SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The name Sherri Papini made headlines when a widespread search ensued for the “missing” wife and mother in 2016. Now, her name is associated with fraud and manipulation and has been called a “real-life ‘Gone Girl.'”
Papini, the Northern California woman charged last month with faking her kidnapping in 2016, accepted a plea bargain with prosecutors Tuesday and acknowledged she made up the story that prompted a frantic search and international headlines.
“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,” she said in a statement released through her defense attorney, William Portanova. “I will work the rest of my life to make amends for what I have done.”
Portanova said his client will plead guilty to charges of lying to a federal officer and mail fraud.
Papini, a stay-at-home mom in Redding who had gone on a jog, was reported missing Nov. 2, 2016 after she didn’t pick her kids up from daycare. Her husband Keith Papini went looking for her but all he found was her cell phone and earphones. At the time, he pleaded in the media for her safe return.
The search for 39-year-old Papini set off a three-week search across California and several nearby states until she resurfaced on Thanksgiving Day in 2016.
The woman was found along interstate 5, nearly 150 miles away from home, with a swollen nose and remnants of bindings on her wrists and ankles, a chain around her waist and branding on her right shoulder.
She told authorities she had been kidnapped at gunpoint and kept in a closet by her assailants. Papini provided detailed descriptions of two Hispanic women, her alleged kidnappers, for the FBI sketch artist.
But investigators say her story didn’t add up from almost the start.
No ransom demand was ever made and both male and female DNA were found on Papini.
The lying continued even after U.S attorney Phil Talbert said Papini was presented with evidence she had not been abducted. She was warned of the consequences of lying to federal officers but continued sharing extensive details of her phony abduction for four years, at late as August 2020.
In March 2022, FBI investigators had a breakthrough in her case when they retested DNA found on her the day she resurfaced and it was found to be tied to her ex-boyfriend.
Federal prosecutors alleged in early March that she actually was staying with her ex-boyfriend nearly 600 miles away from her home in Southern California’s Orange County and injured herself to back up her false statements.
The former boyfriend told investigators that Papini stayed with him during the three weeks she was “missing,” and that she had asked him to come to Redding to pick her up, alledging abuse by her husband. Authorities verified his account by tracking two prepaid cellphones that they had been using to secretly talk to one another as early as December 2015, according to the court filing.
A cousin of the former boyfriend also told investigators that he saw Papini, unrestrained, in the man’s apartment twice. Records also backed the ex-boyfriend’s story that he rented a car and drove Papini back to Northern California about three weeks later.
Portanova told The Associated Press he’s not sure why his client 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. He said treatment is not required under the plea deal, but, “Counseling is part of her daily life and will continue to be.”
The plea agreement calls for Papini to pay restitution topping $300,000.
That includes $30,694 to the California Victims Compensation Board, which reimbursed her for things including visits to her therapist for “treatment for anxiety and PTSD” and for the ambulance ride to the hospital after she surfaced near Sacramento.
She also will pay the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office nearly $149,000 and the FBI more than $2,500 for their expenses during the investigation. She also owes the Social Security Administration at least $127,568.
The Sacramento Bee first reported that Papini had reached a plea deal.
The charges carry penalties of up to five years in federal prison for lying to a federal law enforcement officer and up to 20 years for mail fraud. Prosecutors agreed as part of the plea bargain to recommend a sentence on the low end of the sentencing range, estimated for Papini to be between eight and 14 months in custody.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento filed amended charges Tuesday of 34 counts of mail fraud and one count of making false statements. But Papini agreed to plead guilty to a single count of mail fraud and one count of making false statements.
She is scheduled to be arraigned on those charges Wednesday and will likely enter the guilty pleas next week, Portanova said.