The day after Sherri Papini went missing without a trace from her home near Redding, California, the city went to work

By Christine Pelisek
December 09, 2016 09:00 AM
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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.

The day after Sherri Papini vanished without a trace near her home in Redding, California, the city went to work.

Local businesses began printing out fliers for free. Missing person posters were posted around town and at truck stops along the I-5. One local business even printed out large decals to be placed on the side of cars asking for any information about the missing 34-year-old mother of two.

Search teams, including family members and friends, scoured the area where Papini disappeared while out for a jog on Nov. 2. A Help Find Sherri Papini Facebook page was set up, as was a GoFundMe campaign, which raised close to $50,000 toward search efforts.

“Anyone who knows Sherri knows she is a sweetheart and wouldn’t say a mean thing to anyone,” Papini family friend Nick Hurley tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on newsstands now. “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.

“Women didn’t want to go running by themselves,” Hurley explains. “People were afraid to be in parking lots at night. Friends were telling me their wives don’t want to go places alone. I didn’t want my wife going running. No one wants to see a cute little mother who doesn’t have a mean bone in her body taken away from her little ones and her awesome husband.”

Twenty-two days after going missing, Papini was found on Thanksgiving Day in Yolo County — about 150 miles south of Redding, where she was last seen. She had apparently been abducted, and she told investigators she only saw two adult Hispanic women with guns, one who had straight hair and one with curly hair.

Her husband, Keith Papini, said in a statement to PEOPLE that Sherri withstood a harrowing ordeal: She was repeatedly beaten, the bridge of her nose broken, and she was branded, he said.

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From left: Keith Papini and his two children with wife Sherri.
| Credit: Courtesy Keith Papini

‘Keith Never Gave Up’

Sherri’s discovery was confirmation of the town’s belief, which they never gave up, says Redding Mayor Missy McArthur. It was Keith who helped inspire them to rally. “His dedication to the premise that she was alive and well really inspired everyone,” McArthur tells PEOPLE.

“He was convinced she was out there and we would find her. Keith never gave up. He was absolutely determined.”

Sherri’s disappearance also inspired an anonymous donor to offer a $50,000 ransom reward for her safe return. But when no one came forward, the offer was withdrawn and the reward amount was increased and offered to anyone with information. The news of the ransom and then the bounty made national news.

“I think it created the largest fire we could have created, and it made her a huge liability to the individuals who had her,” Redding resident Lisa Jeter tells PEOPLE. “They [the captors] would never be able to do anything with her without someone recognizing her. And anybody who was aware now had a six-figure reason to turn them in. I do feel like it definitely contributed in her coming home.”

Jeter, who is a friend of Sherri’s and was involved in the ransom strategy along with hostage negotiator Cameron Gamble, says she wanted to get involved because “we knew she would have never left on her own.”

The effort involved “people that generally wanted to bring her home to a community that cared enough to demand for her to be returned. Nobody deserves what happened to Sherri.”

Jeter says Sherri was overwhelmed when she learned her city never stopped searching — or hoping.

“She was really grateful we never gave up,” Jeter tells PEOPLE. “It is a pretty miraculous story. It is about celebration. It is okay to be happy she returned. I know her family is.”