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Sherri Papini sentenced to 18 months in prison for faking her own kidnapping in 2016

Sherri Papini sentenced to 18 months in prison
Sherri Papini sentenced to 18 months in prison 00:40

A Northern California mother of two was sentenced Monday to 18 months in prison for faking her own kidnapping so she could go back to a former boyfriend, which led to a three-week, multi-state search before she resurfaced on Thanksgiving Day in 2016.

Sherri Papini, 40, pleaded guilty earlier this year to two counts of mail fraud and making false statements to federal agents about circumstances surrounding the imagined kidnapping, in a deal that lowered her maximum possible sentence from 25 years and included more than $300,000 in restitution payments, the Department of Justice announced on Monday.

Monday's sentencing hearing came more than five years after Papini's widely publicized disappearance prompted a three-week search that spanned multiple states ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday in 2016, and about six months after her arrest this past March. 

Papini's defense attorney and probation officers had previously argued for a one-month sentence and seven months of supervised home detention, while prosecutors pushed for a full term in prison. 

But Senior U.S. District Judge William Shubb said he opted for an 18-month sentence in order to deter others.

The judge said he also considered "the sheer number of people who were impacted."

Papini, who was emotional throughout the proceedings, quietly answered, "Yes, sir," when the judge asked if she understood the sentence.   

California-Faked Kidnapping
Sherri Papini leaves the federal courthouse after Federal Judge William Shubb sentenced her to 18 months in federal prison, in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Sept. 19, 2022.  Rich Pedroncelli / AP

The money Papini owes covers material losses to the Shasta County Sheriff's Office and Federal Bureau of Investigation — as both law enforcement agencies were involved searching for Papini when she seemingly disappeared, and later, the "abductors" she claimed held her captive — in addition to the California Victim Compensation Board and Social Security Administration, according to the Department of Justice. Papini collected nearly $130,000 in disability payments since the kidnapping hoax and has received psychiatric care for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder totaling at least $30,000 in value.

"Papini's kidnapping hoax was deliberate, well planned, and sophisticated," prosecutors wrote in their court filing. And she was still falsely telling people she was kidnapped, prosecutors said, months after she pleaded guilty to staging the abduction and lying to the FBI about it.

In a responding court filing, defense attorney William Portanova described Papini as "outwardly sweet and loving, yet capable of intense deceit."

California-Faked Kidnapping
Sherri Papini walks to the federal courthouse accompanied by her attorney, William Portanova, right, in Sacramento, Calif., on April 13, 2022. Rich Pedroncelli / AP

"Ms. Papini's chameleonic personalities drove her to simultaneously crave family security and the freedom of youth," wrote Portanova.

So "in pursuit of a non-sensical fantasy," Portanova said the married mother fled to a former boyfriend in Southern California, nearly 600 miles south of her home in Redding. He dropped her off along Interstate 5 about 150 miles from her residence after she said that she wanted to return home.

Passersby found her with bindings on her body, a swollen nose, a blurred "brand" on her right shoulder, bruises and rashes across her body, ligature marks on her wrists and ankles, and burns on her left forearm. All of the injuries were apparently self-inflicted, and all designed to support Papini's story that claimed she had been abducted at gunpoint by two Hispanic women while she was out for a run.

The wounds were a manifestation of her "unsettled masochism" and "self-inflicted penance," Portanova wrote. And once she began, "each lie demanded another lie."

Prosecutors said Papini's ruse harmed more than just herself and her family. "An entire community believed the hoax and lived in fear that Hispanic women were roving the streets to abduct and sell women," they wrote.

Prosecutors agreed to seek a sentence on the low end of the sentencing range in exchange for Papini's guilty plea. That was projected to be between eight and 14 months in custody, down from the maximum 25 years for the two charges.

She has offered no rationale for her actions, which stumped even independent mental health experts who said her actions don't conform with any typical diagnosis.

"Papini's painful early years twisted and froze her in myriad ways," Portanova said in arguing for home confinement. With his client's hoax revealed, he said, "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."

But prosecutors said her "past trauma and mental health issues alone cannot account for all of her actions."

"Papini's planning of her hoax kidnapping was meticulous and began months in advance – it was not merely the reaction to a traumatic childhood," they wrote.

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