Sherri Papini: Feds detail how missing mom branded, starved self in 2016 kidnapping hoax

MOUNTAIN GATE, Calif. — The disappearance of Sherri Papini rocked her community in 2016, setting off a massive search for the California wife and mother who vanished while jogging near Redding.

The community was overjoyed when Papini was found injured but alive three weeks later, claiming she had been abducted and held captive by two Hispanic women.

All of it — the abduction, the suspects, the injuries — were a ruse, federal authorities said last week as they announced Papini’s arrest. In the weeks that she claimed she was being held against her will, Papini allegedly stayed with a former boyfriend in Southern California.

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Investigators also found a blog post from 2007 in which Papini, writing under her maiden name Graeff, made racist comments against Latinos, whom she later blamed for her abduction.

Papini, 39, is charged with mail fraud and making false statements to a federal law enforcement agent, according to prosecutors.

The mail fraud charge stems from the more than $30,000 Papini received from the California Victim’s Compensation Board after her return. A GoFundMe campaign designed to help find Papini raised more than $49,000.

Papini and her husband, Keith Papini, later used those funds to pay bills and take care of other expenses, authorities said.

No charges have been filed against anyone else involved in the case.

Papini was released from jail on Tuesday after her family posted a $120,000 bond, according to The Associated Press. She was ordered to surrender her passport and to undergo psychiatric treatment as a condition of her release.

Watch Papini’s departure from the Sacramento County Jail below.

The AP reported that Assistant U.S. Attorney Veronica Alegria argued against Papini’s release, citing the fact that she “screamed ‘no’ and ran away from (FBI agents) and resisted arrest.” Papini’s defense attorney argued that his client was not running away from the agents but toward her young children.

Papini’s family last week characterized her arrest as an “ambush” in front of her children. They did not address the allegations against her but said they were “confused” by aspects of the charges.

They also said she would have turned herself in if the arrest had been handled more appropriately.

“We love Sherri and are appalled by the way in which law enforcement ambushed her (Thursday) afternoon in a dramatic and unnecessary manner in front of her children,” the family said in a statement obtained by the AP.

Shasta County Sheriff Michael Johnson on Monday told “Good Morning America” that Papini appeared to have been driven by narcissism and selfishness.

“It is a case of calculated deception driven, I think, by her narcissistic behavior, and it really had an impact on this community, and nationwide, as far as that goes,” Johnson said.

Watch ‘Good Morning America’s’ report below.

Federal authorities last week emphasized their relief that the community was not in endangered by “unknown, violent kidnappers,” but pointed to the countless hours and massive cost involved in both the three-week search for Papini and the five-year search for abductors who did not exist.

Authorities said the hoax cost county, state and federal taxpayers more than $200,000, according to the Sacramento Bee.

“When a young mother went missing in broad daylight, a community was filled with fear and concern,” said Phillip A. Talbert, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of 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.”

Johnson also lamented the cost of the investigation and the attention it took away from real crime.

“Human trafficking is a real thing, and there are victims out there that need our help,” the sheriff said. “Investigations are complex, and budgets are tight, so when we put all that effort into such a case and find out that things are not what they seem and we’ve been deceived and law enforcement has been duped, it’s really taxing on everybody.

“You have a story of a typical American mom who was just abducted by what seemingly is a cartel-type of human trafficking operation, which is just not true. That disrupted a lot of things for a lot of people around here.”

‘Attention-hungry’

A 55-page affidavit filed Thursday in federal court details how Papini allegedly faked her Nov. 2, 2016, abduction and stayed with a former boyfriend for three weeks. Federal agents say she ultimately caused her own injuries — including a brand burned into her shoulder — before being “rescued” on Thanksgiving Day as she walked along Interstate 5 near Sacramento, nearly 150 miles from her home.

Papini purportedly vanished on Nov. 2, 2016, after going for a run in her family’s neighborhood in Mountain Gate, just north of Redding. When she failed to pick up their children at day care, Keith Papini used the “Find my iPhone” app to locate his wife’s cellphone.

He found Papini’s cellphone and earbuds, which had several of her blonde hairs entangled in them, lying on the ground near the intersection of Sunrise Drive and Old Oregon Trail.

“Husband thought the cellphone had been placed, which he described as weird,” FBI Special Agent Courtney Lantto wrote in the affidavit.

Witnesses reported seeing her in that area earlier that day wearing a pink top and jogging.

Just before 6 p.m. that evening, Papini was reported missing.

Shasta County Sheriff’s Office officials led multiple local and state agencies in an extensive ground and aerial search for the missing woman. Searchers canvassed the neighborhood and surrounding areas while investigators worked with Papini’s friends and family to nail down a timeline of her activities.

Detectives investigated Keith Papini, who passed a lie detector test, according to The Associated Press. They also investigated and cleared a Detroit man with whom Sherri Papini had been involved.

Watch Keith Papini talk about the search for his wife below.

Sherri Papini’s cellphone was analyzed and agents found some oddities: Two phone numbers stored under women’s names actually belonged to men, who were identified in the affidavit as Man 1 and Man 2. Man 1 was the Detroit resident, who was in California at the time of Papini’s disappearance.

Man 1 told authorities he and Papini had met in 2011 and spent a weekend together, Lantto wrote. They stayed in touch, sending flirtatious texts to one another over the years.

Though they had planned to meet up while he was in California, they never did so, he told investigators.

Man 2 was another former boyfriend.

“Man 2 described Papini as an attention-hungry person who told stories to try to get people’s attention,” the FBI agent wrote. “Man 2 stated that Papini fabricated stories of being the victim of abuse from her family, father, and then Man 2 after the couple broke up.”

Detectives also spoke to Papini’s first husband, a military man whom she married for health insurance. The man, identified as Man 3, told authorities he’d learned since their divorce that his ex-wife had a “history of lying.”

Papini’s friends confirmed that description to investigators, describing Papini as “crazy and wild” when she was younger. They said she was a frequent runaway who would “make up lies, particularly about being the victim of abuse, especially as a youth,” the court documents state.

The abduction investigation took a turn on Nov. 24, 2016, when authorities received several 911 calls about a woman standing or running in the middle of I-5. California Highway Patrol officers went to the scene, near Woodland, and found Papini.

“Papini had a chain around her waist that one arm was bound to, with additional bindings around her other wrist and each ankle,” Lantto wrote in the affidavit. “Papini was transported to Woodland Hospital where she underwent several physical examinations. She appeared to have lost a considerable amount of weight, and her long blonde hair had been cut much shorter.”

Papini’s injuries were extensive.

“She had been branded on her right shoulder, although the exact content of the brand was indistinguishable,” according to the document. “Papini’s nose was swollen, she had bruises on her face, rashes on her left arm and left upper inner thigh, as well as other parts of her body, ligature marks on her wrists and ankles, burns on her left forearm and bruising on her pelvis and the fronts of both legs.”

While she was at the hospital, Papini’s clothes were seized as evidence. DNA testing later showed that there were two people’s genetic material on her underwear and sweatpants, her own and that of an unidentified man.

In 2016, investigators were unable to identify the man.

‘A sizzling, popping sound’

When agents tried to interview Papini, she refused to speak to them. They gave her husband a recorder and had him document what she told him about her abduction.

Lantto wrote that Papini claimed she had been abducted by two Hispanic women, who told her that law enforcement was involved in her kidnapping. She said the kidnappers read to her stories from the newspaper that said Papini had left home on her own.

“She was laughing at me,” Papini said in the recording. “‘No one believes you. Everyone thinks you ran away. No one believes you. Guess what? The buyer’s a cop. They’re never gonna find you.”

Papini gave detailed descriptions of the purported kidnappers, which resulted in sketches being circulated by law enforcement officials.

It also resulted in years of tips from Redding and the surrounding communities about suspicious-looking Hispanic women, according to the affidavit.

As Keith Papini asked his wife questions, she said she had difficulty remembering some details. She alleged, however, that she was often kept in a closet with a bucket of cat litter for a toilet.

“She described the closet as containing shelves and a metal pole to which the women hooked a cable and a chain, with the other end of the chain hooked around her waist,” the court documents state. “There was enough length on it for Papini to reach the bed, but she could not reach the door.”

She also said her kidnappers would play loud music, describing mariachi music as “that really annoying Mexican music.”

Papini alleged that her captors fed her little food. They cut her hair, she said, and made her wear an adult diaper.

She was branded when she tried to escape, she claimed. Her skin made a “sizzling, popping sound” when it was burned.

She told her husband she never learned the name of the man who planned to buy her.

On the day she was found, she said it was the younger of the two abductors who put her in the car and dropped her off near Sacramento.

Read the criminal complaint and affidavit for Papini’s arrest below.

Papini later allowed detectives to question her, but always insisted that her husband be allowed to stay with her, the affidavit states.

Authorities found multiple inconsistencies in her story. In one instance, Papini alleged that after her hands had been bound behind her back with zip ties, she was able to chew them off, cutting her lip in the process.

She never clarified, however, how she was able to get her zip-tied hands to the front of her body in order to chew the plastic off her wrists.

There were also inconsistencies over whether she was branded as punishment or at the request of the man who planned to buy her.

‘White and proud of my blood and heritage’

In 2007, Sherri Papini was still Sherri Graeff. Graeff had a Myspace page.

The federal affidavit details a blog post on Papini’s page that “many people in the Redding area” speculated had been written by Papini.

In the post, Papini wrote about being picked on in high school by a group of Latinos.

“I used to come home in tears because I was getting suspended form school all the time for defending myself against the Latinos,” the post read. “The chief problem was that I was drug-free, white and proud of my blood and heritage.”

The post stated that it “really irked” a group of Latino girls, who would attack her. She fought back, she wrote, stating that it took “three full-sized men to pull me off her.”

“Being white is more than just being aware of my skin, but of standing behind Skinheads — who are always around, in spirit, as well — and having pride for my country,” the post read.

When asked about the post, Papini initially said she didn’t remember if she had a Myspace account. She later denied writing the “awful” post and said she believed someone had impersonated her and written the racist rant.

Over the subsequent years of the abduction investigation, Papini was interviewed several times by federal agents. According to Lantto, she gave vivid details of her ordeal, but those details of her captivity changed multiple times.

Keith Papini also contacted the FBI several times to give information his wife had subsequently told him about the alleged abduction. He described incidents in which she appeared to have post-traumatic flashbacks of what she had endured.

From 2017 through 2021, Papini received 35 payments from the victim’s compensation board for visits to a therapist. The board also paid for the ambulance that took her to a hospital the day she was found.

Green tea and the truth

Papini’s story began to unravel in September 2019, when Shasta County investigators requested that the state conduct a familial DNA search to identify the DNA found on Papini’s underwear, the affidavit states. The results came in the following March.

The search identified a possible close relative to the owner of the DNA. When that relative, called Person 2, was investigated, it was determined that he had two living sons.

One of those sons was Papini’s former fiancé.

As authorities started to look into the ex-boyfriend, they found evidence of his and Papini’s prior relationship. They also found a photo on a social media page belonging to the ex-boyfriend’s brother.

In the photo was a table that fit the description of the one Papini said her abductors had used when branding her, according to court documents.

On June 9, 2020, FBI agents dug through the trash outside the ex-boyfriend’s Costa Mesa home and seized a discarded green tea bottle.

The next day they learned that DNA found on the mouth of the bottle matched the DNA found on Papini’s clothes.

In August 2020, agents interviewed the former boyfriend, who admitted that he’d helped Papini “run away,” Lantto wrote.

“Papini told him that her husband was beating and raping her, and she was trying to escape,” the affidavit states. “Papini told ex-boyfriend that she had filed police reports, but the police were not doing anything to stop her husband’s abuse.”

The FBI agent notes that Shasta County authorities have no evidence of domestic violence reports filed against Keith Papini.

The man, who had known Papini since they were 13 or 14 years old, told investigators he was trying to be a good friend and help her find safety. He said she had reached out to him “out of the blue” and speculated that the contact was prompted after he found some old photos and personal items of hers in 2015 and sent them to her mother.

The former fiancé said he and Papini initially called each other on their regular cellphones, but eventually they started using prepaid phones to avoid getting caught.

The man said a hasty plan was put in place for him to pick Papini up in Redding the day of the alleged abduction. He had a friend rent a car for him and used it to drive to the pickup spot, the affidavit states.

FBI agents were later able to confirm the car rental.

“Ex-boyfriend pulled up to Papini, opened up the passenger side door of the vehicle and folded the front seat down so that Papini could get into the back seat,” the document reads. “Papini was wearing athletic clothes when ex-boyfriend picked her up. She had been jogging and was ‘all sweaty.’”

Papini lay down in the back seat and her former fiancé drove back to Costa Mesa, stopping only a few times for gas and coffee, Lantto wrote. Aside for concern about her children, Papini was “fairly quiet” on the drive.

Once at the former boyfriend’s house, Papini stayed there, never leaving the home, for three weeks. The man bought clothes for her on his way to or from work and kept up with his normal routine.

He said he slept on the couch and Papini slept in the bedroom, where she boarded up the window with particle board, the FBI agent wrote. She explained that she “wanted it to be dark,” the man said.

The closet in the bedroom was similar to the one Papini had described for investigators. A pole in the space was identical to the one Papini said her captors had chained her to.

Papini spent most of her time in the room when her former boyfriend was home. He said she needed “a lot of private time” but that they “hung out” and ate food together.

He said it appeared that Papini was purposefully trying to lose weight while staying with him.

“Papini ate whatever ex-boyfriend bought, but would eat small portions,” the affidavit states.

When he came home from work one day, Papini had cut her hair.

The man admitted that he helped Papini inflict some of the injuries she had when she was found, but said he never directly caused them. He did not help burn her arm, he said.

“Ex-boyfriend admitted to investigators he was confused by Papini injuring herself, and (he) stated, ‘There’s not too many people that come up and say: hurt me.’”

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Though she cut her hair just a few days into her stay, Papini inflicted the wounds on herself shortly before she left, he said.

He helped her brand herself with a wood burning tool from Hobby Lobby. According to Lantto, he described the tool in detail and said that while he didn’t recall the phrase Papini wanted him to burn into her skin, he remembered that it was something with meaning to her.

“The details of the branding on Papini’s right shoulder were not made known to the public,” the agent wrote.

Later, when investigators asked Papini what she thought the brand said, she said it looked like a Bible verse from the Book of Exodus, though she said she couldn’t make out the number of the chapter and verse. She said she read Exodus but it was a “really confusing Bible passage.”

“It’s like a really weird part of the Bible,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Just before Thanksgiving, after close to three weeks with him, Papini told her former fiancé she “missed her children and wanted to go home.”

The ex-boyfriend’s friend again rented a car for him and he drove Papini back to Redding. Papini tossed her prepaid phone out the window as they drove and she carried a bag of items she used to bind her wrists and ankles, including a chain.

Papini’s ex told investigators his cousin and his mother knew Papini was staying with him but didn’t know any details. He said he got “rattled” by the experience, particularly once he started seeing news stories about her disappearance.

FBI agents were able to corroborate many details of the former fiance’s story, including details about the abduction that had not been made public, the affidavit states. His family also corroborated that he’d told them about Papini coming to stay with him.

When confronted in August 2020 with the evidence against her, Papini denied staging the kidnapping, authorities said.

“During an interview conducted by a federal agent and a Shasta County Sheriff’s Office detective in August 2020, Papini was warned that it was a crime to lie to federal agents,” federal prosecutors said. “She was presented with evidence that showed she had not been abducted.

“Instead of retracting her kidnapping story, Papini continued to make false statements about her purported abductors.”

Johnson, the Shasta County sheriff, said last week that the outcome of the case, while not what was anticipated, still resulted in the truth.

“Everyone involved in this investigation had one common goal: to find the truth about what happened on Nov. 2, 2016, with Sherri Papini, and who was responsible,” Johnson said in a statement. “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 (it) caused the general public to be fearful of their own safety, a fear that they should not have had to endure.”

If convicted of making false statements to a federal officer, Papini faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine up to $250,000. If convicted of mail fraud, she faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine up to $250,000.