SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- A Northern California woman pleaded guilty Monday to faking her own kidnapping and lying to the FBI about it, leaving her motive unanswered in the carefully planned hoax that set off a massive three-week search before she resurfaced on Thanksgiving Day in 2016.
Sherri Papini, 39, of Redding, offered no explanation for her elaborate hoax during the half-hour court hearing.
“I feel very sad,” she said tearfully when Senior U.S. District Judge William Shubb asked her how she was feeling.
“Were you kidnapped?” he asked her later in the hearing.
“No, Your Honor,” she replied.
“Did you lie to government agents when you told them you were kidnapped?” Shubb continued.
“Yes, Your Honor,” she responded.
Papini agreed to plead guilty in a deal with prosecutors reached last week and is scheduled to be sentenced July 11.
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.
She also agreed to pay restitution topping $300,000. That includes the cost of the search for her that covered several Western states, and the subsequent investigation into the “two Hispanic women” she said had kidnapped her at gunpoint.
Papini was actually staying with a former boyfriend nearly 600 miles (966 kilometers) away in Southern California’s Orange County. Three weeks later, he dropped her off along Interstate 5 nearly 150 miles (240 kilometers) from her home.
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.
The married mother of two kept lying about it as recently as August 2020 when in fact there was no kidnapping, she admitted in her guilty plea.
Papini has offered no rationale for why she did it.
Her attorney, William Portanova, said last week that he doubts even she knows.
He suggested “a very complicated mental health situation," and said her long-delayed acceptance of responsibility and punishment is part of the healing process.
Papini said Monday that she has been receiving psychiatric care for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder ever since her return — more than $30,000 worth of treatment for which she billed a state victim compensation fund and which is now part of her restitution.
Prosecutors say her faked kidnapping wasn’t impulsive, and that she planned it for more than a year without her husband knowing. The former boyfriend told investigators they didn’t have sex while she stayed with him.
Papini’s organization and planning would seem to make conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression an unlikely explanation, two mental health experts said independently.
Both cautioned that they have not examined Papini and that many factors in the case remain unknown to the public.
She may have expected that the kidnapping hoax would bring her “fame and fortune,” 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.
And she did benefit financially: Aside from the victim compensation, she must repay nearly $128,000 in disability payments. Separately, a GoFundMe campaign raised more than $49,000 to help the family.
As a possibly related factor, 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, who specializes in complicated criminal and civil cases, 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.
And there are such things as compulsive liars, as well as those who do “not have a great distinction between fantasy and reality,” sometimes because of an earlier trauma, said Dr. Ziv Cohen, founder and medical director of Principium Psychiatry in New York City.
This case is unusual in that Papini had no clear motive and “this is consciously creating some kind of false traumatic situation,” said Cohen, who teaches at Weill Cornell Medical College and Columbia University. “She harmed herself — she wasn't actually abused by anyone.”
But for some pathological liars the motivation is simply in fooling others, he said, in this case perhaps her husband and investigators.
“These patients can sometimes remain quite mysterious and they often can deny their lies right until the end,” Cohen said. “They will persist and say in the face of all evidence that their version is true.”