Recently freed California mom Sherri Papini who was tortured and branded by her captors was likely the victim of a kidnapping gone awry by a Mexican sex-trafficking ring, according to a private investigator who worked on the case.
The case seems to underline how America’s porous borders enable criminals and other bad elements to enter the United States seeking victims. Mexican crime syndicates have become more active north of the border in recent years. The Redding area in Northern California has become an important corridor for sex traffickers in recent years.
“If there’s a story here, it is that young women need to be aware of their surroundings.”
San Diego-based private investigator Bill Garcia volunteered to work on the case of Sherri Papini, a married mother of two, who was abducted while jogging on Nov. 2 near her home in tiny Mountain Gate, which is near the community of Redding on Interstate 5 as it stretches through Shasta County in Northern California.
The Redding area is a primary sex-trafficking corridor, according to Garcia.
Papini has been “cooperative and courageous” while working with law enforcement to track down her captors, County Sheriff Tom Bosenko told reporters at a news conference.
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Papini was held in captivity and brutalized for 22 days. She lost close to 25 pounds in captivity, weighing in at a mere 87 pounds when released. She was found about 150 miles south of where she was kidnapped. With a bag over her head and her wrists chained to her waist, she was ejected in Yolo County, California, from a moving vehicle on Thanksgiving Day, according to Bosenko. Papini managed to get help from a passing motorist at the side of a road.
And the injuries Papini sustained made Garcia think it was a sex-trafficking cartel that had kidnapped her. When the sheriff said at a press conference that he wasn’t going to talk about Papini’s injuries, Garcia interpreted this as confirmation that the victim was sexually assaulted.
She said her captors were two adult-age Latino females who drove a dark-colored sport utility vehicle and carried a handgun.
But something doesn’t seem right about this kidnapping story, Garcia told LifeZette in an interview.
Papini made an unusual target for a forced prostitution ring because she’s viewed as too old for that kind of job, he says. These criminals usually prefer much younger women, ranging from teenagers to those in their early twenties.
Papini may be 34 but she could easily pass for a 20-year-old, in Garcia’s opinion, so he reasons that her kidnappers may not have realized initially she wasn’t the kind of person they normally target.
The fact that she was starved is very unusual, he says. Sex traffickers normally feed captives. At some point the kidnappers may have realized they made a mistake in taking Papini, he says.
“There is no way you can drug her to get her into a working situation and have people not notice,” he says. Her face was frequently shown on TV and the internet so she became easily recognizable.
“Her face was so recognized and at some point she becomes a liability” so they may have decided they needed to extricate themselves from a bad situation.
“It looks like they made a bad decision and then they punished her for it” and gave her a broken nose and cigarette burns, says Garcia. They beat her and cut off her hair to add to the humiliation, he adds.
Because they don’t like losing money and wanted to cut their losses, they may have hoped to secure a ransom for Papini, he says.
As the Sacramento Bee reported Nov. 28, an anonymous donor offered an undisclosed ransom for Papini.
The ransom money offered for the safe release of Sherri Papini went unclaimed, so now the anonymous donor may use his wealth to help the Redding-area mom and her family recover after she was found Thanksgiving morning, according to the man who coordinated the effort.
The donor ‘will support the family in any way he can to ensure they receive the necessary treatment for their recovery,’ said Cameron Gamble, a Redding-area man who describes himself as a defense contractor who works with missionary groups and trains government employees on how to avoid being taken hostage overseas.
Gamble said the benefactor returned the ransom money to the bank but still wants to help the family. How much money they might receive is “really up to him at this point,” Gamble said in a Monday phone interview with the Sacramento Bee.
The offer expired Nov. 23, the day before Thanksgiving when Papini was found abandoned by a road.
Although a negotiator was brought in, it isn’t clear if ransom money was actually paid to the kidnappers by a different player in the drama.
“We may never know,” he says. “These things tend to stay pretty quiet.”
Garcia says he took on the case on a pro bono basis at the request of Rod Rodriguez III, Sherri Papini’s father-in-law.
He has been investigating these criminal organizations for years and branding is commonly forced on hostages in Mexico. But he added this was the first time he had ever seen this kind of thing “with the branding and the chains” north of the border.
The circumstances of the Papini case made Garcia think of the ultra-violent 2012 movie, “Savages,” which starred Blake Lively as Ophelia, the beautiful, young blonde hostage kidnapped by a female-led Mexican drug cartel hoping to muscle its way into drug markets in California.
“Savages” is filled with shootings, deadly explosions, and brutal torture including sexual violence, flogging, and burning of victims.
But the movie doesn’t do justice to how these Mexican criminal organizations actually operate. The reality is far worse, Garcia says.
The branding is usually carried out with coat hangers, he explains. They twist the hanger into a desired shape, heat it up, then press it against the body.
The victim’s husband, Keith Papini, told reporters that a message was burnt into his wife’s body but did not indicate what the message was.
The disclosure of this detail was not authorized by law enforcement officials handling the case, Garcia says. “I don’t know what the message is, but these cartels do that.”
“They all have their own distinguishing markings or tags as they call them. It could be something as simple as a ring that was heated up. I’ve seen a hot knife used to disfigure a person on the leg or arm.”
Garcia views the Papini case as a cautionary tale. Tiny, seemingly insignificant things can provoke criminals, he says.
“If there’s a story here, it is that young women need to be aware of their surroundings,” Garcia says.
“It could be something as simple as a look from someone who is checking them out. I’ve seen such minor, minor things that set these people off. It’s good to be armed because you don’t know if the person standing next to you wants to take your life.”