HLN airs the documentary “Runaway Mom: The Sherri Papini Story” Monday night at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
Sherri Papini, the California mother who faked her own kidnapping in 2016 in a hoax that was exposed with the help of advances in DNA technology, was sentenced to a year and a half in prison on Monday, according to a release from the Department of Justice.
Judge William B. Shubb determined Papini, 40, should serve 18 months in prison followed by 36 months of supervised release after she admitted to the hoax and pleaded guilty in April to mail fraud and making false statements. She was also ordered to pay nearly $310,000 in restitution.
The sentence was much longer than attorneys had requested. Prosecutors asked the judge to sentence her to eight months in prison, while the defense asked for one month in custody and seven months of home detention.
Papini read a statement to the judge, saying, in part: “I am so sorry to the many people who have suffered because of me. The people who sacrificed for the broken woman I was. The people who gave willingly to help me in a time that I so desperately needed help. I thank you all.”
She told the judge she was guilty of lying and dishonor, and was ready “to repent and to concede.”
The charges date to November 2016, when Papini was reported missing after she went out for a jog near her Shasta County home in Northern California. Three weeks later, she was found injured and alone on a highway about 140 miles away. She told police she had been abducted and tortured by two masked, Spanish-speaking women who kept her chained in a closet, held her at gunpoint and branded her with a heated tool.
The accusations led authorities to carry out an extensive search for the supposed Hispanic captors that came up empty for several years. She also received more than $30,000 from the state in victim compensation funds.
Yet her story fell apart when investigators in 2020 connected DNA from her clothing to an ex-boyfriend, who then admitted that the supposed kidnapping was a hoax.
In their sentencing memo, federal prosecutors said the hoax wasted resources and caused police to investigate innocent targets.
“Papini planned and executed a sophisticated kidnapping hoax, and then continued to perpetuate her false statements for years after her return without regard for the harm she caused others,” prosecutors said in the filing. “As a result, state and federal investigators devoted limited resources to Papini’s case for nearly four years before they independently learned the truth: that she was not kidnapped and tortured.”
“Papini caused innocent individuals to become targets of a criminal investigation,” prosecutors added. “She left the public in fear of her alleged Hispanic capturers who purportedly remained at large.”
In the defense’s sentencing memo, Papini’s attorney noted that she has admitted to the hoax and said her reputation had suffered enough as is.
“Sherri’s years of denial are now undeniably over. Her name is now synonymous with this awful hoax. There is no escaping it,” attorney William Portanova wrote in the filing.
“It is hard to imagine a more brutal public revelation of a person’s broken inner self. At this point, the punishment is already intense and feels like a life sentence,” he added.
Outside court Monday, Portanova sought to distance the Papini of today from the one who carried out the crime.
“Whatever happened five years ago is a different Sherri Papini than the one you see here today,” he said.
How new DNA technology helped solve the case
The break in the case came in 2020, when investigators took unknown male DNA on clothing she was wearing and tested it using the technology known as genetic genealogy. The DNA was connected to a family member of Papini’s former boyfriend, and investigators then took DNA from the ex-boyfriend to confirm him as a match, according to a 55-page affidavit released earlier this year.
In an interview with investigators, the ex-boyfriend admitted he helped Papini “run away” from what she described as an abusive relationship and housed her at his place in Southern California, the affidavit states. He said that she had injured herself, chopped off her own hair and asked him to brand her with a wood-burning tool as part of the ruse, the affidavit says.
Investigators corroborated the ex-boyfriend’s account in numerous ways, including from telephone records, his work schedule, rental car receipts, odometer records, toll records and an interview with his cousin, who saw Papini in the home.
Authorities confronted Papini with the new information and warned her that lying to authorities is a crime. Still, she stuck to her original story about two Hispanic women kidnappers and denied she had seen the former boyfriend, the affidavit states.
Authorities announced charges against her in March 2022 and she pleaded guilty as part of a plea deal a month later. Her husband Keith Papini also filed for divorce and custody of their two children, saying she was “not acting in a rational manner,” court records show.
“The events of the past two months have been shocking and devastating,” Keith Papini said Monday in a statement. “My current focus is on moving on and doing everything I can to provide my two children with as normal, healthy and happy of a life as possible.”
In court in April, Papini said she was in treatment for anxiety, depression and PTSD starting in 2016 and also struggled in middle school.
On Monday she told the judge, “What was done cannot be undone. It can never be erased. I am not choosing to stay frozen like I was in 2016. I am choosing to commit to healing the parts of myself that were so very broken.”