The True Story Behind American Nightmare, Explained

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Summary

  • American Nightmare, the Netflix true crime series, tells the story of Denise Huskins, who was kidnapped and later accused of staging the abduction.
  • Law enforcement initially cast doubt on Huskins’ story and suggested her boyfriend was involved, leading to public scrutiny and comparisons to Gone Girl.
  • The case fell apart when evidence pointed to the true kidnapper, and Huskins and her boyfriend ultimately received a settlement and apology from the city.


American Nightmare, the latest Netflix true crime series, has taken the platform by storm. After hitting the streamer on Jan. 17, the series quickly rose to first place on its charts. The main reason for the great interest is that the story feels like something made up for a Hollywood movie or series, but it’s all true. At the center of this is a woman whose seemingly normal life is turned upside down when she is kidnapped. Once she is found unharmed and reveals her story, the police decide something isn’t quite right, and now the victim becomes the accused in a case that shows that sometimes law enforcement will run with their own narrative to put a crime to bed.

On Mar. 23, 2015, Denise Huskins was 29 years old and living with her boyfriend, Aaron Quinn, in Vallejo, CA. The couple were asleep in their home when were awakened by what would be anyone’s nightmare. Their home had been invaded and they were both bound, blindfolded, and sedated before Huskins was placed in the trunk of her boyfriend’s car. Quinn was left behind in the house and was given instructions to prepare a ransom delivery. He was also warned that he was being watched by camera monitoring so if he made any effort to contact the police, the kidnappers would murder his girlfriend. Despite this threat, Quinn decided that he had to report the kidnapping in hopes of finding his girlfriend alive.


Law Enforcement Immediately Cast Doubt on the Story

American Nightmare
American Nightmare

Release Date
January 17, 2024

Creator
Bernadette Higgins, Felicity Morris

Seasons
1

Once law enforcement was involved, the kidnapping became a high-profile search for Huskins throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. The story made national news and the more the story was picked up, the greater the intensity to solve the case became. Also, like most cases involving the disappearance of a significant other, the boyfriend became a suspect. Vallejo Detective Mathew Mustard led the investigation, and he seemed to believe that Quinn’s story sounded stranger than fiction. Quinn stated that he was forced to wear blackened swim goggles during the ordeal and was made to write down numbers for all of the couple’s financial accounts, in addition to their Wi-Fi password. For law enforcement, they’re seeing a man left behind with a larger-than-life story while his girlfriend is taken.

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Mustard soon made it clear that he didn’t believe Quinn’s story and even suggested at one point that Quinn killed his girlfriend during a domestic dispute that turned deadly. Quinn’s lengthy interrogation went on for an excruciating 18 hours before his brother hired him an attorney. In what would become one of the big fumbles of the case, the kidnappers tried contacting Quinn by phone and email about the ransom but law enforcement put his phone on airplane mode, therefore missing the demand.

Two days after the kidnapping, Huskins was found alive and wandering around her hometown of Huntington Beach, CA, which was about 400 miles away from the kidnapping location in Vallejo. Huskins told law enforcement that her kidnapper dropped her off there. Once she was found, it became her turn to tell her story and it’s a tremendously traumatic tale.

The Details of Denise’s Kidnapping

Denise Huskins stares off in American Nightmare
Netflix

Huskins stated that she was held in a remote location by her kidnappers and that she only interacted with one of the men. He told her that he used to be in the military and that he was part of a criminal group that included three other members. The man also revealed that Denise was not the original target of the kidnapping, but it was instead Quinn’s ex-fiance Andrea, who previously lived in the home and had a strong resemblance to Denise. Over the two-day ordeal, Huskins recalled being raped twice by her kidnapper while he videotaped the assaults in order to blackmail her if she decided to tell the police about the kidnapping following her release.

Mere hours after her release and detailing her story, police declared during a press conference that they believed the couple made the story up and described it as an “orchestrated event.” They believed that the couple wasted valuable resources that took their time away from real victims of the Vallejo community. Even though Quinn and Huskins went through what they described as a horrific ordeal, the police insinuated that they both owed the community an apology for what they believed to be a fake story that would likely involve both facing criminal charges for orchestrating a “hoax.”

The Real-Life Gone Girl Case

Denise and Aaron smiling in American Nightmare.
Netflix

The story was soon dubbed the Gone Girl case, in reference to David Fincher’s 2014 film that follows a wife’s disappearance that becomes the focus of intense media coverage. Ben Affleck’s Nick Dunne, sees the spotlight turned on him when he’s suspected of her disappearance as his secrets come to light. If you’ve seen the film, all isn’t what it seems and when Amy Dunne (played by Rosamund Pike) turns up alive, the story takes on an even more bizarre turn.

Huskins cooperated fully with police and went over her traumatic story multiple times but police incessantly questioned the validity of her story. A rape kit corroborated her account of a sexual assault but law enforcement still cast doubt on her claims. During the docuseries, Huskins’s attorney Doug Rappaport mentions that he pulled an officer aside at one point and asked how could they not believe her and the officer replied by saying, “Haven’t you seen the movie Gone Girl?” This made it clear that law enforcement had made their minds up, despite evidence being in place that supported Huskins’ story.

Since police publicly denounced Denise’s story, the media also ran with the Gone Girl comparisons and the victim now became the suspect in the court of public opinion. Denise, along with her boyfriend, faced extreme scrutiny in the press and in the age of social media where everyone has an opinion, so-called internet sleuths began explaining their theories as to why the story was made up. After being victimized during two days of captivity, Huskins was victimized all over again by the media because the police were too quick to decide that she wasn’t telling the truth. In this way, the docuseries highlights the dangers of online true-crime fandom, with the masses being quick to run with the idea of a woman faking these allegations, using her trauma against her.

The Police’s Theory Quickly Fell Apart

Misty Carausu in American Nightmare.
Netflix

The police’s theory of a hoax began to fall apart when a series of e-mails were sent to The San Francisco Chronicle. The emails were said to be sent by one of the kidnappers who stated that the entire story of the abduction was real and that they wished to clear Huskins’s name. The first email was sent before Huskins was released and found near Huntington Beach, which also included a “proof of life” recording. Subsequent emails provided specific details about kidnapping and also revealed other thefts and home burglaries they had taken part in in the same neighborhood where the couple lived. In another crazy turn of events, the sender of the emails sent another message after their press conference that demanded the Vallejo police apologize to both Huskins and Quinn.

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Months later, in June 2015, police detective Misty Carausu was investigating an attempted kidnapping that took place in Dublin, CA, about 40 miles south of Vallejo where Huskins was abducted. The situation involving the attempted kidnapping was strikingly similar to what happened to Huskins but the couple was able to thwart their would-be kidnapper. The intruder also dropped their phone as they made their escape and it became the key to revealing the person’s identity.

Through the cell phone evidence, police ultimately arrested Matthew Muller, a former U.S. Marine and disbarred Harvard-trained attorney. After searching his home in South Lake Tahoe, law enforcement found evidence that linked him to Huskins’ kidnapping, including a computer that was stolen from Quinn’s home and a strand of Huskins’ blonde hair that was left on a pair of duct-tapped swimming goggles, much like the ones Quinn was also forced to wear during the home invasion.

Detective Carausu soon made it her quest to present this evidence to Vallejo police in order to clear Huskins’s name. Thanks to her work, Muller was ultimately sentenced to 40 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to kidnapping for ransom in Mar. 2017. He also received a second sentence of 31 years in state prison in Mar. 2022 following pleading guilty to the sexual assault of Huskins as well as robbery, burglary, and the false imprisonment of her boyfriend, Quinn.

Why Was Andrea the Original Target?

Aaron Quinn in American Nightmare.
Netflix

Remember Quinn’s ex-fiance Andrea who was the reported real target of the kidnapping? Well, one of the mysteries of this case that remains unsolved is the reasoning behind Andrea being the original target of the kidnapping and why Huskins was taken instead. Perhaps the kidnappers’ information was simply out of date and they believed she was still living with Quinn, especially since they looked so similar.

Andrea’s name comes up again in the case when it’s revealed that she dated David Sesma, the lead FBI agent on Denise and Aaron’s case. The couple tried to have him removed from the case due to being a conflict of interest but this was never done. Details of the lawsuit also revealed that the City of Vallejo privately sent a letter that included a “self-serving and half-hearted” apology following the arrest of Muller. However, a public apology was not offered because, as the lawsuit states, “they opted to protect their own self-interest at the expense of the rights of these two innocent victims.”

What Happened to Detective Mustard?

Denise Huskins in American Nightmare
Netflix

By Mar. 2018, Huskins and Quinn reached a settlement in regards to their lawsuit that saw the city paying the couple $2.5 million in damages. In a move that came far too late, six years after the kidnapping that set this all in motion, the city finally made a public apology and admitted that the case was not handled with the sensitivity that it deserved, especially in how it was presented to the public.

Oddly enough, Detective Matthew Mustard, who made it quickly clear he didn’t believe Quinn’s story about the home invasion and kidnapping, is now a sergeant with the Vallejo Police Department. He also served as the head of the Vallejo Police Officers Association from 2009 to 2020, despite other controversies that were revealed he was involved in that included trying to pressure a forensic pathologist to change the cause of death in a woman’s death and allegations of racist comments.

Where Are Aaron and Denise Now?

In 2018, Quinn and Huskins published a tell-all book that detailed their ordeal called Victim F: From Crime Victims to Suspects to Survivors. The couple remained together in the aftermath of the events that made them household names and they were eventually married that same year, even inviting Detective Misty Carausu and the attorneys who helped vindicate their good names. In what feels like another movie moment, the couple’s first daughter was born five years to the day that Huskins was released by her kidnapper. They also had a second daughter, who is now a year old. The couple now lives in California’s Central Coast where Huskins is a physical therapist and Quinn works for a company that trains high school athletes to become professionals.

The good news out of this ordeal is that the couple found a way to be strong together and heal through a journey that saw them begin as victims that quickly turned to suspects by the police and the court of public opinion. This would be enough to break anyone but through therapy that helped rebuild their lives, they were able to overcome what truly became an American nightmare.

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