How Sherri Papini's Kidnapping Hoax Unraveled and What Happened Next
"Everybody who knows my wife knows that there's no reason for her to leave...She was definitely taken against her will."
So Keith Papini told Good Morning America on Nov. 6, 2016, four days after his wife, Sherri Papini, went out for an afternoon jog and didn't come home. He first realized something was seriously wrong when she failed to pick up their kids, then-4-year-old son Tyler and 2-year-old daughter Violet, from daycare.
"She could drop her phone," Keith said, "but she would never, in a million years, not pick up our children on the time that she normally would've."
The missing-person case in the Northern California city of Redding had quickly become a national story, the mystery of what happened to the 34-year-old "supermom," as her sister-in-law Suzanne Papini described her, proving hot grist for the true crime headline mill (and now a Lifetime movie starring Jaime King).
A $50,000 reward was offered for any information leading to Sherri's whereabouts.
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Keith said that he had received a text message from Sherri at 10:37 a.m. on Nov. 2, a Wednesday, asking if he was coming home for lunch. Not having his personal phone at work with him, he didn't text back until 1:39 p.m.
Returning to an empty house and soon finding out the kids hadn't been picked up, Keith used a phone-finder app to trace Sherri's cell—and he found it near the intersection of Old Oregon Trail and Sunrise Drive, about a mile away from their home, along with her earbuds, a few strands of blonde hair tangled amid the wires.
"On normal days, I would open the door and my family comes, runs and give me a hug," he later told KRCR-TV.
What happened during the search for Sherri Papini?
Search teams scoured nearby woods and trails, authorities looked at security footage from local businesses and family and friends came into town from all over to support Keith and the kids and help any way they could.
"She has a family that loves her," Sherri's sister, Sheila Koester, told ABC. "Please just bring her home."
Naturally, the Internet insisted it knew what really happened—Keith totally had something to do with it, Sherri abandoned her family, etc.—as the usual spots where true crime conspiracies are hatched, such as Reddit, lit up with theories. Within days, authorities received more than 200 tips.
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"Unfortunately, there are random, ignorant people on the internet that are casting aspersions on both Sherri and Keith," self-identified family member Rod Rodriguez III wrote Nov. 8 on the Facebook page Redding Crime 2.0, denying rumors that Keith had "'lawyered up'" and noting that Sherri's husband had cooperated fully with the investigation.
"In regard to the hurtful rumors regarding Keith, everyone that actually knows him knows of his and Sherri's wonderful loving relationship and devotion to their family and knows he had nothing to do with Sherri's disappearance," Rodriguez continued, per the LA Times. "That is why everyone of them was out searching last weekend, one notable family rented search helicopters and another couple cut their vacation short and flew home across the Atlantic while another flew down from Idaho."
Investigators were looking into the possibility that Keith had something to do with Sherri's disappearance, a romantic partner routinely being No. 1 on the list of people to look at, but he passed a lie-detector test and his alibi checked out to their satisfaction.
"The results of the polygraph examination indicate he has no involvement with the disappearance of his wife," Shasta County Sheriff's Office spokesman Lt. Anthony Bertain said in a Nov. 11 statement. "Sheriff's Office detectives have confirmed his whereabouts on the day in question, and there is no physical evidence at this time suggesting he had any involvement."
Bertain added, "Detectives are still trying to determine if her disappearance is voluntary or involuntary."
As the days went by, the Facebook page Help Find Sherri Papini became the go-to spot for updates, while a "Bring Sherri Home Safe" GoFundMe, set up to aid search-and-rescue efforts, attracted more than $49,000 in donations.
"Thank you all so much for your donations," Keith wrote on the fundraising page Nov. 7. "Your generosity, concern and prayers are very much appreciated by the Papini family."
How long was Sherri Papini missing?
At around 4:30 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 24, 2016, 22 days after she went missing, a number of motorists called 911—including a truck driver who stopped and waited for California Highway Patrol to arrive—to report a woman standing or running down the middle of Interstate 5 in Yolo County. It turned out to be Sherri, found 146 miles away from her home.
Her hair was haphazardly cut, she was covered in bruises and other marks, and she had a chain around her waist that was tethered to one of her wrists.
Sherri was taken to Woodland Hospital in Yolo County, where she was reunited with Keith. "We are overwhelmed with joy of how supportive everyone has been to help bring us together as a family again," they said in a statement provided to the media by Sherri's sister Sheila, per CNN. "Everyone's tireless efforts has made our family whole again this Thanksgiving. Thank you for allowing our family time to heal."
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Talking to reporters later that day, Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko said, "We are ecstatic to report that Sherri Papini has been located and has been reunited with her family on this day of Thanksgiving."
But, "the investigation is far from over," he continued. "In fact, it has only begun a new chapter."
There was "sensitive information" the sheriff wouldn't disclose yet, but he shared that Sherri "was released by her captor on a rural road near I-5...She was bound with restraints but was able to summon help from a passing motorist." Authorities were searching for two Hispanic women driving a dark SUV who were said to be armed, he noted, adding, "Detectives will not rest until her captor or captors are identified and brought to justice."
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The public still clamoring for answers a few days later, Bosenko said Nov. 27, "We currently have no reason to disbelieve Sherri Papini's story. She was assaulted and had injuries which she was treated for." At least 20 warrants had been issued for cell tower data and surveillance footage from locations in Redding and Yolo County, he shared, and the search was still on for the two armed women.
But patience is a virtue the Internet does not possess.
In a Nov. 29, 2016, statement to Good Morning America, Keith thanked the "incredible humans" around the world who'd shown their support for his family over the course of their "torturous journey," and shouted out a number of individuals and organizations by name.
Calling the attention paid to their case a "double-edged sword," he continued: "Rumors, assumptions, lies and hate have been both exhausting and disgusting. We are not going to allow those people to take away our spirit, love or rejoice in our girl found alive and home where she belongs. I understand people want the story, pictures, proof that this was not some sort of hoax, plan to gain money or some fabricated race war. I do not see a purpose in addressing each preposterous lie."
When he first saw Sherri in her hospital bed, Keith described, her face was "covered in bruises ranging from yellow to black because of repeated beatings, the bridge of her nose broken. Her now emaciated body of 87 pounds was covered in multicolored bruises, severe burns, red rashes and chain markings. Her signature long blond hair had been chopped off. She has been branded, and I could feel the rise of her scabs under my fingers. She was thrown from a vehicle with a chain around her waist, attached to her wrists and a bag over her head. The same bag she used to flag someone down once she was able to free one of her hands."
Sherri "suffered tremendously, and all the visions swirling in your heads of her appearance, I assure you, are not as graphic and gruesome as the reality." He asked for privacy, noting they had "a long road of healing" ahead of them.
What did Sherri Papini tell police about being kidnapped?
All according to a 55-page criminal complaint affidavit filed March 3 and obtained by E! News, what Sherri told investigators, in the days after her return and over the ensuing months and years, was this:
She was out for a run on Nov. 2, 2016, when two Hispanic women driving a dark SUV forced her into their car at gunpoint. She didn't remember getting into the car, but she woke up lying down in the back, her hips sore from being in one position for so long and a pillow case that smelled of laundry detergent over her head.
Sherri said that for three weeks she was chained to a metal pole in a bedroom closet, with enough give to reach the bed, and they gave her a bucket of kitty litter to use as a toilet. She could hear "really annoying Mexican music" playing around her and, though her captors mainly spoke Spanish, she said she overheard snippets of conversation about branding her for a potential "buyer," leading investigators to first suspect her abduction could've been connected to human trafficking (as noted in a footnote in the March 3 filing).
She said she tried to escape on several occasions, and that she was branded on her shoulder after the first attempt.
Investigators interviewed Sherri multiple times, but as months went by, they continued to be unable to corroborate what she was telling them.
On June 22, 2017, she gave descriptions of the women to FBI sketch artists for "wanted" posters that were widely circulated.
Talking to the FBI on Aug. 13, 2020, she recalled that "the older kidnapper was really abusive and really mean and did all of the really terrible things," but the younger, nicer woman ultimately let her go, dropping her off on the side of I-5 near Woodland, Calif.
She told a therapist, who diagnosed her with acute post-traumatic stress disorder, that she was "physically and emotionally tortured, beaten, burned, branded, and drugged."
How did Sherri Papini's story fall apart?
When the three-year anniversary of Sherri's disappearance came around in 2019, the Shasta County Sheriff's Office said that the case remained under investigation and, according to KRCR TV, the FBI was offering a $10,000 reward for information that could identify the two women Sherri described as her abductors.
But by the time of her August 2020 interview with the FBI, authorities had determined that Sherri's kidnapping story was a fabrication. She had disappeared for 22 days, but that's where her version of events and reality diverged.
And when investigators confronted her with what they'd been told just several days prior—that her ex-boyfriend had picked her up from Redding and driven her to Costa Mesa, Calif., where she voluntarily stayed with him until she wanted to leave—she denied it.
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Meanwhile, in addition to appearing for requested meetings to look at photo arrays of possible suspects, Keith and Sherri contacted the FBI on multiple occasions between her return and May 7, 2018, to share new details. The last update came from Keith, who told investigators that his wife had recalled during a therapy session that one of her captors tried to pour a sticky substance down her throat and she used her own underwear to wipe her mouth, after which she fell asleep.
According to the March 3 filing, investigators found the DNA of an unknown female from an evidence swab of Sherri's body and the DNA of an unknown male from tests of her clothes. The profiles were uploaded to the national Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. In September 2019, Shasta County Sheriff's detectives requested a familial DNA search from the California Department of Justice.
In March 2020, investigators got a familial hit on the unknown male DNA, identifying a potential relative of the man they were looking for. The person who pinged in the database had two sons, one of whom was the ex-boyfriend in question.
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That June, investigators collected items from the ex's trash outside his Costa Mesa home and they found that DNA from the mouth of an Honest Honey Green Tea bottle was a match to the DNA lifted from Sherri's clothes.
The man (referred to throughout the court filings as Ex-Boyfriend) co-operated with the investigation and has remained unidentified. He admitted to the FBI during an Aug. 10, 2020 interview that he helped Sherri "run away," according to the March 3 filing. They were once engaged, the ex explained, and they had a "long history together as friends," but when she reached out to him, he was quoted, it was "'out of the blue.'"
He said Sherri told him Keith had physically and sexually assaulted her and police had refused to help. (Law enforcement had no records of abuse claims against Keith.)
Reviewing phone records, authorities found that she had been in contact with the ex since as early as December 2015, both of them using prepaid cell phones.
Sherri stayed at his apartment and never left for the entirety of the three weeks she was gone, Ex-Boyfriend told investigators. She didn't eat much and at one point she had him brand her shoulder with a wood-burning tool that she had instructed him to go out and buy from Hobby Lobby. And, he added, though he didn't have a TV, she kept up with the news on her phone and, knowing that people were looking for her, didn't want to be seen.
She cut her own hair, the ex continued, and self-inflicted most of her own bruises and burns. He never laid hands on her, he added, but when asked for help, such as to "'bank a puck'" off her leg as she requested, he complied.
The ex said he drove Sherri back up to Northern California after she told him she missed her kids, and on the way back she tossed her prepaid phone out the car window. He also told investigators that he didn't call authorities himself once he saw the news of the alleged kidnapping, considering that akin to turning himself in "for nothing," but he told himself that he "would not fight it" if they eventually got in touch.
When was Sherri Papini arrested?
Sherri was arrested March 3 and charged with lying to federal investigators and 34 counts of mail fraud.
"When a young mother went missing in broad daylight, a community was filled with fear and concern," U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert said in a statement announcing the charges. "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."
In the end, the prosecutor said, 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."
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The fraud charges stemmed from Sherri seeking treatment on the state's dime, the funds provided by the California Victim Compensation Board. According to a court filing detailing the charges, her application to CalVCB stated the money was needed for "medical and/or dental expenses," "moving or relocation expenses," "mental health treatment" and "home security improvements." A total of $30,614.15 was used to pay for ambulance transportation upon her return, therapy and new window blinds for her home.
From June 5, 2017, until March 8, 2021, she paid for what prosecutors characterized in court documents as "fraudulent treatment for anxiety and PTSD from her 'kidnapping.'"
In a statement issued March 4, 2021, her family said they were "appalled" by how Sherri had been treated by authorities in front of her children.
"If requested, Sherri would have fully complied and come to the police station, as she has done multiple times before, where this could have been handled in a more appropriate way," the statement said, per the LA Times. "Sherri and Keith have cooperated with law enforcement's requests despite repeated attempts to unnecessarily pit them against each other, empty threats to publicly embarrass them and other conduct that was less than professional. We are confused by several aspects of the charges and hope to get clarification in the coming days."
Initially deemed a flight risk, Sherri spent five nights in Sacramento County Jail, but a judge allowed her to be released on a $120,000 bond March 8.
When did Sherri Papini admit she lied?
Facing a possible 25-year prison sentence if convicted on all charges, Sherri agreed to plead guilty to one count of making false statements to a federal officer and one count of mail fraud, appearing in court April 18 to officially enter her plea.
"I am deeply ashamed of myself for my behavior and so sorry for the pain I've caused all my family, my friends, all the good people who needlessly suffered because of my story and those who worked so hard to try to help me," she said in a statement released by her attorney William Portanova's office. "I am deeply ashamed of myself for my behavior and so sorry for the pain I've caused all my family, my friends, all the good people who needlessly suffered because of my story and those who worked so hard to try to help me. I will work the rest of my life to make amends for what I have done."
The plea agreement mandated that Sherri pay more than $300,000 in restitution to various government entities, and prosecutors said they would recommend she be sentenced to the "low end of the applicable guideline range as determined by the Court."
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E! News confirmed April 22 that Keith filed for divorce after 12 years of marriage and was asking for temporary custody of Tyler, 9, and Violet, 7.
"Now that I have learned the truth as reflected in the plea arrangement" Sherri made, Keith stated in a declaration filed in Shasta County Superior Court and obtained by the Sacramento Bee, "I must act decisively to protect my children from the trauma caused by their mother and bring stability and calm to their lives."
He alleged that Sherri hadn't seen the kids since April 4 and had missed one scheduled visit, and he was asking for future visitation to be "determined by what I believe is in their best interest."
Describing how difficult Sherri's disappearance was on its own, compounded by the "turmoil" of the last five-and-a-half years, he added, "We, both children and I, need time to recover and stabilize."
Keith concluded, "I wish to make it clear that my goal is to provide a loving, safe, stable environment for Tyler and Violet and I believe the requested orders are consistent with that goal and the best interests of the children." He didn't want to say anything about Sherri's case that "would inflame the situation or attract media attention."
Ultimately, he stated, "I am asking that the court help me protect my children from the negative impact of their mother's notoriety."
What happened to Sherri Papini?
On Sept. 19, Sherri was sentenced to 18 months in prison, to be followed by 36 months of supervised release.
Online records show that the 40-year-old is serving her term at the medium-security Federal Correctional Institution Victorville.
Surprising only in that it took this long, Lifetime is on the case with Hoax: The Kidnapping of Sherri Papini starring Jaime King as the unfortunate teller of tales.
King told E! News' Francesca Amiker that she had read about the case and immediately sensed there were some untapped layers in this story.
"Frankly, it made me mad," the Hart of Dixie star said. "You could see this woman that's seemingly beautiful and perfect, and the way that they told her story was basically that she's this terrible human being that did this horrific thing to her family and the community. And she did make some horrific choices, absolutely."
But, King continued, no one seemed interested in getting to the root of Sherri's behavior, which frustrated her to no end.
And then, less than 24 hours after she started researching the case on her own, King was offered the chance to play Sherri. After which, she had 24 hours to say yes or no.
Ultimately she said yes and appreciated the opportunity to humanize someone who'd been relentlessly villainized.
"Everybody has a reason for doing something," King said. "Nobody is a perfect individual, and I just really needed to know more of the whys. I don't like people being exploited."
Hoax: The Kidnapping of Sherri Papini premieres Saturday, Jan. 28 at 8/7c
(Originally published April 23, 2022, at 5 a.m. PT)
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