Sacramento, CA – A California woman who made international headlines after she disappeared while out jogging and turned up in chains several weeks later was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison on Monday.
Papini pleaded guilty to charges of mail fraud and lying to a federal officer in April and appeared before Senior U.S. District Judge William Shubb for sentencing on Sept. 19.
She faced a maximum of 20 years in prison on the mail fraud charge and up to five years in prison for lying to federal officers, according to the Record Searchlight.
Federal prosecutors noted that Papini’s elaborate hoax wasted resources and harmed others, KABC reported.
“Papini planned and executed a sophisticated kidnapping hoax, and then continued to perpetuate her false statements for years after her return without regard for the harm she caused others,” the U.S. Attorney’s office said in a sentencing memo.
“As a result, state and federal investigators devoted limited resources to Papini’s case for nearly four years before they independently learned the truth: that she was not kidnapped and tortured,” prosecutors noted, according to KABC.
They described Papini as a “skillful liar and manipulator” who would “say or do anything” to try to avoid a lengthy prison sentence, the Record Searchlight reported.
They urged the court to sentence her to eight months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, KABC reported.
Papini’s attorney, William Portanova, said his client ultimately admitted to fabricating the elaborate hoax and that she will be suffering the consequences of her actions for the rest of her life, KABC reported.
“Sherri’s years of denial are now undeniably over. Her name is now synonymous with this awful hoax. There is no escaping it,” Portanova told the court. “It is hard to imagine a more brutal public revelation of a person’s broken inner self. At this point, the punishment is already intense and feels like a life sentence.”
Papini’s husband has also filed for divorce and is seeking custody of the couple’s two children, KABC reported.
“I stand before you humbled by this court, truly honored and grateful that you’re allowing me to speak,” Papini told the court prior to her sentence being handed down, according to the Record Searchlight. “I’m sorry to the many people who have suffered because of me.”
“I am guilty of lying. I am guilty of dishonor,” she continued. “What was done cannot be undone. I am choosing to humbly accept all responsibility.”
Portanova asked the court to sentence her to just one month in prison, followed by seven months of house arrest, KABC reported.
Shubb ultimately sentenced Papini to 18 months in federal prison and ordered her to turn herself in at 2 p.m. on Nov. 8 to begin serving her term.
The judge noted that he issued a longer sentence than prosecutors recommended because he wanted to use the case to help deter others and to “make sure that crime does not pay,” the Record Searchlight reported.
Shubb said the public needed to “be sent the right message” that potential copycats seeking money or sympathy will face stiff consequences.
He described Papini as “a manipulator,” the Record Searchlight reported.
“It’s not as if Ms. Papini has seen the error of her ways…If she had not been caught, she’d still be living the lie,” the judge declared. “She’d still be telling everybody how she was kidnapped and she’d still be taking the money that people were contributing.”
Shubb ordered Papini to pay back $309,902 in restitution to the California Victim Compensation Board, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office, and the Social Security Administration, the Record Searchlight reported.
But he also questioned whether or not the restitution will ever truly be paid off.
“I would ask rhetorically, ‘Who is going to employ Ms. Papini in the future?’” he said.
Portanova said his client will not be appealing the sentence, the Record Searchlight reported.
He told reporters after the hearing that the sentence was “fair…even though it’s longer than we wished,” the Associated Press reported.
“Obviously the court did what it thought was right, and frankly it’s difficult to argue with the justice of the sentence,” Portanova said. “I’m not really surprised because I understand the court’s analysis. … To the extent the judge wanted to underline the wrongness of her actions and tattoo it further on her soul, he accomplished that for sure.”
Portanova said he can’t explain why Papini faked her own kidnapping and continued to lie about it after she was “found.”
“Honestly, I don’t know if anybody does [know why she did it],” he said, according to the Associated Press. “I don’t know if she knows.”
Portanova said Papini’s case involves “a very complicated mental health condition” that “has to be confronted and dealt with.”
“That includes admission and acceptance and punishment,” he added.
Authorities said then-34-year-old Sherri Papini was reported missing on Nov. 2, 2016 after she went jogging near her home, sparking what turned into a 22-day search, KCRA reported.
Her husband told police that he searched for her along her running route after she failed to pick up their children from daycare but found only her cell phone and earphones.
Court documents said that Papini reappeared alongside Interstate 5, almost 150 miles from home, on Thanksgiving Day, KCRA reported.
When she was found, Papini was wearing a chain restraint around her waist and one arm, and had other bindings around her other wrist and on both of her ankles.
Investigators said her nose was swollen and she had bumps, bruising, and rashes on many other parts of her body, KCRA reported.
Papini also had ligature marks on her wrists and ankles, and burn marks on left forearm, according to court documents.
Her previously-long hair had been chopped off at shoulder length and authorities said at the time that she had a blurred “brand” burned into her right shoulder, KCRA reported.
Papini said she had been kidnapped at gunpoint by two Hispanic women and provided a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sketch artist a description.
She was able to give investigators a detailed account of her harrowing experience.
Investigators found both male and female DNA on Papini’s body, and it was some of the male DNA that led them in 2020 to one of the alleged victim’s former boyfriends.
The ex-boyfriend told police that Papini had called him to pick her up in Redding and she had been hiding at his house in Southern California the entire time that authorities were searching for her, KCRA reported.
A 55-page affidavit filed in criminal court showed that authorities were able to verify the former boyfriend’s account by tracking the locations of two prepaid cell phones that he and Papini had been using to communicate since December of 2015.
One of the former boyfriend’s cousins told investigators that he saw Papini at his cousin’s apartment twice and that both times, she was unrestrained, KCRA reported.
Police said records showed the ex-boyfriend told the truth when he said he had rented a car to drive Papini back to Northern California about three weeks after he picked her up.
Authorities said that when Papini was confronted with evidence of her lies by a federal agent and a Shasta County sheriff’s detective in August of 2020, she stuck to her story, KCRA reported.
She was subsequently charged with lying to a federal agent.
Charging documents also said that when Papini was “found,” she benefited financially from her fraudulent abduction, KCRA reported.
Papini accepted more than $49,000 that was raised in a GoFundMe account to help her family while she was missing.
The criminal complaint said that Papini also received $30,000 from the California Victim’s Compensation Board, which included money for a therapist’s “treatment for anxiety and PTSD” and the cost of her ambulance ride to the hospital when she was found, KCRA reported.
Her federal mail fraud conviction stemmed from the reimbursements she submitted to the state.
“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,” Shasta County Sheriff Michael Johnson said in a statement on Facebook when the charges were announced.
Sheriff Johnson said the answers had been a long time in coming and thanked federal authorities for pursuing the investigation.
“Sherri Papini cost public safety [conservatively] in excess of $150,000 dollars in resources to investigate her knowingly false claims and staged abduction,” the sheriff wrote. “Not only did this charade take valuable resources away from real criminal investigative matters, but in a time where there is serious human trafficking cases with legitimate victims Sherri Papini used this tragic societal phenomenon to gain notoriety and financial gain.”
Papini has not offered much of an explanation for her actions.
“I am deeply ashamed of myself for my behavior and so very 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 by her attorney in April, according to the Associated Press. “I will work the rest of my life to make amends for what I have done.”