Family and Friends Grapple with Sherri Papini’s Mysterious Abduction: ‘Everyone Wants the Answer’

A young California mother vanished last month in the middle of a seemingly normal day. Weeks later, she reappeared — traumatized by captors, beaten and branded, her family says. Subscribe now to PEOPLE, or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday, for much more on this case.

As authorities hunt for two women who allegedly kidnapped Sherri Papini, friends and family of the 34-year-old California mother-of-two are struggling to make sense of her mysterious, sudden abduction.

“Why did they beat her and break her nose and brand her and burn her?” Papini’s friend and former co-worker Joyce Travis tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.

“Every one wants to know why. Everyone wants the answer,” Travis says. “I am sure Sherri doesn’t know either. I am sure she is just as confused today.”

Papini was found Thanksgiving morning on a roadside about 150 miles from her home in Redding, California — 22 days after she says she was abducted during a morning jog. Her weeks in captivity were a nightmare, according to those closest to her. Her husband, Keith Papini, said in a statement to PEOPLE that Sherri was repeatedly beaten, the bridge of her nose broken and she was branded.

Sherri reportedly weighed 87 pounds when she was found and, according to the woman who called 911, looked “panicked and frightened.” Of the branding, Travis says it was “almost like they didn’t want her to be beautiful anymore.”

Keith has tearfully described how Sherri withstood her abduction: in part by imagining she was with her children, 4-year-old Tyler and Violet, 2.

‘It Was Getting Despairing’

Sherri’s disappearance was catapulted to national prominence by her friends and family, who quickly went public with their fears that she had been abducted.

The truth — and what remains unknown — has unsettled them all.

“When walks in the room everyone turns around and looks, and she is the girl you can’t hate because she is so nice,” says Travis, who met Sherri when the two worked together at AT&T. “Everyone who knew her were all distraught she was gone and hoping and praying she was safe and sound. As time went on, it was getting despairing.”

• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter

Travis believes that Sherri was likely abducted by sex traffickers: “I believe it was an abduction from the beginning because of her size. She is so tiny, and I can just imagine her running at the side of the road and someone thinking she is a teenager and take her for sex trafficking. She looks like a kid.”

Redding Mayor Missy McArthur — who texted the words “Hallelujah” to the Papinis the morning Sherri was found — opines that she may have just been at the wrong place at the wrong time. “I still think it is random crazy, because they apparently cut her restraints and threw her out of the car,” she says. “For sex trafficking, they probably wouldn’t have released her.”

Friends have also rallied around Sherri against those who claim the case is some kind of twisted hoax (speculation investigators also dispute).

“It makes no sense you would do any of that to yourself,” Keith’s co-worker Nick Hurley tells PEOPLE. “For me knowing her and how she was with her kids I knew right away that someone forcefully took her. There was no way she would leave her kiddos.”

Investigators continue their search for the two women Sherri says abducted her (reportedly the only two women she says she saw during her captivity), but they have said no one is ruled out as a suspect. A motive has not been disclosed.

Sherri’s sister, Sheila Koester, is thrilled about her sister’s safe return and hopes that authorities don’t give up before they find the alleged abductors.

“I am just hoping that the sheriff’s department can continue their investigation and we can find out everything we can for her,” Koester tells PEOPLE. “I hope whoever did this to her is brought to justice. We all have hope that we will have some closure.”