Keith Papini had been one of his wife’s biggest advocates, but when investigators revealed in 2020 that her kidnapping four years earlier had been an elaborate hoax, the dad of two told investigators he was “in shock.”
“I’m the idiot husband that stayed around the whole time,” Keith said in August of 2020 as he sat down to talk with investigators after the stunning revelation, according to interrogation footage included in an episode of ABC’s “20/20,” which aired on Friday.
Sherri Papini was sentenced to 18 months in prison last month for lying to the FBI and claiming that two Hispanic women had abducted her at gunpoint in November of 2016 while she had been out jogging near her Redding, California home.
The missing mother of two's disappearance sparked a massive search effort to find her. She turned up on the side of the road three weeks later 150 miles away in Yolo County, bruised, battered and wearing chains.
It wasn’t until four years later that investigators were able to match DNA found on Papini's clothing that day to James Reyes, one of her ex-boyfriends with whom she had been secretly staying, revealing the truth behind the elaborate hoax, according to ABC News and a statement from the Department of Justice.
When authorities called the couple in on Aug. 13, 2020 to discuss the break in the case, Keith Papini seemed excited and eager to see who was responsible for his wife’s horrific ordeal, but after the truth was revealed, he walked out of the interrogation room.
He later returned to sit down, alone, with investigators, describing himself as being “in shock” and expressing his desire to be nowhere near Sherri.
“Now you are telling me, 'OK, you can go home now,' Well, do you think I want her anywhere around my kids or around me at all at this point?," he asked in the footage.
“I don’t know what the next stages of this are,” an investigator replied to Keith.
“It’s not us together,” Keith adamantly said. “I can tell you that much.”
Photo: Shasta County Sheriff's Office
Keith had been a vocal part of the effort to find his wife, regularly granting media interviews, providing photos and pleading for her safe return in the days that followed her Nov. 2, 2016 disappearance.
“I just want her back and I want her back safe,” Keith told People in 2016, later adding, “I know that my wife would never leave me and never in a million years leave our kids.”
Even as Keith found himself under suspicion by investigators as a possible suspect in the disappearance, he remained steadfast in his quest to find Sherri.
“I knew obviously I had nothing to do with it, and I didn’t care, I looked past all of that,” he later told “20/20” shortly after his wife had been found.
Keith was ultimately cleared.
As the days continued to pass without any sign of his missing wife, Keith recounted through tears how difficult it had been to tell the couple’s son, then 4 years old, that his mom was missing.
“I just said, ‘Son, you know mommy went running and she didn’t come home.’ We just held each other, and … he said ‘Are you looking for her?’ and I said ‘Everybody in the whole world is looking for her right now’ and I said ‘We’re going to find her and we’re going to get her back,’” Keith told “20/20” at the time.
The family got their wish three weeks later on Thanksgiving morning when Sherri was discovered by a truck driver on the side of the road; her long blonde hair had been cut off, she had a brand on her shoulder, and she was wearing chains.
Papini claimed she had been kidnapped at gunpoint by two Hispanic women, who held her captive for weeks and had been planning to traffic her to someone in law enforcement before one of her captors decided to set her free, ABC News reports.
In the days that followed, Sherri was reluctant to talk to investigators and insisted that Keith remain at her side during any law enforcement interviews.
“I don’t know you guys, I don’t know if you are in my corner,” she told investigators during one interview at her home just four days after being found. “I know my husband. I know that my husband is in my corner.”
Authorities were skeptical of Sherri’s story from the beginning, but it wasn’t until they were able to match the DNA found on her clothing to Reyes in 2020 that the truth was finally revealed.
She was arrested and charged on April 12 with 34 counts of mail fraud and one count of making false statements to law enforcement authorities. She later pleaded guilty to a single count of mail fraud and one count of making false statements, authorities said.
Keith Papini filed for divorce shortly after her arrest and sought custody of the couple’s two children.
"Both I and, especially our children were traumatized by her disappearance and I spent much time and money trying to find my wife. The trauma inflicted on our children at the unexpected loss of their mother was heartbreaking," he wrote in the court papers, obtained by The Associated Press.
Sherri was sentenced in September to 18 months behind bars—a sentence longer than both prosecutors and her defense team had recommended.
Senior U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb decided to institute the lengthier sentence after remarking that he wanted to “send a message that crime doesn’t pay.”
“People don’t like to be conned,” he said, according to the Sacramento Bee. “And I don’t believe those people who were deceived would believe that one month or eight months is sufficient."
She was also ordered to pay $309,902 in restitution.
After the sentencing, Keith said in a statement to People that he was trying to move on with his life.
"The events of the past two months have been shocking and devastating. My current focus is on moving on and doing everything I can to provide my two children with as normal, healthy and happy of a life as possible,” he said.