Sherri Papini, the California woman whose disappearance made national headlines and sparked a massive search before she reappeared on Thanksgiving day in 2016, pleaded guilty on Monday to faking her own kidnapping and lying to the FBI.
The 39-year-old from Redding, in the state’s far north, did not offer any explanation for the elaborate hoax or why she claimed two “Hispanic women” had kidnapped her at gunpoint and chained her to a pole for three weeks while depriving her of food, beating and branding her.
As William Shubb, a senior US district judge, outlined the charges against Papini during a court hearing, she answered only “Yes, Your Honor,” and “No, Your Honor” and tearfully told the judge she felt “very sad”.
Questions about the nature of Papini’s disappearance had swirled for years amid skepticism of her account and reports that the married mother of two had initially refused to answer questions from investigators. Papini agreed to plead guilty in a deal reached with prosecutors last week, more than a month after the FBI announced it found she staged the kidnapping and spent the 22 days at an ex-boyfriend’s house in southern California. Investigators concluded she inflicted the injuries on herself or had her ex-boyfriend do it for her.
Prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence on the low end of the sentencing range, estimated to be between eight and 14 months in custody, down from the maximum 25 years for the two charges. Papini is scheduled to be sentenced on 11 July.
She has agreed to pay restitution of more than $300,000, which will include the cost of the search for her that spanned several states and the subsequent investigation into the women she claimed had abducted her. Her case received widespread coverage, prompting volunteers to dedicate their time to the search and donate thousands of dollars to support her family.
Papini spent those weeks with a former boyfriend in Orange county, nearly 600 miles from her home in northern California. He dropped her off along Interstate 5, nearly 150 miles from her home, three weeks later.
She had bindings on her body and self-inflicted injuries including a swollen nose and blurred “brand” on her right shoulder. She had other bruises and rashes on many parts of her body, ligature marks on her wrists and ankles, and burns on her left forearm. Her long hair had been cut short.
Papini admitted in her guilty plea that she continued lying about the incident for years, falsely claiming she was kidnapped as recently as August 2020. After she returned home in 2016, she visited with the family of Tera Smith, a teenager who went missing in 1998 after running along the same trail where Papini said she had been abducted.
Papini has offered no rationale for why she staged the hoax. Several people who knew Papini told the FBI that she had a history of lying, including claiming her family abused her, in order to get attention, according to a criminal complaint. Her attorney, William Portanova, has suggested that she has “a very complicated mental health situation”, and said he doubts even she knows why she lied.
Prosecutors say Papini planned the fake kidnapping for more than a year without her husband knowing. The former boyfriend told investigators they didn’t have sex while she stayed with him.
“It is a mistake to assume mental illness is the cause of unusual behavior,” said Dr Ian Lamoureux, a forensic psychiatrist and frequent expert witness who teaches at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and the Mayo Clinic.
Papini’s organization and planning would seem to make conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression an unlikely explanation, said Lamoureux, who specializes in complicated criminal and civil cases. He has not treated Papini.
She may have expected that the kidnapping hoax would bring her “fame and fortune”, he said.
Papini did financially benefit from the hoax. The court has ordered her to repay nearly $128,000 in disability payments. A GoFundMe campaign for Papini’s family raised more than $49,000.
On Monday, Papini said that she has been receiving psychiatric care for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder since her return in 2016. She billed more than $30,000 worth of treatment to a state victim compensation fund, which she must now repay as part of her restitution.
Lamoureux has researched the false hero or “pathological hero” phenomenon, that takes advantage of society’s treatment of victims as heroes. Those who fake their own victimization may be seeking recognition or popularity, and if mental illness is involved it may suggest a narcissistic or histrionic personality disorder.
Another possible explanation is that she faked her kidnapping to avoid some other adverse consequence, he said, typically something like a divorce or being fired, though Papini was a stay-at-home mom.
Lamoureux said manufacturing a crisis may be a way for those with fragile egos and poor coping skills to seek to prevent the bad outcome from happening.