The kidnapping of Denise Huskins on March 23, 2015, made headlines across the country. Her boyfriend had reported to police that she she’d been abducted from his California home at gunpoint and the kidnappers demanded an $8,500 ransom.
But after Huskins reappeared seemingly unharmed an hour before the ransom was due, two days later, police called a news conference and declared the whole thing a hoax — perpetrated by the couple themselves.
The case became erroneously known as the “Gone Girl” kidnapping, in reference to the popular book and movie about a deceitful disappearance. But Huskins wasn’t lying.
In June 2015, federal prosecutors charged Harvard-educated lawyer and former Marine Matthew Muller with her abduction. He pleaded guilty in September and on Thursday was sentenced to 40 years in federal prison.
Here are five things to know about the case.
1. Huskins’ Boyfriend Quickly Reported Her Missing
Soon after Huskins was abducted in March 2015, boyfriend Aaron Quinn called police saying she’d been kidnapped from his home on Mare Island in Vallejo, California, according to court documents.
Quinn also told police there was a ransom demand for Huskins’ safe return.
He said that the suspect bound them, placed blackened swim goggles over their eyes and monitored their heart rates and blood pressure. Quinn said he was shoved into a closet, drugged with a mixture of NyQuil and Valium and made to listen to a prerecorded message instructing him about how to handle the kidnapping demands.
On the recording, the kidnappers described themselves as a “professional group there to collect financial debts,” according to the court documents.
But police didn’t believe him.
2. Police Said Kidnapping Was a Hoax When She Reappeared
Huskins turned up two days after Quinn said she was abducted, in her hometown of Huntington Beach, California, hundreds of miles from Vallejo.
She reappeared just hours before the ransom was due and seemed to be unharmed.
Police soon called a news conference and declared the couple’s report of an abduction a hoax, saying there was no evidence to support that anything had happened. However, the couple remained adamant that they were telling the truth.
Quinn later claimed in a federal lawsuit that he was initially held for an 18-hour interrogation after reporting Huskins missing, during which police accused him of killing her.
Huskins alleged she was offered a “proffer of agreement” for immunity and told that Quinn was cooperating with cops, and that “whoever accepted first would get immunity.”
3. Actual Kidnapper Defended Her in Anonymous Letters
After Vallejo police publicly dismissed the kidnapping, the San Francisco Chronicle received letters apparently from Huskins’ kidnapper, who was upset investigators didn’t believe the couple.
“Ms. Victim F was absolutely kidnapped,” one letter read. “We did it. … We would rather take the chance of revealing the truth than live in a world where someone like Victim F is victimized again.”
Authorities have said that it was Muller who penned the rambling letters.
Included in the letters was a bizarre claim that the writer was part of an Ocean’s Eleven-style group of “gentleman criminals.”
“We are young adults, fairly recent college graduates, and up until now this was a bit like a game or movie adventure,” one letter read, according to a federal arrest warrant obtained by PEOPLE. “We fancied ourselves a sort of Ocean’s Eleven, gentleman criminals who only took stuff that was insured from people who could afford it.”
4. Kidnapper Was Arrested Months Later and Pleaded Guilty
The case took another turn in June 2015, three months after Quinn’s abduction, when the FBI arrested Muller — a 38-year-old Harvard-educated former attorney who worked at Harvard’s immigration clinic and later became an immigration lawyer in San Francisco.
Muller was picked up June 8 of that year after police announced he was a suspect in a similar home invasion attack in Dublin, California, where the couple was awakened by a shining light in their faces.
While the wife ran into the bathroom, locked the door and called 911, the husband was able to fight off the intruder, but he escaped. Once police arrived, they discovered the suspect left a cell phone on top of a cabinet in the second floor hallway along with zip ties, duct tape and a fabric glove.
In a Mustang parked at Muller’s home, investigators later found Quinn’s computer, water goggles covered with tape and a long blond strand of hair attached, a pair of two-way radios and a water pistol painted black.
Once in custody, Muller told detectives he served as a Marine from 1995 to 1999, attended Harvard from 2003 to 2006 and taught there from 2006 to 2009. Muller told detectives he suffered from “Gulf War Illness,” and in 2008 he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
In September, Muller pleaded guilty to Huskins’ kidnapping.
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During his sentencing hearing on Thursday, in federal court, Huskins and Quinn spoke about their terrifying ordeal.
“I knew this was probably it for me,” she said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “My life was coming to an end and I made peace with that.”
“Once released, I couldn’t fathom the pain that was to come,” she continued. “I felt like a little girl, scared, wanting to hear the voices of my parents saying, ‘It’s okay.’ ”
Quinn told Muller that he “strategically destroyed our lives.”
“I cannot and will not ever be the same,” he said. “My family will not ever be the same.”
5. Victim Is Suing the City and Police and Says She’s Been Harassed
In March 2016, Huskins and Quinn filed suit against Vallejo and its police department, accusing the department of defamation, false arrest and false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
“Given that Huskins had ‘inconveniently’ shown up alive, [police] maliciously transitioned to the hoax story to avoid criticism for its initial and utterly false accusations of murder,” the lawsuit claims.
Vallejo police — who apologized to Huskins in the summer of 2015 — said they were initially skeptical of Huskins’ abduction because they didn’t believe Quinn’s version of events, including that he had been drugged by intruders, according to an earlier court filing.
Police also were doubtful because Huskins allegedly did not meet with her parents in the days after her reappearance, according to the filing.
The case is pending, and the city has declined to comment on the litigation.
In a July court filing, it argued that the police statements after the kidnapping are protected under the First Amendment, and that the suit’s other two claims should be dismissed for lack of evidence. The specific officers named in the suit are also protected by “absolute immunity” under state law, the city’s attorneys said.
In January, Huskins spoke out for the first time after continued accusations online that she faked her high-profile abduction.
She said that the online attacks took an emotional toll.
“After [one message], I went into one of my many PTSD episodes of terror,” she wrote on Facebook. “My jaw and back are sore from the deep powerful shaking and reflexive tension that my whole body goes into. My eyes are sore and red from uncontrollable tears. I am thoroughly exhausted, every inch of my body is tired from the fit of terror it was battling.”
“All I did was survive,” Huskins wrote, “and I was criminalized for it.”