Netflix’s latest true crime documentary American Nightmare is the utterly bizarre case of young couple Denise Huskins & Aaron Quinn. Police accused Denise of faking her own kidnapping in a ‘Gone Girl’ style plot. The three-part series from the makers of The Tinder Swindler examines the woman’s abduction, how the police handled the case, their attitude towards her and the treatment of her boyfriend Aaron.
Filmmakers Bernadette Higgins and Felicity Morris examine the 2015 case that baffled the police, journalists and the public, but most of all the couple in question. In 2015, a violent intruder broke into the Vallejo, California home of Denise Huskins and her boyfriend Aaron Quinn. The pair were drugged and bound with Denise then abducted and bundled into the trunk of a car. Aaron then later wakes to find ransom requests for thousands of dollars over email.
Aaron calls the police and we see him being interviewed by Detective Mat Mustard. Aaron describes how the intruders came into his home dressed in wetsuits, restrained him with zip ties, blindfolded him with blacked out swimming goggles and sedated him with medication before leaving with his girlfriend. Initially police comfort Aaron and assure him he’s a victim and he will be treated as such.
It doesn’t take long for the detective to switch narrative and accuse Aaron of wrongdoing, maybe she “overdosed” maybe he murdered her after she confronted him about cheating. Detective Mustard pushes Aaron saying there’s evidence he killed her in their bed and that there’s blood on the stair case. He flat out says he doesn’t believe him and says, “The frogmen obviously didn’t do it, so who did it now, well it’s the guy that I’ve been sitting here talking to tonight. So now I get out my puzzle pieces and I start figuring it out, okay, how do I make it, so you look like a monster.”
Detective Mat Mustard
The FBI become involved and ask Aaron to take a lie detector test, which they later tell him, he “failed miserably” when in fact upon later reading of the deposition, the lie detector results were inconclusive. With the FBI now involved and pressure from Vallejo police mounting, CCTV footage shows Aaron under unbearable stress, as he breaks down while alone asking “what’s going on.”
With suspicion firmly on Aaron, journalist Henry Lee receives an email from an unknow source with a voice recording. A female voice explains it’s Denise Huskins, that she’s been kidnapped and is fine. Further recordings are received, explaining current events aimed at confirming authenticity. Lee hands this to police and it’s established…it’s Denise Huskins.
Two days later Denise is suddenly released, seemingly unscathed, turning up at her parents home 400 miles away from where she was taken. The police, who after receiving several voice notes already harbor suspicion, due to the apparent calm nature of her voice during those recordings. They almost immediately look to discredit her and label it as a real-life ‘Gone Girl‘ story.
Gone Girl was released only the year before in 2014, it’s a David Fincher thriller where the plot revolves around a woman in an unhappy marriage. She discovers her husband is cheating and takes revenge by faking her disappearance and leaving a ‘crime scene’ that would implement her husband in her murder.
Episode one of American Nightmare lays out the story the way the police, the media and the majority of the general public grasped onto it, focusing heavily on the ‘Gone Girl’ narrative and quick to label the couple as suspects instead of victims. The police even held a press conference to publicly call them liars and blast them for wasting police time. This led to a torrent of abuse, mostly focused at Denise, which makes what happens in the second episode extremely upsetting.
In the second episode Denise meticulously describes her kidnapping and her time in captivity with a violent sadist who raped her twice. He recorded both rapes as a threat, if she talks to the police, the video will be released.
The documentary highlights many mistakes made by the FBI & Vallejo police. One of which, unbelievably, detectives switched Aarons phone into Airplane mode, even though he made them aware the kidnapper was contacting him via email. When the phone was switch back on they realised two calls had come in that would have been traceable and could have led them to within two hundred meters of Denise’s location.
If it wasn’t for the excellent police work of Sgt. Misty Carausu of the Dublin Police Department who investigated another break-in and linked the case to Denise & Aaron’s ordeal, they may never have had justice after the perpetrator was caught.
The new age of streaming television has created a plethora of bingeable TV series and documentaries, intensifying the genre that is True Crime perhaps more so than others. American Nightmare is an example of the effect of that on our culture. Police detectives referred to the plot of a David Fincher movie with very little evidence, merely for the fact the couples story was wildly inconceivable.
They refused to use evidence they had in Aaron’s phone and the forensics confirming Denise’s sexual assault. They lied about Aaron’s lie detector results to intimidate him into a confession. American Nightmare is a warning to law enforcement, the media and the public, to us all, show compassion and refrain from judgement when confronted with a story so wild! The husband doesn’t always do it, Denise Huskins went through hell and it wasn’t a David Fincher thriller.
“It’s not that crazy. It happened.” Denise Huskins.