￼Keith Papini felt the panic rising in his chest. When he’d arrived home from work on 2 November 2016, his wife, Sherri, wasn’t there.
He then discovered the 34-year-old hadn’t picked up their two children, aged four and two, from day care.
Using the Find My iPhone app, Keith traced Sherri – a keen runner – to a jogging route a couple of kilometres away. What he found at the scene made his blood run cold. Attached to Sherri’s phone were her headphones, with strands of her long, blonde hair entwined. Had there been a violent struggle? he wondered.
Keith immediately called the authorities and a huge manhunt was launched. Detectives established the last sighting of Sherri was of her jogging on Sunset Drive at around 2pm in the town of Mountain Gate.
Described by her family as a devoted stay-at-home supermum, Sherri would lovingly plan out each day for her two precious little ones until the moment they went to bed. Those closest to her were adamant that there was no way she would ever abandon her children.
‘She was definitely taken against her will,’ Keith Papini told ABC News. ‘She would never in a million years not pick up our children.’ ‘It’s completely out of character,’ Sherri’s sister Sheila Koester told local media, her eyes red raw from crying.
CCTV camera footage was studied, local sex offenders were interviewed, while police dogs and helicopters left no stone unturned in the search for clues.
The whole community joined the hunt for Sherri. Missing person posters were put up on every lamppost, flyers were handed out, and next to where her phone was found, three helium-filled balloons, tied to a fence, were marked with the words: Bring Sherri Home.
Keith told investigators the last time he had heard from Sherri was at 10.37am, when she sent a text asking if he’d be home for lunch. But Keith – who didn’t usually take his personal phone to work – didn’t reply until 1.37pm.
With seemingly no other evidence to go on, and realising the finger of suspicion pointed at him, Keith allowed investigators to search the family home without a warrant. He also provided them with the family’s computers and iPads. He even volunteered to take a lie detector test – and passed.
‘It appears he’s telling us the truth,’ Sheriff Tom Bosenko told newspaper, Sacramento Bee. ‘Generally, you can’t trick a polygraph.’
As the days dragged by, with still no clue as to her whereabouts, Sherri’s family became more and more desperate. Eventually, Sherri’s loved ones reached out to hostage negotiator Cameron Gamble. With the help of an anonymous donor – who believed the popular theory Sherri had been kidnapped – they created a bold video offering Sherri’s abductors a generous ransom for her safe return within 100 hours.
Police were unimpressed with Gamble’s meddling. In their eyes, it was hampering the investigation. When the deadline came and went, Gamble changed tactics. He cancelled the reverse ransom and said the six-figure-sum would now be a bounty for information which led to Sherri being released.
Less than 24 hours later, in the early hours of November 24, a beaten, bruised and half-starved Sherri was found alive, 225kms from home.The deeply traumatised woman was able to tell investigators she was abducted at gunpoint by two Hispanic women. They hid their faces during her 22-day ordeal. After they were reunited, Keith told the media that Sherri had been repeatedly beaten, her nose broken, her hair had been hacked off and she’d been branded on her shoulder.
Keith said the horror only ended when her captors threw her out of a dark coloured SUV with a bag over her head and a chain around her waist. The mum-of-two was able to flag down a passing motorist.
Since the ordeal, the family has gone into hiding, although a skeletal and withdrawn-looking Sherri has been spotted on a couple of occasions. Barely recognisable, she’s said to be a shadow of her former self.
Though it’s now been a year since the harrowing event unfolded, no arrests have been made and it is still not known why Sherri was taken – or if she even was abducted.
‘Why was she released?’ Sheriff’s Sergeant Brian Jackson said to People magazine. ‘It is hard to keep somebody in captivity for 22 days. Why would somebody go to that length?
‘Just on the facts that we know, it doesn’t seem to be a sex trafficking or a sexual abduction in nature and that is what we are trying to figure out: What was the purpose?’
As there was no ransom request – and tests showed Sherri had both male and female DNA on her – many have started to question if the motive was personal.
Police have recently revealed Sherri had been texting a mystery man in the lead up to her disappearance. She was planning to meet the ‘old acquaintance’ when he was in California on business. But after detectives flew to Michigan to question him, he was ruled out.
Police have also released new sketches of the women Sherri says abducted her. Recently, new CCTV footage surfaced of Sherri running through a deserted church car park after being released by her captors. With a new US$10,000 reward for information, hopefully the truth will be revealed soon.
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