Dateline, Detectives and Dunces

A Curious Case of Illogical Thinking

Laurie B. Timms

April 25, 2022


Last night I watched some utter nonsense, courtesy of Dateline on NBC. The Friday, April 21, 2022 episode covered the Sherri Papini story, in which the producers painted Papini as a heinous criminal while completely glossing over the fact that she is also a victim.

My hubby and I have the DVR trained to record “mindless” shows that we sometimes watch when we don’t want to think. Besides Dateline, we record shows like Beat Bobby Flay and House Hunters International. Unfortunately, Dateline forced us to think, specifically because of how bad a job the producers did with the episode.

Dateline titled the episode “The Curious Case of Sherri Papini” and shared this synopsis: “In 2016, 22 days after Sherri Papini vanished from her home, she reappeared, claiming she’d been kidnapped. The detectives who cracked the case discuss the details with Keith Morrison.” 

Going back to the beginning, Sherri Papini was abducted from a rural crossroad in Redding, California. While she was missing, local law enforcement, along with the Redding community, spent a significant amount of time and resources searching for her and investigating what happened. After 22 days, she showed up on the side of the highway, looking completely terrorized, beaten and emaciated.

As she healed, and subsequently spent five years in therapy, which the state paid for, the detectives continued asking her questions, never closing the case. They ultimately decided the evidence pointed at her – that she had staged the entire thing, with the help of her ex-boyfriend, James Reyes, who then lived in Costa Mesa, California.

Dateline’s Keith Morrison is shown on the episode, asking the detectives leading questions, helping them paint a picture of a woman who, for whatever reason, they said made up the whole story. (No motivation was reported for her “crime.”) Eventually they filed charges against her, and in court, years later, she took a plea deal, I assume so she wouldn’t have to go to jail and likely also because she wanted it all to end.

Here’s where I should give a disclaimer: Obviously I haven’t read the case files, nor have I seen any of the evidence, nor have I spoken to anyone involved in the case. All of my comments here are based on the Dateline episode that I watched, all 84 unfortunate minutes of it. And my own opinion.

The headline Dateline chose, calling Sherri Papini’s abduction “a curious case,” should have been my first clue that I shouldn’t watch the show. We certainly did not have the reaction that I assume Dateline was expecting. At the end, we were yelling at the TV, cursing the producers and the detectives. (It was like the old days, when George W. Bush was president. Remember?)

It seemed obvious to my hubs and me that this is yet another instance of a victim being blamed for a crime that happened to them. There were numerous errors on the part of the detectives, in my opinion as a survivor of multiple traumas.

But let me share three of the biggest issues I had with the episode and the way Morrison and crew told the story:

1) First, when questioned by investigators after her recovery, Papini said there were two abductors. She described them as hispanic women, but obviously provided additional characteristics to an FBI sketch artist who drew them up. This is where Dateline shows the sketches and brings in an expert, who I assume was supposed to be underscoring the producers’ storyline that Papini is a racist. They even dug up an old, racist, blog post that supposedly she wrote years ago. It doesn’t matter that Papini said she didn’t write it, or that there is an easily explainable reason why she may have lied about who her abductors were, if in fact she did lie. (And maybe she is a racist. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t abducted, does it?)

2) Next, we have the part of the episode where the two detectives disclosed Reyes’ answers to their questions about the timeframe when Papini was “staying with him” (versus “during the time he held her captive”). Reyes told the detectives that he drove to Redding and picked her up. He also said that, once at his home, Papini asked him to hit her and throw pucks at her using his hockey stick; he said he was supposed to hit the pucks at her in different places, giving her multiple bruises all over her body. And, he said she asked him to brand her on her back with hot branding irons normally used for craft projects. Anyway, since she asked, he did those things. You know, it was all stuff that she requested. I guess it didn’t occur to him to say “no”? Or to call the police? Hmm, that looks like, I don’t know, maybe a GAPING HOLE IN THE STORY. (Breaking news: Dateline calls itself a news show.)

3) When detectives finally got a DNA match to what was found on Papini’s underwear, leading them to James Reyes, and after they questioned him and he gave the ridiculous answers above, they went back to her and accused her of making up the story about the two hispanic women. Her answer? She looked down and she said something along the lines of, “I made a mistake, I talked to a man.” It clearly never occurred to them that they were dealing with a victim; that they were retraumatizing her by continuing to ask her questions. I wonder if it ever dawned on them to ask her why she might have made up a story either. I can’t tell, based on how the episode was edited.

Here’s my version, what I believe to be more likely:

Sherri Papini was a cheater, and possibly racist. She also was known for telling lies occasionally, and for having some mental health issues. But she was also a victim.

Sherri Papini briefly got in touch with an ex-boyfriend who came to Redding to have a tryst with her. I think she then changed her mind about the tryst, and Reyes went berserk and abducted her. Perhaps he took her to his place in Costa Mesa, held her captive, barely feeding her, beating and raping her routinely. And possibly, he even branded her. (He’s a bad dude even if his version of the story is true. A decent guy doesn’t shoot hockey pucks at a person just because they ask him to.)

In my version of the story, at some point while Reyes has Papini tied up at his place, his cousin, who lived across the street from Reyes, discovered she was there. Having seen the abduction coverage all over the national news, Reyes’ cousin told him he had broken the law and he had to get her out of there, that otherwise she’d die and then he’d be a murderer, and whatever happened, he was going to jail.

And then, most likely, James Reyes took her back to Redding, and before he dropped her off on the side of the highway, he beat her some more, and threatened her. He likely told her he would kill her children if she sent law enforcement to him.

So she lied about her abductor. In fact, the only reason he was found out was because there was DNA on her underwear, and that took several years to find a match for. (That’s a fact, whatever story you agree with.)

Now she’s a trauma survivor. 

She’s dealing with PTSD alongside other mental health issues she already may have had. And her abductor, abuser, kidnapper, likely rapist is free, living in Arizona.

The really sad part of this story, I mean, besides her trauma, her kids losing their mother (as now the “devoted” husband has filed for divorce and is seeking full custody), and how awful the experience must have been for both her and the family, is that justice wasn’t done. And the perpetrator of the violence is out there, able to go after other women.

In addition to the dunces at Dateline, we have law enforcement in Redding that appears incompetent.

And then we have the icing on top of the cake: Dateline decided to bring into the story a Redding husband and wife whose 16-year-old daughter went missing 18 years prior to Papini’s abduction. Their daughter was never found.

What the couple said then is the opposite of utter nonsense. They asked why Redding law enforcement would spend six years investigating a woman who had been abducted and returned so they could prosecute her. They said that when their daughter went missing, Redding law enforcement closed the case–unsolved–after just one-and-a-half years.

Why? That’s a very good question.


Do you find this story curious too? Join the discussion through the comments here.

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