Woman faces federal charges years after allegedly faking kidnapping and defrauding the state of California

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A Northern California woman whose mysterious disappearance and reappearance sparked a frantic three-week search more than five years ago was arrested Thursday for lying to federal agents about kidnapping and defrauding the State Victims 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 neighboring states, with ties to her body and injuries including a swollen nose and a ‘mark’ on his right shoulder.

She had been reported missing on November 2. She told authorities at the time that she was kidnapped at gunpoint by two Hispanic women, even providing descriptions to an FBI cartoonist as well as extensive details of her alleged abduction.

In fact, authorities say she was living with a former boyfriend nearly 600 miles from her home in Orange County, Southern California, and injured herself to support her false claims.

“When a young mother disappeared 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 abduction and that the time and resources that could have been used to investigate an actual crime, protect the community and provide resources to victims were wasted.”

Papini does not yet have a lawyer because she has just been arrested, Talbert’s office said. His first court appearance has not yet been scheduled.

She was still lying about the kidnapping in August 2020 when she was questioned by a federal agent and a Shasta County Sheriff’s Detective, the charges allege. They showed her evidence indicating that 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, according to the charges.

She was also reimbursed more than $30,000 by the California Victims Compensation Board based on the false story, the charges allege. They included money for visits to her therapist for ‘treatment for anxiety and PTSD’, according to a court filing, and for the ambulance ride to the hospital after she surfaced near of Sacramento.

She faces a charge of money-back mail fraud that carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison, while lying to a federal agent carries a maximum sentence of five years.

“Everyone involved in this investigation had a common goal: to find out the truth about what happened on November 2, 2016 with Sherri Papini and who was responsible,” Shasta County Sheriff Michael Johnson said.

This 22-day search and five-year investigation not only cost money and time, he said, “but caused the general public to fear for their own safety, a fear that they would not shouldn’t have endured”.

Before disappearing, Papini had gone jogging near her home, about 350 kilometers north of San Francisco. Her husband, Keith Papini, only found his mobile phone and headphones when he went to look for her after she failed to pick up their children from daycare. She left her purse and jewelry behind.

Investigators said he took a polygraph test. They also cleared a Detroit man they said Papini had texted and planned to meet shortly before he disappeared. He was in California at the time of her disappearance but told investigators they had never met, although they spent a weekend together in 2011.

Papini’s nose was swollen and she was wearing a restraint chain around her waist and one arm along with other ties around her other wrist and each ankle when she was found alongside Interstate 5 near 150 miles from her home, according to a filing Thursday.

She had other bruises and rashes on many parts of her body, ligature marks on her wrists and ankles, and burns on her left forearm.

Her blonde hair had been cropped to her shoulders and she had a fuzzy “mark” etched on her right shoulder, authorities said at the time.

She had male and female DNA on her body and clothes. DNA eventually led to the former boyfriend in 2020, according to a court filing.

The former boyfriend told investigators that Papini stayed with him at his home while he was away and said she asked him to come to Redding to pick her up, although he said they never had sex.

His account was verified when authorities tracked the locations of two prepaid cellphones they used to secretly talk to each other as early as December 2015, according to a 55-page affidavit filed in court to support the criminal charges.

A cousin of the former boyfriend told investigators he had seen Papini at the man’s apartment twice, both times without restraint.

About three weeks later, tapes confirmed the ex-boyfriend’s story that he rented a car and drove Papini back to Northern California.

A GoFundMe campaign raised more than $49,000 to help the family, which the couple used to pay bills and other expenses, according to the 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 was not wealthy, officials said at the time.

Looking back, “we are relieved that the community is not endangered by unknown and violent kidnappers,” said Sean Ragan, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Sacramento field office.


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