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Kidnapping, reverse ransom and a bounty: the strange case of Sherri Papini

The Guardian logo The Guardian 30/12/2016 Andrew Gumbel in Redding, California
Tthe strange case of Sherri Papini © Dai Sugano/San Jose Mercury News/TNS via Getty Images Tthe strange case of Sherri Papini

Sherri Papini went missing one afternoon in early November while jogging in the woods near Redding, in northern California, leaving behind her cellphone, a pair of ear buds and some strands of blond hair.

Three weeks later, on Thanksgiving morning, she was tipped out of a car in Yolo County, 150 miles to the south, showing signs of having been starved, beaten and branded by assailants who never communicated what they wanted.

In the intervening weeks, many questions have been asked about the strange case of Papini, a slightly built, 34-year-old mother of two thrust into an extraordinary and grueling circumstance, but with few answers forthcoming.

The assailants have been described only as two Latinas. A once loquacious local sheriff’s department has stopped issuing public statements, citing the ongoing investigation, and Papini herself, along with her husband and children, has moved out of her house to an undisclosed location where she can recover out of the media spotlight.

Into the void have poured all manner of theories and speculation, focusing not just on the Papini family but also on an anonymous donor who offered a six-figure sum for Papini’s safe return, and on Cameron Gamble, a government security contractor living in the Redding area who acted as a middle man.

Some of the wilder theories floating around suggest the entire abduction was a hoax, perhaps to spread scare stories about the local Latino community. Or that it was an inside job designed to promote the business interests of Gamble, who appeared in a couple of widely seen videos pleading for Papini’s return.

Some commentators seem to be itching to see a real-life version of the bestseller Gone Girl, even though it is clear that Papini endured horrific mistreatment while in captivity. Others have taken pleasure in playing amateur sleuth and looking for a culprit close to home, in much the same way that, 15 years ago, former California congressman Gary Condit became a media target after his young girlfriend, Chandra Levy, was murdered while jogging near her home in Washington.

Gamble and the Papini family have taken vigorous exception to the theories and questions about their motives. But even they and their friends acknowledge the story is baffling.

“Everything about this is crazy, it has no rhyme or reason,” said Lisa Jeter, a friend of the Papinis. “We live in a city of 100,000-plus people, but everyone is a degree away from this. Sherri was out jogging, doing a normal activity, the kind of thing most of us might be doing.”

Multiple theories

Redding is a largely uneventful place, best known as a gateway to the natural splendors of Lassen Peak and Mount Shasta. The last notorious crime to take place there was the similar disappearance in 1998 of Tera Smith, who went missing at age 16 and never resurfaced. She too had gone for a jog, although in her case the prime suspect – never prosecuted – was a boyfriend with a rap sheet including rape and assault with a deadly weapon.

After Papini went missing, the Shasta County sheriff’s department appears to have considered just a couple of common scenarios – either that her husband had done her harm (he was quickly cleared as a suspect) or that she had walked out on her life, staging an attack so she could start a new life somewhere else. The California department of justice initially listed her as a “voluntary missing adult” before changing its classification – in response to a public outcry – to disappearance under suspicious circumstances.

Still, the lead investigator, Lt Anthony Bertain, told Papini’s friends and family that he did not think she had been abducted – despite ample testimony that she was a loving wife and a “supermom” completely devoted to her young kids. (Bertain was given multiple opportunities to rebut or challenge this version of events but offered no comment.)

When Papini’s husband, Keith, and her friends began feeling that law enforcement was dragging its feet, they decided to take matters into their own hands. They started a GoFundMe account in response to multiple offers of financial help and used the money to hire two private investigators.

The anonymous donor, who heard about the case in the first flush of media exposure, got in touch with Jeter through a mutual acquaintance and told her he wanted to offer a “reverse ransom” – that is, money that had not been requested by kidnappers – to try to pry her loose.

“I was super skeptical of his motives at first,” Jeter said. “I mean, who offers five or six figures to find someone they’d never met? I asked him a million questions.”

She was finally persuaded that the donor meant well – that the “hand of God has been put on my heart to find” Papini, as he put it – particularly after he made clear that he intended to remain anonymous and that he was willing to “go the distance” and increase the amount of money as necessary.

Jeter had been interested from the start in leveraging social media to keep Papini’s name and story in the media spotlight. The way she saw it, even if the reverse ransom offer made no impression on her friend’s abductors, perhaps the media attention generated by it would.

The sheriff’s department, however, did not agree. Bertain went “ballistic”, according to one account, and threatened legal action if the donor went ahead with his plan. Bertain, who still did not believe Papini had been abducted, thought the ransom offer would be an invitation to scam artists and would-be kidnappers. (Bertain, presented with this version of events, offered no comment.)

The case became bifurcated between a public law enforcement effort going nowhere and a private initiative focused on keeping Papini’s name in the news even as Donald Trump’s election grabbed headlines around the world.

The middle man

Meanwhile, Jeter felt the need for expert guidance. She remembered Gamble giving a lecture to her local Rotary Club about the risk of abduction and captivity while traveling overseas. He had a long résumé training military and civilian experts – including teams of navy seals – in captivity, escape and interrogation techniques.

When she contacted Gamble, he offered the first plausible explanation she had heard. He suspected Papini had been picked up for sale into the sex trafficking business. He knew that Mexican cartels were active in sex trafficking up and down I-5, the main west coast freeway that passes just a few miles from the Papinis’ house.

When Gamble learned that a double-wide trailer across the way from the Papinis’ wood-and-brick house was notorious as a drug den, with pitbulls roaming the yard and trash piled high, he suspected she had been spotted as a target of opportunity.

Keith Papini, the donor and Gamble – who offered his services pro bono – met up and agreed on a plan of action. The donor wired money to Jeter, who withdrew it in thick wads of cash and handed it to Gamble to have at the ready. Gamble bought a black duffel bag to hold the cash, imagining he might at any moment be taken up some mountain road with a hood over his head for the handover. He cursed himself for having such a big bag. “I should have asked for [the cash] in twenties,” he said. “It would have looked like more money.”

Gamble then went public, first in an interview with a local television reporter and then in a video he posted to YouTube. He was careful not to mention a specific dollar figure, but he did give a deadline: 115 hours when he talked to the reporter, 100 hours when his video was posted.

The video went viral, and plenty of people visited the website set up by the donor, but nobody rang the dedicated hotline number – except a curious reporter from the Redding newspaper.

When the deadline ran out, Gamble and the donor moved to step two, which was to cancel the ransom and replace it with a six-figure bounty – again, no specific amount – in exchange for information leading to Papini’s release. Gamble made another video, and it too went viral.

“I told the captors the whole world was watching,” he said. “I wanted them to feel they were being hunted, that the money we were offering was so enticing they couldn’t trust their own mother not to betray them.”

Once again, the sheriff’s department took a dim view, urging the donor to take down his website now that the ransom deadline had passed. But something seemed to work, because Papini was found on the side of the road within 24 hours of the second video going live. When a passing motorist picked her up, she was still attached to a chain and her hands were restrained in hose clamps. She had been shouting so loud for help she was coughing up blood.

When Gamble heard that Papini had been branded in captivity and that she had other burn marks on her body, he felt more confident that the abduction was connected to sex trafficking. It is not uncommon, he said, for traffickers to break their victims’ will with physical abuse and torture.

Experts in sex trafficking have been cautious about agreeing with Gamble, in part because much of what they know about women being captured is anecdotal. Kay Buck, chief executive of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking in Los Angeles, said she knew of cases involving kidnapping, although it was more common for victims to be tricked into following a trafficker in the belief it might lead to a better life. She agreed that branding was often associated with sex traffickers and that the I-5 corridor was one of “significant criminal activity”. But she added: “More research and rigorous scientific study is needed to fully understand the issue and its scope.”

The aftermath of Papini’s ordeal has been anything but rigorous. The same energy that went into keeping her plight alive on the internet has now mutated into a perverse game of gotcha in which anonymous posters, echoing the early skepticism of law enforcement, have set up fake sites to pour scorn on Papini’s experience and on those who sought to help her. One fake Gamble site pictures Mel Gibson (from the film The Negotiator) sitting with a pile of banknotes; one of the posts jokes that Gamble was behind the 1990s novelty act Milli Vanilli, who were disgraced for lip-synching.

One of Gamble’s more assiduous tormentors turns out to be a senior law enforcement official, a deputy state attorney general from Sacramento named Jennifer Gregory who, in a series of public Facebook posts (since deleted), has questioned Gamble’s credentials.

Gregory appears to have done so on her own time and on her own initiative – the state justice department said it was no longer investigating any aspect of the Papini case. A spokeswoman would not be drawn on whether the Facebook posts fell foul of department policy, saying she could not discuss personnel matters.

Gamble said he has been startled by the sheer volume of attacks on him but is not bothered by the particulars, most or all of which are easily disprovable. “I sleep well at night,” he said. “They call my tactics unconventional, but captivity is unconventional. What I did was attempt to inject the possibility of a positive solution into an impossible situation.”

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