Sherri Papini invented a wild kidnapping hoax. The true story is even stranger
Sherri Papini disappeared from her Northern California neighborhood in November 2016, but she made it home in time for Thanksgiving.
Missing for 22 days, Papini reappeared bruised, branded and emaciated. Her blond hair was sloppily cut. She claimed two Latinas had kidnapped her at gunpoint and held her captive before having a sudden change of heart and releasing her.
Papini could not immediately recall many details from the ordeal and initially refused to talk with police. But less than a year after his wife returned home, Keith Papini contacted a federal agent. It was March 2017. His wife had had a breakthrough; she remembered that the room where she was held had orange carpet.
More details about her ordeal came out during therapy sessions. Her husband relayed the information to investigators, according to court documents that were filed during the race to find Papini’s kidnappers.
Sherri Papini, the Northern California woman whose faked kidnapping sparked a massive search, should serve eight months in prison, prosecutors say.
But nearly six years after she disappeared, federal prosecutors said none of it was real. They said Papini had fabricated the entire crime, down to the minute details of the room where she allegedly had been held.
She continued to lie about the incident even when confronted with the evidence by investigators, until finally, in April, Papini pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents and mail fraud.
On Monday, Papini, 40, was sentenced in a Sacramento courtroom to 18 months in prison in connection with what her own attorney called a “non-sensical fantasy” that she had orchestrated herself.
Papini is set to serve her prison sentence starting in early November. She will not be home in time for Thanksgiving this year.
Before Papini’s disappearance became national news, before her husband even knew she was missing, a man in Orange County set out to rescue her.
Not from her kidnappers but from her allegedly cruel husband.
Only referred to as the “ex-boyfriend” in court documents, Papini’s childhood friend and former fiance talked to her in the months leading up to her disappearance. They exchanged messages over prepaid phones. She claimed that she was in an abusive relationship and that local police were not helping her, according to a criminal affidavit.
The week before the 2016 general election, she asked her old friend to come get her. On Nov. 2, the day of her disappearance, he set out from Costa Mesa in a rented, dark-colored Dodge Challenger and traveled north.
After arriving in Shasta County, about 200 miles north of Sacramento, he waited at a Starbucks for her to message him.
When he drove to the outskirts of Redding, he found Papini walking along a two-lane road. The petite, 5-foot-4 woman was wearing running clothes. Before she got in to his car, she placed her phone and earbuds on the ground with strands of her hair tangled in the cords, according to investigators.
She later claimed that two Latinas had kidnapped her at gunpoint on the side of the road and forced her into a dark-colored SUV with tinted windows and no seats. Papini said that one of the women had stuck her with something and that she kept falling asleep during the drive, so she couldn’t recall where they went.
During an interview with investigators after she returned home, her husband tried to get her to describe any details about the car ride.
“He asked her how long the trip took, whether she felt changes in altitude, what she could describe about the vehicle that she was in,” investigators said in court documents.
Papini told her husband, “I don’t remember a lot.... I’m missing time.... The car smelled really bad ... like sewage.... She stuck me with something. I kept falling asleep.”
In reality, prosecutors said, Papini had slipped into her ex-boyfriend’s Dodge and took a nap in the back seat as he drove them to his apartment in Costa Mesa. She hunkered down in the apartment for three weeks and ordered the ex-boyfriend to chase away visitors, according to relatives who were later interviewed by investigators.
“I will work the rest of my life to make amends for what I have done,” Papini said in a statement about her 2016 hoax kidnapping.
For 22 days, Papini lived in her ex-boyfriend’s apartment as Shasta County authorities and federal investigators followed leads. Hundreds of tips came in to the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office. Search parties organized by residents fanned out into the rural parts of the county, calling her name.
But Papini was roughly 600 miles south.
The ex-boyfriend told investigators he didn’t know what to make of their arrangement. He thought they would get back together. He said that it was “not a sexual thing” and that he slept on his couch while she claimed his bedroom.
Just before she decided to go back home to Redding, Papini started to hurt herself, according to the ex-boyfriend, who told investigators she ate only small portions of food.
“Ex-boyfriend explained that Papini created the injuries while staying with him, including hitting herself to create bruises and burning herself on her arms,” according to a federal investigator’s criminal affidavit. “Ex-boyfriend said he helped her create some of the injuries, although he never laid his hands directly on her; for example, she told him, ‘Bank a puck off my leg,’ so [he] shot a puck off her leg, lightly.’”
She told investigators her kidnappers had burned her after she tried to pull a board off a window during an escape attempt.
In reality, she had asked the ex-boyfriend to brand her, according to court documents. Investigators said around the time she disappeared, she had pinned photographs of wood-burning tools to a “Secret Board” titled “Gift Ideas” on her Pinterest account.
The ex-boyfriend drove to a Hobby Lobby in Huntington Beach and bought the device. When he returned home, she asked him to brand her right shoulder. According to court documents, he said she didn’t seem to mind the pain.
By this time, Papini had told her old friend that she missed her family and two kids, who were 2 and 4 years old. She wanted to go back to Northern California.
So he drove her north from Costa Mesa. Prosecutors said the ex-boyfriend dropped Papini off in Yolo County near Interstate 5 and headed, alone, to a relative’s for Thanksgiving.
Around 4:30 a.m., the California Highway Patrol responded to calls of a woman running in the middle of the highway in Woodland, nearly 150 miles south of Redding. A truck driver stopped to help her. When police arrived, they found Papini with a chain around her waist, one of her arms bound and other bindings around her wrist and ankles, according to court documents.
She was transported to a hospital, and DNA samples were taken from her clothes — the same clothes, she explained, that she wore the day she disappeared. Two sets of DNA were found on Papini’s underwear and sweatpants: hers and a set belonging to a man. The sample was uploaded to a national DNA repository operated by the FBI and periodically checked for matches.
On the same day Papini was treated at the Woodland hospital, residents in Redding released yellow balloons in her honor, unaware that Papini had already been “found.”
Initially, when Papini’s family reported she was not home and didn’t pick up her children from day care, local law enforcement considered her a missing person. At the time, her husband took issue with the fact that sheriff’s officials did not immediately refer to the case as an abduction.
“I know she was taken. My family knows she was taken,” Keith Papini told ABC’s “20/20” shortly after she returned home. “But you’re obviously not going to come out and say abduction, because you don’t have the evidence. That was a little rough for me to hear.”
Former Redding Mayor Missy McArthur remembers Keith Papini’s “heart-wrenching” plea to the City Council during a public meeting, where he asked for assistance with the search.
“Sure, the Redding community was duped by her story,” McArthur recently told The Times. “But he was just as duped too. It was clear that he was hurt. I just feel bad for her family, for her kids.”
It wasn’t until March 2020 that investigators found a possible relative of the man whose DNA had been found on Sherri Papini’s clothes. The person had two biological sons. One was Papini’s ex-boyfriend, according to prosecutors.
Investigators then collected trash from outside the ex-boyfriend’s home, including an Honest Honey Green Tea bottle, which was used to match the unknown DNA collected from Papini’s clothing to him.
During an interview with investigators, the ex-boyfriend admitted he had helped Papini “run away.” But he didn’t come forward after he learned of the nationwide search and her claim that she had been kidnapped.
He thought to himself, “I’m not going to make any calls because it’s like I’m turning myself in for nothing,” according to his interview with investigators.
Papini was confronted by investigators during an interview in August 2020 and reminded that it was a crime to lie to federal officers. But she continued to claim she was abducted, according to the criminal affidavit. Investigators showed her photos from the ex-boyfriend’s apartment and told her that they spoke to the family of the people who knew she was there.
“Oh my God,” Papini said during the interview.
One investigator told her, “The only way to control things is for us to know.”
Throughout the interview, Papini referred to a mysterious woman she insisted had control over her ability to see her children. Investigators insisted the woman did not exist.
She continued to deny that her ex-boyfriend was involved and said she had not spoken to him in years. Then her husband left the interview, according to court records, and she continued to deny that she was with her ex-boyfriend.
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.
Investigators said Keith Papini, now 38, used a portion of $50,000 raised from a GoFundMe campaign meant to pay for her search to pay off credit card bills. He has since filed for divorce. Sherri Papini also received more than $30,000 from a state victim’s compensation fund, which she used to pay for medical bills, including therapy, and to purchase blinds for her home.
She also sent a nearly $3,000 payment to her therapist through the mail, which accounts for the mail fraud charge.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Veronica Algeria said in court filings that Papini’s “kidnapping hoax was deliberate, well-planned and sophisticated.”
“Papini’s false reports about being kidnapped were not something she invented after her return to avoid the repercussions of running away from her husband and family,” Algeria wrote. “Rather, the evidence shows that Papini planned this hoax before her disappearance.”
Her attorney, William Portanova, said in a court filing that his client has “chameleonic personalities” and that her life was painful until she was married and began a family.
“Yet after several years, she persuaded herself to flee the security of her family in pursuit of a non-sensical fantasy ultimately resulting in this awful case,” Portanova said in court filings.
On Monday, Papini apologized in court just before U.S. District Judge William Shubb sentenced her to 18 months in prison and ordered her to pay more than $300,000 in restitution.
“I’m so sorry to the many people who suffered because of me,” Papini said through tears. Friends and family from Redding watched from the audience as she apologized to the court.
“I am guilty, your honor. I am guilty of lying, guilty of dishonor,” Papini said. She said she was willing to accept the court’s judgment. She thanked the government for exposing her hoax and for allowing her to take a plea agreement.
But Shubb surprised prosecutors and Papini’s defense team when he handed down the stiff sentence.
“People don’t like to be conned,” Shubb said, noting the GoFundMe donations.
A greater sentence is required, Shubb said, to deter any copycats.
“Someone may think, ‘I can get away with it,’” Shubb said. “We have to make sure that crime does not pay.”
In court, Portanova said that when Papini left her family and children, she was a “broken woman who did a terrible thing.” Outside court, he acknowledged that Papini did not explain why she ran away.
“The truth is the mind is beyond my ability to comprehend,” Portanova said as Papini sobbed in the hallway and hugged her friends and relatives.
As she left the courthouse, she did not say a word.
Papini’s abduction had hit Redding hard. Jill Hill, a 47-year-old resident with two daughters and a son, remembers feeling horrified at the thought that people were going around Redding and snatching people off the street.
“What she put everyone through was just too much,” Hill said recently while walking across the Sundial Bridge, a famous attraction in Redding. “I hope she gets help.”
Others in the community never believed Papini’s “return.” At a recent heavy metal music festival at Lake Redding Park, several people recalled the Papini case with slight annoyance.
Jack, a 27-year-old musician who did not give his last name, said Papini’s abduction and return had felt scripted.
“For her to just come back on Thanksgiving, we didn’t buy it,” Jack said. “I guess it’s just another random story about Redding. Every town has a true-crime story to tell.”
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