“Name it what you want, give it a name, but it's not ‘Gone Girl,’” Denise Huskins recently told PEOPLE
The husband and wife featured in American Nightmare, a new Netflix true crime documentary series about a 2015 home invasion and kidnapping that police in California initially falsely claimed was a hoax, are speaking out after the series’ release earlier this month.
Denise Huskins and Aaron Quinn spoke about the harrowing experience — and the police’s botched response to their calls for help — during an interview with PEOPLE, recalling what it felt like to be re-victimized even after the horror of the crime.
“It's challenging. We go through a home invasion, kidnapping, and you are just trying to do the best you can,” Quinn says. “You're in a situation you've never experienced before and all you're trying to do is survive the situation. Or in my case, I'm just trying to help the police in any way I know how.”
On March 23, 2015, Huskins and Quinn, both physical therapists, were suddenly awakened in the middle of the night by armed intruders who bound them with zip ties, blinded them with blackout swimming goggles, and forced them into a closet. During the break-in, Huskins was kidnapped and Quinn later freed himself, soon calling police for help.
Quinn explained that Huskins had been held for $8,500 ransom. However, officers with the Vallejo, Calif., police department didn’t believe him. They would soon bring Quinn in for questioning, accusing him of foul play and suspecting that Huskins was not kidnapped, but rather murdered by her boyfriend.
“There was no right answer because [police] had already had tunnel vision,” Quinn tells PEOPLE. “So they said I was too calm when I was giving my statements, but if I was more hysterical, they would've said he's acting, and vice versa for Denise. So you're damned if you do, damned if you don't.”
Meanwhile, Huskins was held captive for two days and raped twice by her kidnapper. She returned, appearing on the outside to be uninjured, outside her family's Orange County home, just hours before the ransom was due to her attacker.
Shortly after, police publicly accused the couple of fabricating the entire incident as a hoax and condemned them, claiming they had wasted public resources and time on the investigation. At the time, even Huskins' actual abductor defended her in anonymous rambling letters to investigators.
“The magnitude of the victim blaming was... How do you even prepare? It was all very shocking and hard to know what to do with,” Huskins tells PEOPLE. “And really it was just so damaging. I mean, you're already vulnerable coming out of a situation and feeling really weak and then you just keep getting beaten down and blamed.”
Police dubbed the case the “Gone Girl kidnapping,” referencing the Gillian Flynn novel and hit Ben Affleck movie about a husband who becomes a prime suspect in his wife’s disappearance and presumed murder, and the nickname for the case stuck — even after the truth of the kidnapping was revealed.
The continued use of the moniker is hurtful to the couple, they say.
“‘It's Denise Huskins' kidnapping,' [or] 'Vallejo kidnapping case.’ Name it what you want, give it a name, but it's not ‘Gone Girl,’” Huskins says. “That's what popped in the law enforcement's mind. That's a narrative that drove their thinking. And then that's what they relayed to the media.”
“And then everything was shaped around that and seen in that lens,” she adds. “But if you take it step by step and look at it just objectively, it's nothing like ‘Gone Girl.’”
Writing Book Was 'Cathartic'
In spite of the moniker, the couple says they’ve received an outpouring of support from friends, family, and watchers from around the world, since the docuseries’ release on Jan. 17 and the 2021 publication of their book, Victim F: From Crime Victims to Suspects to Survivors.
“As the truth has come out, as we've spoken out more, as we've wrote our book, we've had so many people reach out and show us support and sadly share their similar stories,” Huskins says, explaining that she has heard of similar cases to hers where the victims don't have the same resources to share what happened to them.
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Three months after Huskins returned, investigators with the FBI stepped in and cracked the case, tying evidence from a similar kidnapping at a home roughly 40 miles away from Vallejo. Authorities would eventually arrest Matthew Muller, a former Marine and disbarred Harvard-educated immigration attorney, who would accidentally confess to the crime during a hot mic incident while being interviewed by CBS.
In September 2016, Muller pleaded guilty to one count of federal kidnapping, and was sentenced to 40 years in prison, where he remains today. He also faced state charges of kidnapping, burglary, robbery and two counts of rape by force, but in November 2020 was deemed incompetent to stand trial for that case.
Quinn and Huskins sued the city of Vallejo in September 2015 for false imprisonment, defamation, false arrest and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The couple reportedly settled with the city in 2018 for $2.5 million.
“This happens because of a lack of accountability,” Quinn says. "There are supposed to be guardrails and accountability from levels above, but [law enforcement] continue to protect themselves over doing the right thing and holding someone [accountable] and making changes."
In response to having their story highlighted on a huge platform like Netflix, Huskins says she and Quinn have also been feeling overwhelmed.
“It's a lot putting yourself out there again for people to live with you during it, potentially judge you,” Huskins tells PEOPLE. “It's hard to not feel a little bit exposed and vulnerable again. And that brings up some of that prior trauma. So our bodies are kind of working through that.”
Writing their book was a significant step in beginning the process of healing, which Huskins and Quinn believe viewers of the docuseries should read in order to learn more about what wasn't shown on screen.
“It allowed us to process [the ordeal] in a way and really go back to those moments and experience it,” Huskins says, noting how she was emotionally numb while in captivity in order to stay alive, but by writing the book, she was able to “process through it in a different way, in a safe place.”
Quinn adds, “For us, the narrative of our trauma was stolen from us. It was a time where we actually got to take ownership of the trauma that we had been dealing with for the last, when we started the book in 2018.”
“To actually be able to go, ‘No, this is how I feel about it. This is what happened from my perspective.’ And we also have the facts back it up. It's empowering,” Quinn says. “So it was cathartic, it was empowering to have our voice be on the page.”
Becoming 'Part of the Solution'
When thinking about how this experience shaped their lives, Quinn says he’s taken their trauma and turned into something positive.
“For me, I have recognized that I need people's help or I need to reach out for help,” Quinn says. “[When] I felt those [hard] emotions, I just would keep them hidden. And as a dad, I want to be able to show my daughters that it's okay to be vulnerable and reach out.”
In the future, the couple aims to advocate for individuals who have been wrongfully accused and hopefully become "part of the solution," as Quinn puts it.
“We hope to do more speaking, whether it's with law enforcement, survivors, nurses, doctors, anyone who might come into this situation and work with victims or deal with these kinds of cases and just share what we went through, the bigger themes that a lot of other survivors go through,” Huskins says. “And hopefully collaborate and try to figure out a better strategy.”
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or go to rainn.org.
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