The Shocking True Story Behind American Nightmare: What Really Happened to Denise Huskins

Denise Huskins was accused of pulling a real-life Gone Girl hoax after boyfriend Aaron Quinn reported a wild kidnapping story to police and she showed up alive two days later.

By Natalie Finn Jan 27, 2024 1:00 PMTags
Watch: Alex Murdaugh & More: 2023's JAW-DROPPING True Crime Docs

Content warning: This story discusses sexual assault.

There are dual horror stories at play in the Netflix series American Nightmare.

When Aaron Quinn called 911 on the afternoon of March 23, 2015, to report that his girlfriend, Denise Huskins, had been kidnapped early that morning, the dispatcher asked why he hadn't called sooner.

He'd been tied up and drugged, he explained, but that was the first indicator that his story was going to be met with resistance every step of the way.

Within hours, police in Vallejo, Calif., and the FBI were telling Quinn not only that they didn't believe him, but that he'd failed a lie detector test and it would be much better for everybody if he just admitted what he did to Huskins.

"She's gone and you know she's gone," an agent told him in one of the interrogation recordings shown in American Nightmare. Quinn was destroying his family by denying it, the agent said, adding, "You're going to be that cold, calculated, brutal serial-killing monster that strangled the life out of her, killed her, and then callously dumped her body somewhere where we'll never find it."

But then, barely 36 hours later, Huskins turned up alive.

True Crime: Kidnapping Survivors

Vallejo Police Lt. Kenny Park told reporters at a press conference 12 hours after Huskins was reportedly found safe that they hadn't yet spoken to her and were "no longer in contact" with any members of her family.

Detectives initially found Quinn's story hard to believe, the lieutenant continued, and since they were still unable to substantiate any of the details, they were left to believe that "Mr. Quinn and Miss Huskins have plundered valuable resources away from our community."

Courtesy of Netflix

When Huskins told her story to authorities the next day, her attorney Doug Rappaport said in the series, "they are looking at her like she's a piece of trash, like she's a criminal."

When he asked one of the FBI agents what the deal was, Rappaport recalled, "He says to me, 'Haven't you seen the movie Gone Girl?'"

Craziest True Crime TV Moments

What was the story Aaron Quinn told police?

As he told detectives then and as he recounts in American Nightmare, Quinn woke up in his bedroom at home in Mare Island, a peninsular section of Vallejo, to a blinding light in his face. He heard a voice ordering Huskins to tie him up, and then someone put swim goggles over his eyes and headphones over his ears. Someone said they were going to take his blood pressure—he felt the familiar squeeze—and then said they were going to give him something to calm him down.

Chris Riley/MediaNews Group/Vallejo Times Herald via Getty Images

He was taken down to the living room, where before he passed out, Quinn continued, he was told that this was "intended for Andrea," his ex-fiancée he used to live with, but they'd take Huskins anyway and he'd have to pay $15,000 to get her back. And, they said there were cameras on him and not to contact police.

When he woke up, he said, he got an email apparently from the kidnappers instructing him how to send two $7,500 payments.

Figuring "I can't trust these f--king a--holes," Quinn said, he called the cops.

Courtesy of Netflix

Quinn was promptly quizzed about the state of his relationship with Huskins and, as he said in American Nightmare, it turned out they were having problems. He and Huskins, both physical therapists, worked with his ex in the same hospital rehab department—and Huskins had found out he was still texting his former fiancée.

Asked by police if he had been unfaithful to his current girlfriend, Quinn admitted Huskins felt he'd been "emotionally cheating."

Quinn wasn't arrested but he called a lawyer when it hit home that investigators suspected him of harming Huskins, despite his unwavering insistence that she'd been kidnapped and they needed to be out looking for her.

Courtesy of Netflix

Why did police suspect Denise Huskins faked her kidnapping?

On the afternoon of March 24, 2015, a day after Quinn reported the kidnapping, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Henry Lee received an anonymous email with an audio attachment.

The recording was a purported proof of life: A woman's voice saying she was Denise and providing personal information and mentioning a piece of news from that day to prove it was, in fact, a new message.

Authorities quickly verified it was really their missing woman. The journalist recalled in the series being struck by how calm Huskins sounded—and he wasn't the only one.

The True Crimes That Inspired American Horror Story

After finding out she was apparently alive, detectives started questioning Huskins' family about what sort of person she was, whether anything in her past could help "shed light" on what was going on, mom Jane Huskins said on the show. When she told a detective that Denise had been molested as a child, she continued, he said to her that victims of sexual assault sometimes pretend to be a victim again "for the thrill of it."

Jane recalled being "aghast" by the comment.

What happened to Denise Huskins?

Sitting down for American Nightmare, Huskins' recollection of how her abduction began aligned with Quinn's. She said someone ordered her to tie her boyfriend up and then swim goggles were put over her eyes and she was drugged before being put in the trunk of a car sometime around 5 a.m. on March 23. The rev of the engine sounded like a Mustang to her, she noted.

The now 37-year-old said she woke up on a cold floor in what felt like a cabin and could hear scrubbing and what sounded like duct tape being handled in another room. 

"Every horror film I've seen kind of flashes in my mind," Huskins said. Still unable to see through the goggles, she was taken into a bedroom, where, she said, a man told her, "'This wasn't meant for you, this was meant for Aaron's ex, Andrea.'...And I think, What the f--k, this is about her?"

Courtesy of Netflix

The man also told her, Huskins said, that he used to be in the military and now worked as a kidnapper-for-hire. He said he struggled with PTSD and insomnia—and that he wasn't going to hurt her, and she'd be free in 48 hours.

However, Huskins continued, he then told her he had been ordered to make a recording of the two of them having sex, for collateral, but he promised to be gentle. "I completely detached from myself just watching this all happen," Denise said, explaining how she coped with what ensued.

She was allowed to shower, she said, and then had to make the proof of life recording.

Carlee Russell Kidnapping Hoax Case: Alabama Woman Found Guilty on 2 Misdemeanor Charges

But then, Huskins said, the man informed her he'd been told that the first tape wasn't enough, that they'd have to make another and that it had to look consensual. He gave her a glass of wine and little bottles of booze, which, Huskins said, she chugged.

When she woke up, 40 hours after being taken from Quinn's house, the man showed her a video of her dad on the news, pleading for his daughter's safe return. Then, Huskins said, he told her it was time to go home—but that he couldn't take her back to Vallejo and would drop her off with her father.

He let her ride in the car, she said, but first he traded the goggles for taping her eyes shut under a pair of sunglasses. According to Huskins, he said they'd always be watching her, and she was to tell no one that he was ex-military, or that they'd had sex.

At 9:09 a.m. on March 25, 2015, Mike Huskins called Vallejo police from Huntington Beach—more than 400 miles south—and said he'd just received a message from his daughter that she was walking toward his house.

Chris Riley/MediaNews Group/Vallejo Times Herald via Getty Images

What happened when Denise Huskins got home?

Huskins did tell her story to police the next morning, but it was her attorney Doug Rappaport who insisted she be given a SART (sexual assault response team) examination, according to the lawyer.

"She's doing the right thing despite how incredibly difficult this is," Rappaport said in the series of Huskins' decision to report what happened despite being terrified that her kidnappers were still out there.

At the same time, Quinn said he recalled thinking, "Surely they'll see I'm telling the truth." He remembered reuniting with Huskins, how she cried and said, "'I didn't want to, they made me do it.'" He said he told her he'd take care of her and he wasn't going anywhere.

Huskins remembered being "stunned" when she found out that she was under investigation, and that police were considering pressing charges against her for lying to them.

Courtesy of Netflix

How was Denise Huskins' kidnapping case solved?

At the time it had only been five months since the film starring Ben Affleck and Rosamond Pike came out, so media of all stripes had a field day with the Gone Girl angle. With police setting the tone, the story had begun with an it-must-have-been-the-boyfriend vibe and ended with a pretty blonde woman as the suspected mastermind of a bizarre hoax.

The couple were inundated with abuse on Facebook, Huskins recalling how one message simply read, "You should be killed."

But on June 2, 2015, police in Dublin, Calif.—about 40 miles away from Vallejo—got a call about a man fighting with an intruder who had tried to abduct his 22-year-old daughter from their home.

In American Nightmare, Dublin Police Lt. Miguel Campos recalled that, when officers arrived at the house, they found a cell phone. Calling one of the numbers in it, a woman picked up and said that was her son Matthew Muller's number. She said he was at her cabin in South Lake Tahoe, 145 miles north.

Courtesy of Netflix

Muller, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former Marine, was arrested at the cabin. There was a white Mustang parked outside with Huntington Beach addresses in the navigation system, according to Dublin Police Sgt. Misty Carausu, who said in American Nightmare that she remembered being especially excited to get the call to go to Tahoe because it was her first case as a detective.

They also found a nylon belt with a pair of goggles in the pocket that had duct tape over the lenses. And, Carausu said, there was a single blonde hair stuck in the goggles.

The detective started searching for unsolved cases with blonde victims. She recalled finding out that Muller had been a suspect in a 2009 home invasion in Palo Alto, Calif., in which a 32-year-old woman alleged she was tied up, forced to drink Nyquil and had surgical tape put over her eyes. But, Carausu detailed, when the woman told her would-be attacker that she was a rape survivor, he said he didn't want to victimize her again and did not go through with it.

Another break-in case Carausu described from 2009 in Mountain View, Calif.: The woman said she was tied up, made to drink something that made her sleepy and was blindfolded with blacked-out swim goggles. But when she begged her assailant not to rape her, he didn't. Instead, she told authorities that he apologized and advised her to get a dog for protection.

Courtesy of Netflix

Carauso then found out the Mustang found at Muller's cabin was stolen in Vallejo. When she contacted the car's registered owner, he asked if she'd ever heard of the "Mare Island Creeper." In 2014, the detective explained, students in the area alleged there was a guy harassing them and snapping photos through their windows. 

A couple of students took it upon themselves to follow the man and they found out he was a lawyer and ex-military, Carauso said. They reported their findings to police, she continued, but nothing ever came of it. Then the alleged peeping stopped, the Mustang owner told Carauso, "'around the same time of the Gone Girl case.'"

When Carauso dug into what that was, she recalled in the series seeing Huskins' picture and wanting to reach into her computer to give the woman a hug.

Man Arrested for Alleged Plan to Kidnap and Murder TV Host Holly Willoughby

What happened to Matthew Muller?

In September 2016, Muller pleaded guilty in federal court to kidnapping, admitting to using computer-generated voices, blacked-out goggles, liquid sleeping medication and other paraphernalia in the course of abducting Huskins. He was not charged in either the Palo Alto or Mountain View cases.

Muller's attorney asked for no more than 40 years in prison—rather than life—for his client, a former immigration attorney who'd been disbarred in early 2015, expressing hope the then-39-year-old, whom he said suffered from mania and depression, could be rehabilitated.

The following March, Muller was sentenced to 40 years. He told the court he was "sick with shame" over his actions.

"You treated me like an object, a toy, an animal," Huskins said to Muller during the hearing. She still had nightmares every night, she said, and Quinn "cannot and will not ever be the same."

Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

In March 2022, Muller was sentenced in Solano County Superior Court to 31 years in prison—to serve concurrently with his federal sentence—after pleading no contest to two counts of forcible rape in Huskins' case. He also pleaded guilty to robbery of an inhabited dwelling, residential burglary and false imprisonment.

No one else was ever charged in connection with Huskins' abduction, but she and Quinn said then and reiterated in American Nightmare that they've always believed her kidnapper didn't act alone.

Meanwhile, the couple sued the city of Vallejo for defamation over the police's initial treatment of the case, alleging in the lawsuit that their reputations were destroyed "through an outrageous, completely unprofessional and wholly unfounded claim of disparagement." They accepted a $2.5 million settlement in 2018.

Untangling the Disappearance of Natalee Holloway

The Vallejo Police Department reportedly didn't apologize to the couple until 2021, telling San Francisco's ABC 7 News in a statement that Huskins and Quinn's case was not handled with "the type of sensitivity a case of this nature should have been handled with."

Moreover, the statement continued, it appeared that the public apology once promised to the victims in July 2015—to be made once Muller was indicted, according to the former chief of police—had never been fulfilled.

"What happened to Ms. Huskins and Mr. Quinn is horrific and evil," stated Shawny Williams, who was appointed Vallejo police chief in 2019. "I am committed to making sure survivors are given compassionate service with dignity and respect. 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." (Williams stepped down in 2022.)

Courtesy of Netflix

Where are Denise Huskins and Aaron Quinn now?

In a twist that's better than most, Quinn and Huskins got married in 2018, moved to Southern California and now share daughters Olivia, 3, and her sister Naomi, 15 months.

"Like many victims, or many people who have gone through tragedy, you don't get all the answers," Quinn told People ahead of American Nightmare's Jan. 17 premiere. "And that can be a sticking point for recovery."

But, he continued, they were focusing on the "sustainable" things that mattered and moving forward with their lives.

"A big part of our job is putting our hands on people, quite literally, to help facilitate their healing," Huskins, who along with Quinn remains a physical therapist, told the publication. "And a big piece of that is trust and how can you trust someone who lied about something so significant as a kidnapping? I'm not sure where we'd be."

American Nightmare is streaming on Netflix.

For more true crime updates on your need-to-know cases, head to