The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A mother said she was kidnapped. Now she admits it was all a hoax.

A “missing” sign for Redding, Calif., resident Sherri Papini is shown in November 2016 near the location where the mother of two had been believed to have gone missing while jogging. In March, Papini was arrested on charges of faking her own kidnapping. (Andrew Seng/The Sacramento Bee via AP)

When Sherri Papini was found alone on an interstate highway nearly 150 miles from her home on Thanksgiving Day in 2016, the Northern California mother told police she had been abducted while jogging by two Hispanic women at gunpoint and was branded with a heated tool. Papini, whose husband said she weighed less than 90 pounds when she was discovered, recounted to authorities about how the masked kidnappers kept her chained in a closet for three weeks in a case that set off a nationwide search.

But in reality, Papini was never kidnapped, according to the Justice Department. Instead, authorities found last month that Papini had been staying with an ex-boyfriend and received more than $30,000 in victim assistance money from the state as a result of what turned out to be an elaborate hoax, according to court documents. Authorities say the bruises and burns she suffered from her “abductors” are thought to be self-inflicted.

Now, the self-described “super mom” from Redding, Calif., is admitting to her big lie more than five years later.

The Justice Department announced Tuesday that Papini, 39, had signed a plea agreement “admitting that she planned and participated in her own hoax kidnapping.” Papini, who was arrested March 3, agreed to plead guilty to one count of mail fraud and one count of making false statements to a federal law enforcement officer. She had initially faced 34 counts of mail fraud.

Her attorney, William Portanova, confirmed that Papini had signed the plea agreement to the Sacramento Bee, the first to report the story.

“I am deeply ashamed of myself for my behavior and so sorry for the pain I’ve caused 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,” Papini said in a statement released through Portanova. “I will work the rest of my life to make amends for what I have done.”

Neither Portanova, a former federal prosecutor, nor Keith Papini, Sherri Papini’s husband, immediately responded to requests for comment early Wednesday. Portanova told the Bee on Tuesday that her legal team was “taking this case in an entirely new direction.”

“Everything that has happened before today stops today,” he said.

If convicted of mail fraud, Papini faces a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, according to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of California. She faces up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 if she’s convicted on the charge of making false statements to a federal law enforcement officer.

Papini will pay more than $300,000 in restitution to local, state and federal agencies, according to the plea agreement. Prosecutors have indicated that they would recommend reduced sentences. A court date has yet to be scheduled for Papini to enter her guilty pleas, but Portanova told the Associated Press that she will probably enter them next week.

On Nov. 2, 2016, Papini went for a late-morning jog while her husband was at work, Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko told reporters at the time. Her husband began to worry when she did not pick up their children from day care or return home that evening. After he found her cellphone and ear buds about a mile away from their home, the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office listed her as a missing person who was at risk.

As search-and-rescue teams conducted ground and aerial searches across California and several nearby states for three weeks, Papini’s family members and friends were pleading for her safe return. A GoFundMe page created to help with search-and-rescue efforts raised more than $49,000. Her case made national headlines, including in The Washington Post.

Then, at 4:30 a.m. on Nov. 24, 2016, the sheriff’s office learned that Papini had been found safe near Interstate 5 in Yolo County — 146 miles south of her home — in what authorities described at the time as “an absolute miracle” on Thanksgiving Day. Keith Papini said in a statement released to ABC’s “Good Morning America” that his wife weighed 87 pounds and “was covered in multicolored bruises, severe burns, red rashes and chain markings.” Her hair was chopped off, and she had been branded on her right shoulder, her husband said in November 2016.

“My reaction was one of extreme happiness and overwhelming nausea as my eyes and hands scanned her body. I was filled with so much relief and revulsion at once,” Keith Papini said in the statement. “My 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.”

The sheriff’s office released few details at the time Sherri Papini was found, but vowed to “not rest until Sherri’s captor or captors are identified and brought to justice.”

But years after the alleged kidnapping, authorities concluded that Sherri Papini had made the whole thing up.

“The investigation eventually showed … that this was a false narrative Papini fabricated,” Phillip A. Talbert, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, said in a statement last month. “In truth, Papini had been voluntarily staying with a former boyfriend in Costa Mesa and had harmed herself to support her false statements.”

In August 2020, Papini was interviewed by a federal agent and a Shasta County Sheriff’s Office detective. She was warned at the time that it was a crime to lie to a federal agent, according to the Justice Department.

Investigators told her that they found how she had been staying with an ex-boyfriend nearly 600 miles away at his apartment in Costa Mesa, Calif., and that she had injured herself. FBI agents found that items in the ex-boyfriend’s garage had DNA matching some collected from Papini’s clothing, court documents show. The man later told authorities that he helped Papini “run away” when she claimed her husband was abusing her, according to court documents. No police reports alleging abuse had been filed, the Bee reported.

Yet when Papini was presented with evidence that showed she had not been abducted, she did not retract her story. Instead, she doubled down and “continued to make false statements about her purported abductors,” the Justice Department said last month.

Authorities noted that the California Victim’s Compensation Board made 35 payments to Papini between 2017 and 2021 totaling more than $30,000 in victim assistance.

“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,” Tolbert said.

Portanova described his client’s case to the AP as “a very complicated mental health situation, but one that has to be confronted and dealt with — and that includes admission and acceptance and punishment.” The attorney admitted he still has a difficult time figuring out why Papini faked her own kidnapping.

“Honestly, I don’t know if anybody does,” he said. “I don’t know if she knows.”

Lindsey Bever and Sarah Larimer contributed to this report.