Of Papini and Her Curious Kidnap

In November 2016, Sherri Papini, a resident of Northern California, went on a morning jog. After she failed to pick up her kids at daycare, her husband reported her missing. And so, the search began. Along her jogging trail, an iPhone, some headphones, and what are thought to be Papini’s hair strands were discovered. Everybody was worried. Eulogies started pouring in. Those close to her described her as a “supermom”, “Best mom I’ve ever seen”, and that “she is an incredible human being.” Her husband, weeping, told reporters, “If she is listening, I want to say “I’m coming, honey. I am trying. I’m doing everything I can, and I love you.”

Three weeks later, 225 kilometres from her house, she was discovered injured and alone on a highway. Nothing could have prepared Papini’s husband for what he would witness when he first entered his wife’s hospital room for their reunion.

“Her face covered in bruises ranging from yellow to black because of repeated beatings, the bridge of her nose broken.”

In a 55-page affidavit filed in court, prosecutors provided details of what Papini said to authorities after her discovery. She told the police that two masked, Spanish-speaking women had kidnapped and tortured her, keeping her chained in a closet, holding her at gunpoint, and branding her with a heated object. Papini claimed to have overheard them discussing a buyer and how payment would be received for the kidnapping.

But Papini provided very little information about her supposed kidnappers, alleging that they were wearing masks and that she could not communicate with them because they spoke only Spanish. Still, the police carried out extensive investigations for the supposed Hispanic captors. After several years, the search came up empty. She was awarded more than $30,000 for her troubles by the California Victim Compensation Board, which assists and reimburses victims of violent crimes for “crime-related expenses” they suffer. In addition to the victim compensation funds, the police chief said the investigation cost borne by public safety agencies was an estimated $150,000, including payments for Papini’s therapy and treatment for anxiety and post-traumatic stress stemming from her supposed kidnapping. Then, there was the GoFundMe campaign that allegedly netted over $49,000.

Everything changed in 2020 when detectives decided to reopen the case utilizing genetic genealogy, a brand-new area of research created by a group of enthusiastic and largely unpaid hobbyists. Using DNA evidence, some of America’s most painfully unsolvable cold cases have all of a sudden been, well, solved in a dizzyingly short period. One of the most high-profile was the arrest of a suspect in the 1986 killing of a 12-year-old girl in Washington state.

Investigators took unknown male DNA from Papini’s clothing and tested it using genetic genealogy technology. They found that the DNA was connected to a family member of Papini’s former boyfriend. Investigators then took DNA from the ex-boyfriend to confirm him as a match.

After being grilled, the ex-boyfriend admitted helping Papini “run away” from what she claimed was an abusive relationship and housed her at his home in Southern California. To make the hoax real, he said that she had hurt herself, asked him to brand her with a wood-burning tool, and chopped off her own hair.

Numerous sources, including phone records, his work schedule, rental car receipts, odometer records, toll records, and an interview with his cousin, who saw Papini in his house, helped investigators corroborate the ex-boyfriend’s story. When confronted with the new information, Papini nevertheless remained true to her first account of two Hispanic woman kidnappers and denied she had seen the former boyfriend.

The authorities charged her in March 2022, and a month later, as part of a plea agreement, she pled guilty. According to court documents, her husband also requested a divorce and custody of their two kids.

Discussing the consequences of Papini’s actions, the police chief said the charade did not just take valuable resources away from real criminal investigative matters, but at a time when there are serious human trafficking cases with legitimate victims, Papini used this tragic societal phenomenon to gain notoriety and financial gain. The police complained that she caused innocent individuals to become targets of a criminal investigation and, because the case was unresolved, left the public in fear of her alleged Hispanic capturers, who purportedly remained at large.

Yesterday, the judge sentenced Papini, 40, to 18 months in prison, followed by 36 months of supervised release. She was also ordered to pay nearly $310,000 in restitution.

Papini, who said she was in treatment for anxiety, depression and PTSD starting in 2016, 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.”

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