In the days leading up to her disappearance nearly a year ago, Sherri Papini exchanged text messages with a Michigan man whom she had planned to meet. And even though she said her abductors were women, she had male DNA on her clothes when she was found.
Papini also told detectives she fought back against one of the two women who she said abducted her and held her captive 22 days last fall.
Investigators provided the new details on Wednesday – along with a pair of FBI sketches of her abductors and a 911 call made by her husband, Keith, recorded on the day she disappeared. It’s the first new information released by the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office about the case in almost a year. Sgt. Brian Jackson said there was no particular reason for the timing of the new information, other than detectives hoped it would generate new leads.
Papini, 35, disappeared after reportedly going for a jog near her home outside Redding on Nov. 2. The case of the missing young mom attracted media attention around the country and the world.
Then, early on Thanksgiving morning, Papini suddenly resurfaced on a darkened roadside along Interstate 5 in Yolo County. She told detectives she had been held captive by two Hispanic women, but said she could provide few details about her abductors because they kept their faces covered and spoke in Spanish. Her family hasn’t done any interviews for nearly a year.
Nicole Wool, a Los Angeles public relations professional who had issued a statement to the press earlier this year on behalf of Papini’s family, didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment from The Bee. The Papinis didn’t respond to a message left Wednesday at their home. But Keith Papini, Sherri’s husband, issued a statement to the Record Searchlight in Redding expressing gratitude for the community’s support and asking for privacy. He said the family hopes the release of additional details will speed the arrest of her alleged captors.
The Sheriff’s Office revealed Wednesday that Papini and the Michigan man texted each other in an attempt to meet when he was in California on business. Detectives traveled to Michigan, interviewed him and determined he was not involved in her disappearance, Jackson said Wednesday.
The man wasn’t identified.
Jackson said Wednesday in an interview with The Bee that Papini recounted fighting back against the younger of her captors, slamming the woman’s head into a toilet when she was allowed to leave the room where she was being held in order to take a shower.
But Papini’s story contained inconsistencies, Jackson said.
She told detectives she cut her foot in the fight, but investigators didn’t find evidence of the cut. Jackson said that’s not necessarily a sign that Papini is making up that part of the story – or any other parts of her account. “Obviously, in any investigation, especially something of this nature where there’s trauma and it’s a prolonged thing, it’s not abnormal to have inconsistencies,” Jackson said.
Jackson said that during an examination of Papini detectives found DNA from two people — a man and a woman – on her. Jackson declined to reveal what materials the samples came from, such as a hair or bodily fluids.
“We’re not releasing exactly what the samples came from, so that when we get a chance to interview some suspects, we can maybe have an edge on them,” he said.
Jackson said a woman’s DNA was found on Papini’s body, while the man’s DNA was on her clothes. The male DNA was not from her husband, who has been ruled out as a suspect. Jackson said the DNA was uploaded into a criminal database this spring, but so far, no matches have come back.
Detectives reiterated Wednesday that Papini showed no evidence of sexual assault.
Jackson said Papini’s hair had been cut to shoulder length while she was abducted, and he revealed where Papini had been branded – her right shoulder.
The details of what was seared into her skin weren’t released. Detectives themselves are working to decipher what the brand says. Jackson said it contained “obscure letters,” and Papini has allowed detectives to use “alternate light sources and filters” to try to make out what the markings are.
Jackson said that Papini told detectives that just before she was released, she could hear her captors having an argument, followed by a gunshot. She said the younger of her abductors then took her from the room where she was held captive, drove her down a winding road and dropped her off near Interstate 5.
“That was something that was followed up on between us and Yolo County,” Jackson said. “We haven’t been able to confirm any missing persons, any unknown types of homicides in the Yolo County area, or even in our county or any combining counties. That’s some additional information we’re still following up on to confirm and verify.”
Papini was found wearing light gray sweatpants and a dark gray sweatshirt. A chain circled her waist and her left wrist was tethered to the chain with a zip tie. Papini also had hose clamps around her ankles, which Jackson said “appeared to have acted as pain-compliance restraints.”
In the 911 tape released Wednesday, Keith Papini told a dispatcher he came home from work and his wife and their children weren’t home. He said no one had picked up his kids from day care, and Papini had texted him that morning, hoping to meet at home for lunch.
He said he used an iPhone locator app to try to track down his wife, only to find her phone near the start of the dirt road on which the family lives in the town of Mountain Gate, north of Redding.
“I just drove down there, and I found her phone with her headphones because she started running again, and I found her phone and it’s got her hair ripped out of it, like in the headphones,” Keith Papini said frantically and breathing heavily. “I’m totally freaking out, thinking that somebody, like, grabbed her.”
Investigators said last year that the phone 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.
Keith Papini passed a polygraph test and has offered to take an additional one, detectives said Wednesday.
Detectives said Papini and her family are in frequent contact with them, and she continues to look at photographs of various makes and models of SUVs in in the hopes of a more detailed description.
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. Bosenko said last year that there was no indication that Papini was involved in a hoax.
But the lack of clarity about what happened to Papini has prompted scrutiny of her background.
Records obtained this spring by The Bee through the California Public Records Act revealed that Papini’s family members at one point had accused her of harming herself and blaming the injuries on others.
In a December 2003 incident report filed with the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office, Papini’s mother, Loretta Graeff, alleged her daughter had hurt herself and blamed the injuries on her. 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.
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. Detectives did not respond to questions about whether Papini had ever been charged with a crime.
More than 20 search warrants were issued as part of the kidnapping investigation. Detectives said Wednesday they remain sealed.
The case has become a favorite of amateur internet sleuths. Entire Reddit threads have been devoted to Papini’s case.
A racist online post they dug up fueled skepticism about the Papini’s story.
An essay posted on a now-defunct website called Skinheadz.com 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.”
The essay portrays the writer as a fierce fighter who inflicted damage. “It took three full-sized men to pull me off of her,” the post reads. “I broke her nose and split her eyebrow.”
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.
Jackson, the detective, said Wednesday he hopes the newly released details, FBI sketches and a $10,000 reward will generate tips that will prove more fruitful than the more than 600 others detectives have received since last year.
He suggested more information is about to be released. “There’s some additional information that we’re hoping to put out in the next months or weeks, once we get through this week’s events,” Jackson said.