A few miles south of Redding along northbound Interstate 5, a large sign still stands alongside the highway pleading for help in large, red letters – “Missing: Sherri Papini.”
On Saturday morning, more than 200 Redding-area residents gathered for a joyous celebration of the fact that the 34-year-old mother of two no longer needs help from posters, signs and rewards.
“This community is getting together to just wish this family well and welcome Sherri back,” Redding health club owner Brady Frost said as people gathered at the Redding Civic Auditorium to celebrate Papini’s safe return home after she was discovered along a Yolo County roadway on Thanksgiving morning.
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In a show of support for the family and for Papini’s recovery from injuries suffered during what authorities are investigating as a three-week abduction, friends of the family and people who had never met them gathered to pose for a “welcome home” photograph to be presented to Papini as a surprise gift.
The celebrants gathered in a grassy area not far from Redding’s landmark Sundial Bridge and waved as a drone flew overhead to capture the photo. Older couples, families with children, cyclists and dozens of people accompanied by dogs mingled together, many of them wearing pink – Papini’s favorite color.
They wore pink shirts, sneakers, jackets and scarves – one woman rode a pink road bike – and said they wanted to show the world that Redding is a strong community that cannot be defined by the worldwide notoriety the case has spawned.
“We never lost hope,” Redding Mayor Missy McArthur told the crowd under a bright, sun-filled sky. “We kept working and we made it happen.
“So, we’re so proud of this community.”
Residents say efforts to keep the case alive in the media – as well as the offer of a six-figure reward – helped focus people on the Papini case, and many dismissed with disgust suggestions that have appeared online that the case might be some sort of hoax.
“It’s sick,” said Papini family friend Lisa Jeter, who helped organize Saturday’s event and spoke by phone last week to Papini and her husband, Keith. “I mean, she’s the sweetest, most warmhearted person you would ever meet, and for people to be that negative, that cruel, is disheartening and very, very sad.”
That was a common sentiment among the crowd Saturday.
“Oh, they’re just trolls,” the mayor said of online posters suggesting the abduction did not actually occur.
McArthur said she spoke to both Sherri and Keith Papini and said “she has a lot of healing to do.”
Jeter said her conversation with Papini was emotional.
“She’s very grateful,” Jeter said. “Between tears and speaking, it was just the word ‘grateful.’
“She’s just very grateful to be home.”
The Shasta County Sheriff’s Office has said it is investigating the case as an abduction and offered a description last week of two Hispanic women Papini described as taking her as she was out for a run early last month.
Since her recovery – when she was found bound and beaten as she flagged down a motorist in Yolo County – the family has remained in seclusion.
Keith Papini, in a series of appearances on the ABC News program “20/20,” has denounced suggestions that his wife was not abducted and told an interviewer that the family, which includes Papini’s 2- and 4-year-old children, has left its home for now to get away from the attention.
Meanwhile, area residents say the notion that there may be two kidnappers somewhere in the area made them more cautious.
Some said they are more aware of what is going on around them, especially on the popular trails along the Sacramento River.
“I think it’s made everybody aware if you’re walking on a trail alone to be aware of your surroundings,” McArthur said. “If anything seems sketchy, go the other way.”
But residents added that, while they are being cautious, they are not living in fear.
“I think it concerns all of us,” said Jeter, 38. “We’re a lot more vigilant than we have been in the past.”