Helium-filled balloons tied to a barbed-wire fence sagged in the breeze Thursday morning, at the spot where traces of Sherri Papini – her cellphone, headphones and a few strands of hair – were found eight days earlier.
Two balloons marked with the words “Bring” and “Home” still defied gravity. But the middle balloon, on which someone had written “Sherri” in black marker, had fallen. Her name was hidden from view.
Gone, too, were the deputies and teams of searchers that had spent days on this unpaved residential street 15 minutes north of Redding shouting her name, knocking on doors and looking for any sign of the 34-year-old mother who vanished after going on a jog Nov. 2. She left behind a husband and two children – a 4-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy.
For Papini’s husband, Keith, and her sister, Sheila Koester, the urgent terror they felt when Sherri didn’t pick up her children from day care that Wednesday afternoon has begun to fade, too, giving way to a gnawing worry and a dull exhaustion. Their eyes are red and ringed in dark circles after a week of sobbing, sleepless nights, check-ins with detectives and interviews before a steady stream of news reporters.
“It depends, day by day,” Koester said, sitting on the tailgate of a red pickup not far from where Papini’s belongings and hair were found. “I’m angry one day. I’m really sad another. Another day I feel OK. The next day I feel guilty about feeling OK.”
Being the object of suspicion also has played a role in the family’s stress. Without a body or a suspect, investigators followed standard protocol in a suspicious missing person case. They homed in on those closest to her – namely her husband.
Keith Papini dispelled those suspicions, though.
He provided the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office with the family’s computers, iPads and other items. He let them search his property without a warrant. He let them question him without an attorney in the room. He volunteered to take a lie-detecting polygraph. The Sheriff’s Office announced Tuesday that he had passed the lie-detector test, and that they confirmed his story that he was at work when she went missing. There was no physical evidence linking him to her disappearance.
“It appears he’s telling us the truth,” said Sheriff Tom Bosenko. “Generally, you can’t trick a polygraph.”
With Keith Papini cleared, detectives have been trying to answer other questions.
Did she get lost or just run off? Unlikely, the sheriff says, but detectives haven’t ruled anything out.
Impossible, the family says. She never had left like this before.
“It’s completely out of character,” Koester said.
They say her kids were the world for Papini, a devoted stay-at-home “supermom” who carefully planned their day almost down to the minute she put them to bed. She also had no medical conditions that might have left her confused or incapacitated.
Was the 100-pound woman attacked by a mountain lion? While the big cats sometimes wander into town from the foothills, there were no signs of blood or a struggle, Bosenko said. Tracking dogs also never picked up the scent of a body.
Was she grabbed by someone? Interstate 5, a corridor for drug and human trafficking, passes only a few miles from where police said she last went jogging, wearing a pink top. But detectives reviewing surveillance footage from homes and businesses in the area have reported no leads.
They’ve also been visiting registered sex offenders in the county. None have publicly raised suspicion. There are no other recent missing person cases that appear similar in nature, Bosenko said.
What about cold murder and missing-person cases? Same thing there – no apparent connection, Bosenko said.
But there’s one high-profile cold-case disappearance in which the victim looked so similar and is so well-remembered in this region of about 100,000 people, a 2 1/2 -hour drive north of Sacramento, that many are asking if the two are connected.
In 1998, Tera Smith, a blond 16-year-old Central Valley High School homecoming princess, went missing. Like Papini, she was wearing running clothes the last time she was seen, according to local media reports. Her body was never found.
“They look similar and the circumstances are very similar. That was the last one people were scared over,” said Lianne Bowman, the owner of a dog-grooming business a short drive from where Papini’s belongings were found.
Unlike Papini’s disappearance, detectives zeroed in on a possible suspect in Smith’s case, though they never made an arrest. Smith’s martial arts instructor, a man with a prior rape conviction, told investigators he dropped her off on the night she disappeared a few minutes’ drive from where Papini’s cellphone and earphones were found.
He told detectives Smith had grown angry when he wouldn’t loan her money.
The man, whom The Sacramento Bee isn’t naming because he’s never been charged, denied any involvement in Smith’s disappearance. But Smith’s family believed, based on letters and journal entries found in her room, the two were having an affair and that she went that night to end it, according to local media reports.
Smith’s case, which also brought national news crews to Redding, never was relegated to some dusty filing cabinet in the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office. The lead detective still keeps a photo on his desk of the smiling teen. The sheriff acknowledged it’s almost unnerving how much she looks like Papini.
“(Papini) is 34 years old, but she looks much younger,” Bosenko said. “They could probably pass for sisters.”
Even so, there’s no apparent correlation between the two cases, he said.
The similarities prompted Keith Papini to reach out to Tera Smith’s father, Terry Smith, a few days after Sherri Papini went missing. Smith said Keith Papini asked for his advice.
He had little to offer other than to doggedly insist detectives throw everything they have at the case and not give up.
“At least in our case we had a suspect – somebody we think was responsible for it,” Smith said Thursday inside the Oasis Family Fun Center, a miniature golf and go-cart business the family owns off Interstate 5. “In many ways it’s worse than what we had to go through because at least we pretty much knew who did it, and what he did, and even though we never found her body, we’ve kind of come to terms with that.
“In the Papini case, they’ve got nothing. Nothing at all. I didn’t have a lot of comfort to offer him. I’m not real confident that anything’s going to come out of it, but how do you tell somebody five days after their wife’s gone missing that she’s probably gone for good?”
Koester, Sherri Papini’s sister, also knew Smith, and the teen’s disappearance has been on her mind.
“For them to be so closely related in that we all went to high school with them, and they look like each other, it’s all very strange,” she said.
Still, Koester believes her sister’s disappearance will end differently than Smith’s. Keith Papini hasn’t told their children that their mother is gone.
“We feel that she’s going to walk through the door at any time,” Koester said.
Help find Sherri Papini
Last seen: Nov. 2 on Sunrise Drive and Old Oregon Trail in the town of Mountain Gate.
Description: Blond, 5 foot 4 inches tall, and weighing 100 pounds. She was believed to be wearing a pink running top.
Reward: Secret Witness of Shasta County is offering $10,000 for information that would lead detectives to a suspect. The family is offering $40,000. An online fundraising campaign also is accepting donations.
Tips: Call 530-243-2319 or 530-245-6135.