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Prosecutors: Woman faked kidnapping, defrauded California

Sherri Papini.jpg
Shasta County Sheriff's Office
An undated photo of Sherri Papini released by the Shasta County Sheriff's Office at the time of her supposed disappearance.

A Northern California woman whose disappearance and mysterious reappearance set off a frantic three-week search more than five years ago was arrested Thursday on charges of lying to federal agents about being kidnapped and defrauding the state's victim compensation board of $30,000.

Sherri Papini, 39, of Redding, was found on Thanksgiving Day in 2016 after weeks of searching in California and several nearby states, with bindings on her body and injuries including a broken nose and a “brand” on her right shoulder.

She had been reported missing Nov. 2. She told authorities at the time that she had been kidnapped at gunpoint by two Hispanic women, even providing descriptions to an FBI sketch artist.

In reality, authorities said, she was staying with a former boyfriend nearly 600 miles (966 kilometers) away from her home in Orange County, in Southern California, and hurt herself to back up her false statements.

“When a young mother went missing in broad daylight, a community was filled with fear and concern,” U.S. Attorney Phillip Talbert said in a statement. "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.”

Papini does not yet have an attorney because she was just arrested, Talbert's office said. Her first court appearance has not yet been set.

She was still lying about the kidnapping in August 2020 when she was interviewed by a federal agent and a Shasta County sheriff’s detective, the charges allege. They showed her evidence indicating she had not been abducted and warned her that it was a crime to lie to a federal agent.

But she still made false statements, the charges allege.

She also was reimbursed more than $30,000 by the California Victim’s Compensation Board based on the false story, the charges said. They included money for visits to her therapist and for the ambulance ride to the hospital after she surfaced near Sacramento.

She faces a mail fraud charge related to the reimbursement requests that carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison, while lying to a federal officer has a maximum five-year sentence.

“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," said Shasta County Sheriff Michael Johnson.

That 22-day search and five-year investigation not only cost money and time, he said, “but caused the general public to be fearful of their own safety, a fear that they should not have had to endure.”

Before she disappeared, Papini had gone jogging near her home about 215 miles (350 kilometers) north of San Francisco. Her husband, Keith Papini, found only her cellphone and earphones when he went searching after she failed to pick up their children at day care.

Investigators said he passed a lie detector test. They also cleared a Detroit man they said Papini had texted and planned to meet shortly before her disappearance.

Papini's nose was broken and she was wearing a chain restraint around her waist when she was found alongside Interstate 5 about 100 miles from her home. Her blonde hair had been cut to shoulder length and she had a “brand” burned into her right shoulder, authorities said at the time.

She had both male and female DNA on her body and clothing. But the DNA eventually led to the former boyfriend, according to a court filing.

At the time she was a stay-at-home mom and her husband worked at Best Buy. There was never a ransom demand and the family wasn't wealthy, officials said at the time.

In retrospect, “we are relieved that the community is not endangered by unknown, violent kidnappers,” said Sean Ragan, special agent in charge of the FBI's Sacramento Field Office.