Sherri Papini’s Big Adventure: From Her House to the Big House?

Alleged kidnap hoaxer Sherri Papini.

In the 1995 neo-noir film The Usual Suspects, actor Kevin Spacey plays the role of a small-time con artist who, under questioning by a U.S. Customs agent reveals the mysterious criminal mastermind Keyser Söze has been killed during a bloody seaport shootout the night before, As it turns out, the small-time con artist played by Spacey is, spoiler alert,  Keyser Söze himself, who has based his false testimony on random objects scattered around the agent’s cluttered office, as the agent belatedly discovers shortly after Söze is granted bail and set free.

It’s an unexpected but satisfying turn of events at the film’s end. Now, imagine that same ending, except this time the federal agent is prepared for Söze’s subterfuge and exposes him as a withering criminal fraud, and you’ll have some understanding of the trouble alleged kidnap-hoaxer Sherri Papini is in.

On Nov. 2, 2016, Papini, a then-34-year-old mother of two disappeared while jogging near her Mountain Gate home north of Redding. She left behind only her iPhone, which her husband Keith found near the spot of her alleged abduction, with tufts of his wife’s blond hair intertwined with the neatly coiled up headphone wires.

The case immediately attracted international attention, thanks to the petite blue-eyed blonde’s good looks, her supposed status as an over-achieving “supermom” and the various local grifters who arose in the wake of her disappearance seeking to capitalize on her apparent misfortune.

Then something unusual happened. High profile disappearances similar to Papini’s often don’t have happy endings, such as the case of social media influencer Gabby Petito, another petite blonde who was murdered and dumped in the woods by her boyfriend last year. Remarkably, Papini turned up alive 22 days after her disappearance, at 4:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, running alongside the I-5 freeway near Woodland, 146 miles from her Mountain Gate home.

Papini had a chain wrapped around her waist and arm and makeshift bindings on her wrists and ankles. She had bruises on her body and face and extremities, her hair had been cut haphazardly and she had what appeared to be a brand on her right shoulder. Most importantly, she was alive. Slightly underweight, but alive.

In the days that followed, the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office revealed Papini claimed she had been jogging when she was abducted at gunpoint by two masked Mexican women, who whisked her away in a dark SUV and held her captive at an unknown location for more than three weeks.

The women always wore their masks around Papini and spoke mostly Spanish, which she doesn’t understand. According to Papini, one of the women repeatedly beat her throughout Papini’s three weeks in captivity. Papini claimed they were attempting to sell her to a sex trafficking ring with ties to law enforcement. When the alleged kidnappers figured out Papini was 34 and a bit long in the tooth for sex trafficking, one of her alleged kidnappers drove Papini to Woodland and set her free.

From the beginning, Papini’s story sounded preposterous to many observers, but local, state and federal law enforcement officials took her claims seriously and spent thousands of hours investigating potential leads. In August 2017, nine months after the alleged kidnapping, an FBI sketch artist’s depiction of the two masked female Mexican assailants described by Papini was released, eliciting some guffaws because the larger Mexican female was the spitting image of actor Danny Trejo.


Sketch of big mean masked Mexican lady kidnapper based on Sherri Papini’s descriptions looks a lot like Hollywood star Danny Trejo.

Now, more than five years after Papini’s alleged abduction, federal prosecutors, in a 55-page criminal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of California earlier this month, contend Papini fabricated the kidnapping story from whole cloth, allegedly lying to local, state and federal law enforcement officials and fraudulently obtaining funding for victims of violent crimes along the way.

Papini, now 39, was arrested in Shasta County by federal agents on March 3 after she dropped her children off for a music lesson. She was held in the Sacramento County Jail on charges of making false statements to a federal law enforcement officer and mail fraud. If convicted on all charges, Papini faces a maximum of 25 years in prison and $500,000 in fines. She was released from custody on a $120,000 bond on March 8.

A masked Sherri Papini hurriedly exits the U.S. District Court in Sacramento shortly after being granted bail. Screenshot from ABC News video clip.

According to the federal criminal affidavit, instead of being abducted by a pair of armed, masked Mexican women, Papini spent the 22 days of her alleged captivity with an ex-boyfriend at his home in Costa Mesa, some 600 miles south of Redding. The ex-boyfriend picked her up in a rental car near Mountain Gate on Nov. 2 and dropped her off in another rental car in Woodland three weeks later on Thanksgiving Day.

Just like Keyser Söze used elements in the U,S. Customs agent’s office to concoct a story, the complaint alleges that Papini incorporated elements from her ex-boyfriend’s home—a bedroom closet, a bathroom, a coffee table—into her abduction tale, perhaps thinking investigators would never discover the ex-boyfriend’s existence.

In fact, as the complaint makes clear, the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office was aware from the very beginning that another man might be involved after an analysis of Papini’s clothing upon her return found “mixtures of DNA consistent with Papini and one male contributor who was not [her] husband … from multiple cuttings taken from Papini’s underwear and one cutting taken from Papini’s sweatpants.”

While some traces of sperm were found on Papini’s panties, it is unclear whether the detected DNA came from semen or some other source such as saliva, according to the complaint. What is clear is the DNA on Papini’s underwear came from the ex-boyfriend. Both he and Papini deny they had sex during her stay in Costa Mesa.

In addition, Papini’s iPhone, found at the spot of her alleged abduction, contained two contacts listed under female names who were actually male acquaintances of Papini’s that she was hiding from her husband. She admitted to law enforcement that she wasn’t a perfect wife.

Did former Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko go too easy on alleged kidnap hoaxer Sherri Papini?

Why former Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko didn’t close down the Papini “kidnapping” investigation right then and there remains a mystery. Papini insulated herself from probing questions by claiming her kidnappers had told her members of law enforcement were involved in her abduction. Papini resisted questioning, and incredibly the initial law enforcement interview with her was conducted by her husband Keith Papini, not detectives, according to the complaint.

Back in late 2016, one of the first things Papini pointed out to SCSO investigators—once her husband was removed from the room—was a text she’d sent Keith hours before her phony abduction reading, “Honey, would you please come home, to have sex with your wife, for lunch?”

Apparently, Keith couldn’t make it for lunch that fateful day and was embarrassed by the text. It must have been a hard offer to turn down, especially since Papini was on the mend from recent breast implant surgery, a gratuitous personal detail she raised repeatedly in interviews with both local and federal law enforcement investigators.

According to the complaint, at the outset, “Detectives explained to Papini that even though their questions might seem trivial or dumb, there was a reason the detectives were asking those questions. Papini explained that she understood because she watched a lot of crime shows on television.”

Papini said she pulled out a tuft of her own “signature blond” hair and left it with her iPhone, later discovered by Keith at the alleged abduction site, to prove it was her that had gone missing.

After first telling investigators her hands had been zip-tied behind her back by her Mexican assailants, Papini described how she attempted to break the restraint device over her knee, as she and Keith had once watched on YouTube. The maneuver could only have been performed if her hands were zip-tied in front.

Inconsistencies such as this were rife through Papini’s testimony from the get-go, but nevertheless the investigation wore on. As the months passed after her alleged abduction and release, Papini continued playing Keyser Söze, often at her husband’s expense.

For the next several years Keith Papini dutifully reported to the FBI every time Sherri recalled a new detail about her imaginary kidnapping. These fictitious nuggets were often mined from therapy sessions paid for by the California Victims Compensation Board, which shelled out more than $30,000 to Papini for numerous visits, earning her a felony mail fraud charge that could land her 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

There’s a dreamlike quality (bordering on nightmarish) to Papini’s story as related through the federal affidavit. How could there not be, with an alleged victim, Papini, who claims she spent almost the entire 22-day ordeal sleeping?

Keith provided a sketch to the FBI based on his wife’s description of the bedroom closet and the clothes rod she claimed she had been chained to for three weeks. Papini said she tried to bore a hole in the closet wallboard with a screw. Another update detailed a bathroom shower scene in which Papini and the big Mexican woman scuffled.

In another FBI update, Papini claimed the bigger Mexican woman beat her with a board pulled from a boarded-up window in the bedroom in which she was being held. In Sherri’s telling, the smaller Mexican woman was the kinder, gentler kidnapper who eventually set her free in Woodland, while the larger Danny-Trejo lookalike was the bully who beat on her mercilessly.

Over the years, Papini has failed to identify her abductors from multiple photo lineups presented to her by investigators.

In August 2017, Keith sent the FBI a picture of a black coffee table similar to one that his wife said she was tied down on—crushing her still-aching breast implants—while the big Mexican woman branded her right shoulder with some sort of hot kitchen implement, perhaps a spoon. Sherri thinks the brand on her right shoulder, which she can only see in photographs, reads “Exodus,” but she can’t make out the number of the biblical passage.

In May 2018, Keith Papini told the FBI his wife had recalled being forced to drink a bitter liquid by the big Mexican woman. Sherri said she wiped the liquid off her face with her underpants afterward.

That appears to be the last FBI update recorded in the criminal complaint before the world turned upside down on Sherri Papini.


Diagram of DNA samples taken from underwear.

In September 2019, three years after Papini’s alleged abduction, the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office requested a familial DNA search from the California Department of Justice for the unknown male DNA contributor identified on Papini’s underwear—the sperm or saliva that didn’t come from Keith Papini.

In March 2020, according to the federal complaint, the California Department of Justice Familial Search Committee voted to release a familial search result to provide analytical assistance in an effort to identify the unknown male DNA. It’s the same way law enforcement investigators caught the Golden State Killer in 2018.

That familial search result quickly bore fruit, leading investigators to a man in Costa Mesa who just happened to be one of Papini’s ex-boyfriends whom she’d known since they were teenagers. The FBI interviewed the ex-boyfriend, who has not been named or charged in the case, at his home in Costa Mesa, where he says Sherri Papini stayed during her alleged abduction.

He told investigators that he was aware of Papini’s false abduction claim but he was wary of coming forward and placing himself in potential legal jeopardy. He made an agreement with himself that he would cooperate fully with authorities if they ever discovered his involvement and searched him out.

According to the ex-boyfriend, he and Sherri Papini, at her suggestion, began communicating via burner phones in late 2015, nearly a year before her disappearance. The ex-boyfriend told investigators Papini claimed her husband Keith was physically abusing and raping her [no evidence that this is true has been presented]. The ex-boyfriend ultimately agreed to “rescue” Papini on Nov. 2, 2016, traveling 600 miles from Costa Mesa to Redding in a rented car to pick her up and whisking her back down to Southern California the same day, a 1200-mile round trip.

The investigators noted that a bedroom and closet in the ex-boyfriend’s two-bedroom home resembled the sketch that Keith Papini had drawn up from his wife’s memory of her alleged abduction. There was a hole in the wallboard, as described by Sherri Papini. The ex-boyfriend admitted that he’d boarded up the bedroom window during her stay at Papini’s request—Papini claimed the big Mexican woman hit her with one of the boards.

The ex-boyfriend’s bathroom resembled the bathroom Papini described having a scuffle in, right down to the cracked tile. The ex-boyfriend admitted he had owned a coffee table matching the description Keith Papini gave to the FBI of the coffee table the big Mexican woman used to tie down Papini before she branded her.

The ex-boyfriend noted that Papini attempted to physically harm herself from the moment of her arrival and enlisted his aid in the effort. A hockey enthusiast, he smacked a puck off her leg to bruise her, at her request. He refused to punch her in the face as she requested, so he alleges she banged her head on the bathtub and the bathroom floor to injure herself.

Papini hacked a hunk out of her “signature blond” hair and basically starved herself for 22 days, according to the ex-boyfriend. At her request, he went to a Hobby Lobby and bought a wood burner, the kind that comes with the brass alphabet stamps. (Investigators discovered Papini had pinned the exact same wood burner to her Pinterest account.) The ex-boyfriend then proceeded, at Papini’s request, to brand a Bible verse on Papini’s right shoulder.

The ex-boyfriend claims he can’t remember which Bible passage it is. It was Sherri Papini’s idea, but she can’t remember either. She thinks it might say “Exodus,” but she can’t make out the number of the passage.

Perhaps it’s Exodus 23, which begins, “Don’t tell lies against other people. If you are a witness in court, don’t agree to help a bad person tell lies.”

The world may never know.

A recent photo of Sherry Papini from the r/papini subreddit.

In August 2020, FBI agents interviewed Sherri Papini with her husband Keith by her side. The agents were armed with all the information related above and much, much more. The ex-boyfriend’s account has been validated by relatives and neighbors, cell phone records, rental car receipts and his workplace.

As they had done on previous occasions, investigators warned Papini at the outset to tell the truth and only the truth. “All we want is truthful statements because it’s a crime to lie to federal officers,” they said. “Understood?”

Papini nodded, then proceeded to repeat the lie that she’d been abducted at gun point by two Mexican women. Once again, Papini failed to identify any suspects in a photo line-up presented to her.

Papini pretended not to recognize the coffee table she’d previously described being tied down to when agents showed her the picture. Neither could she recognize the photographs of the ex-boyfriend’s bedroom and closet, with the clothing rod she’d allegedly been chained to for three weeks, even though they looked exactly like the sketch her husband had made based on her description.

The investigators showed Papini photographs of the hole in the closet wallboard and a crack in the bathroom tile she’d previously described to investigators. She claimed all the photos were similar but not the same as she recalled.

At this point during the interrogation, investigators told Papini they knew she had spent her alleged time in captivity at her ex-boyfriend’s house in Costa Mesa, and the photographs she was looking at were from that house.

“Oh my God,” she said.

That was the sound Sherri Papini made when the rug was finally pulled out from under her by the FBI. Call it a reverse Keyser Söze moment. All the self-serving details Papini had been feeding the FBI via her husband for years collapsed like a house of cards in that instant.

According to the complaint, investigators left the room so the Papinis could confer privately. The investigators returned to the room and hammered Sherri Papini with the evidence that she’d plotted her disappearance with her ex-boyfriend, including his DNA extracted from her underwear.

“The only way to control things is for us to know,” an agent told her.

Papini refused to admit any contact with her ex-boyfriend while her husband was in the room, according to the complaint. After Keith left the room, she admitted that she’d talked to her ex-boyfriend and other men outside of her marriage. But that was all. Just talk. She continued to maintain she’d been abducted by two masked Mexican women, and that the nicer of the two had chosen to set her free. She then fell back on her defense that law enforcement was somehow involved in her kidnapping.

“You know who she is, I know you do,” she told investigators, implying that both she and law enforcement knew the identity of the nice Mexican kidnapper. “I know you know who she is. I am not saying it, I don’t want her to get in trouble. I know you know who she is.”

Papini said she won’t turn in the nice Mexican kidnapper who set her free in Woodland because thanks to her, Papini still gets to see her children every day.

That’s her story and she’s sticking to it. Sherri Papini is scheduled to appear at the U.S. District Court in Sacramento on April 29.

Dr. Todd Grande finds similarities between the Sherri Papini kidnapping hoax and the fake assault staged by actor Jussie Smollett: Both share qualities of victim narcissists.

From the second the clock started ticking on her 15 minutes of fame on Nov. 2, 2016, Sherri Papini has been a polarizing figure. For some, she’s the living, breathing poster child for Missing White Girl Syndrome, the pretty petite blue-eyed blonde who grabs all the headlines whiles tens of thousands of women, disproportionately poor women of color, go missing without a trace year after year after year.

There’s a sizeable contingent that wants to see Papini pay dearly for her alleged crimes, which includes $30,000 grifted from the California Victims Compensation Board and another $50,000 from the Papini’s personal GoFundMe page. Some have suggested she should compensate law enforcement for all the time spent on her case. Papini’s future could very well include prison time.

On the other hand, Papini has her supporters, and they’re not wrong when they say women must be believed when they claim they’ve been abused, assaulted, raped and abducted. It must be said that even though the 55-page federal complaint against Papini presents a seemingly air-tight case against her, she remains innocent until proved guilty by a jury of her peers.

One positive development for Panini: For once she’ll have a lawyer by her side while she’s being questioned by the feds, Redding attorney Michael Borges.

Obviously, Papini is no Keyser Söze, but she continues to attract internet crime buffs, people interested in “cracking the case,” perhaps now more than ever. On the r/papini subreddit someone recently asked, “When did you know the Papini kidnapping was a hoax?”

Some claimed they knew it was fake from the very beginning, when Keith Papini found his wife’s iPhone with headphones neatly coiled upon it. Many said her miraculous return on Thanksgiving Day set off alarm bells, because victims in kidnapping cases like hers generally turn up dead. Others said the Papini family photos plastered on the internet, in which modest Keith serves as a prop to his glamorously made-up pixie-of-a-wife, cued them in that something wasn’t quite kosher.

I personally kept an open mind about the case until Papini fingered Danny Trejo as a suspect in 2017. Clearly, when she described the larger of her two Mexican female abductors to the sketch artist, she must have channeled pop culture seeking the meanest Mexican visage she could muster and grafted Trejo’s scarred countenance onto her imaginary big, fat, mean and masked Mexican lady kidnapper.

After Papini’s recent arrest, Dr. Todd Grande, a licensed mental health professional who comments about controversial criminal cases on his popular YouTube channel, said that Papini exhibits behavior that in general can be found in “victim narcissists,” defined as a person who plays the victim role to the extreme. Papini certainly fits that description.

When victim narcissists fail to get attention, Dr. Grande says, “They make themselves into a hero by creating a villain … they create fictitious villains that cause them harm. There’s someone out there who really hates them, an active enemy who everybody can unite against.”

This adds to the victim narcissists’ sense of victimhood because, “They’re not just being hurt, they’re being hated.”

Dr. Grande says Sherri Papini partially succeeded, at least in her mind, because she won people to her cause.

“It was effective because she won advocates,” he said. “She fooled people, and this pleased her. She transformed them into unwitting accomplices.”

But don’t think victim narcissists—this is not a diagnosis, just a comparison of behaviors—tell lies without consequences.

“They do suffer, not from some outside tormentor, but from their own lack of insight,” Dr. Grande says.

Who knows? Perhaps the community would have united against the fearsome Danny Trejo-lookalike kidnapper, if said kidnapper actually existed. It’s not hard to imagine a lynch mob forming. As it stands, count Shasta County’s Latino community in Papini’s large list of local detractors.

If Sherri Papini is no Keyser Söze, no criminal mastermind, she’d have an out—a mitigating circumstance if you will—if she were diagnosed as a victim narcissist. According to Dr. Grande, victim narcissists are burdened with personality traits that prevent them from carrying out even the simplest of schemes. Sense of entitlement, the need for admiration, self-centeredness, arrogance, resentfulness, insecurity and shamefulness all conspire to wreck every adventure.

Dr. Grande believes Papini, if found guilty, should be sentenced to many years of probation with mandatory mental health treatment, if she is in fact a victim narcissist. But judging from the tone of the criminal complaint against Papini, it looks like she can expect far worse than that from federal prosecutors.

It’s beginning to look like Sherri Papini won’t have a happy ending after all.

If you appreciate journalist R.V. Scheide’s reporting and commentary, please consider a contribution or subscription to A News Cafe. Thank you! 

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide is an award-winning journalist who has covered news, politics, music, arts and culture in Northern California for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in the Tenderloin Times, Sacramento News & Review, Reno News & Review, Chico News & Review, North Bay Bohemian, San Jose Metro, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, Alternet, Boston Phoenix, Creative Loafing and Counterpunch, among many other publications. His honors include winning the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s Freedom of Information Act and best columnist awards as well as best commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists, California chapter. Mr. Scheide welcomes your comments and story tips. Contact him at RVScheide@anewscafe.com..

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