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Sherri Papini accused of fabricating California kidnapping, lying to FBI agents

Sacramento Bee 3/4/2022 Sam Stanton and Ryan Sabalow, The Sacramento Bee

Mar. 4—Sherri Papini, the Redding woman whose alleged kidnapping in November 2016 sparked national searches and tabloid media coverage, was arrested Thursday and charged with wire fraud and lying to federal agents about the abduction, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Sacramento announced.

Papini — the 39-year-old mother of two who was described in the media at the time of her disappearance as a "super mom" and became a true-crime celebrity — is accused of lying to authorities in an August 2020 interview about her disappearance despite being warned in advance that it was a crime to lie to agents.

"She was presented with evidence that showed she had not been abducted," U.S. Attorney Phil Talbert's office said in a statement. "Instead of retracting her kidnapping story, Papini continued to make false statements about her purported abductors."

Instead of being kidnapped, federal officials say, Papini actually was staying with a former boyfriend in Costa Mesa, who is identified in court papers only as "Ex-Boyfriend."

The Papini saga led to weeks of searching for her nationwide and rallies of support for her and her family in Shasta County.

Her husband first reported her missing on Nov. 2, 2016, at 5:50 p.m. after he returned home and could not find her or their two children, court documents say.

The husband eventually discovered the children had been left at day care, and after tracking her phone through a "Find my iPhone" app he found the device near Sunrise Drive in Redding, court documents say.

She resurfaced on Thanksgiving morning near Woodland — 146 miles from her disappearance — with a chain around her waist and one arm, as well as other bindings, court documents say.

"She appeared to have lost a considerable amount of weight, and her long blonde hair had been cut much shorter. She had been branded on her right shoulder, although the exact content of the brand was indistinguishable."

The details of what was seared into her skin were never released. In an interview with The Sacramento Bee in 2017, a detective said it contained "obscure letters," and that Papini allowed detectives to use "alternate light sources and filters" to try to make out what the markings are.

"Papini's nose was swollen, she had bruises on her face, rashes on her left arm and left upper inner thigh as well as other parts of her body, ligature marks on her wrists and ankles, burns on her left forearm, and bruising on her pelvis and the fronts of both legs," court documents say.

Papini told authorities "two Hispanic women" had abducted her and she was taken to a Woodland hospital, where her clothing was inspected and "mixtures of DNA consistent with Papini and one male contributor who was not (her) husband were recovered," court documents say.

That DNA was entered into the state's database and routinely searched until 2020, when investigators got a hit that led them to the ex-boyfriend, court papers say.

Doubts about Papini's story

Papini's sister, Sheila Koester, declined to comment Thursday, and a message left at the family's home was not returned. Other family members also didn't return calls.

Detectives revealed in 2017 that in the days leading up to her disappearance, Sherri Papini exchanged text messages with a Michigan man whom she had planned to meet. And there were other doubts surrounding her story, some of them stretching back years.

Thirteen years before Papini told Shasta County detectives she was abducted and tortured for weeks by two female kidnappers, her mother called deputies to ask for help with her daughter.

Papini, her mother alleged, had been harming herself and blaming the injuries on her.

Loretta Graeff's allegations were detailed in a December 2003 Shasta County Sheriff's Office incident report The Bee received under the California's Public Records Act after Papini's alleged abduction.

The report was only two sentences long. It doesn't say whether the department found evidence that Papini — then 21 years old — had in fact harmed herself.

Graeff didn't return a voice message Thursday afternoon.

Online sleuths also found other evidence to cast doubts on Papini's claims. They dug up a racist online post that fueled skepticism about Papini's story, since it was similar to her claims.

An essay posted on a now-defunct website was signed by a "Sherri Graeff" — Papini's maiden name.

The writer said that while growing up in Shasta County, she got into two fights with Latinos who targeted her because she was "drug-free, white and proud" of her "blood and heritage."

The essay portrays the writer as a fierce fighter who inflicted damage.

Video: Sherri Papini Granted Bail (CBS Sacramento)


"It took three full-sized men to pull me off of her," the post reads. "I broke her nose and split her eyebrow."

Authorities said it wasn't clear whether she wrote the post. Papini's friends and family have said the post was written by someone else.

FBI interviews

Court documents say that in interviews with investigators Papini gave details of her alleged kidnapping and of being chained to a pole in a closet in a room where the windows were boarded up.

"They would play music loudly," she told investigators, according to court documents. "That really annoying Mexican music. And they would watch TV. ... There was a fireplace, I could smell it. I could hear that sound, you know when you move the handle to open the fireplace. It made like a creaky sound ... and it was cold. It was always cold. And it seemed like it rained almost every night."

She also described being fed only once a day, getting rice or tortillas or sometimes apples, the documents say, and claimed she was branded after trying to escape.

In 2017, Shasta County sheriff's Sgt. Brian Jackson told The Bee in an interview that Papini, who weighed around 100 pounds when she claimed to have been abducted, told of fighting back against the younger of her captors, slamming the woman's head into a toilet when she was allowed to leave the room where she was being held in order to take a shower.

Investigators continued pursuing the case until March 2020, when a DNA hit led them to an ex-boyfriend who shared an America Online account with her and "was briefly associated with an address owned by Papini's parents," the documents say.

FBI agents went to the ex-boyfriend's home on June 9, 2020, and collected items from his trash, including an "Honest Honey Green Tea" bottle that was analyzed and found to have DNA that matched that collected from Papini's clothing, court documents say.

That garbage collection is essentially the same technique investigators used to confirm the identities of Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo and NorCal Rapist Roy Charles Waller.

In August 2020, investigators contacted the ex and he "admitted to investigators that he helped Papini 'run away,'" court documents say.

Court documents say the ex-boyfriend had known Papini since they were 13 or 14 years old and had once been engaged.

"Ex-Boyfriend told investigators that Papini reached out to him 'out of the blue,' and that they had not spoken in a long time because 'she got married, she had kids,'" court documents say. "Ex-Boyfriend estimated that sometime in 2015, he was cleaning his house and came across a box of old photos and personal items that belonged to Papini from when they were in a relationship together."

He sent the items to her parents, and she later called him to say she had been saving her money because she "had a plan to run away with him," court papers say.

"Papini told him that her husband was beating and raping her and she was trying to escape," the documents say. "Papini told ex-boyfriend that she had filed police reports, but the police were not doing anything to stop her husband's abuse."

Court documents noted that Shasta County sheriff's officials have no reports of Papini making allegations against her husband. The documents also note that investigators spoke with others who said that Papini made other unfounded abuse claims.

The ex-boyfriend told investigators Papini cut her hair short while she was with him and hit and burned herself to cause injuries, and that she asked him to brand her, court papers say.

Returned to Redding

Finally, just before Thanksgiving 2016, she told him she missed her children and asked to be taken back to Redding. He said he drove seven hours and dropped her off on a country road off the freeway, the documents say.

The FBI and Shasta County sheriff's officials confronted Papini in an interview on Aug. 13, 2020, with her husband present.

"Investigators explained that phone records and DNA evidence showed that Papini had been in contact with ex-boyfriend and again told Papini, 'Lying to (federal agents) is a crime,'" court papers say. "Investigators explained that ex-boyfriend provided details no one else would know.

"While husband was still in the interview room, Papini continued to deny that she ran away with ex-boyfriend. Once husband left the room, Papini admitted that she and ex-boyfriend 'did talk a little bit before' and said, 'When I went out of town for work. I talked with other guys ... I made a mistake and I talked to other men and I shouldn't have.'"

The documents add that "Papini did not at any point throughout the interview disavow her repeated statements that two Hispanic women kidnapped her, nor did she ever admit that Ex-Boyfriend had picked her up and that she had resided at Ex-Boyfriend's home during the period she was reported missing."

A GoFundMe account opened after her disappearance raised more than $49,000, and court documents say Papini and her husband used some of the funds to pay off her credit cards.

The documents also say she applied for and received more than $30,000 from the California Victims Compensation Board for her ordeal, which led to the mail fraud charge.

Among the items for which she was compensated: therapy sessions for PTSD from the "kidnap," ambulance services and $1,000 for her to buy window blinds for her home, court filings say.

If convicted, Papini could face up to 20 years and fines of up to $500,000. Her first court appearance has not yet been scheduled.

In court documents, investigators describe several people from Papini's past describing her as a habitual liar. One man who knew her when she was younger described her as "an attention-hungry person who told stories to try to get people's attention."

Shauhin Davari, one of Papini's ex-boyfriends from the early 2000s, wasn't contacted by the FBI, but he told The Bee on Thursday that his ex was a serial liar, who would routinely make up bizarre claims, sometimes for no apparent reason.

"She lied about surfing and, like, just all kinds of crazy lies," he said.

Clayton Traylor, whose family for a time let Papini live with them in Danville around 2004, said as soon as he got word of Papini's arrest, he spent Thursday reading through the indictment. He said the stories the witnesses allegedly told the agents about her lying matched what he remembers.

He said Papini used to claim to have a heart condition, which his friends later learned was a lie.

"And anytime someone else, especially other women, were getting attention in a way that was taking away from her, she would have these episodes to kind of draw everything back to her," he said.

When she disappeared, Davari told his friends not to worry, he said.

"I told everybody, I was like, 'Dude, I will bet you everything with this girl is fine, bro,'" he said. "'I promise you.'"

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