Sherri Papini, 34 years old and a mother of two young children, inexplicably disappeared on November 2, 2016, while jogging near her property in Redding, California. Her husband grew worried after he couldn’t find his wife when he returned home from his job at Best Buy and she didn’t pick up their children from school.
Here’s everything we know about the case, including findings that have many people following the case quite suspicious of what really happened.
Vanished Into Thin Air
In order to locate his wife, Keith Papini used the “Find my iPhone” application to find her cell phone. It pointed to the intersection of Sunrise Drive and Old Oregon Trail, approximately one mile from their home. He went to the spot indicated on the app.
A Huge Ransom
Keith found his wife’s earbuds and cell phone in the area as shown by the cell phone app, but no sign of Sherri. After it was made clear that disappeared, a massive manhunt was launched to help find her. Dozens of people in the community joined forces to search the area where she had been jogging.
Sherri had reportedly been wearing pink running clothes the day she vanished. Her sister, Sheila Koester, was baffled by her sibling’s disappearance, saying, “She was out for a run. She wouldn’t leave her babies.” An individual not related to the family or the police put up a reward for the young mother of two, offering $50,000 if anyone could locate her.
The mysterious donor then doubled the amount to $100,000 before rescinding the offer just one day before Sherri reappeared. Three weeks after she vanished, Sherri was found on the side of the road. She was bruised, beaten and branded and appeared as though she hadn’t eaten very much in the time she had gone missing. Sherri claimed she had been abducted by two Hispanic women.
John Kelly, president of S.T.A.L.K. Inc., told People, “This is a sadistic situation, and she somehow was able to convince them to let her go. She somehow got them to believe she would not squeal on them.” But not everyone is convinced she was telling the truth.
Was Her Abduction Staged?
Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko reported that the police began the hunt for two women based on the descriptions provided by Sherri. But John Kelly, president of S.T.A.L.K. Inc., wasn’t convinced that two Hispanic women were behind Sherri’s abduction. In fact, he has theorized that the young mom was purposely branded to try to trick the police.
He told People: “It’s called staging. They’ve set up that it was two women, that they picked on you because you are this all-American girl, that they are Hispanic and upset with the political climate, and we will tattoo a message on you that corresponds.”
Sherri’s Previous Run-Ins With Police
Sherri has been involved with the police in the past, reported the Sacramento Bee. Between 2000 and 2003, relatives made multiple calls to law enforcement about her behavior. In 2000, Sherri’s father made a call claiming his daughter had vandalized his home. In a separate call that same year, her sister reported that Sherri had kicked in her back door trying to break into her home.
In 2003, an incident report revealed that Sherri’s mother, Loretta Graeff, told authorities that her then-21-year-old daughter was “harming herself and blaming the injuries on [her].” Shasta County Sheriff’s Lt. Pat Kropholler told People that Loretta had called authorities in order to get some advice about how to deal with the situation. And yet another incident occurred in 2003.
Sherri’s father once again called police in 2003 claiming that his daughter had withdrawn money from his checking account without his permission. According to Lt. Kropholler, the incident was either a mistake or a misunderstanding. There was a mix up over the debit cards and the funds were eventually returned to the proper account.
While working on Sherri’s disappearance, authorities became aware of the law enforcement calls made between 2000 and 2003. However, they were not concerned. Kropholler said: “This really doesn’t have any bearing on her case. There is no evidence here that shows this is a hoax or this didn’t occur.”
A Shaken Community
When Sherri was questioned by police, she told them that one of the female captors had long curly hair, thin eyebrows, and pierced ears. She described the second woman as older with straight black hair and thick gray eyebrows. She said both women spoke Spanish most of the time.
A friend of the Papini family told People magazine in December, “Anyone who knows Sherri knows she is a sweetheart and wouldn’t say a mean thing to anyone. So if that kind of person was taken, then it could happen to anybody in your community. And that definitely shook the community to want to find her and puts everyone on high alert.”
Her Husband’s “Mental Prison”
Sherri showed up 150 miles from where she disappeared on November 24, 2016, in Sacramento. She told authorities she had been thrown out of a car and was able to get help from a passing motorist at 4:30 a.m.
When Keith saw his wife for the first time, he was appalled by her condition. He told the media: “Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to see upon my arrival at the hospital nor the details of the true hell I was about to hear. The mental prison I was in over the past three weeks was shattered when my questions of my wife’s reality became known.”
Bruised, Broken & Emaciated
Keith continued, “The officers warned me to brace myself. My first sight was my wife in a hospital bed, her face covered in bruises ranging from yellow to black because of repeated beatings, the bridge of her nose broken. Her now-emaciated body of 87 pounds was covered in multicolored bruises, severe burns, red rashes and chain markings. Her signature long blond hair had been chopped off. She has been branded, and I could feel the rise of her scabs under my fingers.”
He had been told that Sherri had been found with a chain around her waist and a bag over her head.
Doubt Is Cast
Sherri’s weight both before and after her abduction has come under scrutiny. Conspiracy theorists think that the weight loss her husband Keith described upon her reappearance is suspicious. When the mother of two went missing, she weighed approximately 100 pounds. She was found weighing just 87 pounds. And according to Keith, she was “emaciated.”
Some suspect that Sherri battled an eating disorder in high school and she would not have appeared “emaciated” at that weight. In addition, they believe that had Sherri truly looked half starved and was badly beaten she would have spent much more time in the hospital. No photos have been released of her injuries that took place either.
Home No Longer Felt Safe
According to Keith, Sherri experienced “both intense physical agony and severe mental torture.” At one point, Sherri screamed so loudly for help that her throat bled. Eventually, the couple returned to their home in Redding, California, but they decided they could no longer live in their house because it was too difficult. It wasn’t the right place for them to raise their family.
So they took their two children, packed up, and left. However, they didn’t bring their dogs with them. Instead, they left them in the care of their neighbors. One neighbor explained: “I don’t think they’re ever coming back here again.”
Police File 20 Search Warrants
Meanwhile, the police continued looking for a dark-colored SUV with two Hispanic females armed with a handgun. The sheriff also reported in November 2016 that there was some sensitive information about the case that authorities were not releasing to the media or public.
Detectives procured approximately 20 search warrants and revealed that they were looking at cellphone records, bank accounts, email and social media profiles in order to crack the case. They did not explain why they filed the search warrants or why detectives traveled out of state to gather information. And while her husband, Keith Papini passed a voluntary polygraph, he was not ruled out as a suspect.
A Red Herring?
When authorities investigated the abduction, they discovered a clue that may have been a red herring — something that distracts from the truth. Keith found his wife’s iPhone and earbuds about a mile from their residence, and detectives later revealed that they found long strands of Sherri’s blonde hair entangled in the cord of the earbuds.
However, armchair detectives started making observations about the case on social media and claimed that the phone and earbuds had been “placed” rather than haphazardly dropped on the ground. Shasta County Police Sheriff Tom Bosenko later admitted on the Today Show that it appeared the earbuds had been “neatly placed” rather than dropped in a struggle.
A Victim Of Sex Trafficking?
Since Sherri’s disappearance, there have been many theories about the reason why she was kidnapped. One theory floating around is that she was abducted by sex traffickers. Then, two police officers from the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office investigating the case flew to Detroit, Michigan. Just one week later, authorities clamped down on a huge sex trafficking ring in the city involving two underage girls and two other women.
San Diego private detective Bill Garcia had been working with the family and was convinced that Sherri was kidnapped by sex traffickers. He told the media: “There’s a lot of young girls, even young men, that have been taken from that area.”
The Controversial Skinhead Post
In 2003, Sherri had a racist blog post written on a skinhead blog under her maiden name, Sherri Graeff. The post recounted a story about being jumped by a group of Latinos after getting into a fight with a Latina woman. According to the post, Sherri was targeted by Latinos at her high school because she was of German descent and “white and proud of my blood and heritage”.
The blogger explained: “Being white is more than just being aware of my skin, but of standing behind Skinheads…” Was Sherri targeted for her racist beliefs?
A Jealous Friend
The post continued: “Being white is my family, my roots, my way of life. It’s always there. There’s no denying it. It’s nobility. It’s strength. It will be there to lift me up when I really need my pride, when I need to ‘keep walking’.” The writer of the post claimed it took “three full-sized men” to pull her off several Latinos in a fight, who she had seen mocking her father.
Sherri’s first husband (not Keith Papini) later came to his ex-wife’s defense. He said the post was fabricated, and Sherri didn’t write it. Instead, he pointed the finger at a jealous friend.
Other Theories About Sherri’s Disappearance
There have been numerous theories and rumors as to why Sherri was kidnapped, ranging from the bizarre to downright unbelievable. Some believe Keith staged his wife’s abduction to cover up an extramarital affair. On the other hand, others thought Sherri was the one having an affair and her injuries were the result of sadomasochistic sex play.
Others believe the couple sought publicity and created the incident to make headlines. Still more don’t believe Sherri’s story at all and are convinced she made the whole thing up. And there are those who think there was no way she would have been jogging because she had breast enhancement surgery just weeks before the abduction.
“Rumors, Assumptions, Lies & Hate”
There have yet to be any arrests in conjunction with Sherri’s disappearance. Despite questioning the victim extensively, the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office has not apprehended a suspect. In December, authorities denied claims that her abduction had been a hoax after an officer suggested that her story may have been fabricated.
Keith told Good Morning America in December 2016: “Rumors, assumptions, lies and hate have been both exhausting and disgusting…I understand people want the story, pictures, proof that this was not some sort of hoax, plan to gain money or some fabricated race war. I do not see a purpose in addressing each preposterous lie.”
Sherri’s Family Hits Back At Victim Blaming
Sherri’s family was appalled by the disclosure of old police reports and Sherri’s exploitation. They said in a statement: “It is shameful that a media outlet [the Sacramento Bee] would intentionally exploit Sherri and Keith Papini and their young children’s trauma for the sole purpose of clickbait and selling papers.”
The family asked for privacy and added: “This newspaper’s decision to aggressively seek out and publish unsubstantiated online activity and distort phone conversations from 16 years ago is victim-blaming at its most egregious. It is our hope that the media will honor their privacy as they work through this difficult time.”
This Georgia Woman’s Hoax of a Kidnapping Got Her a Felony
While another case from back in 2005 was originally perceived as a nightmarish abduction scenario, the truth ended up being even stranger. A Georgia woman named Jennifer Wilbanks originally claimed she was kidnapped and assaulted by a Hispanic man and white woman. However, her entire story ended up being a hoax and she was charged with a felony after the truth was revealed. It turns out that Wilbanks had a serious case of “cold feet” and was later dubbed the ‘runaway bride.’
There is another disappearance however that is eerily similar to Sherri’s experience. In fact, this kidnapping case happens to hit very close to home for Sherri. According to The Sun, a high school classmate of Sherri’s, named Tera Smith, went missing at age 16 while jogging in an area just under 20 miles from the spot Sherri disappeared. Read that story next.
Tera Smith was a popular high school student attending Central Valley High School in Northern California’s Shasta County, the same school where Sherri Papini attended and graduated from. Sherri was actually in the same class as Tera’s sister Kyra, the two are a year younger than Tera. Tera had blonde hair, blue eyes and was a very beautiful young woman. She was athletic and well-liked by all of her classmates. She was even the homecoming princess of her class in 1998. Like many young high school students before her, Tera had great dreams of the future. Unfortunately, all of Tera’s teenage dreams would never come to fruition after one fateful evening.
One Fateful Evening
On what seemed to be like any other normal night, Tera told her parents, Terry and Marilyn, that she was going for a jog around six o’clock that night. The Smiths lived in a relatively rural area, and it was thought to be safe. Apparently, Tera wasn’t being entirely truthful about going for a jog. In reality, she was planning a secret rendezvous with someone. Unbeknownst to Tera’s parents, she had been involved in a relationship for some time with a much older man who also happened to be married. The forbidden relationship wasn’t discovered until it was far too late.
The Secret Meeting
The truth of the matter is that Tera had been seeing a local married man. The man was actually her martial arts instructor, who should have been a trusted authority figure in her life rather than a predator. Tera had called the 29-year-old married father before she left, apparently with the intention of meeting up. Tera’s parents weren’t aware of the relationship until it was too late. Even her story that she was going to take a jog was nothing out of the ordinary for her as she regularly went jogging on most evenings. The man, named Troy Zink, is thought to have purposefully seduced the young girl in yet another occurrence of the twisted teacher-student scenario.
Disappeared Into Thin Air
Tera Smith never returned home to her parent’s house. After she disappeared, her parents searched her room looking for any sort of clues as to what was going on in the young girl’s life that they didn’t know about. It was then they discovered the truth about her relationship with Troy. Her parents were horrified to know that someone they thought they could trust could be taking advantage of their daughter in such a horrifying way. The sparkling young woman’s bright future was suddenly darkened after her meeting with Troy Zink. Some of the items her parents discovered began to shed some light on what might have happened to Tera.
The Troubling Evidence
Although Tera never informed her parents about her relationship with Troy, they soon unearthed a treasure trove of evidence. They uncovered letters that the older man had written their teenage daughter. Letters that a married father had no business writing to a young 16-year-old girl. They also found a journal belonging to Tera. In her private diary, she wrote about her relationship with Troy and how it had transformed from one of a student – teacher, to one that was completely inappropriate. However, it was what she ended up revealing in one of the last entries she was to ever write, that was one of the most disturbing for her distraught parents.
The Last Entries
It was in her diary that Tera unwittingly left a timeline for her parents and investigators to track what had happened to her. In the weeks preceding her disappearance, Tera wrote about her relationship with Troy. She discussed how she felt about him and how her feelings had begun to shift over time. Investigators have never revealed all of what was said in the journal in order to not reveal details that the perpetrator would know. Her parents ended up contacting the Shasta County Sheriff’s Department and turned over all of the evidence they had discovered. There was one piece of key evidence that was truly disturbing.
The Bombshell Entry
Tera’s parents, Terry and Marilyn, also informed the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office about the disturbing relationship they uncovered as well as their fears about what might have occurred. There was one bombshell in her journal that might hold the key to her disappearance. In one of the last entries, before she disappeared, Tera wrote about how she no longer felt the same about Troy Zink. She planned to break off their relationship. She even made detailed plans about meeting with him to end it, while going on her routine evening jog. The circumstances she described were eerily close to what actually transpired the night of her disappearance.
The Investigation Begins
After Tera’s parents gave the police all the information they had, the investigators dove head first into the investigation. One of their first moves was to bring in Troy Zink for questioning. The investigators also asked for search warrants in order to find more information. When Zink appeared in front of the detectives he claimed to have no idea where Tera might be or know anything about her disappearance. He also said that there was no inappropriate relationship between the two despite Tera’s telling diary entries. Little did investigators know that this would be the only time that they would be able to question Troy about Tera’s disappearance.
Troy Sees Tera
Troy only admitted to one factor in the interview, he said that he did indeed meet Tera the night she went missing. He said that Tera called him on her cell phone and had a strange request. Troy claimed that she asked him for $2,000. He said she did not reveal what the money was for and he had refused to help her. Troy went on to claim that this enraged Tera and she asked him to drop her off. The intersection where he left her was quite a ways from her home, so it is completely odd that Tera would ask to be dropped off there. It was allegedly at this point that Tera walked away from the vehicle, never to be seen again.
The Last Person
Troy Zink’s account of his last encounter with Tera is the last known report of a person seeing her. In his version of events, Tera walked off and nothing more transpired. However, it is quite interesting that Tera wrote of an almost exact plan to meet with Troy previous to it actually happening. The intersection that Troy dropped off Tera off was nowhere near her family’s home. If the night happened as Troy said it would and Tera was dropped off at the intersection, where did she go next? Troy claimed he had no idea where she was planning to go. However, he did tell investigators where he went next.
Hang Glider Hill
Troy claims that after he dropped off Tera he went to a place called Hang Glider Hill or also sometimes called Spreadeagle Mine. The area is located east of the Lake Shasta Dam. He claimed that he went there in order to pray, which seemed to be an extremely strange claim. One facet of Hang Glider Hill is that it is very hard to get there. Actually, it’s only accessible through private roads. It is also closed off by several large steel gates. The only people who have access to Hang Glider Hill are various contractors that work with the mine as well as several local hang gliders.
Alibi Not Adding Up
Since there are only a few people that actually hold keys to the place where Troy Zink claimed he went following his departure from Tera, it was relatively easy for investigators to track down witnesses from the time frame. It was determined that the most accessible road to the place Troy claimed he went to was definitely not entered by Troy. According to those who held keys at that time, they said it was not possible he went up there. There also happened to be a caregiver there at the time who did not see Troy. It takes over two hours up a steep road from the gate to the peak and Troy would have been spotted at some point.
It would have taken Troy Zink quite a long time to get to where he claimed he was. Investigators knew that he had seen Tera sometime around 6 PM and Troy made it home shortly after 11 PM. Detectives knew there was absolutely no way that time frame fit his story. It wouldn’t have been possible for him to see Tera and make it up and down the peak as he had claimed. It was definitely beginning to look as though not only was there something amiss about Troy’s story but that perhaps something more sinister had taken place. Investigators and Tera’s loved ones were deeply disturbed by his claims and his story which seemed to be implausible.
The Search Continues
Officers began to search for Tera around Hang Glider Hill, where Troy claimed that he last was. Local hang gliders even joined in the search and looked on the road where Troy said that he had been that night. They also searched the dam and the area surrounding it. Nothing turned up and there was still no sign of Tera. Finally, officers were also able to secure search warrants and finally moved to search Troy’s home, his vehicle, and the studio where he taught martial arts. Reportedly, some evidence was recovered, however, the warrants were sealed and the information was never made public.
Sadly, the information that investigators did uncover was apparently not enough to hold Troy Zink. Of course, some time had passed before they were actually able to search his belongings and when Tera originally went missing. Typically, in cases like these, searches must be done immediately so no pertinent evidence is destroyed. Sadly, for the Shasta County Police Department, it was too little too late. One thing investigators did find was a massive amount of guns. They found seven guns on Troy’s property. And it turns out that the story was to have yet another twist that was not a good sign for those still hoping for Tera.
A Past Revealed
It turns out that by owning the arsenal of weapons, Troy Zink was in violation of the law. Troy also happened to be a convicted felon. In California, there is a law that prohibits felons from owning firearms. Troy had previously pleaded guilty to the rape of a woman in 1991 and served over a year in jail for the crime. This new information certainly didn’t seem to bode well for Tera’s case. Officers issued an arrest warrant for Troy, based on his possession of weapons. Soon he was taken into custody. This quickly lead to a rift between community members, with many feeling as though they had to choose sides.
An Irreparable Rift
After the arrest warrant was issued for Troy, a short period of time passed before he was taken into custody. In a turn of events that seem rather strange to outsiders, Troy had a large amount of supporters in the community. This, of course, included his wife and family, who stood behind him even though the circumstances looked rather dire. Troy then refused to speak to the media about the case. The case received some nationwide notoriety, with the television program Hard Copy, doing a show about the case. When Troy refused to talk other members of the community actually defended him to the media.
Never Giving Up
Detectives who worked on the case continued to follow any lead they got in search of Tera. They exhausted any and all possibilities. However, many people including some police officers believed they already had their guilty party in custody. They drove a hard case against Troy Zink in the felony case of possessing firearms. It was quite obvious that they wanted him to serve time for the offense. Some say that it was detectives’ way of buying more time in order to collect more evidence to tie him to Tera’s disappearance. While Troy was waiting to go to trial, he and his wife had to close their martial arts studio – the same place where Tera first met Troy.
Troy Zink actually stood trial for possessing weapons while being a convicted felon. The trial almost felt as though it was a substitution for Tera’s disappearance, one that had not yet come to be. The community was absolutely electrified at this incident, especially since it seemed as though a large number were supporting Troy. Hundreds of people showed up to witness Troy’s sentencing. Tera’s family stood solemnly at the front of the line. Many community members wore yellow ribbons to honor Tera and to also show her parents that a large amount of the community supported them in their time of grief.
An Unfinished Story
Sadly, unlike Sherri Papini’s happy ending. There was to be no happy ending for Tera. Despite the community support Troy Zink was only sentenced to four years without the possibility of parole, and three years of probation. This was a relatively harsh sentence for what would normally be considered a minor crime. Troy Zink’s wife wept loudly in the courtroom at the verdict. Tera’s family seemed as happy as they could be, considering they still had no information about their daughter. Troy remained sitting in court with no emotion on his face.
There was never any information given about what happened to Tera that night. Many people – including Marilyn and Terry Smith and detectives involved in the case, don’t believe Troy’s story. Tera’s body or other evidence has never been found. Tera’s father said he believes his daughter is dead and he believes that Troy is the one who caused her death. Terry went on to say that he remains angry that Troy has never had to face his crime and answer for what happened to Tera. The investigators remain committed to solving the case. Perhaps, one day someone will come forward with another information about the true story about that night.