A Northern California mother whose claims of being kidnapped at gunpoint while jogging ignited a massive manhunt in 2016 and a yearslong news frenzy has signed a plea bargain with prosecutors in which she admits to making the whole thing up.
Sherri Papini, a 39-year-old mother of two, has agreed to plead guilty to a single count of mail fraud and one count of lying to a federal officer, according to a plea agreement signed Tuesday with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California.
“I am deeply ashamed of myself for my behavior and so very sorry for the pain I’ve caused my family, my friends, all the good people who needlessly suffered because of my story and those who worked so hard to try to help me,” Papini said in a statement released by her attorney.
As part of her plea deal, Papini has agreed to pay more than $300,000 in restitution to local, state and federal agencies that she’s accused of defrauding through her alleged kidnapping scheme. Prosecutors also said they will request a prison sentence that is at the lower end of the sentencing guidelines.
Papini’s plea deal was signed the same day that prosecutors filed amended charges against her, consisting of 34 counts of mail fraud and one count of making false statements to a federal law enforcement officer. Committing mail fraud carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence and a fine of up to $250,000, while lying to a federal officer carries a maximum five-year prison sentence and a fine of up to $250,000.
The court has yet to schedule a date for Papini to enter her guilty pleas, the U.S. attorney’s office said in a statement Tuesday.
Papini’s sensational story began in December 2015, authorities said, when she first contacted an ex-boyfriend with a prepaid cellphone and requested his help in running away from her home and family in Redding, California.
Nearly a year later, in November 2016, authorities say Papini staged her own kidnapping with her ex-boyfriend’s help. She left her cellphone and strands of her hair on a street corner and instructed her ex-boyfriend to pick her up and take her to his home in Costa Mesa, California, where she voluntarily stayed for more than three weeks.
“During that time, Papini took steps to make it appear as if she had been
physically abused. Papini stayed indoors and instructed Ex-Boyfriend to keep her presence at the house secret,” the signed plea agreement states.
Panini, with the help of her ex-boyfriend, publicly resurfaced later that month wearing various bindings to make it appear that she had been kidnapped. She falsely told authorities that she had been abducted by two Hispanic women at gunpoint and physically abused. Injuries that she sustained were self-inflicted, authorities said.
Her husband, Keith Papini, who reported her missing to authorities immediately after she vanished and issued an emotional public plea for her safe return, described finding his wife brutally battered when they were reunited at a hospital.
“My first sight was my wife in a hospital bed, her face covered in bruises ranging from yellow to black because of repeated beatings, the bridge of her nose broken,” he told ABC’s “Good Morning America” back in 2016. “Her now emaciated body of 87 pounds was covered in multicolored bruises, severe burns, red rashes and chain markings. Her signature long blond hair had been chopped off. She has been branded, and I could feel the rise of her scabs under my fingers.”
After her return, authorities said Papini applied to receive payments from the state Victim Compensation Board, signing an application for the money under penalty of perjury. She used this money to buy new blinds in her home, cover her ambulance bill, and pay therapy costs for her alleged anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder from her claimed kidnapping up until at least March of last year, according to the plea agreement.
Papini’s attorney, William Portanova, told The Associated Press that he’s not sure why she did what she did.
“Honestly I don’t know if anybody does. I don’t know if she knows,” he said.
“In my opinion it is a very complicated mental health situation, but one that has to be confronted and dealt with — and that includes admission and acceptance and punishment,” Portanova said.