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True-Crime Docuseries American Nightmare Fulfills the Promise of Its Title

Netflix's exploration of the 2015 kidnapping of Denise Huskins must be seen to be believed.
  • Denise Huskins in American Nightmare (Photo: Netflix)
    Denise Huskins in American Nightmare (Photo: Netflix)

    Netflix's 2024 documentary campaign gets off to a fast start this week with the premiere of American Nightmare, a three-part series about the terrifying abduction of Denise Huskins in March 2015. Directed and produced by the duo behind The Tinder Swindler, Bernadette Higgins and Felicity Morris, American Nightmare retraces the crime itself, with Huskins and boyfriend (and now-husband) Aaron Quinn recalling their harrowing experience in vivid detail, and dives into the aftermath, when the young couple was demonized by law enforcement and a media apparatus all too eager to dismiss their story as a hoax.

    To be sure, the couple's claims were almost too strange to be believed. At the time, Quinn told police in Vallejo, California that men in wetsuits broke into his home in the middle of the night, drugged them, and kidnapped Huskins for ransom. She remained in captivity for two days, during which time she was raped twice, before the perpetrator drove her to her father's home and set her free. Upon her release, Huskins went directly to the police, but they declined to investigate further; instead, they publicly accused Quinn and Huskins of fabricating an elaborate scheme and manufacturing evidence in the case.

    Across three episodes, American Nightmare reveals law enforcement's astonishing negligence in what ultimately proved to be an easily solvable case. But Higgins and Morris don't stop there: The Netflix series also explores the devastating consequences of our collective rush to judgment, raising questions about what draws us to stories like these and how that impulse can lead people astray. In that sense, it's a decidedly postmodern take on the true-crime documentary, wrapped in an easily digestible, stranger-than-fiction package.

    What happened to Denise Huskins and Aaron Quinn?

    Like so many true-crime documentaries, American Nightmare begins with a 911 call. On March 23, 2015, Aaron Quinn called the police to report that his girlfriend, Denise Huskins, had been abducted from his home overnight. Initially, investigators didn't understand why Quinn waited until the afternoon to alert authorities to the crime, but as Quinn explained during an 18-hour interrogation, and then again in a present-day interview for the docuseries, men wearing scuba suits bound him with zip ties, drugged him, and blinded him with swim goggles covered in black tape.

    He claimed that before the intruders left with Huskins — who was taken in place of their intended target, Quinn's ex-fiancée Andrea Roberts — he was told to stay within view of the camera they'd just installed, or else they would hurt Huskins. Only later, after hours of agonizing and negotiating a ransom via email, did Quinn defy instructions and take the "huge risk" of calling 911. "I trust the police," he recalls of his mindset at the time. "I think they're going to help me."

    Quinn and Huskins, both physical therapists in the San Francisco Bay Area, had no reason to think the authorities would doubt their version of events, regardless of how bizarre their story may have been. But that's exactly what happened: Almost immediately, Vallejo detectives identified Quinn as a prime suspect, accusing him of murdering Denise and disguising the crime as a kidnapping. Local crime reporter Henry Lee, one of the first journalists on the case, recalls thinking the same thing at the time, as "it's always the boyfriend."

    But there was no evidence to back up that narrative, and when the kidnappers returned Huskins on March 25 — after sending a proof-of-life audio recording one day earlier — it became clear that their investigation was pointed in the wrong direction. Yet Vallejo PD, led by Detective Sgt. Mat Mustard, remained undeterred in their effort to pin the blame on Quinn and, later, Huskins. She provided key details about the men who abducted her, the sexual abuse she suffered in captivity, and her surroundings at the time, but Mustard and FBI agent David Sesma dismissed her claims as false and threatened to press criminal charges against the couple.

    "For the last 48 hours, I had been living moment to moment, trying to survive," Huskins says of the way she was treated by the police. "The last f*cking thing that you're thinking about is, 'If I do survive, I really gotta make sure that all of this is believable.'"

    Why did the case become known as the Gone Girl kidnapping?

    Just 12 hours after Huskins' release, the police publicly branded her and Quinn hoaxers in a press conference, and the media immediately picked up the story. The tone of the coverage was decidedly negative: Journalists predominantly repeated talking points from a police spokesman, who accused the couple of "plunder[ing] valuable resources away from our community" and scaring the public with tall tales.

    The possibility of an attractive, successful couple orchestrating their own kidnapping was catnip to a media landscape desperate for easy clicks, but the timing of the ordeal — less than six months after the release of David Fincher's psychological thriller Gone Girl — took the feeding frenzy to another level.

    In the film, Rosamund Pike's character stages her own abduction to frame her cheating husband (Ben Affleck) for murder, and with so little evidence to work off of in the Huskins kidnapping (because, again, the police declined to do any actual investigating), journalists adopted the film's outlandish plot as a legitimate theory. Before long, questions about whether this case was a "real-life Gone Girl" dominated national headlines, with anchors ranging from Nancy Grace to the more reputable Peter Alexander of NBC News casting doubt on whether Huskins and Quinn were truly victims of a violent crime.

    How did Matthew Muller evade justice for so long?

    Of course, Huskins and Quinn were the victims of a violent crime — one perpetrated by Matthew Muller, a former Marine and disbarred, Harvard-educated attorney.

    The third and final episode of American Nightmare boasts an interview with one of the few responsible police officers in this entire saga, Sgt. Misty Carausu. In June 2015, Carausu began investigating a home invasion in Dublin, California, roughly 40 miles south of Vallejo; the suspect awoke the victims by shining a light in their face, but when the father fought back, he fled the scene, leaving his cell phone behind.

    A quick search of the phone led police directly to Muller, who was arrested at a cabin in South Lake Tahoe, but when she arrived on the scene, Carausu was overcome with "this sense that something else has happened" there. She was particularly drawn to a pair of swim goggles with duct tape over the eyes, which, upon closer inspection, had a single strand of blond hair attached.

    Armed with a pair of creepy goggles and a nagging feeling in her gut, Carausu began looking more into Muller. She discovered that Muller was a person of interest in multiple attempted sexual assault and harassment cases, but these leads weren't pursued, as police either accused the victims of "dreaming" up the attack (as was the case with a woman named Tracey, who details her experience in Episode 3) or ignored them altogether.

    When someone made an offhand mention of "the Gone Girl case" — which Carausu wasn't familiar with at the time — and she saw Huskins' blond hair in photos online, things finally clicked. "They're calling this woman a liar on national news," says the Dublin PD officer. "But I just wanted to reach through the computer and just give her a hug and say, 'I got you.'"

    While it would take more than a hug to get justice for Huskins and Quinn — Vallejo PD failed to pick up the phone, and FBI agent Sesma was reluctant to accept Dublin PD's evidence as the truth — Carausu ultimately prevailed. Muller was arrested for abducting Huskins and later sentenced to 40 years in prison on kidnapping, rape, and robbery charges. In 2018, Huskins and Quinn, who are now married and have two children, sued the city of Vallejo for defamation, settling out of court for $2.5 million.

    "All I've wanted this whole time was someone in law enforcement to call a hero," Huskins says of Carausu in the docueseries's final moments. "She's our hero."

    Who's to blame for this American Nightmare?

    It's easy enough to blame the Vallejo Police Department for their role in re-victimizing Huskins and Quinn. As the docuseries makes clear, Mustard and his team failed to adequately investigate the kidnapping and fell prey to confirmation bias — they thought the couple's story was so unbelievable that it had to be a work of fiction, and every piece of evidence they came across only reinforced that theory in their minds. To add insult to injury, a title card reveals that "none of the officers involved in Aaron and Denise's case were disciplined" after Muller's arrest; Mustard was even awarded Officer of the Year in 2015, despite spending months falsely accusing two innocent people of crafting an intricate hoax.

    But American Nightmare doesn't let the media off the hook, either. In interviews, Quinn and Huskins accuse journalists of perpetuating a false narrative: "The police refused to follow the evidence, and the media all laughed along the way," says Huskins. Years after the fact, Lee is big enough to admit that Huskins is correct, explaining, "I regret my part in this because they went through hell. We're thinking that we're covering the salacious story of a lifetime, and it all went horribly wrong."

    And then there's our part, the general public's, in this saga. Huskins' kidnapping occurred at the beginning of a massive boom in true-crime content that went far beyond Gone Girl: The late 2014 premiere of the Serial podcast led into The Jinx in February 2015, followed by Netflix's wildly popular docuseries Making a Murderer later that year. These projects turned regular viewers and listeners into armchair detectives, giving people with no connection to the case license to draw inaccurate conclusions from Huskins' monotone voice in the proof-of-life audio — someone who sounds so calm must be hiding something, they argued — or identify connections that weren't actually there.

    Obviously, it's impossible to know for certain whether Huskins and Quinn would have been treated the same way by law enforcement and the media if the kidnapping happened in a different year or another era. Lazy policing has always been a problem, and the public has only just started to believe women's claims of abuse and sexual violence (and even then, it's by no means guaranteed). But given how important Gone Girl became to this case, it's clear that the increasing omnipresence of true crime warped the public's view of the victims, in some way. That may be the most American part of this particular nightmare: that people who have no idea who you are or what you've been through feel emboldened to cast doubt on your experiences, all because they once saw a movie about a hoax kidnapping.

    American Nightmare is streaming on Netflix.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: American Nightmare, Netflix, Aaron Quinn, Denise Huskins, True Crime

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