California woman admits to faking her own kidnapping in 2016 hoax

A 'missing' sign for Redding, Calif., resident Sherri Papini is seen near the location where the mother of two was initially believed to have gone missing while jogging. Andrew Seng/AP Photos

Sherri Papini, a Northern California woman who said she was kidnapped in 2016, has accepted a plea bargain for charges of lying to a federal officer and mail fraud, and will confess to faking her own abduction.

Papini’s defence attorney William Portanova told the Sacramento Bee his client signed the plea deal on Tuesday and she will admit that she made up the hoax, which led to a three-week search across California, in court.

“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 through Portanova. “I will work the rest of my life to make amends for what I have done.”

Papini’s husband reported her missing on Nov. 2, 2016, kicking off a state-wide search for the stay-at-home mom. Three weeks later, on U.S. Thanksgiving, Papini was found alone on a California interstate suffering from injuries including rashes, bruises, ligature marks and a “brand” on her right shoulder.

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But in March of this year, federal prosecutors alleged that Papini was actually staying at the home of a former boyfriend in Southern California during the period she was supposedly missing — and had injured herself to back up her abduction claim.

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 “counselling is part of her daily life and will continue to be.”

As part of the plea bargain, Papini may have to pay up to $300,000 in restitution for her false claims.

She received $30,694 in reimbursement from the California Victim Compensation Board for anxiety and PTSD treatment and the ambulance ride to the hospital after she resurfaced from being missing.

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Papini may also end up paying just under $150,000 to the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office and more than $2,500 to the FBI for investigation expenses. She also owes $127,568 to the Social Security Administration.

Before taking the plea bargain, Papini faced up to five years in prison for lying to a federal law enforcement officer, and up to 20 years for mail fraud. Prosecutors have agreed to recommend a shorter sentence, on the low end of the range for her crimes: around eight to 14 months in federal prison.

Click to play video: 'Abducted California mother found safe after 3 weeks'
Abducted California mother found safe after 3 weeks

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.

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After Papini was found by authorities in 2016, she told an elaborate story about how she had been kept chained in a closet by two women who wore masks, spoke in Spanish, held her at gunpoint and branded her with a heated tool. She also added that the women played mariachi music and fed her mostly tortillas and rice — leading some advocates and scholars to accuse her of reinforcing racist stereotypes and feeding into anti-Latino rhetoric.

Click to play video: 'Police say kidnapping victim Sherri Papini was branded'
Police say kidnapping victim Sherri Papini was branded

Papini was found with male and female DNA on her body and clothing, and the male DNA led investigators to her former boyfriend, according to prosecutors.

The ex-boyfriend confirmed to authorities that Papini asked him to pick her up from her home in Redding, and stayed with him during the period she was missing. His account was verified with cellphone records obtained by investigators that showed secret communication between the two as early as December 2015, according to court filings.

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A cousin of Papini’s former boyfriend also corroborated the story, saying he saw Papini twice, unrestrained, in the ex-boyfriend’s apartment.

— With files from The Associated Press

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