Home News Kidnapped California mom actually made up the story, was with ex-boyfriend

Kidnapped California mom actually made up the story, was with ex-boyfriend

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Lauren Hernández

San Francisco Chronicle

Sherri Papini, 39, of Redding, was arrested on suspicion of making false statements to a federal law enforcement officer and engaging in mail fraud in connection to receiving roughly 35 payments from the California Victim’s Compensation Board, according to the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of California in Sacramento.

The married mother of two was actually staying with her former boyfriend in the Southern California city of Costa Mesa during her nearly month-long disappearance, officials said.

Papini was reported missing on Nov. 2, 2016, when she didn’t pick up her young children from a day care provider that afternoon. Her husband reported her missing, prompting an extensive search for the mother near the couple’s home in Redding and across the state. Law enforcement received tips about possible sightings of the woman from people across the globe, authorities said at the time.

She reappeared on Thanksgiving morning 2016, and claimed she escaped from her captors. The suspects, she said at the time, had chained her, brutally beat her and branded on her right shoulder during captivity before throwing her out of a moving sports utility vehicle that morning near Woodland in Yolo County — 146 miles south of where she was last seen.

But it was a total fabrication, authorities said on Thursday. She caused her own injuries “to support her false statements,” authorities said. She even provided descriptions of her alleged assailants to an FBI sketch artist, who produced sketches of the nonexistent women with their faces partially covered with handkerchiefs.

“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,” said U.S. Attorney Phillip Talbert in a statement.

Papini faces a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine up to $250,000 if she is convicted of mail fraud. She also faces a maximum statutory penalty of five years in prison and a fine up to $250,000 if she is convicted of making false statements to a federal law enforcement officer.

Papini has not yet secured an attorney, as she was arrested on Thursday, according to Associated Press reports.

Papini’s arrest comes after a years-long investigation into her fake kidnapping.

Shasta County Sheriff Michael Johnson said detectives, FBI agents, Department of Justice criminalists, forensic analysts and crime scene investigators all shared a common goal when investigating the alleged kidnapping: “to find the truth about what happened… and who was responsible.”

“The 22-day search for Sherri Papini and subsequent five-year search into who reportedly abducted her was not only taxing on public resources but caused the general public to be fearful of their own safety, a fear that they should not have had to endure,” Johnson said in a statement.

Within days of reappearance, media reports at the time said Papini was unable to remember any details about her alleged abduction. Meanwhile, law enforcement officials were searching for the two “Spanish-speaking women” who allegedly kidnapped Papini. A $10,000 reward was offered to anyone having information leading to their arrest, media reports said at the time.

Papini had received tens of thousands of dollars in assistance from the California Victim’s Compensation Board from 2017 until as recently as 2021, authorities said, including for therapy sessions and for the cost of an ambulance ride to the hospital after she reappeared in Yolo County.

The investigation involving multiple agencies continued for years, and in August 2020, authorities said Papini was “warned that it was a crime to lie to federal agents” during an interview with a federal agent and a Shasta County Sheriff’s detective. During that interview, authorities said officials showed Papini evidence disproving that she was kidnapped, but authorities said she continued to “make false statements about her purported abductors.”

Sean Ragan, the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Sacramento Field Office said in a statement that authorities are “relieved that the community is not endangered by unknown, violent kidnappers.”

“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,” Ragan said.

Lauren Hernández (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: lauren.hernandez@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ByLHernandez

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