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Sherri Papini made up story of 2016 abduction in California, officials say

Papini's disappearance and her story about being held at gunpoint and being branded sparked widespread media attention.

Sherri Papini, the California mother who disappeared for weeks in 2016 and claimed she’d been kidnapped at gunpoint, made up the story and had been staying with an ex-boyfriend, authorities said Thursday.

Papini, now 39, was arrested for allegedly lying to investigators in 2020 when presented with evidence the kidnapping was faked and of defrauding California out of more than $30,000 in victim assistance money, law enforcement officials announced.

Papini’s disappearance in Northern California in November 2016 set off a nationwide search that involved the FBI.

Three weeks later, she was found along Interstate 5 in rural Yolo County, with a chain around her waist and a "brand" on her shoulder she said was inflicted by her captors, according to court documents.

“Ultimately, the investigation revealed that there was no kidnapping,” Phillip A. Talbert, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, said in a statement. He said, "countless hours" were spent not only on the search for her, but for the purported abductors.

Papini faces charges of making false statements to law enforcement and engaging in mail fraud, the prosecutor's office said.

Chris Thomas, a representative for the Papini family, said in a statement her family stands behind her.

"We love Sherri and are appalled by the way in which law enforcement ambushed her this afternoon in a dramatic and unnecessary manner in front of her children," the statement said.

"If requested, Sherri would have fully complied and come to the police station, as she has done multiple times before, where this could have been handled in a more appropriate way. Sherri and Keith have cooperated with law enforcement’s requests despite repeated attempts to unnecessarily pit them against each other, empty threats to publicly embarrass them and other conduct that was less than professional. We are confused by several aspects of the charges and hope to get clarification in the coming days."

Papini's relative, Dorina Graeff, said Friday she supports her "favorite niece."

"She is a special, beautiful person and I'm on her side."

Graeff declined further comment.

Papini was in custody Thursday. Her case did not appear in online federal court records, and it was not clear if she had an attorney who could speak on her behalf.

Papini, of Redding, was reported missing on Nov. 2, 2016, after she failed to pick up her two children at daycare. She had last been seen jogging in her neighborhood, and her cell phone with earbuds were found at an intersection.

On Nov. 24, 2016, she was found along I-5 with injuries that authorities now say were self-inflicted.

She told investigators that two Hispanic women with a handgun kept her captive, and investigators looked for those people and enlisted an FBI sketch artist, an FBI agent wrote in an affidavit filed in the criminal case.

In 2020, DNA found on Papini's clothes that was put in a database and routinely checked ultimately led investigators to her ex-boyfriend, according to the affidavit.

That ex-boyfriend told investigators that Papini asked him for help and needed to get away, that he agreed to drive to pick her up in Redding, and that she stayed at his home in Costa Mesa in the Los Angeles area the whole time, the FBI agent wrote in the document.

The ex said he didn’t know “what the final plan was” or if they’d get back together, the affidavit says.

Papini asked him to brand her at one point, which he did with a wood-burning tool, and eventually she asked to be driven back to Northern California, it says.

Investigators say the ex-boyfriend’s story was corroborated with car rental receipts and phone records, and the ex-boyfriend knew details not known to the public.

The ex-boyfriend told investigators he initially thought he was just helping a friend, but after seeing the news about the later kidnapping claims he got worried, according to the affidavit.

He decided not to make any calls, but assumed if the truth was discovered police would come to him and he would cooperate, the document says.

No charges against anyone else in the case were announced Thursday.

In August 2020, investigators interviewed Papini again and she repeated parts of her story about women with a gun, and when confronted denied she stayed with her ex, according to the affidavit.

“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 L. Johnson said in Thursday’s statement.