The newest addition to Netflix’s true-crime documentary collection is Felicity Morris and Bernadette Higgins’ jointly made American Nightmare. This new three-part series brings to focus a series of mysterious events from California, where Aaron Quinn notified the local police about the strange kidnapping of his girlfriend, Denise Huskins, which raised eyebrows among the authorities. While the case it deals with is in itself quite thrilling, American Nightmare has been directed in an adept manner, successfully hitting all the right emotional chords where it intends to. A show that brilliantly showcases the bizarre unfolding of the events, along with raising pertinent questions against the effectiveness of police authorities in some cases, American Nightmare is an absolute must-watch for fans of true-crime.
Who is Aaron Quinn, and what was he suspected of?
The story of Aaron Quinn and Denise Huskin began some time around 2 in the afternoon, on the 23rd of March, 2015, in the rich suburb of Mare Island in California’s city of Vallejo. A phone call was made to the emergency 911 number, by Aaron Quinn, who stated that his girlfriend, Denise, had been kidnapped from their home the previous night. After the police responded to this emergency call and reached the house in the affluent neighborhood, Aaron was naturally brought in for questioning. A police detective, Mat Mustard, started looking into the case, which was that of Denise’s disappearance, at the time. Aaron and Denise were both professional physical therapists working at the same hospital in California, and the two had been dating for some time before the bizarre incident shook their lives.
Mustard and the police department wanted to know more about the sequence of events, and what Aaron told them made the case even more intriguing. On the evening of the 22nd, Denise came to Aaron’s house with some dinner and drinks, and while it is not exactly clear whether the two were staying together at the time, such nights together was a common matter for the couple. They went to sleep normally, until they were woken up in the middle of the night by some intruders who had somehow broken in. Aaron remembered waking up to some lights flashing on his eyes, before he was made to wear a pair of swimming goggles that had been blacked out. Essentially blindfolded, the man was then made to drink a cocktail of sedatives, and made to lie down and go back to sleep. During all this time, Denise was also being held captive, reportedly by a different person, and both of them were tied down with zip-ties.
Eventually, the intruders picked up Denise and left the house, after seemingly putting her inside the trunk of Aaron’s own car. Aaron, meanwhile, was left in the house in a slumber, as an effect of the drugs that he had been given, and the man only woke up many hours later, around eleven the next morning. This partly answered the raging question as to why he had called the police so many hours after his girlfriend was kidnapped, but there was still a window of about two hours that passed between Aaron waking up and him calling the police. As he was questioned about this, Aaron stated that the kidnappers had warned him against informing the authorities, threatening to harm Denise otherwise. After he woke up in the morning, the man found some red tape stuck on the floor around him, signifying that he must not step out beyond the tape marks, which was apparently being monitored by a security camera installed in the corner of Aaron’s room. This deterred the man from contacting the authorities, and he was eventually sent emails by the kidnappers, who demanded a ransom of $15,000, to be paid completely in cash. But he was not in the best financial condition at the time, and could only arrange for $3,500 in cash, and he immediately informed the kidnappers about the same. When there was no more reply, Aaron panicked, believing that the kidnappers would hurt Denise because he did not have the ransom money, and therefore, he now decided to go against the orders and contact the police for help.
From the very first interrogation sessions, Detective Mustard found Aaron’s story to be too far-fetched at certain points, beginning with the claim that he had been blindfolded with swimming goggles. He had also told the detective that the kidnappers told him that they were wearing wetsuits. This information, along with the fact that the couple did not even realize that men had broken into their house, the break-in seemed to have been ridiculously elaborate. The detectives were simply not convinced that a team of kidnappers going to such lengths to abduct a target would only demand for just $15,000. Therefore, as is common in numerous such cases, the police started to see Aaron as the prime suspect in the disappearance of Denise Huskins. There were suspicions that the woman had been killed by her boyfriend, and a massive search for Denise, or primarily, her body, was started in the area. Over the next few days, the police detectives also tried to pressurize Aaron into confessing to murder, or at least tell them more about what had happened to Denise. Eventually, the FBI got involved, and some detectives tried breaking Aaron down by pretending to be on his side.
There was a strong motive that the police had to show to support their claim as well, for Aaron and Denise had been having some trouble between them over the man’s ex-lover, Andrea. In fact, Andrea was not just an ex-lover, but was an ex-fiancée to Aaron, and the couple had broken up only some months earlier. The man had found out that the fiancée was cheating on him with a different lover, and this ended their relationship and any prospect of marriage. However, Aaron made multiple efforts to get back together with Andrea after breaking up, and he continued to keep in touch with her and talk to her after starting a relationship with Denise. This naturally upset the new girlfriend, as it was not difficult to find out about her boyfriend’s acts, since all three of these individuals worked at the same hospital. On the night of the kidnapping, Aaron confirmed that he and Andrea had spoken over this matter, too, and so the police detectives were sure that this had caused the boyfriend to murder the woman.
What did Denise Huskins report after her unexpected return?
While the Vallejo police and the FBI were still looking for the dead body of Denise Huskins, an audio file was sent from an anonymous email address to a reporter of the region, who quickly handed it in at the police department. This audio file had Denise claiming that she had been kidnapped but was doing well otherwise, and she went on to talk about a few incidents from the day, as proof that all of it had been recorded on that very day, showing that she was still alive. This confounded the authorities terribly, especially the calm voice and tone with which the woman spoke in the voice note, and within a day or two, something even more unexpected took place. Denise Huskins suddenly returned to her father’s house in Huntington Beach in California, claiming that she had been let go by the kidnappers.
American Nightmare spends an entire episode presenting the sequence of events from Denise’s side, who, along with Aaron, appears for interviews. On the night of the kidnapping, Denise remembered going to sleep with her boyfriend and then being woken up by intruders late at night. She, too, was woken by laser lights, to then be blindfolded, drugged, and tied down with zip ties. But unlike the boyfriend, she was carried out of the house, put inside the trunk of a car, and then driven away. She nervously kept track of things going around her, with her being transferred over to the trunk of a different car, and then finally being taken to a house somewhere unidentifiable. Denise remembered the room where she had been kept locked, where all the windows were covered up, and there was no point of exit she could exploit.
The woman recalls how even though she was kept hostage at the place, the single kidnapper looking after her was not necessarily harsh or cruel to her. The man claimed that he had mistakenly kidnapped Denise, while his plan was to take Andrea, and this information had been confirmed by Aaron as well, who had been told by the kidnapper that he had actually come for his ex-fiancée. But since Andrea no longer lived at the house, and the kidnapper had already broken in, he decided to take Denise instead. Over the next few days, when Denise was kept hostage, she was told by the man that he was part of a group that earned money through kidnappings, so there was nothing personal against her. However, the situation grew worse for the woman when she was coerced into letting the kidnapper violate her sexually. The man told Denise that even though they wanted to let her go, she could pose a threat to them by telling the police everything. In order to prevent this, he wanted to shoot videos of the two getting intimate, which he could use as blackmail against the woman. Despite obviously not wanting to be in such a situation, Denise played along, letting the man rape her on two consecutive days, and shoot videos of the act.
A few days later, Denise was then told that she was being let go, and she was then personally driven to Huntington Beach by the kidnapper. The man told her that when she would be speaking to the police eventually, she must not mention two details—that the kidnappers were ex-military personnel, and that he had gotten intimate with her. Thus, when Denise finally returned, and the world started asking her questions, she hid these two facts, fearing that the kidnappers would hurt her family members next. But when Denise started talking to the police, the authorities did not really believe her. When she got in touch with a lawyer, she finally opened up about the sexual assault, upon his advice, and she had a medical examination conducted on her by the authorities. But despite all of this, the police eventually came out with a statement that Denise had staged her own kidnapping, drawing parallels with her case to the recently released “Gone Girl” film. Both Denise and Aaron were charged with wasting police time and effort, and the media also turned against the couple.
Were the couple actually lying about the incidents?
The harassment of Denise and Aaron by the authorities and the media continued for weeks later, until a police sergeant named Misty Carausu came across some link with the case unknowingly. Ten weeks after Denise’s return, a man broke into a house in Dublin, California, attempting to sexually assault a young woman after tying up her parents. The attempt failed, and while the intruder managed to run away, he left behind a cell phone by mistake. When Dublin police, of which Carausu was a part, checked the phone and its number, they found it linked to a man named Matthew Muller, who had been part of the US Marine Corps, and had studied at Harvard Law School. The Dublin police soon found an address for the man and arrested him on suspicion of the break-in. Muller had earlier charges of sexual assault and battery against him, too, but none of it could be proved in court. After his arrest, the police found some strange items in Muller’s position, including a pair of swimming goggles that had been blackened out, and a blindfold with a strand of blonde hair on it.
It was Carausu who determinedly tried to find who the blonde hair belonged to, and in the process of her investigation, she looked into Muller’s white Mustang car, which he had stolen in Vallejo. Interestingly, the white Mustang, and the information that the perpetrator was an ex-veteran with education in law, all matched with the details provided by Denise. But the Vallejo police were simply not paying any attention to her, and the only one investigating, Misty Carausu, did not know of Denise’s existence yet. Finally, when the sergeant spoke with the original car owner at Vallejo, she was led towards Denise and her case, which had been popularized as the Gone Girl case.
Eventually, Carausu and her police team approached the FBI authorities looking into Denise’s case, and presented all the evidence they had found against Muller. Ultimately, the authorities in Vallejo were forced to change their claims and apologize to Denise and Aaron, who had been telling the truth for this whole time. The kidnapping seems to have been a ruse to sexually assault Denise, which had indeed been a common modus operandi for Matthew Muller. However, the reason for the man’s claim that his original target had been Andrea still remains unclear. The couple still believe that more than one individual was involved in the matter, but the police simply brushed this claim away, stating that Muller had acted by himself. When Muller was tried in court for the charges of kidnap, assault, and break-in, he was sentenced to forty years in prison.
When their names were finally cleared by the authorities, Aaron and Denise filed for defamation against the police in 2016. Although they reached a monetary settlement of $2.5 million, none of the police or FBI authorities were held responsible for their ineffective investigation. In fact, American Nightmare also points out how the police detectives could have actually tracked Aaron’s phone and found the perpetrator within a few days, instead of intently trying to pin the crime on the man, and then on his girlfriend. American Nightmare ends by celebrating Misty Carausu, who has not been officially given any accolades for her brilliant investigation work, despite being the clear hero in this matter.