When I first learned of Sherri Papini's disappearance on Nov. 2, I expected the worst. An attractive woman, the mother of two small children, snatched while jogging. Gone in the blink of an eye.
These types of stories almost always end badly, which is why media outlets from across the globe have converged on Shasta County like buzzards on fresh roadkill.
Macabre as it may be, cable television and tabloid Internet audiences love a true crime story in the making.
It sounded all too real to me, considering Shasta County has an ongoing problem with aggressive, mentally-ill transients, some of whom have assaulted joggers. I didn't pay too much attention to Keith Papini starting a GoFundMe page to pay for his wife's search, or the unrequested ransom set up up by an anonymous donor for her safe return. I kept expecting the worse, following the news on social media out of the corner of my eye, waiting for the body to turn up.
Then the story went off script.
Sherri Papini turned up alive on the side of the I-5 freeway in Woodland early Thanksgiving morning, claiming her abductors had freed her after 22 days in captivity. One law enforcement official responding to the scene described her appearance as heavily battered. She was treated and released at a local hospital for unspecified injuries that her husband later described as a broken nose, bruising, cut hair, branding and malnutrition.
In subsequent interviews with Shasta County Sheriff's Office detectives, she has described these abductors as two unknown Latino women, at least one of them armed, driving a dark SUV. Other than that, the public has been given scant details on Papini's abduction. Law enforcement have not released a detailed description of the suspects. As of this writing, since her return, Sherri Papini has not been seen in public nor spoken publicly about her abduction.
According to news reports, the Papinis have temporarily relocated from their Mountain Gate home until the publicity blows over. As the victim of a violent crime, Sherri Papini is entitled to some privacy during her recovery, at least in theory. Truth be told, mainstream media have mostly laid off since Keith Papini and Sheriff Tom Bosenko appeared on ABC's 20/20.
But there's a whole new level of media working the case on the Internet and they're not going to quit until Sherri Papini gives them some answers.
For me, Sherri's miraculous return on Thanksgiving day was the first major red flag in the case. Happy endings like that just don't happen in most abduction cases. But for literally thousands of amateur Internet sleuths, it was merely the latest in a long series of warnings dating back to Keith Papini's claim that he used the FindMyiPhone app to locate his wife instead of just dialing her up like a normal person when he first discovered her missing.
Like most people their age, the Papinis have a lot of personal data online (some of which has now been removed), and these sleuths have been sifting through it for weeks, posting their findings on websites such as websleuths.com and reddit.com. Alleged experts in fields such as lie detection and psychology have commented on Keith Papini's credibility, or lack thereof. I suggest you watch the video posted above and see for yourself if you haven't already.
Former classmates and even a hairdresser claiming to know Sherri Papini have offered negative opinions on her mental state. Someone found a post allegedly written by Sherri under her maiden name more than a decade ago which includes racist statements regarding Latinos. It's a dark cruel world out here—so much so that websleuths.com has banned posts that question the Papini's account of the abduction. That didn't matter too much, because the doubters all just moved to Reddit where /r/sherripapini is doing moderately well according to the up-votes.
This type of posting has recently been classified by some mainstream media organizations as “fake news,” particular in the #pizzagate scandal, in which anonymous posters on Reddit alleged high profile members of the Clinton campaign are engaged in a worldwide pedophile conspiracy run out of a Washington, DC, pizza parlor. Reddit banned the hashtag, but a few hundred #pizzagate conspiracy theorists are still working it hard on other message boards. It's only a conspiracy theory until they find one pedophile. Then it will be news, guaranteed.
That's why I don't think “fake news” really describes this phenomenon very well in this case, if by news we're speaking of stories that are investigated by a reporter, checked for facts by an editor and published by a journal or website with an established reputation for accuracy. Anonymous opinions posted on websites aren't news, they're raw investigative product at best. Some of it may be gold, some of it may be garbage. Sifting through it is catnip for armchair detectives, of which there are many, but it's not news, real, fake, or otherwise.
As an armchair detective and a journalist, all of this has put me in a bind. I'd love to crack the case, and it's tempting to explore the zanier theories, such as the one claiming it's all a Bethel Church conspiracy, since self-proclaimed hostage negotiator Cameron Gamble has connections to the church.
As a journalist, I cringe at the notion of writing a story that claims it's all a misguided hoax perpetrated by one or both of the Papinis without evidence to prove it, besides my gut feeling.
Sometimes, the news, the real news, just has to wait. There's only one person we know of who can tell us where Sherri Papini spent those missing 22 days, and so far, she's not really talking.