For more than five years, Sherri Papini insisted that, in November 2016, she was abducted by two masked women who held her captive for 22 days, starved her and branded her shoulder with a hot tool.
In April, the now-40-year-old mother of two admitted that she staged the abduction that prompted a multistate search. And on Monday, during her sentencing in a federal courtroom in Sacramento, she repented.
“I am guilty of lying. I am guilty of dishonor,” she said before the judge, according to the Sacramento Bee, adding, “I am choosing to humbly accept responsibility.”
U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb sentenced Papini to 18 months in prison after she pleaded guilty to mail fraud and making false statements, according to the Justice Department. Shubb called Papini a “manipulator,” the Bee reported, and said the eight-month sentence recommended by prosecutors would not suffice.
“People don’t like to be conned,” Shubb said, according to the newspaper.
The judge also ordered Papini to pay $309,902 in restitution to the California Victim Compensation Board, the Social Security Administration and the agencies that investigated the sham kidnapping. Her motive for concocting the story remains unclear.
Papini’s attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post late Monday. William Portanova, one of Papini’s lawyers, said that his client was “treated very fairly by the U.S. attorney and by the court, and she knows she has to pay her price,” according to the New York Times.
Papini captured national headlines in November 2016 when she was found on Thanksgiving morning in the middle of a highway in California’s Yolo County, bound by restraints, according to a criminal complaint. She had been missing for 22 days, and Papini told investigators that two Hispanic women had abducted her on Nov. 2 as she was jogging. She described being physically abused by her captors — forced to use the bathroom in a bucket and fed only Cream of Wheat and “maybe rice or tortillas” once a day. She said her captors branded her skin using a hot tool after she tried to escape.
Then she said one of her captors put her in a car and dropped her off on a country road, according to the complaint.
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Soon after Papini was found, her husband, Keith, repeated portions of the story on national television and denounced any implication that the story was fake.
“I understand people want the story, pictures, proof that this was not some sort of hoax, plan to gain money or some fabricated race war,” he said in a statement to ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “I do not see a purpose in addressing each preposterous lie.”
For the next five years, Papini stood by her statements. From 2017 to 2021, Papini collected regular payments, totaling more than $30,000, from the state’s victims compensation board, which compensates victims for crime-related expenses. She also received over $127,000 in Social Security disability payments, according to prosecutors.
Meanwhile, law enforcement officials continued to investigate. In August 2020, investigators questioned Papini after finding evidence that she had not been kidnapped in 2016 but was rather staying with her ex-boyfriend at his residence in Costa Mesa, nearly 600 miles south of Papini’s home in Redding. They had discovered that the DNA on the clothes she was wearing when she was found matched that of the ex-boyfriend. The ex-boyfriend told investigators that he helped Papini “run away” after she told him she was being abused by her husband, according to the complaint. He said he picked her up and drove her to his home, where Papini ate very little and had him help to brand her right shoulder with a wood-burning tool.
Prosecutors say Papini’s fake kidnapping was carefully concocted, with plans being laid nearly a year before her disappearance, when she started communicating with the ex-boyfriend on “burner phones.”
A mother said she was kidnapped. Now she admits it was all a hoax.
Prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo this month that the ex-boyfriend “seems to have unknowingly assisted in the kidnapping hoax.” No domestic violence reports were ever filed against her husband with the county sheriff’s office, according to prosecutors. Shortly after Papini was charged, her husband petitioned for divorce and sought custody of their children, news outlets reported.
Papini was arrested in March 2022 and pleaded guilty in April to one count of mail fraud and one count of making false statements to a federal law enforcement officer. At the time, her lawyer, Portanova, said he did not know why Papini did it, though in a recent court filing he wrote that she left her family “in pursuit of a non-sensical fantasy.”
And after Papini returned to her family, he added, “each lie demanded another lie.”
Timothy Bella contributed to this report.