Five years ago, Sherri Papini claimed she had been kidnapped at gunpoint during a jog near her Redding home — but now federal authorities allege that she made up the brazen kidnapping attempt and had secretly been staying at an ex-boyfriend’s home in the weeks she was missing.
Papini, 39, was arrested on Thursday and faced charges of making false statements to a federal law enforcement officer and engaging in mail fraud. Prosecutors alleged that she “fabricated” her story about being kidnapped by two Hispanic women on Nov. 2, 2016, according to a statement from the Department of Justice.
When she was discovered along the side of a road in Yolo County, on November 24, 2016, she was covered in bruises, was wearing a chain and had a “brand” on her right shoulder.
“In truth, Papini had been voluntarily staying with a former boyfriend in Costa Mesa and had harmed herself to support her false statements,” authorities said.
Years after the alleged kidnapping, investigators were able to trace DNA found on clothes she had been wearing at the time she resurfaced to an ex-boyfriend, who allegedly admitted to authorities that he picked Papini up on Nov. 2 and allowed her to stay for weeks inside his home, according to an affidavit obtained by Oxygen.com.
Authorities say Papini received more than $30,000 in 35 separate payments between 2017 and 2021 from the California Victim’s Compensation Board to pay for visits to her therapist and the ambulance that transported her to the hospital after she was found on the road in Yolo County.
Yet, when investigators confronted the California mom about the evidence they had recovered, they say she “continued to make false statements about her abductors.”
“When a young mother went missing in broad daylight, a community was filled with fear and concern,” said U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert said of the allegations. “Shasta County Sheriff’s Office immediately began investigating, calling on the assistance of the FBI. Countless hours were spent following leads, all in an effort to bring this woman back to her family."
"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," he added. "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.”
Papini initially told investigators that she had been out for a jog on Nov. 2, 2016 when a dark colored SUV pulled up beside her and someone sitting in the passenger side of the vehicle asked her for help. She claimed when she approached the vehicle, one of two Hispanic women opened the door, showed her a “small revolver” and forced her into the car, telling her “We don’t want to hurt you,” according to an affidavit obtained by Oxygen.com.
Papini told investigators after a lengthy drive, she awoke to find herself trapped in a small room with her arms bound by zip ties. Over the next several weeks, she claimed the women — who she said spoke mostly Spanish — tortured her by cutting off her hair, beating her, burning her arm and branding her after claiming she was being sold to a cop, according to the court records.
She told investigators that, after she was supposedly caught trying to escape, her captors put a chain around her waist and tethered her to a cable attached to a pole inside the small closet room, which allowed her to reach the bed but not the window.
Papini said one of the women eventually set her free along a roadway before driving off.
Papini was discovered by the California Highway Patrol on Nov. 24, 2016 at approximately 4:30 a.m. along Interstate 5, after authorities received multiple 911 calls about a woman “standing or running in the middle of the Interstate,” according to the affidavit. She was found with a chain around her waist — to which one arm was bound to — and had additional bindings around her other wrist and each ankle, authorities said.
But prosecutors now say the kidnapping was an elaborate hoax orchestrated by Papini herself.
Authorities say that DNA evidence recovered from Papini’s clothing she was wearing when she was found was matched in 2020 to her ex-boyfriend, who she had allegedly been communicating for almost a year before she disappeared.
The man allegedly admitted to authorities that he helped her “run away,” after she asked him for help, claiming that “her husband was beating and raping her and she was trying to escape,” according to the affidavit.
He allegedly admitted to having a third party rent him a vehicle to drive to Redding, where he said he picked her up as she was “walking down the road” at a location they had agreed upon ahead of time.
Then, they drove to his southern California home, where he said she stayed for weeks.
“Ex-Boyfriend told investigators that it might sound ‘bland,’ but they really just ‘talked,’ ‘hung out,’ and ‘ate food,’ but they did not go anywhere,” the affidavit said.
He allegedly told authorities that Papini had inflicted most of the injuries herself, except for the branding which he helped her carry out with the use of a wood burning craft pen he said she asked him to buy.
The ex-boyfriend’s cousin also told investigators that the cousin had seen Papini in the apartment on two different occasions.
Her ex-boyfriend told authorities he “didn’t know how long Papini planned to be away from her family” or “what the final plan was.”
Shortly before Thanksgiving, he said she asked him to take her back to Redding.
“Papini said she missed her children and wanted to go home,” the affidavit stated.
He had a third party rent him another vehicle and drove her to Woodland, where he said he dropped her off.
Investigators said he told them she was carrying a bag with supplies she later used to bind herself before being discovered, according to the court documents.
Yet investigators said when they confronted Papini with the new evidence in 2020, including cell phone data, car rental receipts and the DNA evidence, she continued to insist she had been taken by two Hispanic women.
If convicted of both charges, she could be facing a possible sentence of up to 25 years behind bars.
“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.