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Should Sherri Papini Be Punished?

Barring any eleventh-hour legal shenanigans, kidnap hoaxer Sherri Papini will be sentenced for mail fraud and lying to the FBI in U.S. District Court in Sacramento on Mon., Sept. 19.

Thus, one of the saddest, most sordid affairs in recent Shasta County history will come to an end.

Or will it?

The 39-year-old petite blonde alleged-supermom’s tall tale has captivated the nation and the world since Papini disappeared while jogging near her Mountain Gate home on the afternoon of Nov. 16, 2016.

While she was missing, volunteers searched for her, posted signs seeking information about her whereabouts and held rallies on her behalf. Her husband Keith Papini flooded the media with cheesy wedding photos featuring Sherri’s toothy grin, andhe  started a GoFundMe account, raising $49,000 to bring “our girl” home.

A freakish social media grifter offered to pay $50,000 for Sherri Papini’s return, even though no one had asked for a ransom. Dark energy gathered around the case from the very beginning.

Papini materialized 22 days later running alongside the highway near Woodland in the early morning, 146 miles south of Redding, slightly bruised and battered, claiming that two Latinas had abducted her but had then turned her loose because she was too old to be a sex slave.

Yes, she really said that.

We now all know that Papini, who was arrested by the FBI in March, fabricated the entire story. From her own infidelity to the description she gave to the police sketch artist of the big, mean Latina who allegedly beat her, who turned out to be the spitting image of Mexican American actor Danny Trejo, to the fibs she told the therapists trying to help her, it was all total bullshit.

Two years ago, the FBI traced DNA found on Papini’s panties when she returned home to one of her ex-boyfriends, James Reyes, 37. Papini had spent those three weeks in November not in captivity being beaten by brown-skinned women, but at Reyes’ home in Costa Mesa, 600 miles south of the home she shared with her husband and their two school-aged children.

Reyes is Latino, which sort of throws a wrench in the works of people who’ve condemned Papini for being a racist because she falsely accused two Latinas of kidnapping and beating her.

In reality she appears to be totally down with brown. Both Reyes and Papini deny having sex, which if true really leaves only one explanation for all the sperm/saliva/DNA: Dude’s got a serious panty fetish.

That looks like a lot of DNA!

I jest, but sometimes with cases like this that’s all you can do. As hoaxes go it’s pretty pathetic. Papini’s fake kidnapping is no match for Balloon Boy, the Figi Mermaid or the Hitler Diaries. I suppose we could rank it right alongside, or in front of or maybe slightly behind the Jussie Smollett hate crime hoax.

All of which begs the question: Should Sherri Papini be punished?

Papini not only lied to FBI agents for four years straight, but she went out of her way to lie to them, conjuring up fake evidence in publicly funded therapy sessions which Keith readily conveyed to the increasingly doubtful agents. For that she faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Those therapy sessions were paid for by the California Victims Compensation Board after she applied for benefits through the mail. It shelled out more than $30,000 to Papini for numerous visits, earning her a felony mail fraud charge that could land her another 20 years in prison and an additional $250,000 fine.

All told, Papini faced up to 25 years in prison and $500,000 in fines if she had been sentenced to both crimes consecutively.

But Papini pled guilty to both crimes in April, and as in most plea bargains, her recommended sentence was dramatically reduced. She’ll have to pay back the $127,567 in disability payments she collected from Social Security and the $30,694 she received from the California Victims Compensation board.

The Shasta County Sheriff’s Office, which spent $148,866 investigating the “kidnapping,” also has her on its tab. That’s roughly $300,000 in fines, no small amount for Papini, who has no visible signs of income like, you know, a job.

Papini will have plenty of time to find employment and earn that money, since prosecutors have cut her recommended prison sentence from a maximum of 25 years to eight-to-14 months behind bars.

Sherri Papini exiting the U.S. District Court in Sacramento in March.

Papini’s sentence reduction didn’t sit well with the cyber sleuths who’ve been following the case on social media sites such as Reddit. This post from r/thepapinis is typical:

Wasn’t she facing up to 20-plus years? Let me say I’m not a proponent of jail unless you’re a dangerous, violent criminal. However, this woman put a community and an entire nation through hell. Not to mention the trauma her poor babies and then husband have and will always suffer from her selfish actions. She had Latina women on edge… she drained hundreds of thousands of dollars of a small community’s resources (minus the bs GoFundMe) to try and locate “super mom.” She went to such amazing lengths of brutal self-harm to make the country feel sorry for her and perpetuate a witch-hunt for two Hispanic women who never existed.

I generally follow 19th century philosopher Friedreich Nietzsche’s edict to “distrust everyone in whom the impulse to punish is powerful,” so I sought out a second opinion from Redding criminal defense attorney Lisa Jensen.

“She should do some time,” said Jensen, who as a defense attorney is no fan of incarceration. “Maybe not years and years, but more than the initial couple of days before she posted bail. She kept up a lie for several years that had negative ripple effects, to her family, to the community, to the nation, to law enforcement, which cost taxpayers, spread xenophobia, likely resulted in real harm and danger to Latina females, and took away needed attention from actual crime victims.”

That sounds like a reasonable assessment to me, and eight-to-14 months in federal prison would, as Jensen puts it, serve the purpose of giving Papini “a real consequence.” Smollett’s 150-day sentence, five months, which many Papini observers have seconded, feels somewhat proportional.

But Jensen doubts if Papini will do any real time. She may not come from a wealthy family, but as a good-looking Caucasian defendant, she’ll have an edge in court thanks to white privilege.

“Unfortunately, the rich and white and beautiful defendants are rarely prosecuted in the same proportion as defendants of color especially those who lack resources,” Jensen said. “So she will probably be given some alternatives to jail time or significantly less custody than she would face if she were black or Latina.”

Jensen was speaking hypothetically about Papini’s case and stressed that incarceration is used too much in our criminal justice system.

“To be clear, I’m not in favor of our current system of over-incarceration, but I think if we’re comparing her situation to how other crimes are punished, she should do at least a few actual months of jail time, not just a couple of days and an ankle monitor.”

Jensen speculates Papini’s use of mental health services and disability insurance on the public’s dime for the past several years would have worked against her if she had mounted some sort of mental illness defense.

“I am sure Papini is very embarrassed about the public knowledge of what really happened, but think about the fact that she received ongoing mental health services for having been ‘kidnapped,’ for quite a while,” Jensen said. “This was a lie she kept up for years to everyone around her. Her family, her friends, authorities. She is either incredibly manipulative or she somehow believed her own lies.”

Sherri Papini as she’d like to be remembered.

Suppose Papini is a pathological liar? What then?

Jensen said she would have liked to have been there when FBI agents confronted Papini with her lies in August 2020, to gauge her reaction in person. According to the FBI affidavit, it wasn’t pretty.

For years, Papini had been building her story up with elements from her ex-boyfriend Reyes’ home. A bedroom closet, a bathroom, a coffee table, all part of a carefully constructed web of lies.

As the agents interviewed Papini with her husband by her side, they began feeding her pictures taken from inside Reyes’ home after they’d discovered his whereabouts. Papini didn’t take the bait, so the agents had to tell her they were photographs from Reyes’ home and that her ex-boyfriend had admitted she stayed with him for those 22 days.

“Oh. My. God.” she said. She continued lying to the agents, but she knew the jig was up.

At least, that’s the way I imagined it happened, like Raskolnikov waking up after committing a double axe-murder in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic novel Crime and Punishment. Having planned and committed the perfect crime, Raskolnikov falls into a restless sleep then wakes up and is overwhelmed after realizing all of the evidence he’s left behind.

“Surely it isn’t beginning already!” he says to himself. “Surely it isn’t my punishment coming upon me? It is!”

Since admitting her guilt to the court in April, Papini has basically lost everything she had in life. Her husband filed for divorce and custody of the kids immediately after the plea. After she’s sentenced, she’ll spend the rest of her days paying off her debt. Her name will forever be linked with this sad and most sordid affair.

Personally, I think Papini has had enough. I mean, for a normal person. Aren’t the cops somewhat responsible for this? They knew about the DNA from the get-go back in 2016. They knew she wasn’t faithful because she told them. They let the charade go on anyway.

I’d say let her go, but it’s too late for that.

May the court have mercy on her soul. Either way, it won’t be enough for the mob.

If you appreciate journalist R.V. Scheide’s reporting and commentary, please consider contributing 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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