A young mother vanished during a morning jog near her California home — and was found 22 days later on the side of the highway. As she recovers, investigators push to figure out what really happened. Subscribe now to PEOPLE, or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands now, for much more on this case.
However Kelly, the founder and president of S.T.A.L.K. Inc., is convinced the case “has serial rapist, serial killer all over it.” He says whomever abducted Papini left her “scared to death of these people,” who may have terrified Papini into lying about her abductor’s identity.
“This is a sadistic situation, and she somehow was able to convince them to let her go,” Kelly tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on newsstands now.
“She somehow got them to believe she would not squeal on them,” he says. “It’s only by an act of God that they let her go. I have a hard time understanding that as sadistic as these [people] are — and I’ve hunted many of them — would let someone live.”
He adds, “She can identify this perpetrator.”
“If they know where she lives, she will always worry,” he says.
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Papini, the mom-of-two who told investigators she was kidnapped and held captive for three weeks — before reappearing bound and battered on the side of the road on Thanksgiving — is living at an undisclosed location and reportedly may never return to her home near the trail in Redding, California, where she vanished.
Her weeks in captivity were a nightmare, according to her husband, Keith Papini, who said in a statement to PEOPLE that Sherri was repeatedly beaten, starved, the bridge of her nose broken, and she was branded.
While Kelly has said the branding could be a sign that Sherri’s abductors wanted her for sex-trafficking, he wouldn’t be surprised if the branding was done to “throw the case off.”
“It’s called staging,” he tells 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.”
Kelly says Papini has a long road ahead of her to heal.
“This is going to take an awful lot of therapy, an anti-depressant, probably anti-anxiety medication,” he tells PEOPLE. “It will be very hard for her to navigate these traumatic waters.”