Kidnapping mystery continues to unfurl: Abducted California mom 'branded' by captors

Sheriff says Sherri Papini taken while out for jog

By Michelle Ganley - Online Editor
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Sherri Papini

Sherri Papini was nearly unrecognizable when she was found before dawn on Thanksgiving Day: Covered with bruises and burns, chained at the waist and wrists, her signature long blond hair cut off, the bridge of her nose broken from repeated beatings and a message branded onto her body -- which weighed just 87 pounds.

The mother of two small children from rural Northern California had been held captive for three weeks and then released along Interstate 5 near Sacramento -- about 140 miles south of where she had last been seen, in the town of Redding, according to the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office, which is handling the mysterious case.

Papini’s husband, Keith Papini, is grateful his 34-year-old wife is alive. He'd rather the ordeal remain private now that Sherri Papini has been found, but he recently addressed some chatter on social media doubting the woman's story of abduction and assault.

"Rumors, assumptions, lies and hate have been both exhausting and disgusting," Keith Papini wrote in a statement to “Good Morning America.”

Investigators continue to piece the case together, day by day.

So, how did the situation unfurl? Here’s what authorities have said so far.

What happened?

On Nov. 2, Sherri Papini put on a pink running shirt, grabbed her cellphone and earbuds and went for a jog in her neighborhood, near Redding. When Keith Papini returned home from work that evening and learned neither his wife nor their kids were home, he started looking for Sherri.

The family’s day care provider told Keith that Sherri didn't pick up their children that afternoon. Using the "Find iPhone" app, Keith was led to Sherri’s phone and earbuds about a mile away, but his 5-foot 3-inch, 100-pound wife was nowhere to be found. He called the Shasta County Sheriff's Office, which launched an intensive land and air search involving hundreds of volunteers, family and friends and multiple law enforcement agencies.

A $50,000 reward was offered for Sherri’s safe return.

Her friends and family put together this website.

When was she found?

Early on Thanksgiving, Sherri was able to flag down a passing motorist, despite her hands being bound, Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said. Responding officers with the California Highway Patrol reported she was chained to a heavy object and had a bag over her head at one point. Authorities have not elaborated on the nature of her restraints.

Keith Papini said Sherri used the bag to flag down help after she managed to free a hand. Sherri was battered and understandably upset, Bosenko has said.

She was treated and released from a nearby hospital, where Keith was at her side. Many of the details on Sherri’s injuries came out in the days that followed.


Who is responsible?

Bosenko said authorities are looking for two Hispanic women armed with a handgun and driving a dark-colored SUV.

Officials have called on potential witnesses to contact authorities, and said investigators are working through more than 400 tips.

Investigators have "sensitive information" that hasn't been discussed publicly because the incident is "still a critical active investigation," Bosenko said.

What are authorities and the family saying?

Before Sherri was found, officials had filed at least 20 search warrants in court linked to the investigation. Many remain sealed.

At least one published report says investigators are also looking through Sherri’s computer records, probing past relationships and seeking surveillance footage that could offer clues.

"Obviously, she was emotional and quite upset, but elated to be freed, and so we were able to get some information from her," Bosenko told "Good Morning America."

Later, the sheriff said police have no reason to disbelieve the woman's story.

"She was assaulted and had injuries, which she was treated for," Bosenko said.

Sherri Papani's 36-year-old sister, Sheila Koester, told The Associated Press the family was "very thankful and very ecstatic" about Sherri’s safe return. Speaking separately at a news conference, Koester declined to answer questions about her sister's disappearance and the investigation, saying she knew no details.

"Right now she's been through a very traumatic event, and needs time with her family," Koester said.

What else don’t we know?

Authorities have not said where they believe Sherri Papini was held during her disappearance, nor have they discussed possible motives. The Papinis are not wealthy and no ransom was sought for her safe return.

As far as Sherri’s “branding,” investigators didn’t disclose what the message was. The people responsible may have been trying to humiliate the woman and wear her down, Bosenko said on "Good Morning America."

"I would think that that was some sort of either an exertion of power and control and/or maybe some type of message," he said, emphasizing that the brand was a message, not a symbol.

The sheriff did not say where Papini had been branded -- just that it was on her skin.

Bosenko has said the case is puzzling for a number of reasons, including motive. He told the AP on Monday that investigators have no reason to doubt Sherri's harrowing tale.

Bosenko also said Sherri was unable to recall any details about her abduction when first questioned soon after being found. Victims of traumatic experiences sometimes suffer from memory loss regarding the events, he added.

Sherri told investigators she was unable to fully describe her abductors because their faces were covered most of the time.

Bosenko said Wednesday that the Spanish-speaking women also kept Sherri’s head covered for much of her ordeal.

Authorities are trying to do a sketch of the suspects based on Sherri’s limited recollections. She told investigators one of the women had long curly hair, thin eyebrows and a thick accent. The older of the pair had straight black hair and thick eyebrows, Bosenko said at an afternoon news conference.

Where does the situation stand now?

People in the area are urged to stay cautious until the women are identified.

Keith Papini was previously cleared as a suspect after passing a polygraph test.

"My Sherri suffered tremendously and all the visions swirling in your heads of her appearance, I assure you, are not as graphic and gruesome as the reality," he wrote in his prepared statement.

Family members previously called Sherri Papini a "super mom" who would never abandon her family.

Investigators emphasize that they don’t know if Sherri was a specific target or if this was a random abduction.

Bosenko called Sherri cooperative and courageous for dealing with the latest round of police interviews, and having to relive the ordeal.

Associated Press/Graham Media Group