SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Federal prosecutors are asking a judge to send Sherri Papini to prison for eight months as punishment for her kidnapping hoax, writing in court files that the Northern California mom continues to tell people she actually was kidnapped and rejecting a proposal by probation officials that she serve only one month.
“Papini’s actions had real negative consequences for the community and other victims,” Assistant U.S. Attorneys Veronica Alegria and Shelley Weger wrote in a seven-page sentencing memo. “There needs to be just punishment for her conduct.”
Papini attorney William Portanova declined to comment Tuesday, and has yet to file his own sentencing recommendation for the 40-year-old Shasta County woman, who faces sentencing Monday morning before Senior U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb in Sacramento federal court.
Papini’s hoax began in November 2016, when she vanished near Redding while jogging in what prosecutors now say was a ruse to allow her to escape to Southern California and spend time with an ex-boyfriend.
“After 22 days Papini returned,” the prosecutors wrote. “She had inflicted injuries on herself, including a brand on her right shoulder, and claimed that she had been tortured.
“Over the next four-plus years, Papini repeated a detailed false story about two Hispanic women taking her at gunpoint and inflicting abuse upon her while holding her against her will. Papini’s kidnapping hoax was deliberate, well planned, and sophisticated.”
Finally, the FBI confronted Papini, warning her that it was a crime to lie to federal agents.
After she maintained her kidnap story she was charged in a 35-count charging document. In April she pleaded guilty to mail fraud and making false statements and made an emotional appearance before Shubb.
In exchange for her decision to plead guilty, the government agreed to dismiss the rest of the charges and not to pursue new charges based on the $127,783.50 in Social Security disability benefits she received from 2016 though March 2022 for her trauma from the “kidnapping.”
The plea deal also called for restitution totaling $309,686.33, court papers say. In addition to the eight-month sentence, prosecutors are asking for three years of supervised release but no fine.
Probation pre-sentence reports are not available to the public, but prosecutors noted in their recommendation, filed late Monday, that probation was suggesting the judge issue a one-month sentence to be served either in prison or in-home detention.
Prosecutors opposed such a lenient sentence, arguing that the hoax spawned national attention, cost law enforcement investigators and state agencies hundreds of thousands of dollars and created an aura of fear, especially by the Hispanic community in her hometown because of her claim that she had been taken at gunpoint by two Hispanic women.
“Papini’s crime has many societal harms such as causing the public to live in fear and possibly causing law enforcement to doubt the veracity of future victims’ claims,” prosecutors wrote. “An entire community believed the hoax and lived in fear that Hispanic women were roving the streets to abduct and sell women.
“The community also rallied around Papini while she was missing for three weeks, spending incalculable hours, money, and effort in the search for Papini.”
They also noted that the community raised $49,070 in a GoFundMe account to help with the search for her, and that once she returned home Papini collected $30,694.15 from the California Victim Compensation Board.
In their filing, prosecutors hammered away at the fact that the kidnap hoax was not a spur-of-the-moment event, but one Papini planned far in advance.
“Papini’s false reports about being kidnapped were not something she invented after her return to avoid the repercussions of running away from her husband and family,” they wrote. “Rather, the evidence shows that Papini planned this hoax before her disappearance.
“Almost a year before her disappearance, in December 2015 ... Papini began communicating with her ex-boyfriend on burner phones for anonymity. Notably, Papini spoke to other men using her work or personal phone and she took steps to conceal these contacts. For instance, law enforcement found men’s phone numbers saved in her phone under female names.
“But when it came to the particular ex-boyfriend, who seems to have unknowingly assisted in the kidnapping hoax, Papini did not merely conceal his phone number in her phone, but purchased a burner phone that she used almost exclusively to communicate with him, and instructed the ex-boyfriend to do the same.”
Papini resurfaced on Thanksgiving Day in 2016, walking a Yolo County road with bruises and injuries and partially bound. Prosecutors say she later admitted that “she purposefully left her cellphone with strands of her hair lying along the road knowing her family would find them.”
“Although Papini intended for this statement to corroborate her kidnapping, it shows her forethought and the sophistication of her plan to carry out a convincing hoax,” they wrote. “These details, among others, show Papini’s hoax was contemplated well in advance of her disappearance and that she took purposeful, contemplative steps to trick the public, her family, and law enforcement into believing the kidnapping and torture was real.”
Prosecutors also wrote that Papini continued to lie to investigators as they sought the “kidnappers,” and that even after she admitted to Shubb that she had not been kidnapped she told others she had been.
“(It) is concerning that she has continued to tell multiple people, contrary to her plea and sworn statement before the court, that she was in fact kidnapped,” they wrote. “Only a term of imprisonment will deter Papini from continuing future crimes, including continued false assertions that she was kidnapped.”
They also noted that the Papini case has generated intense national attention.
“This case has garnered significant media attention and the nation is watching the outcome of Papini’s sentencing hearing,” prosecutors wrote. “The public needs to know that there will be more than a slap on the wrist for committing financial fraud and making false statements to law enforcement, particularly when those false statements result in the expenditure of substantial resources and implicate innocent people.
“A one-month prison sentence will send the wrong message to both Papini and the public: such a de minimis and lenient sentence would wrongly suggest that people can commit these types of crimes with near impunity.”
Since her return, her husband Keith has filed for divorce, and prosecutors wrote that the judge should not take into account suggestions from Papini’s current therapist that attempt to explain “Papini’s criminal conduct and mitigate her culpability.”
“Significantly, Papini misled her original therapist for over four years, convincing that therapist that she had in fact been kidnapped,” they wrote. “Papini also convinced her family and friends — those who know her best — that she had been kidnapped and tortured and was suffering because of the abuses that she actually committed upon herself.
“Now that Papini is facing prison time, she has motive to do whatever is necessary to avoid punishment, including making statements to her therapist and family members that she believes will garner the most leniency from the court.”
Papini could have faced up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for making false statements to the FBI and a 20-year sentence and fine of $250,000 for mail fraud count.