A 34-year-old wife and mother of two was found alive, but beaten and chained, alongside a highway in California three weeks after disappearing in an apparent abduction, police say.
Police and volunteers scrambled to search the rural area near where Papini had last been seen, but were not able to find her. They did locate an iPhone, earbud headphones and strands of what was believed to be Papini’s hair along a jogging path she frequented, authorities siad.
Papini was then found Thanksgving morning alongside an interstate in Yolo County, about 140 miles from where she went missing, police said.
The first photos of Papini following the alleged abduction were published by the New York Post on January 9:
Police have said the investigation is active and they are searching for two women suspected in the abduction, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Many members of the public believe Papini may have “staged” her own abduction for fame and fortune.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. She Was Found ‘Heavily Battered’ & Chained
“We are very ecstatic to report that Sherri Papini has been located, and has been reunited with her husband and family on this Thanksgiving Day,” Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said in a news conference, which you can watch above.
Papini was found in the early hours of Thanksgiving morning after flagging down a motorist along an interstate, CNN reported.
A 911 call between a dispatcher and deputies revealed that Papini was “chained to something,” and also “heavily battered.” One deputy said the California Highway Patrol advised that it was a “confirmed kidnapping.” She was reportedly found on northbound I-5 just south of Yolo.
The beauty was treated for injuries that were not life-threatening and reunited with her husband, Keith Papini, according to Bosenko.
In an interview with 20/20 that aired December 2, Keith described the moment his wife was allegedly freed, and said she desperately tried to flag down passing motorists.
“Her left hand was in the vehicle chained to something, she was chained anytime she was in a vehicle. They opened the door, she doesn’t know because she had a bag over her head, they cut something to free her restraint that was holding her into the vehicle and then, kind of, pushed her out of the vehicle,” Keith told 20/20‘s Matt Gutman.
“She screamed so much, she’s coughing up blood from the screaming trying to get somebody to stop,” Keith, who has two children with Papini, continued. “And again just another sign of how my wife is, she’s so wonderful. She’s saying, ‘Well maybe people aren’t stopping because I have a chain that looks like I broke out of prison,’ so she tried to tuck in her chain under her clothes.”
Keith went onto explain that he spent many sleepless nights not knowing where his wife was. “I was just worried about her health,” he told 20/20. “Are they feeding her? Is she hot? Is she cold? Just little horrible things that I would go through.”
You can watch a preview of the interview below:
In a statement obtained by People, Keith said Sherri’s face was “covered in bruises ranging from yellow to black because of her repeated beatings.” He went onto explain that she only weighed 87lbs. and that her hair had been cut.
On November 30, authorities revealed that Papini was allegedly branded by her abductors. “I would think that was some sort of either an exertion of power and control and/or maybe some type of message that the brand contained,” Bosenko said. “It is not a symbol, but it was a message.”
2. Authorities Are Searching for 2 Hispanic Women
Officials said that they were looking for two Hispanic women driving a dark colored SUV, and said they were suspected to be armed with a handgun.
The sheriff said authorities did not know who the captors were, a motive or where Papini was held during the time she was missing.
The public should remain cautious,” Bosenko said.
On November 30, Bosenko said Papini’s alleged abductors covered her head or their own faces, so Papini wasn’t able provide a detailed description of the two. However, after intense interviewing, Papini was able to come up with two descriptions. “The younger one [has] long curly hair, a thick accent, pierced ears and thin eyebrows,” Bosenko said. “She described the older one as having straight black hair with graying color and thick eyebrows.”
Papini’s husband spoke about the search to 20/20 before his wife was found. “There was a moment where we were heading back after we did a few mile search and we look up and we start to see birds circling,” Keith said. “And I went to my knees and I thought, ‘Am I really hiking out here to look for my wife and I don’t want to find her right now, but I do want to find her’…that was a tough one for me that day.”
Anyone with information linked to the disappearance or subsequent release of Papini is asked to call the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office Tip Line at 530-245-6135,
or Shasta County Secret Witness at 530-243-2319. You may also email a tip to the sheriff’s office: email@example.com.
3. Sheriff: ‘The Investigation Is Far From Over’
Bosenko confirmed at a news conference that while they have more information than the few details that have been released, he could not go into more details at this time. However, he said that “the investigation is far from over.”
The sheriff also asked that the media respect the family’s privacy.
Papini’s sister, Sheila Koester, told the Sacramento Bee that the family is elated to be reunited with her.
“This has been the most amazing Thanksgiving that our family could ever ask for,” Koester told the station Friday. “We’re all very, very, very excited, very, very relieved and just very thankful for getting our Sherri back.”
4. Some Are Questioning Whether the Kidnapping Was Staged
While many people are celebrating the fact that Papini was found alive, others are claiming that the kidnapping may have been a hoax.
An anonymous source told Heavy that they were advised that Papini’s “extended family” claimed she had staged her own abduction in 2006.
Others are expressing their disbelief via social media. “I saw a news report that stated she gave a ‘vague’ description of her abductors,” PlanoJoe commented on a Denver Post article. “Again, seems odd it would be so vague given she was with them for 3 weeks. She just said they are hispanic and are driving a dark SUV. Gee, two hispanic women driving a dark SUV. Can’t be more than a few thousand of those across the roadways of America at any given moment.”
A Reddit user who uses the handle nickdaisy wrote:
Something is not right here. It’s possible she was taken and then released relatively unharmed weeks later– but it’d be an exceptional case. Kidnapping for ransom in the US is very rare. Keeping someone for weeks and then releasing them without compensation is even rarer.
“I have heard of kidnappers releasing victims by the road, and all that seems a little extreme to cover up an affair, but hey, stranger things have happened,” Reddit user blanca93 said. “I certainly hope nobody in the situation would lie about something so serious, but only time and more information will tell.”
“My investigative antennas are on alert on this one,” Ray Helmuth posted to Facebook. “I’ll be the first to say, I guess, that the true story of what happened is yet to come-too many unusual aspects, so far, to the narrative that’s been released to the public on what has been stated that happened.”
Papini’s sister, Sheila Koester, released the following statement on behalf of Papini and her husband at a news conference:
We are overwhelmed with joy of how supportive everyone has been to help bring us together as a family again. We especially would like to thank the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office, The NorCal Alliance for the Missing, the Lost Coast Trackers, Shasta Support Services, the Guardian Angels — our A-Team — the California Highway Patrol, Yolo County Sheriff’s Office, the medical personnel that helped Sherri that morning, and the whole world that reached out to help find her.
Everyone’s tireless efforts has made our family whole again this Thanksgiving. Thank you for allowing our family time to heal and for giving us our privacy. Your help in keeping this alive through social media and national news was an intricate part in bringing her home to us. We cannot thank you enough.
Adding even more mystery to the case is an anonymous website that offered ransom and reward money for information leading to the return of Papini. The Sun reported that “a check of the site around the time of the sheriff’s office’s announcement [that Papini had been found] showed it was blank.”
The sheriff stated at a news conference that money had nothing to do with Papini’s safe recovery.
“We currently have no reason to disbelieve Sherri Papini’s story,” Bosenko said, according to ABC News. “She was assaulted and had injuries which she was treated for.”
He added that investigators are looking into Papini’s past, which includes a previous marriage, divorce and online activity, ABC reported.
5. A GoFundMe Account Raised Nearly $50,000 to Help Find Her
The Gofundme account set up to help find Papini raised $49,205, according to the site. The page was no longer accepting donations at the time of this article.
The page was created on November 4, two days after Papini went missing. It stated:
Friends, Family, and Community: Please Help us in Raising Money to BRING SHERRI HOME SAFE. All Funds will go directly to the Papini family and will be used for search efforts to Find Sherri and to Help bring her home Safely. Every Dollar Counts as time is critical. Thanks!
*This story will be updated as information becomes available.