Police investigating the alleged kidnap and torture of Sherri Papini now fear one of the few clues in her disappearance may have been planted as a red herring.
The 34-year-old mother of two was believed to have been abducted during a routine jog near her family home in Redding, Northern California on November 2.
Her iPhone and earbuds were found on the Mountain Gate trail about 1.5km from the Papini residence in the days after she vanished.
They were located by Ms Papini's husband Keith using the "Find my iPhone" app and detectives later confirmed several strands of Ms Papini's long blonde hair were tangled up in the earbud cords.
Rumours have been circulating in social media forums on the case for days that the items appeared to have been "placed" rather than dropped or thrown.
Shasta County Police Sheriff Tom Bosenko confirmed that rumour for the first time in an interview with the Today Show this morning.
Sheriff Bosenko said Ms Papini's phone and earbuds had been "neatly placed" rather than lost in a struggle.
"It appeared they had been set in some grass with the screen facing up, and then the earbuds to the phone were loosely coiled and appeared to be placed on the screen," he told Today.
"It did somewhat appear to be that it was placed there purposely."
It raises several questions, including the possibility Ms Papini was kidnapped somewhere other than the jogging track and that she may have known the person or people who took her.
Some online sleuths have speculated Ms Papini was snatched from her house, citing unconfirmed reports that a half-wrapped Christmas present was found at the residence.
She disappeared for 22 days before turning up on the side of a rural road in Yolo County on thanksgiving morning - some 240km from where she was last seen.
The badly-beaten woman was found starved and chained, telling police she had been ejected from a dark-coloured SUV by her captors, whom she described as two Hispanic women armed with a handgun.
Sheriff Bosenko told reporters that "a number of evidence items" found at the second crime scene had been sent to the lab for processing but declined to say what they were.
One is believed to be a bag placed over her head that she managed to take off and use to flag down a passing motorist, who failed to stop but put in the crucial 911 call.
Both alleged captors are described by Ms Papini as Hispanic. One was "younger", with long curly hair, thin eyebrows, pierced ears and a thick Spanish accent. The other suspect was older with straight black and grey hair and thick eyebrows.
Ms Papini was unable to provide more detailed descriptions because the women had kept their faces covered most of the time, and sometimes covered hers.
Sheriff Bosenko said a sketch artist had been contacted but was having trouble creating a composite based on the limited information Ms Papini could provide.
Keith Papini has been blamed for seriously compromising the investigation after releasing a detailed statement of his wife's appalling injuries, including the fact that she had been branded.
TRANSCRIPT OF SHERIFF BOSENKO'S STATEMENT ON SHERRI PAPINI
The Shasta County Sheriff's Office Major Crimes Unit continues to dedicate all of its resources to identifying and apprehending those individuals who are responsible for the abduction of Sherri Papini.
Over the last two days, major crime detectives have interviewed Sherri at an undisclosed location.
The interviews were very intense for both the investigators and for Sherri, due to her having to relive this traumatic event. She was cooperative and courageous during the interviews.
On Thursday, November 24, Thanksgiving Day at about 4.30 in the morning, the Shasta County Sheriff's Office received (word) that Sherri was located.
We learned that she had been released by her captors near a rural road in Yolo County, and near Interstate 5. She was bound with restraints but was able to summon help from a passing motorist on I-5 near County Road 17.
During the interviews with Sherri, she described the sequence of events to the best of her recollection. Remember that she was held against her will and was isolated.
There's still a lot of unknowns about her assailants. However, we commend Sherri for her efforts to sit down with our detectives to provide a statement.
I would like to remind the media that we will not disclose everything about the case or what Sherri provided us for the integrity of the investigation, as it is active and ongoing.
Sherri described her assailants as two Hispanic female adults. She related that both of the subjects spoke in Spanish the majority of the time of her captivity. Further, the suspects concealed their faces in an attempt to hide their identities from her.
She provided the following information regarding the suspects:
Suspect No. 1 was the younger of the two suspects. She had long, curly hair. She had a thick accent. She had pierced ears. She had thin eyebrows.
Suspect No. 2 was the older of the two suspects. She had straight black hair with some greying colour. She had thick eyebrows.
Sherri did the best that she could in providing the descriptions, but she was not able to provide a detailed description due to the suspects covering their faces, and at times Sherri's head was covered.
Detectives showed Sherri surveillance video which was recovered on November 2 of several SUV style vehicles that had been seen in the area at the time of her abduction. According to Sherri, none of the vehicles shown to her in the video were a match.
Sherri did receive injuries over this three-week period in which she was abducted and held captive.
I will confirm that the suspects did brand her. I will not get into details of where the brand is located on her body nor what was branded on her, for again, the integrity of the investigation.
The Major Crimes Unit continues to dedicate all available resources toward this investigation. Evidence items recovered at the Yolo County scene will be submitted to the California Department of Justice for physical examination and processing.
Detectives have written additional search warrants for cell phone information and are receiving data as it becomes available.
I'm very thankful for the many tips and the community support for both the Papini family and to the Shasta County Sheriff's Office.
I'd like to thank the following agencies for their continued assistance throughout this investigation: The Shasta County Probation Department, the Shasta County District Attorney's office, The Redding Police Department, The California Highway Patrol, Yolo County Sheriff's Office, The California Department of Justice, The Federal Bureau of Investigation, AMR ambulance and the Shasta County Search and Rescue team.
Until we identify the suspects, the public should remain cautious. As always, we continue to ask for the public's help. Our call to action is for anyone with information related to Sherri's abduction, her subsequent release or the identity of the suspects to call their local law enforcement authority.
The Shasta County Sheriff's Office has a tip line. That number is active 24 hours a day and that number is 530-245-6135. Callers can also call tips into Shasta County Secret Witness and that number is 530-243-2319.
We're thankful that Sherri has been reunited with her family and ask that you keep the Papini family in your thoughts and prayers throughout this holiday season.
I also want to thank Keith Papini, her husband, for his co-operation and information in this case throughout the investigation. Again, this an active investigation and there is sensitive information that is not being disclosed for the integrity of the investigation.
The sheriff's office will continue to update the media when information is developed. As of today, there's not going to be further one-on-one interviews, press conferences or news releases unless new information or developments in the case take place.
SHERIFF'S Q & A WITH PRESS
Q: Were there only ever these two captors, these two women? Were there never male captors at all?
All the information that we have at this time are the two Hispanic females. They were armed with a handgun, and that's all we have at this time. Of course, if other information develops we'll let you know.
Q: Can you tell us a little about this evidence item that was recovered in Yolo County?
Bosenko: Well, there are a number of items that were retrieved as evidence in Yolo County. Again, I'm not going to get into the specific details of all the evidence. We have received all the evidence back from Yolo County and we'll be turning it over to the Department of Justice for processing.
Q: Why was she taken?
Bosenko: We still do not have a motive as to the reason why Mrs. Papini was taken. We do not know if she was a specific target or if this was a random abduction.
Q: Did Sherri talk about if she was on the move or where she was taken, or if it was one spot or moved around?
Bosenko: We're not providing the information on the specifics of where she may have been taken after the abduction at this time, but valid question.
Q: Do you have enough information to do a sketch?
Bosenko: We're discussing that with a sketch artist. Again, as you heard from the description that I provided - very minimal and the subjects had their faces covered to hide their identities. But we're going to discuss that with a sketch artist to see if there's enough to get at least the eye area of the suspects out.
Q: We've heard reports of a reported blog of hers written before she was married to her husband, Keith. Have you guys been getting any tips on that - if it was actually written from her and such as skinheads and such like that? Have they investigated an IP address from her?
Bosenko: We are familiar with that blog that you're referring to. It was written - at least posted - in 2003, roughly 13 years ago. She would have been about 20 or 21. We do not know that it has any relevance to this case or not.
Q: When Keith released his information about his wife and how she was found, he talked about her injuries as well as being underweight. Has she given any explanation about what happened when she was held captive? Did they feed her at all? Did they give her any sort of attention or was it just a constant beating?
Bosenko: We're not providing details of that information there.
Q: When Keith released his statement did it hurt your investigation at all?
Bosenko: I did not know he was going to release this until a short time before I did a media interview, and yes, I do think that some of the details that he has provided it could affect the integrity of the investigation.
Q: Is there any indication that this is cartel related or possibly sex trafficking?
Bosenko: A very good question. We don't have specific information if it was related to any cartel info or to human trafficking.
Q: Have you heard of any other case anywhere with a similar MO?
Bosenko: We have been in touch with other agencies with this investigation and we're looking into those aspects of it.
Q: Have you looked into people in Sherri's past that may have had an issue with her. Is there a connection?
Bosenko: Yes, our investigators have looked into her past, and that is part of the ongoing investigation. I have time for one more question.
Q: Can you tell us if they stayed in this area where they were and where they went during those two weeks?
Bosenko: I don't have specific information to as location or locations where she may have been taken other than she was located near County Road 17 in Yolo County along I-5 which is approximately 150 miles (240km) from Redding here.