Lack of Motive in Sherri Papini Abduction Creates Blank Canvas for Hoax Theories


written by C.W.S.

Authorities have yet to find a reasonable motive in Sherri Papini’s abduction. Her abductors did not ask for a ransom nor has any evidence that she was a victim of sex trafficking been released. The complete lack of motive has acted as a blank canvas, leaving the people of the Internet and the mass media to fill in the remainder of the still-emerging story.

Sherri Papini’s November 2nd disappearance while jogging in Redding, CA captivated the country’s darker intrigues, but this time with a uncommon ending: Sherri is alive. After 22 days in captivity, she was found on Thanksgiving day by a motorist, arms bound to a chain around her waist, waving a bag that had been over her head when her captors, two armed Latino women by Sherri’s account, pushed her from their vehicle in Yolo County, 150 miles South of where she was abducted from. Sherri’s return came after three weeks of intensive media coverage. After her return, suspicions began to mount and Internet sleuths went to work.

Disappearance and safe return

On the afternoon of November 2nd, Sherri texted her husband, Keith Papini, and then left to go for a jog which she did often in their neighborhood. Keith, who was Sherri’s boyfriend in high school and reconnected with her years later, came home around 5:00pm expecting to find the stay-at-home mother with their children, 2 and 4-years-old, but the house was empty. He called the children's daycare and found out that Sherri had not picked up them up that day. Knowing something was wrong, Keith used the Find My Phone app, followed the signal to about a mile away from their house, and found Sherri’s phone on the grass with her earbuds and some strands of blond hair. He then took photos of her phone and called the Shasta County Sheriff’s Department at 7:51pm to report Sherri missing.

Sherri had last been seen around 2pm near the Old Oregon Trail, and her phone had been found near the Old Oregon Trail and Sunset Drive. Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said in an interview with NBC that the phone “had been set in some grass with the screen facing up, and then the earbuds to the phone were loosely coiled and appeared to be placed on the screen,” he said. “It did somewhat appear to be that it was placed there purposely.”

The next day police and volunteers combed the area around where the phone had been left, finding nothing. On November 4th, Keith created a GoFundMe page that raised $49,000 to raise money to help find Sherri. The page stopped taking donations after the $49,000 was reached.

On November 7th, Keith announced his belief that Sherri had been abducted while speaking with ABC news. "Everybody who knows my wife knows that there’s no reason for her to leave," he stated. "... She was definitely taken against her will.” A $50,000 reward was offered for information leading to Sherri’s whereabouts. Keith passed a polygraph test on November 9th, and detectives announced that they had no physical evidence linking him to any foul play.

On November 18th, a man named Cameron Gamble, who was not associated with the Papini family or law enforcement, posted a video of himself on Youtube claiming that an anonymous donor had offered him $50,000 to try to negotiate with Sherri’s abductors. He offered the abductors the $50,000 for her safe return, no strings attached, setting the deadline of November 23rd. The captors were instructed to call a phone number which belonged to a burner phone the anonymous backer had in his possession. Law enforcement condemned Gamble’s actions.

On November 24th, one day after Gamble’s deadline, the sheriff’s office made the announcement that Sherri had been found in Yolo County. They announced the suspects as two armed Hispanic women driving a dark-colored SUV.

Keith Papini gave a press release on November 30th about his reunion with his wife, stating “My reaction was one of extreme happiness and overwhelming nausea as my eyes and hands scanned her body. I was filled with so much relief and revulsion at once. My Sherri suffered tremendously, and all the visions swirling in your heads of her appearance, I assure you, are not as graphic and gruesome as the reality.”

He also stated that Sherri’s “signature blond long, blond hair had been chopped off,” and that she had appeared starved, bruised, and branded with what law enforcement called the next day “…not a symbol, but it was a message.” Details of what the brand looked like have not been released to the public.

Skinheadz blog post

The same day a blog post from 2003 was dug up by Internet sleuths and started circulating quickly, the news media reporting the findings as well. The blog post in question was from a now-defunct Neo-Nazi web forum called Skinheadz, and was apparently written by under Sherri’s maiden name, Sherri Graeff, about growing up in Lake Shasta, CA.

The post was a personal essay detailing verbal abuse suffered by Sherri and her father by “Latinos.” It also detailed a brutal attack by the writer in retaliation: “I lunged back at her, slamming her head between the bleachers and pounding her face. It took three full-sized men to pull me off of her. I broke her nose and split her eyebrow.” The post details her white pride, “Being white is more than just being aware of my skin, but of standing behind Skinheads — who are always around, in spirit, as well — and having pride for my country.” Speculation flew that perhaps the anti-Latino posts had been motivation for the abduction.

A second essay titled Skinhead girls: Feminine females standing behind masculine males was also connected to Sherri Graeff, and spoke about the importance of gender roles in the skinhead movement. 

After the posts were reported on by the media, Sherri’s ex-husband David Dreyfus spoke to the Daily Mail about his ex-wife: “That post isn’t true, it was a prank by someone at high school, she never found out who did it. Sherri isn’t racist.” Her father, Richard Graeff, who was referenced in the blog post, also spoke about it to PEOPLE: “Sherri did not write that letter. Some punks wrote that letter.”

Sheriff Bosenko spoke about investigators’ knowledge of the post but called it “too dated” to be related to the abduction.

Cameron Gamble and the mysterious backer

Cameron Gamble, the man who posted on Youtube a week before Sherri was found, said in his first video, “My name is Cameron Gamble and I’m an international kidnap and ransom consultant. I’ve been retained by an individual who wishes to remain anonymous, an individual who has come forward to offer a cash reward for a ransom for Sherri Papini’s safe return to her family.”

As stated, Gamble was apparently backed by an anonymous donor who created the now blank website The donor stated of Gamble, “My hired negotiator has negotiated hostage releases all over the world, so he will determine immediately if you are lying.”  In an address to law enforcement, the donor wrote, “Please don’t threaten me. I have received legal counsel and what I am doing is within my rights.”

The backer, claiming to be from somewhere other than the Shasta County area, also wrote on the website, “Once I leave town this offer is off the table.” 

But research conducted by The Daily Beast found that Gamble was not as qualified as he claimed and painted Gamble as an opportunist who used the Papini abduction to leverage fame and money. Records show he bought the domain name two days after he posted the first Youtube video, before Sherri was found.

The $50,000 was never distributed to the Sherri’s captors, and it was returned to a bank account. The anonymous backer is still unknown, as are his motives.

Hoax theories

With so little information it is difficult to find any conclusion to this case that makes sense. People are wondering why two Latino women would abduct such a high-profile victim without a motive other than to hold her, harm her, and the release her without any monetary gain.

Many feel that Sherri was abducted as a victim of sex trafficking, though very little evidence has been released to support that hypothesis. Critics of this theory point to facts about typical female victims of such abductions: teen runaways, sex workers, the homeless, mental ill, undocumented persons, or drug addicts. Middle class white woman are rarely abducted for such crimes, as the media tends to focus on these cases, making them high-risk for criminals.

The Skinheadz posts were the main launching point of such theories, though the mass media has largely dismissed further probing since the statements made by Sherri’s ex-husband and father. People are asking why someone who hated Sherri in high school would take the time to write two essays about white pride and post them to an obscure Neo-Nazi forum three to four years after she had already graduated.

In addition to the Skinheadz posts, Internet users found a now-deleted Pintrest page that allegedly displayed anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, and white pride memes. This has left some wondering if, instead of the anti-Latino blog posts from 2003 inspiring the abductors to revenge against Sherri, the blog post showed a biased against Latino people that could have served as a scapegoat for the Papini family to cover up the fact that they themselves created a hoax for fame and fortune.

Critics of hoax theories have called them “victim-blaming,” and Keith himself alluded to them in the press release that described Sherri’s injuries: “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.”

It was this press release that upset authorities who had wanted to keep details of the case secret since the investigation was ongoing. “There’s some unique information in there that was in his press release today that we were hoping to keep a tight rein on as far as what we were going to release to the public,” Lieutenant Anthony Bertain said. Keith has not yet been cleared as a suspect, though investigators have also stated that he has been very cooperative, and they have no reason to believe that there is a hoax behind Sherri’s abduction.

A serial killer profiler came forward on December 10th to share his theory that Sherri is not telling the truth about her abductors. John Kelly, founder of S.T.A.L.K. Inc, believes that Sherri was actually abducted by a serial killer or serial rapist. “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… It’s only by an act of God that they let her go,” Kelly stated in an interview with PEOPLE. He also believes that the brand could have been a way to throw off the investigation. “It’s called staging,” he told PEOPLE. “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.” He believes that Sherri is still terrified of her abductor and feels she cannot reveal the truth.

A sensational end

A hoax by the Papinis would certainly be the most sensational end to this baffling abduction. Perhaps that’s why the theory is so prevalent. The lack of motive in the case is impossible to deny as are the extremely unlikely circumstances of her abduction.

If her abduction is a hoax, could Sherri really be capable of injuring herself so severely for fame and fortune? Who is Cameron Gamble? Does his involvement signal something more than an altruist working to help a missing woman? Did Sherri in fact write the Skinheadz blog posts? And if she did, does it mean anything so many years later? Is it simply a coincidence that she was abducted by the same people she railed against in a Neo-Nazi blog post? Or could the same people behind the “prank” posts be behind this abduction? Or could they be the scapegoat of a serial killer that Sherri still feels threatened by? The questions go on and on.

The public will simply have to wait as more information is released before a true conclusion will come to the forefront. Until then, an assumption can be made that the speculations will continue. It remains to be seen if they are simply outrageous conspiracy theories or if they point to a truth not yet revealed. Perhaps the answer will fall somewhere in between.