REDDING, Calif. -- The California woman who faked her own kidnapping in 2016 in a hoax that was exposed with the help of advances in DNA technology was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Monday.
Sherri Papini, 40, pleaded guilty in April to two counts of mail fraud and making false statements for carrying out the elaborate fake kidnapping and receiving more than $30,000 in victim compensation.
Federal prosecutors had asked a judge to sentence her to eight months in prison followed by three years of supervised release, saying the hoax wasted resources and hurt others, according to a sentencing memo filed by the US Attorney's Office.
"Papini planned and executed a sophisticated kidnapping hoax, and then continued to perpetuate her false statements for years after her return without regard for the harm she caused others," prosecutors said in the filing. "As a result, state and federal investigators devoted limited resources to Papini's case for nearly four years before they independently learned the truth: that she was not kidnapped and tortured."
Papini's attorney requested a sentence of one month in prison and seven months of home detention, noting that Papini has admitted to the hoax, according to a memo filed Wednesday.
"Sherri's years of denial are now undeniably over. Her name is now synonymous with this awful hoax. There is no escaping it," attorney William Portanova wrote in the filing.
"It is hard to imagine a more brutal public revelation of a person's broken inner self. At this point, the punishment is already intense and feels like a life sentence," he added.
She appeared before Judge William Shubb for sentencing Monday.
The charges date to November 2016, when Papini was reported missing after she went out for a jog near her Shasta County home in Northern California. Three weeks later, she was found injured and alone on a highway about 140 miles away. She told police she had been abducted and tortured by two masked, Spanish-speaking women who kept her chained in a closet, held her at gunpoint and branded her with a heated tool.
The accusations led authorities to carry out an extensive search for the supposed Hispanic captors that came up empty for several years.
"Papini caused innocent individuals to become targets of a criminal investigation," prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memo. "She left the public in fear of her alleged Hispanic capturers who purportedly remained at large."
How new DNA technology helped solve the case
A break came in 2020, when investigators took unknown male DNA on clothing she was wearing and tested it using the technology known as genetic genealogy. The DNA was connected to a family member of Papini's former boyfriend, and investigators then took DNA from the ex-boyfriend to confirm him as a match, according to a 55-page affidavit released earlier this year.
In an interview with investigators, the ex-boyfriend admitted he helped Papini "run away" from what she described as an abusive relationship and housed her at his place in Southern California, the affidavit states. He said that she had injured herself, chopped off her own hair and asked him to brand her with a wood-burning tool as part of the ruse, the affidavit says.
Investigators corroborated the ex-boyfriend's account in numerous ways, including from telephone records, his work schedule, rental car receipts, odometer records, toll records and an interview with his cousin, who saw Papini in the home.
Authorities confronted Papini with the new information and warned her that lying to authorities is a crime. Still, she stuck to her original story about two Hispanic women kidnappers and denied she had seen the former boyfriend, the affidavit states.
Authorities announced charges against her in March 2022 and she pleaded guilty as part of a plea deal a month later. Her husband also filed for divorce and custody of their two children, saying she was "not acting in a rational manner," court records show.
In court in April, Papini said she was in treatment for anxiety, depression and PTSD starting in 2016 and also struggled in middle school.
"I am deeply ashamed of myself for my behavior and so 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 her statement. "I will work the rest of my life to make amends for what I have done."
She has to turn herself in at 2 p.m. on Nov 8.
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