The Real Story Behind Denise Huskins’ ‘Nightmare’ Ordeal

Sometimes real life truly is stranger than fiction — and Denise Huskins’ “American Nightmare” is a perfect case of that maxim. The ordeal she and Aaron Quinn were put through, as well as its aftermath, had more twists and turns than the most far-fetched Hollywood thriller. In fact, their case was compared to the plot of Gone Girl! In reality, though, the real world isn’t fiction, and there was a lot more to their harrowing experience than the authorities and media initially wanted people to believe.

A midnight visitor

In the middle of the night on March 23, 2015, Denise and Aaron were awoken in their beds by a disorienting sight. A bright beam of light was shining in their faces, and their confusion quickly turned to terror.

Their blood must have run cold when they heard a voice in their bedroom say, “Wake up, this is a robbery.” Denise later told ABC News, “I remember being asleep and hearing a voice and thinking it was a dream. But the voice kept talking…”

This is not a dream

Denise continued, “I just remember my eyes shot open and I could see the walls illuminated with a white light that was flashing, and I could see a couple of red laser dots crossing the wall…” At that point, the voice assured the couple, “We’re not here to hurt you.”

Denise admitted, “In that moment, I just thought, ‘Oh my God. This is not a dream.’” The couple then focused in on the word “we” — they couldn’t be sure, but Denise thought she saw two pairs of legs in the room.

A pre-planned home invasion

Ascertaining exactly how many intruders were in their bedroom then became impossible when the couple was zip-tied and bundled into their closet. While inside, blacked-out swimming goggles were affixed over their eyes, and the intruder — or intruders — played a pre-recorded message.

It claimed the group were part of an organization of kidnappers who collected debts. In the message, Aaron was mentioned by name, and he later told ABC News that this gave him the sinking feeling, “We’re in a lot of trouble and this is planned.”

Was the whole thing a mistake?

At that point, though, a curveball was thrown into the harrowing situation. The kidnapper said, “We have a problem,” and then asked, “Do Denise and your ex-fiancée look-alike?” Now there could be no doubt that the intruders knew exactly who the couple were.

However, it also meant the whole thing was likely a case of mistaken identity. Aaron explained, “Yes, they both have long, blonde hair,” and the kidnapper said, “We got the wrong intel.”

A terrifying change of plan

You see, up until a few months prior to this fateful night, Aaron had lived with his fiancé Andrea Roberts. They had then broken up and he’d got together with Denise — in fact, Andrea had only just removed all of her belongings from the home.

As it appeared Andrea was the true target, Denise hoped the intruders would just call off the kidnapping — but instead, they said, “This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to take you for 48 hours. Aaron’s going to have to complete some tasks.”

The situation gets weird

Aaron was then spirited downstairs and tied up with duct tape. He was warned that the kidnappers had set up a webcam in the room and had made a perimeter around the couch with red tape — when they left, they’d be watching to see if he left that perimeter.

They then asked if Aaron was comfortable, and he admitted he was cold and would like a blanket. Bizarrely, one kidnapper replied, “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize how cold it is because we’re all wearing wetsuits.”

The ransom demand — and a sobering warning

While still reeling from the strangeness of that answer, Aaron was told that the kidnappers would contact him via e-mail. They’d even set up an e-mail address specifically for receiving their ransom demands. Aaron was instructed to call in sick for work, and to let Denise’s boss know she’d suffered a family emergency and wouldn’t be in for a week.

The ransom demand would be $15,000, and if Aaron tried to contact the police, they’d know thanks to the camera. In that scenario, they were very clear — they would kill Denise.

Drugged and left alone

Aaron was then given a sedative — he believed it to be a crude mix of diazepam and NyQuil — and Denise was driven away by the kidnappers in his vehicle. Left alone in an eerie silence, Aaron managed to get the goggle off his eyes, but then succumbed to the sedative at around five in the morning.

He slept for the next six and a half hours, aside from a small bout of lucidness just lengthy enough for him to follow the kidnappers’ instructions about calling in sick to work.

Waking up to a demand — and a dilemma

When the groggy victim finally woke up properly around 11:30 a.m., he had emails from the kidnappers demanding he make two payments. He couldn’t get the full amount they wanted advanced to him, so texted back an offer of half.

Initially the kidnappers replied to his messages, but then they went radio silent — and this panicked Aaron. He had no idea what they were doing to Denise and didn’t feel he could take the risk any longer of not contacting anyone for help.

Calling the police

Seeing a potential loophole in the kidnappers’ scheme, Aaron didn’t contact the authorities — instead, he called his FBI agent brother! His sibling told him to ignore the threat of the kidnappers watching on camera and to call the police anyway. With great reticence, Aaron did just that.

By the time the Vallejo police turned up at his door, Denise had been gone for nine hours. The police immediately disconnected the webcam, and an agitated Aaron believed they would then begin the search for his missing love.

Things take a turn almost immediately

Instead, Aaron claimed the very first thing the police asked him was, “Are you on drugs?” Taken aback, he answered, “Yes, the kidnappers drugged me.” The policeman then asked Aaron if he’d been “partying” that morning, to which Aaron said “No.”

He told ABC News that the cop then pointed “to some beer bottles that were neatly placed in the box next to the garbage, and I said, ‘I put them there to take them out for recycling all at once.’”

A victim becomes a suspect

Aaron was then taken to the police station to go through his statement — but not before a DNA sample was taken and his clothes were removed for evidence. He was given prison gear to wear instead, and it quickly became obvious that he wasn’t being treated like the victim of an attack.

Nicole Weisensee Egan — who later penned a book about the couple’s ordeal — told ABC News, “They clearly didn’t believe him. It is soul-crushing for Aaron because he’s out of his mind worried about Denise.”

The interrogation

For Aaron, what followed was 18 hours of brutal questioning at the hands of Vallejo detective Mat Mustard. His phone was confiscated, meaning he wasn’t able to reply to the kidnappers’ emails, and Mustard seemed to focus his questions more on Aaron and Denise’s relationship than on the home invasion.

Around 45 minutes into the interrogation, after Aaron had gone over his — admittedly outlandish — story in forensic detail, Mustard said, “I don’t think you’re being truthful, and I don’t think anybody came into your house.”

An unfortunate bloodstain

To Aaron, it was now crystal clear that he was being treated as a suspect in the case — and his situation wasn’t helped by a bloodstain the police had discovered on his bedsheets. He told ABC News, “I knew there was an old stain on my sheet.”

He explained, “I’d washed those sheets multiple times. It’s just a small stain that I wasn’t able to get out. Little did I know, a quarter-sized bloodstain was going to mean that I was a murderer.”

Living a nightmare

Next came a lie detector test at the hands of the FBI, and Aaron was told he had failed, despite reiterating the exact same story he told Mustard. Aaron, who was exhausted and frantic with worry, later admitted he began to doubt himself — even wondering if he’d had a schizophrenic breakdown.

The situation was dire, and Aaron’s lawyer Dan Russo told him, “Look, this is going to be a nightmare and there’s no way you’re going to be able to pinch yourself and wake up.”

The first twist

The following day, though, the case took its first significant twist. The San Francisco Chronicle received an audio file, which featured Denise giving proof of life. She even spoke of a plane crash which had been in the news, as a way of proving the recording was current.

Aaron had his cell phone returned by the police and was ordered to contact the kidnappers. Realizing the phone had been on airplane mode, the setting was turned off — and to Aaron’s horror, a barrage of messages and three missed calls from the kidnappers appeared.

The whole case turns on its head

As the kidnapping continued into its second day, Aaron was in a dark place. The kidnappers hadn’t replied to his new message, and he had no idea where Denise was, nor what had been done to her. Imagine how he felt, then, when on March 25 he was told that she had been found — 400 miles away!

She was in Huntington Beach, where both her parents live. Amazingly, she had simply left a voicemail with her father, and then ambled to his house, where she was let in by a neighbor.

Denise begins to tell her story

Denise claimed that the kidnappers had simply dropped her off in Huntington Beach and driven away. She told ABC News, “I heard him drive off. I slowly counted to 10. I peeled the tape off my eyes, and I was by myself in this alleyway.”

She continued, “I grabbed my bags and started walking down that alley, and I looked at the corner street name and I saw Utica, which is the street that I grew up on.” After telling this story to Huntington Beach investigators, though, she sadly found herself in a similar boat to Aaron.

But is branded a Gone Girl clone

“I had no reason to believe, at that time, that they doubted me,” explained Denise. However, her cousin Nick — who had recently passed the bar — claimed Detective Mustard told him, “We’ll give immunity to whoever confesses first to making this whole thing up.”

Denise then flew back to Vallejo to reunite with Aaron — but found herself at the heart of a media frenzy which turned her life upside down. The couple’s ordeal was being likened to the plot of Gone Girl, the movie adaptation of which had been released the previous year.

Even the police perpetuate the narrative

In that story, a woman stages her own disappearance and reappearance as a means of revenge on her cheating husband. Why exactly would the press be so quick to believe Denise and Aaron had orchestrated something similarly elaborate, though? Well, maybe because on the very day she reappeared, Vallejo PD’s Lt. Kenny Park accused the couple of it!

During a press conference, Park even said, “Mr. Quinn and Ms. Huskins have plundered valuable resources away from our community and taken the focus away from the true victims of our community while instilling fear among our community members.”

Denise reveals the depths of her awful experience

Under this cloud of suspicion, Denise finally got in contact with her attorney and revealed what happened to her. She stated that she had been sexually assaulted by one of the kidnappers, which she initially hadn’t told the cops because she was afraid the kidnapper would seek revenge.

Horrifyingly, she confessed that the assault had been videotaped, and that the kidnapper threatened to leak the footage on the internet if she went to the authorities. On top of this, there were three kidnappers in total, and they were all ex-military personnel.

A callous police department

Denise’s defense lawyer Doug Rappaport told the Vallejo PD they needed to conduct a rape test on his client — but their response floored him. He told ABC News, “We have evidence that’s going to dissipate, and they said the most callous thing I think I’ve ever heard somebody say from law enforcement.”

He claimed, “They said, ‘Well, just have her sleep in her clothes and don’t take a shower and we’ll talk in the morning.’” Naturally, representatives from the police department deny those words were ever uttered.

Let down by the very people who were there to help

Stunningly, the police themselves actually then began referring to Denise as “Gone Girl” — the notion of her faking the entire thing had taken on a life of itself. Denise lamented, “You go through something like that, and every moment, every ounce of energy is about, ‘How do I live to see another second?’”

Denise, who felt totally abandoned by the people who were meant to help her, continued, “That is all you can think about. The last thing that you’re thinking about is, ‘If I do survive, I need to make sure that I’m believable.’”

An even more stunning twist

The next twist came a day after Denise reappeared, when the San Francisco Chronicle was sent an email by the kidnapper revealing they were angry that the incident was being treated as a hoax! To the paper’s shock, the email included photographs of where Denise had been held captive, and revealed details only the perpetrator would know.

More messages followed, including one which read, “We cannot stand to see two good people thrown under the bus by the police and media… We are responsible for the victims’ suffering and the least we can do is come forward to prove they are not lying.”

An emotional reunion

From the time Denise was taken from their home, it took a week for her to be reunited with Aaron. She confessed to being worried Aaron might have started to believe the Gone Girl narrative, and this made her “sick with anticipation.”

From Aaron’s perspective, though, he admitted, “I just wanted to hold her. I just wanted to tell her I was sorry. I was really afraid that she wouldn’t want to see me — that she would just want to wipe her hands clean.”

A constant state of stress and terror

In the end, neither should have tormented themselves — they collapsed weeping into each other’s arms as soon as they were brought back together. Their next few weeks were rough, though, as they worked on defending themselves from the Gone Girl narrative, all while the police weren’t even searching for the real perpetrators.

Aaron felt sure he was about to lose his job, and he and Denise could only try not to let stress overwhelm them. Aaron’s mom admitted, “It was devastating to see both of them. They could not function.”

A final astonishing twist — and the key to everything

On June 5, 2015 the case took another truly astounding twist — and it shed an entirely new light on Denise and Aaron’s story. You see, in Dublin, California — which is about an hour away from Vallejo — a husband managed to foil a home invasion and received a smack on the head with a flashlight in the process.

An intruder had broken into his house and tried to restrain his wife, but the man fought back, and in the melee the suspect actually dropped his cell phone at the scene. It would prove to be the key to unlocking the entire case.

Unearthing a mountain of evidence

Dublin police soon traced the owner of the phone, and discovered he was an ex-Marine and Harvard Law School graduate named Matthew Muller. His mother told the police he was staying at a cabin in South Lake Tahoe, and Detective Misty Carausu led a team in a search.

They found a cornucopia of suspicious materials including ski masks, stun guns, multiple laptops and cellphones, as well as a bed with no blankets, but a slept-on sheet. Bone-chillingly, there was also a replica squirt gun — with a laser pointer taped to it.

This investigation leads back to Denise and Aaron

Carausu revealed, “There were several swim goggles that were duct-taped black. One, in particular, had a blonde hair strand attached to the duct tape. Why would there be a blonde hair stuck to goggles? [In] the Dublin home invasion, none of them had blonde hair.”

She added, “This wasn’t his first time committing a crime. I just had to figure out where these other crimes occurred.” Her investigation, of course, led her to Denise and Aaron — who were now completely vindicated in their story.

The real perpetrator is sentenced

Muller wound up being charged with kidnapping for ransom and received a 40-year prison sentence. Rappaport explained, “What he wasn’t charged with were the sexual assaults, the robbery, the burglary against Aaron. The reason being is that there was no jurisdiction in federal court for those crimes.”

While the search for justice had yielded fruit, Aaron and Denise’s legal teams still weren’t entirely happy. They held a press conference condemning the Vallejo police and demanded full apologies for their clients.

Suing the city and the police department

Naturally, Denise and Aaron were also disgusted at their treatment by the authorities, and in 2016 they sued the city and the police department for defamation of character. They claimed they suffered “a vicious and shocking attack” at the hands of the police, which “unfairly destroyed their reputations through an outrageous and wholly unfounded campaign of disparagement.”

In 2018 a substantial settlement of $2.5 million was reached without going to court — but disappointingly the police department didn’t publicly apologize for painting the couple out to be hoaxers.

An apology finally arrives

In 2021 the police department’s PR officer Christina Lee finally issued a statement to 20/20, which read, “The Huskins Quinn case was not publicly handled with the type of sensitivity a case of this nature should have been handled with, and for that, the City extends an apology to Ms. Huskins and Mr. Quinn.”

The new Chief of Police Shawny Williams added, “Although I was not chief in 2015 when this incident occurred, I would like to extend my deepest apology to Ms. Huskins and Mr. Quinn for how they were treated during this ordeal.”

The experience weighed heavily on the couple

At that time, Denise told People magazine, “When I was kidnapped, I didn’t know if I was going to live to see another day. I just wanted to go back to my life. And then to have people attacking you on social media, the whole Gone Girl label — a whole persona was placed on me that had nothing to do with who I am.”

The entire ordeal weighed very heavily on the couple, whose faith in the system had been severely shaken. Aaron confessed, “With PTSD and therapy, it gets easier. But it doesn’t ever really get easy.”

But it somehow made them stronger

However, Denise and Aaron are proof that trauma doesn’t have to define people. They stayed together throughout the entire ordeal and walked down the aisle in 2018, before starting a family in 2020 when baby Olivia was born. Incredibly, she arrived exactly five years after Denise was released from captivity — to the day.

Baby Naomi followed in 2022 and Denise feels their family story shows there is hope at the end of the tunnel, even if, “It might take time and it might be a lot of hard work…”

Letting people know they aren’t alone

Denise and Aaron wanted to bring their light to others who have experienced trauma, and this is why they co-wrote Victim F: From Crime Victims to Suspects to Survivors. Aaron told People, “There are extraordinary facts within our story… But dealing with trauma isn’t unique.”

He explained, “We want to share our story and help other people to let them know that they aren’t alone. We’ve always helped people at an individual level. This is an opportunity to help people on a larger scale.”

American Nightmare

In 2023 a Netflix documentary was released about the case — entitled American Nightmare — and the world was stunned all over again by the twists and turns. The piece was very critical of the Vallejo police department, but filmmakers Bernadette Higgins and Felicity Morris stressed to Variety magazine that they weren’t anti-police.

Morris said, “There’s law enforcement, not just in America, with problems at the top, and as you go down through the systems, what you’re really looking for with the police is a system of integrity…”

The case featured good and bad cops

Morris added, “There are good cops and there are bad cops. Unfortunately for Denise and Aaron, they fell victim to a police force that was seemingly misogynistic, and unable to believe the truth. But then fortunately for Denise and Aaron, they had a police department and Misty Carausu, who was hungry for the truth and hungry for answers and worked with integrity, with care and with thought.”

She added, “It was just great that there was a police department who did investigate, who were curious, who did go above and beyond.”

Was Muller really the only intruder?

As for the mystery of whether Muller really was working alone or had accomplices, Higgins said Denise and Aaron “maintain to this day they saw more than one set of legs in that bedroom, but unfortunately, because of the lazy policing that happened, there were many things that were never followed up on.”

She added, “There were many threads that were not pulled. We would never conclude that — because no one ever was able to conclude that. A lot of assumptions were made, even at that trial.”

Denise and Aaron insist he wasn’t alone — and they could be right'

At the end of the day, Higgins felt, “All of these things could be true — there could have been more than one person, and they could have used recordings to create chaos and confusion… The fact of the matter is that every single thing Denise and Aaron said turned out to be true.”

She added, “Everything they said that everyone thought was too unbelievable, and couldn’t possibly be right, was proven right. Everything that they said has turned out to be true, so why wouldn’t this?”