'The Vanishing Act': How Sherri Papini fooled investigators, family with phony kidnap plot
'20/20' takes a look back at the six-year saga of the phony kidnapping case.
It was the shocking abduction of a mother of two small children that rocked a family, a Northern California town and the nation. After Sherri Papini turned up on the side of a highway three weeks after her mysterious disappearance, investigators worked tirelessly to find the people responsible.
But in the end, it was Sherri Papini herself who masterminded her own disappearance, and inflicted numerous injuries on herself while staying with an ex-boyfriend, who was unaware of her scheme. Papini told investigators that she was taken by two fictional Hispanic women and held against her will for weeks before being let go.
Last week, Papini, 40, owned up to her lies pleading guilty to one count of making false statements and one count of mail fraud She was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison, double the amount of time requested by federal prosecutors.
"I am guilty of lying. I am guilty of dishonor. I stand before you willing to accept, to repent and to concede," Papini said during the Sept. 19 hearing. "What was done cannot be undone."
A special "20/20" airing on Sept. 30 at 9 p.m. ET takes viewers inside the six-year saga and investigation using newly obtained photos, 911 tapes and police interviews to lay out how investigators were able to unravel Papini's lies.
From the start, investigators suspected that something was off.
Papini, a then 34-year-old mother of two, went missing on Nov. 2, 2016, while out for a jog in her Redding neighborhood. A massive search was launched for her, with community and family members, including her husband, Keith Papini, pitching in to find the missing mom.
At the time, Keith Papini pleaded with the public for help.
"It is excruciating; I don't like to think too much about it because I just assume that I'm going to get a phone call any second or she's going to show up at my house," Keith Papini told ABC News in 2016.
A reward was offered for information relating to the case and a GoFundMe account was set up by friends of Keith Papini to aid the family in search efforts, which raised nearly $50,000.
On Nov. 24, 2016, Thanksgiving Day, Sherri Papini was found on a highway about 146 miles away from Redding, with injuries covering her body, including a bible verse branded on her shoulder.
"The bruises were just intense," Keith Papini told ABC News shortly after his wife was found. "She's always had very long, blonde hair [and] they chopped it off."
Recorded police interviews with Sherri Papini in the hours after her return showed she was reluctant to speak with investigators, claiming that her abductors told her she was going to be trafficked to someone in law enforcement.
"Two women. There was an older one and a younger one," Sherri Papini told police. "They were Hispanic. They spoke Spanish a lot."
Given her reticence to speak, officers had her husband sit in with her during one interview and ask the questions about what happened.
Detectives later returned for a second interview, but Sherri Papini remained reluctant to open up to them.
"I don't know you guys. I don't know if you're in my corner. I know my husband, I know my husband's in my corner," she said during that interview with investigators.
She claimed that two Latina women abducted her at gunpoint and took her in an SUV to a location where she was kept chained up.
Police had very little to work with aside from that vague description of the suspects. It took investigators a full year to gather enough information from Papini about her abductors to release composite sketches of the suspects to the public.
Alan Ernesto Phillips, the co-founder of the Northern Hispanic Latino Coalition, told ABC News that the hunt for suspects rattled the Redding Latino community.
"Latina women were fearful that they might look like one of those people in the sketch," he said.
Former Shasta County Sheriff's Deputy Capt. Pat Kropholler told ABC News that investigators noticed several red flags in the story Sherri Papini told about her abduction and abuse. For instance, she had different explanations as to why she was branded by her abductors.
After her return investigators collected Papini's clothing so that it could be tested for any biological material.
They were eventually able to determine that DNA belonging to a male was present on her clothing, but when that DNA was searched in the criminal database, no positive hits were returned.
While searching her phone records, investigators were also able to determine that in the days prior to her abduction, Sherri Papini was in touch with several men.
Police also began to question Papini's friends and an ex-husband who spoke about her tendency to lie and run away.
"That is how she used to deal with things as a child. When things got hard, she would just run away," Asia Coleman, one of her friends, told the Shasta County Sheriff's department during an interview.
"There were some infidelity issues in her background that, even Keith had told us about," Kropholler told ABC News.
Investigators made little progress in the case until 2020, when, with the help of genetic genealogy, that DNA was finally matched to James Reyes, an ex-boyfriend of Sherri Papini.
When the police questioned him, Reyes initially said that he had not spoken to Sherri Papini in years, but he eventually revealed that she had asked him for help.
Detectives told ABC News that Sherri Papini lied to Reyes, telling him she was being abused by her husband Keith.
"She was trying to get away from her husband," Reyes told investigators, unaware that Sherri's allegations against Keith were unfounded.
Reyes added that he didn't know anything about the two Hispanic women who Sherri Papini said held her at gunpoint.
He revealed that Papini suggested he rent a car and pick her up. They then traveled nine hours south to Costa Mesa, where she stayed at his apartment with him for weeks.Reyes also revealed that the bruises, cuts and burns on her body were largely self-inflicted, and that she also asked him to hurt her. Reyes recounted to investigators how Sherri Papini asked him to brand her.
"I'm like, 'oh, this is probably going to hurt.' I mean, I've never done this," Reyes told investigators.
Reyes said things changed on Thanksgiving, when Sherri Papini told Reyes that she missed her kids, and wanted to go home.
Now that investigators were armed with James Reyes' account of the supposed kidnapping, they called Sherri Papini and her husband in again for questioning.
In August 2020, the police questioned Sherri Papini again with her husband by her side, and told her that they matched the DNA to Reyes. They also told her that Reyes had shared everything he knew.
Sherri Papini at first deflected questions about Reyes's story, maintaining that she did flirt with other men, and stuck to her story that it was two women who abducted her.
"I don't understand; there's no way this is James. He loves me," she told investigators.
Keith Papini was shocked at the revelations and, at one point, walked out of the room.
"I'm the idiot husband who stayed around the whole time," he told investigators.
Keith Papini would eventually file for divorce in 2022.
In March, Sherri Papini was arrested and charged with making false statements and mail fraud.
Prosecutors have said that Sherri Papini's hoax kidnapping cost taxpayers more than $300,000 in wasted resources, including money she collected from the California Victim's Compensation Board and Social Security Disability income.
The news sent shockwaves through Redding. Residents who had supported Papini and her family through the years said they felt betrayed.
Two local residents who had supported the Papinis were Terry and Marilyn Smith, whose daughter Tera has been missing since 1998. The Smiths told ABC News that the news of Sherri Papini's arrest was "kind of a slap in the face."
"It just kind of makes a mockery out of anyone who's really lost a person," Marilyn Smith said.
Alan Ernesto Phillips said the Latino community felt vilified.
"There are no dangerous, masked, gun-toting Hispanic-Latino women here, wanting to abduct your children, especially if they're white," he said.
Last week Keith Papini released a statement, shortly after his wife's sentencing that read. "My current focus is on moving on and doing everything I can to provide my two children with as normal, healthy and happy of a life as possible."
In her statement to the judge before sentencing, Sherri Papini said she was willing to accept responsibility for her actions.
"I am not choosing to stay frozen like I was in 2016. I am choosing to commit to healing the parts of myself that were so very broken," she said.
U.S. District Court Judge William Shubb ordered Sherri Papini to pay $309,000 in restitution and even questioned if she would be able to pay that money.
"I would ask rhetorically, who is going to employ her in the future?" the judge asked during the sentencing hearing.
Sherri Papini waived her right to appeal and is scheduled to turn herself in on Nov. 8 to begin her 18-month sentence.