Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence, including sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
When Northern California wife and mother Sherri Papini vanished while on a morning jog in November of 2016—and mysteriously reappeared three weeks later on the side of an interstate 140 miles away, shackled, emaciated, battered and branded—her strange account of what happened was met with skepticism.
Papini reported she’d been abducted and held captive by two women who always kept their faces covered and had “Hispanic” accents. But beyond that, her recollection of events was described by authorities as “poor.”
In 2017, Shasta County Sheriff spokesman Sergeant Brian Jackson told Newsweek, “I totally understand the perception that there are inconsistencies [with Papini’s story],” and added that the case was just “weird.” Publicly, the legitimacy of Papini’s story has been hotly debated.
Abduction cases with strange-sounding or even confusing circumstances described by victims aren’t uncommon. In an interview with A&E Real Crime, Dr. Rebecca Bailey, a leading trauma psychologist and author who treated abduction survivor Jaycee Dugard, explained that asking people to recount information when they are under stress is problematic. “When we’re under stress it’s harder to activate our higher-level thinking because we’re so much in our physical body—fight or flight, or shut down,” she says. “There are huge pieces that they may forget, or account differently.”
This “activated” state can make an account seem jumbled and the timeline of events confusing. Or, the opposite can occur. A victim can recall moments with “snapshot memory,” where one remembers everything like a clear photo—which in the case of a crime can also raise suspicion about the legitimacy of a story.
A year before the Papini case, another Northern California abduction story faced intense scrutiny because of the odd circumstances and confusing narratives recounted by the victims.
In early March 2015, an unknown number of people burst into Aaron Quinn’s Vallejo home while he and his girlfriend, Denise Huskins, were sleeping in the bedroom. The couple was blindfolded, drugged and played prerecorded instructions detailing how a “professional group” was taking Huskins for ransom. When Quinn came to several hours later, his car and Huskins were gone, and he’d received an email instructing two payments of $8,500. He contacted authorities and recounted the seemingly bizarre story.
Two days later, Huskins was dropped off in Huntington Beach some 400 miles away and told police she had been taken to a “quiet house and placed in a bedroom,” where she was sexually assaulted twice.
Vallejo police were suspicious of both Quinn and Huskins’ stories. Less than 24 hours after Huskins reappeared, they labeled the kidnapping a hoax.
“There is no evidence to support the claims that this was a stranger abduction or an abduction at all,” Lt. Kenny Park said in a statement at the time. “Given the facts that have been presented thus far, this event appears to be an orchestrated event and not a crime.”
However, less than three months later, evidence gathered from a June 2015 home-invasion robbery helped authorities link a man named Matthew Muller to the Huskins kidnapping. Muller was eventually convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison, and Huskins and Quinn, now married, settled a defamation lawsuit with the Vallejo Police Department on March 15, 2018.
According to Dr. Bailey, brainwashing or mind-control through threats play a large role in a victim’s ability to recount events. “Somebody gets cut off, their identity gets robbed from them…but the variable that almost everybody misses is the fear factor and the survival factor,” she says. “When you are cut off from everything that feels safe and you’re put in a dangerous place…you get into a position where you’re going to appease the aggressor.”
The psychological condition is also referred to as Stockholm Syndrome—or “appeasement,” the term Dr. Bailey prefers. “[Victims] begin to believe what [the perpetrators] say, and act like they believe them,” she says.
Even though victims often don’t truly believe what they’re being told, it’s safer to appear as if they accept it to appease the perpetrator in order to survive. In the therapy community, it’s known as the “polyvagal theory.” Dr. Bailey describes it as a ” survival instinct in response to pressure” and a “biological imperative to stay alive.”
Jan Broberg, a survivor of years of grooming, brainwashing and abuse by a family friend when she was a child in the 1970s, described a similar experience in a 2019 A&E Real Crime interview. “You take some new idea and you encase it in stuff that’s familiar, so it’s plausible,” she said.
Appeasement can affect a victim’s ability to logically recount events and their outward behavior and response to the trauma itself.
“Victims need to first feel accepted and believed before they can then go into facts,” Dr. Bailey says. “If you’re in this place where you’re not safe enough to be able to tell [your story], or if every time you tell it people doubt it, you go back into that ‘activated’ state and can even begin to doubt your own self.” This could contribute to a “jumbled” or “confusing” story.
Sometimes victims even deny or lie about their experience because of doubt or fear of repercussions, as Candra Torres did surrounding the traumatic murder of her husband in July 1976. Shortly after meeting a man, Tom Brown, while on a camping trip with her husband, Jose “Julio” Torres, Brown murdered Julio in the woods. Brown then repeatedly raped Candra, but told her Julio’s death was just a hunting accident. Terrified, Candra managed to convince Brown not to kill her. When the two told authorities of Julio’s death, Candra stuck by Brown’s story—at least in the short term. A few days later, she went to the police with what really happened.
“To protect yourself, you want to believe what you’re being told because it’s so much less traumatic,” she said at the time.
In a 2013 American Psychology Association article, Dr. Raymond Hanbury and Dr. David Romano also described how survivors can experience a range of stress reactions after an abduction, including intrusive thoughts, denial, impaired memory, decreased concentration and confusion. Coupled with unusual or bizarre circumstances surrounding the abduction itself, they can lead to doubts about the victim’s story.
When a community isn’t supportive of a victim, or a victims’s story is publicly doubted and debated, it’s traumatizing. “When people go back into their home communities and into their home, they’re looking to internalize a sense of safety,” says Dr. Baily. “And it’s incredibly challenging when people don’t believe them.”
As of November 2020, the Sherri Papini case is still unsolved. She has reportedly gone into seclusion with her family.