It’s the night before Thanksgiving, and with a heavy heart, Keith Papini puts his children to bed. Without mom Sherri around, the holiday is sure to be a sad affair. And even the authorities are still baffled by her disappearance three weeks earlier. Is the truth about to be revealed, though?
Sherry Papini’s disappearance was made all the more unusual by the fact that normally she was a creature of habit. Every day around 2:00 p.m., she would leave her home near Redding, California, to go for a jog. Then, she would pick up her two young children from the local daycare before returning home. In the afternoons, meanwhile, she would busy herself with creative projects such as gardening. Her family and friends referred to her as a “super mom.”
And by all accounts, Sherry’s family seemed to be a happy and normal one. She lived with her husband Keith and their two children, Tyler, four, and Violet, two, in the rural Californian community of Mountain Gate in Shasta County. However, one day their idyllic existence was to be shattered in the most terrifying way.
On November 2, 2016, Sherry, 34, started her day as normal. Then, at 10:37 a.m., she texted Keith to ask him if he was coming back home for lunch. After that, she set out for her daily run.
Hours later, though, Keith returned home after work to an unexpectedly empty house. Immediately, then, he sensed something was wrong. “On normal days,” he told local news network KRCR-TV in November 2016, “I would open the door and my family comes, runs and gives me a hug.”
So upon finding no one at home, Keith called Tyler and Violet’s daycare center. However, it transpired that Sherri had never arrived to collect the children. And by 6:00 p.m., when nobody had heard from Sherri for three and a half hours, Keith contacted the police to report her as missing.
“Knowing that she didn’t pick up our kids – there’s no way that ever happens,” Keith told ABC News in November 2016. “She could drop her phone, but she would never in a million years not pick up our children on a time that she normally would have.”
As a result, Keith was certain that something had happened to Sherri. “Everybody who knows my wife knows that there’s no reason for her to leave,” he added to ABC News. “She was definitely taken against her will.”
And Keith’s fears intensified when he used the Find My iPhone app to try and track down Sherri’s cellphone. Disturbingly, he found it abandoned, along with her headphones, on a trail around a mile from their family home.
Meanwhile, Sherri’s sister-in-law, Suzanne, was equally anxious. She too was sure that the woman she considered to be an incredible mom would not disrupt her children’s routine by deliberately disappearing out of the blue.
So although authorities were unsure of the circumstances surrounding Sherri’s disappearance, they launched an extensive search effort. More than 20 people joined forces to comb the area where Sherri’s phone was found, and helicopters and sniffer dogs were also deployed.
The story of Sherri’s disappearance was subsequently covered by national and international news outlets, and it captured the attention of audiences around the world. An anonymous donor, meanwhile, put up a reward of $50,000 for her safe return – a bounty which was later raised to $100,000.
Despite Keith’s obvious distress, though, police initially suspected he might have played a role in his wife’s disappearance. However, he was soon discounted after passing a polygraph test and providing an alibi for the time that Sherri went missing.
So for three agonizing weeks, the search continued to turn up blanks. Sherri was not known to have had any mental or physical issues that might have explained her disappearance, and no suspects could be identified in her abduction.
Then, at 4:30 a.m. on November 24 – the day of Thanksgiving – the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office received a phone call from colleagues in Yolo County, California. A motorist had found Sherri by the side of a road, shaken but alive.
Apparently, Sherri’s captor had released her near Interstate 5, some 140 miles from where her phone and headphones had been found. And although she was wearing restraints, the injured woman succeeded in flagging down the passing motorist. She was then taken to be treated at hospital, and here she was finally reunited with Keith.
According to Sherri, she was abducted by two Hispanic women who were armed and traveling in a black SUV. Shasta County law enforcement has been searching for anyone matching this description, although the culprits have yet to be found.
With so little information reaching the public, then, some commenters have expressed suspicion over the story, calling elements of it “strange” and “not right.” However, Sheriff Tom Bosenko has called for understanding in the light of such unusual events.
“People need to realize that she’s been held captive for three weeks,” he told local news site Record Searchlight. “So that was a traumatizing and emotional experience in itself, and then her release was another very emotional experience and being reunited with her husband was an emotional experience – so she’s only able to provide a limited amount of information.”
In the days following Sherri’s return, moreover, her family were understandably delighted to have her back. “We are very, very thankful and very ecstatic,” Sherri’s sister Sheila Koester told Associated Press. “It’s the best Thanksgiving that anyone could ask for.”