The only thing almost as mysterious as Sherri Papini’s disappearance was the hostage negotiator supposedly retained by an anonymous donor to find her.
Papini, a 34-year-old California mother of two disappeared during a November 2 jog, setting off a national media firestorm. Pleas for her safe return went unanswered. Then Cameron Gamble entered the case. Gamble, a 30-something self-professed abduction expert, said he had the backing of an anonymous donor offering $50,000 in exchange for Papini’s safe return. Gamble described himself as a professional hostage negotiator, and the possible key to Papini’s release.
But Gamble is no expert. Instead, his resume suggests an obscure self-defense coach, who appears to have inserted himself in a woman’s disappearance to parlay it into fame and fortune.
Gamble made his first appearance in the Papini on November 18, more than two weeks after she disappeared, when he uploaded a video to YouTube.“My name is Cameron Gamble and I’m an international kidnap and ransom consultant,” he said, sitting in a red desk chair against a white wall. “I’ve been retained by an individual who wishes to remain anonymous, an individual who has come forward to offer a cash reward for a ransom for Sherri Papini’s safe return to her family.”
Gamble’s backer, an anonymous donor who offered at least $50,000 cash for Papini’s return, also sang his praises.
“My hired negotiator has negotiated hostage releases all over the world, so he will determine immediately if you are lying,” the person cautioned would-be scammers on his website SherriPapini.com.
The mysterious person, who set up a number on a burner phone, claimed to be from outside the Shasta County area. “Once I leave town this offer is off the table,” he wrote on the website.
The donor’s website offered a chilly message to police: “A note to Redding Police and Shasta County Sheriff’s department. Please don’t threaten me. I have received legal counsel and what I am doing is within my rights.”
Despite the fact that no ransom had been demanded and law enforcement was still actively pursuing leads, Gamble appeared in a number of televised interviews, offering supposed abductors a pathway to a large cash sum in exchange for Papini’s safe return, no questions asked.
While Gamble was working on the donor’s behalf, he was also planning his own future. Records show that he registered CameronGamble.com on November 20, while Papini was still missing.
Four days later, Papini was discovered battered but safe on Thanksgiving morning.
A motorist on a rural interstate in California’s Yolo County spotted a woman waving some kind of fabric on the side of the road on Thanksgiving morning. Her hair had been cut short, and a message reportedly branded onto her body, but after a quick stint in the hospital, she was released in stable condition. Papini was home.
Information on suspects is vague. Papini told police she had been kidnapped by two Hispanic women with a gun and a dark SUV. The women hid their faces and often kept Papini blindfolded, she claimed. The alleged abductors’ motives are unclear; they did not ransom her or kill her. Papini said she was thrown from the SUV, her arms in shackles on Thanksgiving morning.
For years, Gamble sold anti-abduction courses, touting his alleged military training. Gamble advertised himself as a specialist in kidnapping-prevention training, although his actual record in that field, and as a hostage negotiator, is vague at best. According to military service records, he enlisted in the Air Force 2002 and was discharged in July 2005. He was a Senior Airman when he was discharged, a rank just above Airman First Class, assigned to work as a vehicle operations apprentice. The Air Force could not provide the terms of his discharge, but bankruptcy filings show he received disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
He often cites his Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training in online biographies, and the Air Force confirmed that he has completed a Combat Survival Training Course—as do all aircrew members. He also claims to have trained special forces soldiers at Fort Rucker in Alabama, but the Army post did not respond to requests by The Daily Beast to confirm Gamble’s claim.
After leaving the Air Force, Gamble founded multiple companies with military-sounding names including the Catalyst Advanced Training Group and Project TAKEN.
The Catalyst Strategic Group targeted law enforcement with its sales pitch. In one video, he claimed to provide trainings on non-coercive interrogation techniques to state, local, and federal law enforcement when “the Department of Defense mandated all interrogations be conducted in an ethical, non-coercive manner” after revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib. (DoD regulations are not known to affect state or local law enforcement.)
“This new DoD directive left a tremendous amount of governmental and non-governmental agencies at a loss,” Gamble said in a video, posed in front of a fake-looking bookcase background. “The key question became, how does one conduct an interrogation in accordance with the new guidance and policies, while still being able to extract actionable intelligence from a source?”
Gamble said his course had “recently been accredited by the Department of Criminal Justice Services,” but no such federal agency exists.
Project TAKEN, which advertised itself as an anti-abduction training program, made its sales pitch in a series of bizarre video advertisements. In one, a blond female college student walks down the hall, ignoring flyers for “Project TAKEN,” which warns that “50,000 women a year are stalked or kidnapped … You never need us until you do.” The flyer shows a crying woman and Gamble’s black-and-white headshot.
While passing the flyer, the student bumps into a balding man, who stares menacingly at her receding figure. Later, he abducts her in a parking garage and imprisons her in a tool shed, stroking her shoulders with gloved hands while dramatic orchestral music plays.
“It was so easy, taking you,” the abductor tells the crying girl.
Then Gamble’s face appears before the student, telling her not to be scared, and to listen to his instructions.
“We can fix this,” he tells her, adding “but you must do exactly as I say.” The film runs in reverse, and shows the student wisely reading the Project TAKEN flyer, her gruesome fate presumably avoided in this timeline.
In blog posts and on social media, Gamble posted that Project TAKEN is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. But The Daily Beast was unable to locate any 501(c)(3) registration under that name.
In January 18, 2012 tweet, Project TAKEN announced that it had received 501(c)(3) status. “Proud to announce @Project_Taken has just become a 501(C)(3) Non-Profit organization! What does that mean? Free seminars for you!Support us!”
California business records show that Project TAKEN was incorporated January 11 2012, a week before the company tweeted about its 501(c)(3) status. 501(c)(3) applications typically take a minimum of two months to process, and likely longer.
But while evidence of a tax exempt status is scant, Project TAKEN continued to promote its good deeds on social media and church newsletters. In one newsletter sent out under the Project TAKEN name in July 2012, Gamble describes going to Kansas City with his family to work with a girl allegedly rescued from sex trafficking by Exodus Cry Ministries.
“So, as you are aware, we came here as a result of a very significant event that had taken place within the Exodus Cry ministry. They had rescued a young girl out of the horrific sex-trafficking industry, and as a result of this they came under attack,” he wrote in the letter. “Our deciding factor in coming to help was based on this single event that had turned their worlds upside down. It was a death threat against many staff members and their families due to them rescuing this young girl.”
There, too, Gamble thought he had a better grasp on the situation than law enforcement did.
“The first thing I heard the Lord saying was to call off the FBI. What? Seriously Father? The FBI? So… I did,” he wrote. “I had no peace regarding the way they were getting ready to approach the situation, and so I delayed their involvement until I could determine a better course of action.”
The age of the “young girl” Gamble tried to keep the FBI from talking to is not clear. Exodus Cry Ministries did not respond to requests for comment.
Much of Project TAKEN’s work focused on Christian missionaries preparing to travel abroad. On a page for one missionary group, Project TAKEN was billed as “a unique organization focused on training missionaries and ministries to prevent, survive, and escape hostile situations … Cameron’s been training the U.S. Military Special Ops community on survival tactics since shortly after September 11, 2001.”
He promised to bring an added “supernatural approach” when training “those who dare to pierce the darkness with the light of the Gospel.”
Elsewhere, Gamble is described as “training Christian missionary groups how to stay safe while traveling in some of the most primitive and heavily persecuted regions in the world.”
Anti-abduction training did not appear to be a lucrative business. Project TAKEN did not appear to list its prices, and the number of clients it successfully served is unknown. However, the company solicited donations on its now-shuttered website. Contributor levels began at “soldier,” with a monthly contribution of $30, up to “liberator” level, which required a monthly donation of $1,000.
Gamble declared bankruptcy in 2012, just weeks before writing the letter about his excursion to work with a sex trafficking survivor in Kansas City. The filings show that Project TAKEN cost more money than it brought in. Sometimes, months passed without income, as they did for Catalyst. Instead, the Gambles’ main source was income from a rental property.
The organization was also supported by the Redding-based Bethel Church, which featured Gamble and his wife on their website.
“They work closely with Bethel missions, BSSM short-term missions, high-risk ministries involved with human trafficking and churches globally,” the website used to read. “Additionally, they offer in-country resolution for missionaries and ministries that are facing serious threats by traveling to the source of the problem in order to aid.”
The Bethel Church said in a statement saying that “Cameron, his wife, and five children are a wonderful family and valued church members in good standing,” who have trained the church’s missionaries before. It added that the Church receives donations on their behalf.
A church spokesman said the donations went to individuals, not Project TAKEN, when The Daily Beast inquired about the organization’s non-profit status.
In a since-removed post on the Bethel Church Music site, Gamble wrote about traveling to Mexico to help a pastor who had been kidnapped. Details of his substantive involvement in the rescue are scant, but Gamble said that the Christian anthem “We will not be taken” got the family through the ordeal.
Mike Cruz, a pastor from The Stirring church who Gamble said recruited him to the effort, told The Daily Beast he would have to check with Gamble before speaking to the media about the case. When he called back, he said Gamble helped for free, and was not involved in direct negotiations but consulted for the family.
The Daily Beast asked him to confirm a phone number for Gamble.
“I’m unaware if I can affirm that or deny that right now,” Cruz said.
Multiple attempts to reach Gamble by phone and e-mail were unsuccessful.
Gamble’s resume makes him an unlikely hostage negotiator, experts said.
“These types of matters are always better handled by the police, who have time-proven investigative techniques available to them that usually have a successful resolution in the vast majority of cases,” Lt. Jack Cambria, who retired as the NYPD’s top hostage negotiator in 2015, told The Daily Beast.
But the alleged anonymous donor told The Daily Beast that he picked Gamble as a hostage negotiator, after a family friend of the Papinis put him in touch.
Using an anonymous email set up for Papini’s recovery, the donor defended his tactics, using language similar to what Gamble said in his video when talking about potential tipsters.
“These people are also felons, drug addicts and people with warrants out for their arrest that aren’t going to go to the police with the hopes of getting reward money,” the donor wrote. “Offering these people CASH without them having to reveal their identity is attractive.”
Neither kidnapper nor tipster claimed the reward. Gamble said none of the money had exchanged hands before or after Papini’s return, but suggested his method may have brought Papini home. While the role of the unclaimed reward in Papini’s discovery is unclear, Gamble envisions using a similar tactic in other missing persons cases.
“Can it be used again? Can we take this and duplicate this process and apply it to other missing person cases or other abduction cases throughout the world, throughout the U.S. especially, and tweak it to fit the individual case,” Gamble said in a KRCR interview on Wednesday. “The sheriff said this has never been done in the history of the U.S. So we made history, if this in fact is what happened.”
During the search for Papini, Gamble and the mysterious donor clashed with law enforcement, Gamble said. “They’re not happy with us,” he told the Redding Searchlight on November 20.
With Papini returned safely home, Gamble has remained in the public eye. Appearing on a Friday broadcast of 20/20, he defended Keith Papipi against allegations that the family had faked the kidnapping. “Look at the husband,” Gamble said. “He wasn’t faking it. Look at Sherri herself. She’s not the kind of girl who’s gonna walk away from all that.”
He also spoke at a community homecoming event for Papini on Saturday. “At the end of the day, we know who we are, we know what we did to make an impact on this case,” Gamble told gatherers at the event. “And what we did was we rallied the community, and we made it personal for you and you got behind it in a really big way.”
While none of the anonymous donor’s money had exchanged hands as of Wednesday, Gamble told the Sacramento Bee that the donor “will support the family in any way he can to ensure they receive the necessary treatment for their recovery.”
Gamble told the Bee that the donor had returned the ransom money to the bank. Any money the Papini family receives “is really up to [the donor] at this point,” Gamble said.