SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP/CBS13) — A Shasta County woman whose disappearance and mysterious reappearance set off a frantic three-week search more than five years ago was arrested Thursday on charges of lying to federal agents about being kidnapped and defrauding the state's victim compensation board of $30,000.
Sherri Papini, 39, of Redding, was found in November 2016 after days of searching in California and several nearby states, with bindings on her body and injuries including a "brand" on her right shoulder.
She had been reported missing Nov. 2. She told authorities at the time that she had been kidnapped at gunpoint by two Hispanic women, even providing descriptions to an FBI sketch artist.
In reality, authorities said, she was staying with a former boyfriend nearly 600 miles (966 kilometers) away from her home in Orange County, in Southern California, and hurt herself to back up her false statements.
"When a young mother went missing in broad daylight, a community was filled with fear and concern," U.S. Attorney Phillip Talbert said in a statement. "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."
Papini does not yet have an attorney because she was just arrested, Talbert's office said.
She was still lying about the kidnapping in August 2020 when she was interviewed by a federal agent and a Shasta County sheriff's detective, the charges allege. They showed her evidence indicating she had not been abducted and warned her that it was a crime to lie to a federal agent.
"I think early on, they figured out something was going on. She really didn't do a whole lot to cover her tracks. She left all sorts of clues," Sacramento Attorney Mark Reichel said.
But she still made false statements, the charges allege.
"The fact that [the former boyfriend's] not charged when he's a clear co-conspirator — make no mistake, she couldn't have done this by herself," Reichel said.
Reichel believes the ex-boyfriend has likely cut a deal and will testify against her at trial.
"He's clearly cooperating, and he's going to come into trial and he's going to point the finger at her and tell the truth about what happened," he said.
She also was reimbursed more than $30,000 by the California Victim's Compensation Board based on the false story, the charges said. They included money for visits to her therapist and for the ambulance ride to the hospital after she surfaced near Sacramento.
She also faces a mail fraud charge that carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison, while lying to a federal officer has a maximum five-year sentence.
"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," said Shasta County Sheriff Michael Johnson.
That 22-day search and five-year investigation not only cost money and time, he said, "but caused the general public to be fearful of their own safety, a fear that they should not have had to endure."
for more features.