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Sherri Papini, ‘sorry’ for pain she caused, pleads guilty to faking her own kidnapping

A woman is walking outside while someone puts a microphone near her head.
Sherri Papini leaves the federal courthouse after her arraignment in Sacramento on Wednesday.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
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Five years after she claimed she was dumped on the side of a Northern California highway in chains by her kidnappers, Sherri Papini formally admitted in federal court Monday that she faked the whole scheme.

Papini, 39, disappeared from her quiet neighborhood in Redding in November 2016 while out on an afternoon run. Her husband found her phone and earbuds on the side of a road, with strands of her hair tangled up in the wires. A nationwide search ensued for the mother of two who seemed to have vanished.

She reappeared 22 days later, emaciated, her hair unevenly chopped off and she claimed “two Hispanic women had abducted her at gunpoint,” according to court records. But federal investigators said Papini was actually spending that time with an ex-boyfriend in Costa Mesa, who drove to Northern California to pick her up at her request. The unnamed ex-boyfriend claimed Papini ate little, was bruised and even branded herself with a wood burning tool.

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Papini claimed she was “physically and emotionally tortured, beaten, burned, branded and drugged” as a hostage. After she returned home, Papini made numerous false claims to investigators about her abductors, weaving in details about her supposed kidnappers and the location where she was held, officials said.

Last month, federal prosecutors charged Papini with lying to federal agents during their investigation into the alleged kidnapping and 34 counts of mail fraud, after she received $30,000 from a state assistance fund for kidnapping victims from December 2016 to March 2021. Less than a month after her arrest, Papini agreed to plead guilty to one count of making false statements and one count of mail fraud, according to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of California.

Sherri Papini said she was abducted by two Latina women in Northern California. But authorities say she was with an ex-boyfriend in Orange County.

March 5, 2022

“I am deeply ashamed of myself for my behavior and so sorry for the pain I’ve caused my family, my friends, all the good people who needlessly suffered because of my story and those who worked so hard to try to help me,” Papini said in a statement issued through the office of her attorney, William Portanova, last week. “I will work the rest of my life to make amends for what I have done.”

Portanova declined to comment.

On Monday, Papini briefly appeared before U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb to formally enter her guilty plea. She only answered a few questions from Shubb and did not make a statement, according to U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Lauren Horwood.

She is scheduled to be sentenced July 11.

Papini’s disappearance and return home captivated California in 2016. One reader of those stories included Papini herself.

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While she was staying with her ex-boyfriend, Papini was aware that her disappearance was making headlines, according to court records. Her ex-boyfriend, whom she stayed with for 22 days, did not own a TV, but she kept up to date on her story over her phone. Papini refused to leave her ex-boyfriend’s apartment, but requested he make a trip to Hobby Lobby in Huntington Beach to purchase a wood-burning tool.

Over a series of interviews with federal investigators after her return home, Papini claimed that her supposed kidnappers beat her and branded her skin when she tried to escape. But the ex-boyfriend revealed to investigators that he branded her right shoulder with the Hobby Lobby tool, according to court records.

The words burned into her shoulder were indistinguishable, but the ex-boyfriend said Papini requested he burn a specific phrase into her skin. The phrase was never revealed to investigators, and the ex-boyfriend did not recall the words.

Papini reappeared in Northern California on Thanksgiving morning after she asked her ex-boyfriend to drive her home from Southern California. She ran along Interstate 5 in Woodland, in Yolo County, with a chain around her waist and arm, according to authorities. Papini claimed that one of her supposed kidnappers dropped her off on the side of the highway with a pillowcase over her head.

Years later, when confronted that her story did not add up, Papini continued to add more details about the supposed kidnappers that she invented. She integrated some details of her ex-boyfriend’s apartment into interviews with investigators.

Papini said that there were boards over the windows of the room where she was held hostage. But her ex-boyfriend told investigators that she asked him to put “three sheets of particle board or press board” over the windows at his apartment, so no one could look inside, according to court records.

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