The California mom who claimed she was kidnapped, then beaten and branded as she was held captive for three weeks, was arrested Thursday on charges of lying to federal authorities and mail fraud.
A nationwide search for Sherri Papini of Redding was launched in 2016 when the then-34-year-old disappeared while jogging, her cellphone and earbuds dropped by the side of the road. Three weeks later — in chains, her hair cut short, and her body bruised — she flagged down a driver 150 miles from her home, claiming she'd been released by two armed women who had kidnapped her.
The Yolo County sheriff confirmed in interviews after her reappearance that she'd also been branded and that it remained unknown if what happened was targeted or random. A year later, the FBI released sketches of two "unknown individuals" based on details provided by Papini. Investigators also revealed that she had been in contact with a "male acquaintance" shortly before her disappearance and that male DNA was found on her clothing, raising new questions. At that time, Shasta County Sheriff's Sgt. Brian Jackson told BuzzFeed News that police "absolutely" still believed Papini.
More than four years later, according to the Department of Justice, investigators say they have determined that Papini made it all up, that she caused the injuries to herself, and instead of being held captive, was actually staying at the home of a former boyfriend in Southern California.
"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,” US Attorney Phillip A. Talbert said in a statement.
In a statement, Papini's family expressed their continued support and accused authorities of harassing Sheri and her husband despite their cooperation with the investigation.
"We love Sherri and are appalled by the way in which law enforcement ambushed her this afternoon in a dramatic and unnecessary manner in front of her children," the family said. "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."
When investigators confronted Papini in 2020 with evidence that she'd allegedly lied, they also informed her it would be a crime to lie to a federal law enforcement officer.
"PAPINI did not retract her kidnapping story, and instead continued to make false statements about her purported abductors and denied her Ex-Boyfriend’s involvement," the criminal complaint states.
Papini is also facing charges in connection with the more than $30,000 she received through the California Victim Compensation Board. The false statements charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, and the mail fraud charge can lead to a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
"We are relieved that the community is not endangered by unknown, violent kidnappers, and thank the public and media for their patience and strong support for this case since the initial reports of Sherri Papini’s disappearance," Sean Ragan, special agent in charge of the FBI Sacramento field office, said in a statement.