The story of Sherry Papini, 34, is one of the most bizarre kidnapping cases in recent years.
On November 2, 2016, Sherri, vanished without a trace in Northern California while jogging near her home in Redding. Her family and the community were shocked that such a beautiful and outgoing young woman could be abducted while innocently jogging in such a safe and tranquil place.
22 days later, at approximately 4:30 a.m., on Thanksgiving morning, a passing motorist saw Papini desperately waving on the side of the road in Yolo County. The location is approximately 150 miles south of her home near Interstate 5 and County Road 17.
Papini was severely emaciated weighing only 85 pounds and bound at her waist by a chain that was fastened to her wrist with a zip tie. Shasta County Sheriff’s Office described hose clamps attached to both of her ankles as “pain compliant restraints.”
Papini told police she had been abducted at gunpoint by two Hispanic females driving a dark SUV, who primarily spoke Spanish around her. She had also been branded on the left shoulder, though a description of the brand has never been released.
Keith Papini, Sherri’s husband, described his wife as being covered in bruises that ranged from yellow to black, the bridge of her nose was fractured, and her long blonde hair cruelly chopped off.
On November 2, Papini’s husband Keith returned from his job at Best Buy and could not find his wife at home. He was immediately concerned. He frantically searched the house and then pulled out his iPhone.
Keith told the 911 operator he came home from work to find his wife and children gone and that his wife had never arrived at daycare to pick them up. He also told the operator he used the “Find My iPhone” app to locate his wife’s cell phone and earbuds along a dirt trail at the intersection of Sunrise Avenue and Old Oregon Trail, approximately one mile from their home.
“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 told the NZ Herald. “I’m freaking out, thinking that somebody, like, grabbed her.”
When police began their investigation, they began a ground search and distributing flyers throughout the area shortly thereafter.
The search for Papini gained attention throughout the United States and internationally with people all over the world wondering what happened to Sherri Papini.
When Papini was found she had both female and male DNA on her. “It’s still an active and ongoing investigation,” said Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko in November 2018. Police have not determined why Papini was abducted, where she had spent 22 days and why she was released.
Papini told police that just before her release, she heard her captors arguing, then a gunshot. The younger attacker then took her from the room where she had been held and dropped her off at the nearest corner. However, early on, her story wasn’t adding up to the police.
“The male DNA was compiled from the clothing Sherri had been wearing,” said Sgt. Brian Jackson. Also, the female DNA was taken directly from Papini’s body.
These facts didn’t coincide with the story that Papini had been abducted and held by two female abductors. Also, the male DNA did not match her husband’s, fueling speculation that Papini had met up with a man willingly. The DNA samples were uploaded in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) at the FBI, but there have been no matches.
Frustrated with the lack of progress with the investigation by police, Keith Papini set up a GoFundMe page during 2017, to raise money for a missing person private investigator. This in turn would frustrate the police, who thought it would compromise the investigation.
Theories and speculation began swirling around in the public sphere about what happened to her, including conjecture that she had been kidnapped by sex traffickers, was involved in a drug deal gone bad, or had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but somewhere along the line the public started doubting Papini’s story.
While police say they have no reason not to believe her story, some details of her case caused some people to question whether she had been taken and held against her will.
During the police investigation, authorities had uncovered text messages between Sherry and a male acquaintance who resides in Michigan. Police determined they had an online texting relationship, but it was unclear if the two ever had a romantic relationship.
“The text messages went back several months to days before the disappearance,” Jackson told People. “It was prior contact that she had years before. Somebody she met and kept in contact with. A male acquaintance she was talking to through texting.”
Many experts believe the public scrutiny of Papini’s story has been unfair. Thomas Lauth, CEO of Lauth Investigations International is an expert in the field of missing persons and a missing person private investigator for over 25 years. “Few people would ever willingly subject themselves to the abuse and trauma Papini experienced,” said Lauth. “The branding, the starvation, the cutting of hair willingly — just does not make sense.”
Papini’s Life After the Abduction
Three years later, police seem no closer to closing this mysterious case. The paparazzi still follow Papini around trying to get a shot, which has forced her to live like a recluse.
Last year, a neighbor told Newsweek that Papini leads a “very quiet life” at home and rarely goes outside while trying to put back the pieces of her life.
“She doesn’t come out of the house,” neighbor Joyce Allison said. “I don’t see the kids outside playing in the yard.”
Another neighbor who requested anonymity said they just wanted the family to find closure. “I hope if her story is true that she’s getting along alright and getting counseling so she can live with it and get better,” the neighbor said. “But, is it a real story? I don’t know. I hope one day we’ll all have answers.”
For the Papini family, we can only try to imagine what life has been like being forced into hiding and that they, too, need answers.
While scars heal and hair grows back, the brand on her shoulder will forever be a reminder of the traumatic events she endured, whether the public believes her or not.
Most of us are aware of our inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But for most American’s there is a lesser-known right . . . the right to go missing.
As of April 30, 2018, there were 86,927 active missing person cases in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) at the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Of that number 14,411 are listed as endangered by authorities.
While most cases will resolve quickly, others date back decades.
“If you, as an adult, want to take off and need some time alone, you’re entitled to do that,” according to St. Cloud Police Assistant Chief Jeff Oxton. “That’s the right to go missing and can generate legitimate and sometimes illegitimate concerns from others.”
At the age of 18, going missing is not considered an offense. Unless the adult has been found to have significant issues with mental health, or if they are legally under the care of another person, it is not a crime to go missing and most resolve without incident.
“Most missing persons, we find them OK,” said Oxton. “We find there’s been a misunderstanding, or there was another reason they weren’t where they were supposed to be.”
However, that doesn’t always mean that all missing person cases are resolved with expediency.
Police in Scottsdale, Ariz., are searching for missing Marine veteran Jesse Conger who vanished without a trace on August 14, 2019. Loved ones fear he may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. Conger had served for 10 years and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during his military service.
Authorities say Conger was last seen at his apartment in Scottsdale by his girlfriend Natasha Harwell and may be driving a 2015 Toyota Camry with Nevada license plate number 696G03.
“I asked him to get help. He kept telling me, ‘No.’ but I feel like I should have insisted a little bit more,” Harwell said.
When Conger did not come home and never answered her calls or texts, she reported him missing. She noticed his gun was missing but all other personal belongings left at his home, including his wallet with identification, debit card, credit card, and all necessities. His service dog was also left behind.
“I feel like all the times before when he has done this, it was more like—you could know something was about to happen. He would talk to me about it, I could talk to him. This time he just picked up and left,” said Harwell.
The search has gone viral after a tweet from Pulte Group CEO Bill Pulte offered a $30,000 reward to help find Conger.
“I don’t know if I would be alive without my twin brother,” Patricia Conger said. “He’s always been with me. I want you to come home Jesse, please come home and I love you.”
Scottsdale Police Department is treating Jesse Conger’s case as an “endangered missing person” and added him to the NCIC system at the FBI.
What Happens When a Missing Person is Entered Into NCIC?
Once someone is entered into the NCIC database they are flagged as missing making their information available nationwide. For example, if they disappear from California and get pulled over or questioned by authorities in Arizona, police are quickly able to run their information through NCIC and make a determination if the individual is possibly a danger to themselves or others. This enables authorities to take them to the hospital.
There are five categories in NCIC that a missing person can be classified in.
When a person is added to NCIC, it makes their descriptive and automobile information available to all law enforcement agencies, medical examiners and Coroners in the country.
It is a common misconception that when an adult goes missing, a reporting party must wait 24 hours before making a report to police.
“There’s just not (a waiting period,)” Oxton said told the Sy. Cloud Times. “And I think that comes back to, you know, people see it on TV, or whatever, that they have to be missing for 24 hours. But that’s just not true.
In fact, there is no national mandate that requires one to wait before going to the police to report an adult missing.
However, when a child goes missing there is a national mandate requiring law enforcement to accept an immediate missing report, report it to the FBI and enter the person’s descriptive data into NCIC. This is due to the age and vulnerability. Though this national mandate does not apply to missing adults, there still exists no required waiting period to report them.
When there is a reporting delay for some reason, or something bad has happened, the first two hours are critical.
After receiving a missing person report, police will attempt to find the person in question, which may include contacting the person who made the report, along with friends and family, hospitals and jails.
If police discover the person went missing on their own accord, legally police cannot tell the reporting party where they are if the missing person does not wish friends and family to know. Police can let the reporting party know they are alive and well and do not wish contact.
Authorities are expected to make informed judgment calls about whether the missing person is at risk of death or injury. If the person is considered “endangered” it adds more urgency to the case, meaning law enforcement has received enough evidence that the person is at risk for personal injury or death due to one of the following:
the person is involuntarily missing or result of an abduction;
the person is missing under dangerous circumstances;
there is evidence the person is in need of medical attention or needed medication such as insulin, that would severely affect the person’s health;
the person does not have a history of disappearing;
the person is mentally impaired or has diminished mental capacity, such as someone with Alzheimer’s or Down Syndrome;
the person has been the subject of acts of violence or threats;
there is evidence the person may be lost in the wilderness or after a catastrophic natural event;
any other factor that law enforcement believes the person may be at risk of physical injury or death.
Once there is a report on a missing person, it then becomes crucial that law enforcement obtain dental records, fingerprints and have the family submit a DNA sample into the Family DNA database.
Records and samples are regularly cross-referenced with Unidentified Persons, alive and deceased for matches.
Jesse Conger is listed as “endangered” in NCIC due to his mental state when he went missing. But what happens when the trail goes cold?
Until a missing person is found, their entry in NCIC remains active. Once entered police do not stop investigating the case and following up on every lead that is provided by the public.
However, some cases, like Conger’s do not resolve right away and it becomes necessary and effective for police to ask for the public’s help to generate new leads.
Family and friends commonly try to engage the public and community to help find the missing person, including setting up Facebook Pages to generate leads and offer rewards for information.
Behind every missing person appeal, and every headline is an individual story and a family experiencing heartbreak.
“For law enforcement, at times searching for a missing person is like searching for a needle in a haystack,” says Thomas Lauth, a missing person expert, and CEO of Lauth Investigations International. “Often an effective investigation is a cooperative effort between law enforcement, the public, and the media.
Lauth has worked on missing person cases for over 25 years, working with local, state and federal law enforcement. “Generating that one lead that law enforcement needs to progress with the investigation becomes of utmost importance.”
Inevitably some cases go cold but that doesn’t mean the case is closed or impossible to solve.
“While missing persons have the right to go missing, the police still pour all of their resources into investigating the disappearance which should be reassuring to families who are experiencing the trauma of having a loved one missing,” says Lauth.