenko has said it’s not clear if Papini wrote the post, but he said the fights the author described weren’t noted in sheriff’s records. Papini’s friends and family have said the post was written by someone else.
Papini also maintained a public Pinterest account that contained a section marked “Cultural Differences” featuring memes expressing concerns about illegal immigrants and Muslims. The section has since been taken down.
Experts familiar with kidnappings caution that just because Papini’s case has odd details or has aspects, such as the 2003 incident report, that could be seen as casting doubt on Papini’s credibility, it doesn’t mean detectives or the public should assume her abduction was staged.
They point to a 2015 kidnapping case in Vallejo in which detectives initially treated a couple’s brutal abduction story as if it were they were making it up. The detectives later discovered that their tale was anything but a hoax. The suspect, a Harvard-trained attorney named Matthew Muller, was sentenced in Sacramento federal court this month to 40 years in prison. Vallejo police apologized to the couple, and the pair has since filed lawsuits against the department.
“You always have to allow for the fact that, yes, something that does have many unusual twists and turns actually did occur,” said Mary Ellen O’Toole, a former FBI agent who specialized in criminal profiling.