Imagine being abducted at gunpoint while out jogging one afternoon, on your regular running track, right near your home. Imagine then being held captive where you are beaten, branded, chained up and starved for three weeks before you are pushed out of a car, left on a highway, with a bag over your head and a chain around your waist. Imagine screaming for help so loudly that you are couching up blood when you are found by another driver.
That is not a frightening hypothetical for Sherri Papini. It’s the ordeal the 34-year-old American endured in November last year when she was kidnapped near her home in Redding, California.
Fortunately, she survived and was reunited – bruised and battered, but alive - with her husband and two small children three weeks after her disappearance.
But the ordeal didn’t end there. Rather than marking the beginning of her recovery, for Papini, coming home marked the beginning of a new chapter in the same nightmare.
One in which her life and disappearance became fodder for the public to openly dissect and scrutinise. Where the absence of any arrests or official explanation from law enforcement has left a void that all manner of individuals are all too happy to fill with their own version of events.
In December the local police were forced to deny claims they thought her story was a hoax after a rogue officer raised concerns it may have been invented.
Today the first photos taken of Papini since she was kidnapped have been published and splashed around the internet.
In the photos she is hiding beneath a cap, a hooded jumped and an oversized jacket. She reportedly stepped outside her home for minutes and photographers were there waiting to snap away.
These are not photos of a woman wanting to be seen. They are photos of a woman wanting to hide.
A woman who spent the first few weeks following the attack with her family in an undisclosed location in a bid for privacy.
A woman who is unlikely to have privacy any time soon. If ever.
Public interest is a double edged sword. Sherri’s family and friends specifically engaged the media a bid to help find her in the weeks after her disappearance. They felt frustrated by the local police’s lack of gusto and wanted the case kept in the spotlight. As the Guardian reported “The Shasta County sheriff’s department appears to have considered just a couple of common scenarios – either that her husband had done her harm (he was quickly cleared as a suspect) or that she had walked out on her life, staging an attack so she could start a new life somewhere else.” They seemed unconvinced it was an abduction.
So Sherri’s husband and friends started a GoFundMe account and received a substantial sum of money from an anonymous donor.
They used the money to hire two private investigators and developed a plan to offer the abductors money for Sherri’s return.
The police were reportedly unimpressed with this plan but they proceeded anyway.
They communicated the ransom offer first in a media interview and then in a short video posted on Youtube. After nothing happened they posted a second video offering more money. Within 24 hours of the second video being online, Sherri was released.
Her captors have not been found. There are many questions to be answered and it is unsurprising that there is public curiosity in this unsolved and unexplained crime.
But at what point does the public interest end and Sherri’s right to privacy begin?
She has survived the initial brutality of being abducted and tortured and her reward for surviving is facing the ongoing cruelty of having her life watched, her credibility questioned and her privacy compromised.
Earlier this week, the victim of a high-profile kidnapping case in California spoke publicly about the burden of being falsely accused of fabricating the crime. “All I did was survive, and I was criminalized for it,” Denise Huskins wrote on Facebook.
Despite the fact the man responsible for her violent abduction was prosecuted, she still receives messages accusing her of making it up. It forces her to relive the crime, time and time again. It triggers post-traumatic shock. It makes her life impossibly hard.
After what Huskins and Papini have faced, do they deserve another round of trauma in their lives? Being victimized again? Haven’t they faced enough?