It's been over five years since a 34-year-old mother of two suddenly disappeared while on a morning jog near her Redding-area home and then turned up, bruised and "branded," by the side of a road 22 days later. The story always seemed fishy, and the woman turned out to have a checkered past, and yep, the feds now say she faked the whole thing.
Sherri Papini, now 39, was arrested by federal agents today on charges of mail fraud and making false statements to a federal law enforcement officer. It turns out, for years after her mysterious kidnapping, Papini has been applying for and receiving funds from the California Victim’s Compensation Board to the tune of over $30,000, to pay for therapist bills and the ambulance that brought her to the hospital in 2016 after she was "found."
Federal investigators gathered evidence that Papini had not been, as she told authorities, held captive for three weeks in November 2016 by two Spanish-speaking women who threw her into a dark-colored SUV while she was jogging in her neighborhood near Lake Shasta, called Mountain Gate. Instead, they found evidence that she had been hundreds of miles away, in Costa Mesa, staying with a former boyfriend. The two had reportedly been communicating via prepaid cellphones in the months leading up to Papini's disappearance, and the ex-boyfriend came to pick her up the day she went missing, prosecutors say.
As the Department of Justice explains in a release, investigators brought Papini in for questioning in August 2020, presented her with evidence that she had fabricated the story, and instead of retracting it, Papini allegedly "continued to make false statements about her purported abductors."
It's unclear why it took another 18 months to arrest her, but investigators say that from 2017 through 2021, Papini continued to request victim's assistance from the state fund, and received 35 payments for things ranging from therapy bills to the ambulance that brought her to the hospital when she was found by the side of the road in Yolo County in late November 2016.
"This case exemplifies the FBI’s commitment to working tirelessly with law enforcement partners and prosecutors to examine all facts and seek the truth, no matter how long that process takes or how complex the analysis may be,” said Special Agent in Charge Sean Ragan of the FBI Sacramento Field Office in a statement.
"When a young mother went missing in broad daylight, a community was filled with fear and concern,” said U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert in a statement. "Three weeks later, she was found 146 miles south of where she disappeared, and the focus went from trying to find her to trying to find her abductors. Ultimately, the investigation revealed that there was no kidnapping and that 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."
"The arrest of Sherri Papini was made possible by the outstanding hard work of a multitude of agents, detectives, DOJ criminalist, forensic analyst, crime scene investigators and support staff members that were assigned to this investigation," says Shasta County Sheriff Michael L. Johnson. "Everyone involved in this investigation had one common goal; to find the truth about what happened on Nov. 2, 2016 with Sherri Papini and who was responsible. 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 endure."
Papini made up quite a tale and stuck to it, and her family tried to shame the media back in 2017 for trying to question its veracity — even as reports surfaced of Papini's parents calling the cops on her, twice, when she was 18 for behavior that was, at the very least, troubling. The media was, at least, a bit cautious in calling bullshit at the time because of what had just happened with Denise Huskins, the Vallejo woman who was actually abducted in 2015 in a super-bizarre kidnapping by what turned out to be a mentally ill maniac. And both law enforcement and the media spent months publicly saying it was all made up until they found out it wasn't.
And was all this just an elaborate way for Sherri to go hang out with an ex without raising suspicion from her husband or parents?
If convicted, Papini could face up to five years in prison for the false statement charge, and up to 20 years for the fraud charge, as well as possibly a half million dollars in fines.
Update: Papini's family, apparently in some kind of denial (?), issued a statement to the Sacramento Bee Friday saying they are "appalled" by Papini's treatment at the hands of the FBI. "We love Sherri and are appalled by the way in which law enforcement ambushed her this afternoon in a dramatic and unnecessary manner in front of her children," the family says. And they say they are "confused by several aspects" of the charges against Papini. So, this should be interesting.