Five years after claiming she was thrown to the side of a Northern California highway by her captors, Sherri Papini officially admitted in federal court on Monday that she had rigged the whole scheme.
Papini, 39, disappeared from her quiet neighborhood of Redding in November 2016 while out for an afternoon run. Her husband found his phone and headphones on the side of a road, with strands of hair tangled in the wires. A nationwide search ensued for the mother-of-two who appeared to be missing.
She reappeared 22 days later, emaciated, her hair cropped unevenly and she claimed “two Hispanic women 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 traveled to Northern California to pick her up at her request. The unnamed ex-boyfriend claimed Papini ate little, had bruises and even scarred herself with a woodworking tool.
Papini claimed she had been “physically and emotionally tortured, beaten, burned, branded and drugged” as a hostage. After returning home, Papini made numerous false statements to investigators about her captors, weaving in details about her supposed captors and where she was being 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 he received $30,000 from a fund state aid for kidnapping victims from December 2016 to March 2021. Less than a month after his arrest, Papini agreed to plead guilty to one count of misrepresentation and one count of mail fraud, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California.
“I am deeply ashamed of myself for my behavior and I am so sorry for the pain I have caused my family, my friends, all the good people who have suffered unnecessarily because of my story and those who have worked so trying to help me,” Papini said in a statement released by the office of his attorney, William Portanova, last week. “I will work the rest of my life to fix what I have done.”
Portanova declined to comment.
On Monday, Papini appeared briefly before U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb to formally enter his guilty plea. She only answered a few questions from Shubb and did not provide a statement, according to U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Lauren Horwood.
She is expected to be sentenced on July 11.
Papini’s disappearance and return captivated California in 2016. One reader of these stories included Papini herself.
While staying with her ex-boyfriend, Papini was aware that her disappearance was making headlines, according to court records. Her ex-boyfriend, who she stayed with for 22 days, didn’t own a TV, but she kept up to date with his story by phone. Papini refused to leave her ex-boyfriend’s apartment, but asked him to go to the Hobby Lobby in Huntington Beach to buy a wood burning tool.
During a series of interviews with federal investigators after returning home, Papini claimed that her supposed captors beat her and scarred her skin when she tried to escape. But the ex-boyfriend told investigators he branded his right shoulder with the Hobby Lobby tool, court records show.
The words carved into his shoulder were indistinguishable, but the ex-boyfriend said Papini asked him to carve a specific phrase into his skin. The phrase was never revealed to investigators and the ex-boyfriend could not recall the words.
Papini reappeared in Northern California on Thanksgiving morning after asking her ex-boyfriend to drive her home from Southern California. She ran along Interstate 5 in Woodland, Yolo County with a chain around her waist and arm, authorities said. Papini claimed that one of her supposed captors left her on the side of the highway with a pillowcase over her head.
Years later, faced with the fact that her story didn’t match, Papini continued to add more details about the supposed kidnappers she had made up. She included some details of her ex-boyfriend’s apartment in interviews with investigators.
Papini said there were boards over the windows of the room where she was being held hostage. But her ex-boyfriend told investigators she had asked him to put “three sheets of particleboard or pressed board” over the windows of her apartment, so no one could look inside, according to the court records.