Redding resident Sherri Papini, 39, a young mother whose apparent kidnapping and near-miraculous return became global news in 2016, was arrested Thursday on charges of making false statements to a federal law enforcement officer and engaging in mail fraud.
Prosecutors say she not only misled investigators and wasted untold law enforcement resources, but she also profited from about $30,000 of payments from the California Victim’s Compensation Board.
The sensational case captured global attention and took on racial overtones when Papini, who is white, told investigators her captors were two “Hispanic women” but failed to provide detailed identification of them despite claiming to have spent 22 days as their captive. Prosecutors now say the women were invented as part of Papini’s hoax, and that she was voluntarily in Costa Mesa, California, with an ex-boyfriend the entire time.
Check out:These were the major events in her ‘kidnapping’ case
DNA evidence ultimately led to the ex-boyfriend and helped crack the five-year-old case, according to a 55-page criminal complaint filed with the US District Court for the Eastern District of California.
Sherri Papini’s husband, Keith, maintained a visible presence during the time she was missing and, according to documents, sat with her for most of her interviews with investigators once she returned. In fact, the criminal complaint filed Thursday states that Keith Papini personally conducted the first interview with her immediately after she was found because she would not speak directly to law enforcement.
Asked if Keith Papini is suspected of any involvement, US Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Lauren Horwood said she is unable to make statements such as that. “What I can say is he’s not being charged,” she said.
The criminal complaint provides extensive details of the allegations against Sherri Papini, but does not allege criminal wrongdoing on anyone else’s part.
Papini was 34 when she went missing from Mountain Gate on Nov. 2, 2016. Authorities mobilized searches for her in Shasta County and California as well as in several other states.
On Nov. 24, Thanksgiving Day, Papini reappeared along a rural road in Yolo County near Woodland, bruised and bound by restraints, according to the county sheriff’s office. Papini had various bindings on her body and injuries including a brand on her right shoulder, according to authorities.
At the time, Papini told law enforcement officers and others that she had been abducted and held at gunpoint by two Hispanic women. She also provided a description of the alleged abductors to an FBI sketch artist. Based on her account, law enforcement agencies were on the lookout for women matching Papini’s description.
“For several months, and even years, Redding and the nearby community were on the lookout for two Hispanic women,” prosecutors said in the complaint. “Multiple tips were given to law enforcement by the community about suspicious-looking Hispanic women.”
The investigation eventually showed Sherri Papini’s account was fabricated and that she had voluntarily stayed with a former boyfriend in Costa Mesa, where she had systematically harmed herself to make her story convincing, authorities said. They said she enlisted his help inflicting some of the injuries — including branding her shoulder — but that much of the physical evidence of her ordeal was the direct result of Papini roughly cutting her own hair, slamming her head on the bathtub and bathroom floor, and refusing to eat enough food.
In the criminal complaint, Redding-based FBI agent Courtney Lantto said Sherri Papini had been in contact with her ex-boyfriend as early as December 2015 – nearly a year before her disappearance. They used pre-paid phones to communicate, according to the complaint, which says she eventually asked the ex-boyfriend, whose name is not given, to drive to Redding from Southern California and pick her up.
On the day the community believed she had disappeared in a terrifying abduction while out on a run, Sherri Papini actually met her ex-boyfriend exactly as she had arranged via text messages, Lantto said in the criminal complaint.
US Attorney Phillip Talbert, FBI Special Agent in Charge Sean Ragan and Shasta County Sheriff Michael L. Johnson announced Papini’s arrest.
Investigators for several years followed Sherri Papini’s account of the events down what they now say were dead ends. They concentrated their search for her abduction site in mountainous areas because, the complaint says, she told them it was always cold and rained nearly every night. They brought her photos of women who might match the racial, height and hair characteristics she alleged. They disseminated “wanted” posters worldwide with an FBI sketch artist’s attempt to capture her description — including both women wearing bandanas.
Other leads, including two other men whose contact information investigators say was found in Papini’s phone under women’s names, yielded nothing of value. One man, from Michigan, had reportedly planned to meet Sherri Papini on a visit to California just before her disappearance. But, investigators said, that meeting never happened.
The case finally broke in 2020, according to the complaint. When Papini was hospitalized in Woodland upon her return, investigators collected male DNA from her underwear and sweatpants that did not match Keith Papini’s.
On March 19, 2020, the California Department of Justice’s Familial Search Committee voted to release to investigators the results of a DNA search using that sample and matching those on file, according to the complaint.
The DNA came back as a “familial match” to a man who is referred to as “Person 2” in the complaint, and who had two living biological sons. One of them, the ex-boyfriend, caught their attention, according to the complaint, because he had shared a joint AOL email account with Sherri Papini and had conducted financial transactions with her.
In June 2020, FBI agents collected a discarded bottle of Honest Honey Green Tea from the ex-boyfriend’s trash in Costa Mesa, the complaint said. The DNA at the mouth of the bottle, investigators said, was a match. That August, the investigators said they interviewed the ex-boyfriend and he provided extensive details that fit the physical evidence in the case and exposed Sherri Papini’s story as a fabrication, according to the complaint.
During an interview conducted by a federal agent and a Shasta County Sheriff’s Office detective in August 2020, Papini was warned that it was a crime to lie to federal agents, the news release said.
By this time, investigators were able to show Papini pictures of the room where the ex-boyfriend had told them she had stayed, as well as other details of the evidence they had gathered. Instead of retracting her kidnapping story, Papini continued to make false statements about her purported abductors, according to the news Thursday release.
In addition, investigators said Papini applied to the California Victim’s Compensation Board for victim assistance money based on her kidnapping story. From 2017 through 2021, Papini collected approximately 35 payments totaling over $30,000, including for visits to her therapist and for the ambulance that transported her to the hospital after her return, the news release said.
“When a young mother went missing in broad daylight, a community was filled with fear and concern,” said US Attorney Talbert.
Ultimately, Talbert said, the investigation revealed that there was no kidnapping. All the time and resources “that could have been used to investigate actual crime, protect the community, and provide resources to victims were wasted based on the defendant’s conduct,” said Talbert.
“The 22-day search for Sherri Papini and subsequent five-year search into who reportedly abducted her was not only taxing on public resources, but caused the general public to be fearful of their own safety, a fear that they should not have had to endures,” Shasta County Sheriff Michael L. Johnson said.
If convicted of making false statements to a federal law enforcement officer, Papini faces a maximum statutory penalty of five years in prison and a fine up to $250,000.
If convicted of mail fraud, she faces a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine up to $250,000.
Michele Chandler covers city government and housing issues for the Redding Record Searchlight/USA Today Network. Follow her on Twitter at @MChandler_RS, call her at 530-225-8344 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please support our entire newsroom’s commitment to public service journalism by subscribing today.