California Mom Who Faked Her Own Kidnapping Gets Prison Time

Shasta County Sheriff’s Office
Shasta County Sheriff’s Office

The California mom who admitted to faking her own violent abduction in 2016 in an elaborate hoax to run away with an ex-boyfriend has been sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Sherri Papini, 39, pleaded guilty last April to lying to a federal officer and mail fraud in connection with her November 2016 disappearance. In accordance with her plea agreement, the mother-of-two will also have to pay more than $300,000 in restitution for what prosecutors called a “deliberate, well planned, and sophisticated” kidnapping hoax.

“Papini planned and executed a sophisticated kidnapping hoax, and then continued to perpetuate her false statements for years after her return without regard for the harm she caused others,” prosecutors said in the sentencing memo. “As a result, state and federal investigators devoted limited resources to Papini's case for nearly four years before they independently learned the truth: that she was not kidnapped and tortured.”

Prosecutors say that Papini first vanished on Nov. 2, 2016, while out jogging near her Redding, California home. Her three-week disappearance garnered national headlines, prompting an elaborate multi-state search before a passerby found her along a rural interstate about 150 miles from home.

When she was found, Papini was bound with a swollen nose, a blurred “brand” on her shoulder, bindings on her body, and rashes. At the time, Papini told investigators she had been abducted by two masked “Hispanic women” at gunpoint who bound her in a closet while playing “really annoying Mexican music.” She added that she had been abused by her kidnappers.

Authorities aggressively searched for the two described suspects, spending time and law enforcement resources. In total, prosecutors say Papini’s repeated allegations cost the California Victim Compensation Board, U.S. Social Security Administration, the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation over $300,000.

Eventually, federal authorities determined that Papini had been staying with an ex-boyfriend in Southern California of her own volition. Prosecutors noted that DNA, cellphone, and evidence of a car rental show that not only did Papini voluntarily stay with her former boyfriend—but that she had taken steps to hurt herself to make her kidnapping story more believable.

The former boyfriend admitted to investigators that he had helped Papini “run away” from what she had told him was an abusive relationship. The ex said that Papini had injured herself, changed her appearance, and asked him to brand her with a wood-burning tool to maintain the kidnapping ruse.

At the time of the elaborate scheme, Papini had been married to Keith Papini, with whom she has two young children. In April, just two days after Papini pleaded guilty, Keith filed for divorce after saying he and his children were left traumatized by the ordeal.

Papini’s family and Keith did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.

Papini’s attorney, in his own sentencing memo filed last week, urged the judge to sentence his client to only one month in custody followed by seven months of home detention. He stressed that Papinio’s name “is now synonymous with this awful hoax,” and that she had already suffered for her wrongdoing.

“There seems to be little or no chance for Sherri to go backwards now. The lies are out, the guilt admitted, the shame universally seen,” attorney William Portanova said. “It is hard to imagine a more brutal public revelation of a person’s broken inner self. At this point, the punishment is already intense and feels like a life sentence.”

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