The kidnapping of Sherri Papini, who disappeared during a jog in the northern California woods and, by her own account, was abducted, chained to a pole for three weeks, half-starved, beaten, branded and then released, was a fabrication, federal authorities said.
According to the FBI, whose long investigation culminated in Papini’s arrest on Thursday, she spent the 22 days of her supposed captivity at an ex-boyfriend’s house in southern California and either inflicted the injuries on herself or got the ex-boyfriend to do it for her, according to the FBI.
A statement from Papini’s family expressed dismay that she was arrested in front of her two children but did not directly challenge the FBI’s findings, saying: “We are confused by several aspects of the charges and hope to get clarification in the coming days.”
News of Papini’s arrest stunned the small town of Redding where, in late 2016, friends and neighbors responded to news of her abduction by raising money to help her family. One friend, working with an anonymous donor and a government security consultant, even concocted an elaborate scheme to offer $100,000 or more for Papini’s release – a sum they called a “reverse ransom” because her captors never asked for money, or anything else.
The news appears to have come as less of a surprise to the Shasta county sheriff’s department, which came under heavy criticism at the time for casting doubt on the abduction story and for worrying that the “reverse ransom” offer was an open invitation to scam artists. Papini was initially listed as a “voluntary missing adult” before the California department of justice, under heavy public pressure, changed the designation to “disappearance under suspicious circumstances”.
The sheriff’s department did not comment on the FBI’s findings and investigation.
Papini herself is being charged with lying to the FBI and with mail fraud – because, according to the government’s court filings, some of the money she received came in the mail. And, while the couple raised more than $30,000 through a GoFundMe drive – money that the FBI says they used to pay off credit card debt, among other things – the authorities have said they have no plans to charge the husband, Keith Papini, with a crime.
It’s unclear why Papini apparently staged her own kidnapping, but in a 55-page criminal complaint, the FBI quotes several people close to Papini saying that she has a history of telling lies to draw attention to herself. An ex-husband told investigators she had “fabricated stories about being the victim of abuse” both during and after their marriage.
Papini initially said her captors were two Latina women – an accusation that coincided with Donald Trump’s election as president and a flurry of hostile political rhetoric directed at individuals from Mexico and Central America.
The criminal complaint, by contrast, describes how Papini and her ex-boyfriend used prepaid “burner” phones to communicate for several months before he drove to Redding to pick her up on the day of the supposed abduction.
She left behind some strands of hair, and her cellphone – which her husband later thought had been “placed” in a way he found weird. Then, for the next three weeks, she hid out at her ex-boyfriend’s apartment, deliberately eating less than usual, chopping off her hair and harming herself. At one point, Papini sent her ex-boyfriend to a hardware store to buy a wood burning tool which he used to brand her shoulder, the complaint said.
Early in the investigation, the FBI found male DNA on Papini’s clothes that did not match her husband’s. But they had to wait until 2020 before receiving permission to test the ex-boyfriend’s own DNA, eventually recovering some from a bottle of green tea they recovered from his trash. It matched.
It was the ex-boyfriend – not named in the complaint – who told the authorities about the allegedly staged abduction, and the FBI later corroborated most of his story through phone records and car rental records. They also talked to two of his cousins who saw Papini at his apartment during her “captivity”.
One of the many outstanding questions in the case is whether local law enforcement in Redding is still investigating other aspects of the story. The Shasta county sheriff’s department did not respond when asked, and the friend who set up the “reverse ransom” scheme did not respond to an interview request.