The Untold Truth Of Sherri Papini

Six years ago, Sherri Papini's disappearance engrossed the nation. She seemingly vanished without a trace — only a few strands of her hair and a neatly placed iPhone and earbud were left behind at the intersection of Old Oregon Trail and Sunrise Drive, less than a mile away from her and her husband's Mountain Gate home in northern California (via Redding Record Searchlight). Even when Papini reappeared 22 days later, the headlines wouldn't go away. What confounded official investigators and online sleuths was the lack of motive, the absence of a ransom, and her poor memory, which did nothing to help the investigation. Detectives crossed sex traffickers off the list, and yet they had nothing else, according to People.

The easiest answer ended up being the correct one: Papini had made the whole thing up. In 2022, Papini admitted to leaving home of her own free will, and deliberately — her fake abduction was the result of several months of scheming. She stayed safely in an ex-boyfriend's apartment and returned home when she desired, per The Sacramento Bee. The "why" might never get answered; Papini was called a "supermom" who would never have deferred picking up her kids from school, per CNN. But this makes all of the strange, untold truths about Papini and her fabricated abduction more intriguing — and disturbing.

Her family alerted the police on her before

Long after Sherri Papini returned home, detectives continued to investigate but reported no new developments. Papini hadn't given a public statement or made an appearance to address her kidnapping. As the public waited for an arrest, a lull overtook the investigation. Naturally, rumors began percolating, and people began casting doubt on Papini's story. During this time, a series of incident reports from the Shasta County Sheriff's Office dating back from 2000 to 2003 emerged. Notably, Papini's family made several calls to law enforcement about her. Papini's father, Richard Graeff, claimed that she burglarized his home, and a few years later, he alleged she made unauthorized withdrawals from his bank account, according to The Sacramento Bee.

In another report, Loretta Graeff, Sherri's mother, claimed that Papini was hurting herself and then attributing the injuries to her. A deputy responded to Graeff with advice on how to handle the situation, per The Sacramento Bee. Papini's sister, Sheila Koester, also alerted the police on her. The back door of her home had been vandalized, and Koester believed that Papini was responsible.

In a statement, Papini's family called The Sacramento Bee's reporting on Papini's troubles "shameful" and called the article "clickbait," per ABC News.

She had a fake marriage

Sherri Papini had a previous husband before she met Keith Papini, but it was a marriage formed for all the wrong reasons. According to People and the official criminal complaint filed against her, Papini married platoon sergeant David Dreyfus in 2006 and used his military status to obtain health insurance. Dreyfus told investigators that Papini made regular egg donations, which caused health problems, and they managed to marry before he was deployed overseas. Although Papini's mother claimed the couple traveled the world together, Dreyfus said they only met once in Japan and never lived together.

While still married to Dreyfus, Papini reconnected with middle school crush Keith, who she had shared her first kiss with. In a 2009 wedding blog post, Papini wrote, "I never imagined my middle school first kiss would turn out to be my husband!" In her post, Papini describes living with Keith in her townhouse in 2006 in order to assess their compatibility before marriage. When he returned from his deployment, Papini informed Dreyfus that she had met someone else (via the criminal complaint), and they divorced in 2008, per People. Papini had once told Dreyfus that she was abused by her family growing up, but after their separation, Dreyfus learned from mutual friends that Papini had built up a reputation as a liar.

Her kidnapping went viral

On November 2, 2016, Sherri Papini went out for a jog near her home in Shasta County, California, and was last seen at 2 p.m. Her husband knew something was wrong when he realized that Papini had not retrieved their kids from daycare, per People. Twenty-two days later, on Thanksgiving morning, Papini was found on the side of a highway 150 miles from her home, with a bag over her head and chains tied around her wrists and waist. Papini's miraculous return was fodder for national headlines, and her story soon captured attention around the globe. Days after her return, national media outlets like "Good Morning America" and ABC's "20/20" flanked Redding, California, in order to interview the Papini family and cover the story, according to Redding Record Searchlight.

According to Ryan Parry from the Daily Mail UK (via the Redding Record Searchlight), people were enraptured by Papini's story because of her safe return, which is rare in abduction cases. There were also inconsistencies in Papini's recollection, spurring conspiracies and hoax rumors. On one occasion, Papini said she fought against one of her abductors, resulting in a cut on her foot, but her hospital photos showed no evidence of that injury. Adding to the confusion was the slow progress of both the investigation and the release of new information (the sketches of the two alleged abductors were released nearly a year after the incident).

She concocted a gruesome story

Sherri Papini returned home with a detailed, harrowing accounting of her kidnapping. She said her abductors were two Hispanic women who spoke mostly Spanish and forced her into their vehicle at gunpoint. She was then kept hostage in a closet, where she was chained to a pole. The windows were boarded up, and her environment was very cold. According to her interview with investigators, Papini's captors listened to "really annoying Mexican music" and spent time watching TV (per The Sacramento Bee). She was fed only once a day; her meals consisted of rice, tortillas, and apples. Papini managed to fight back at one point when she was allowed to leave her closet to take a shower, slamming the head of one of her captors onto the toilet.

Her captivity soon ended after Papini heard her captors arguing, followed by a gunshot. The younger captor took Papini and dropped her off on a highway. Papini came back home with a swollen nose and bruises, rashes, and ligature marks all over her body. She was also branded on her right shoulder with unintelligible markings, which detectives struggled to decipher. She also weighed 13 pounds lighter and had her long, blonde hair chopped off, per The Sacramento Bee.

She planned her entire kidnapping

It was only a matter of time that Sherri Papini's deception unraveled. In the spring of 2017, investigators found male DNA on the clothing and underwear she wore when she was discovered, but it wasn't until 2019 that the DNA was decoded. The following year, the DNA led them to Papini's ex-boyfriend, who was living in an apartment in Costa Mesa, California. The ex-boyfriend told investigators that Papini's story had been a lie; in fact, he helped her leave her home and drove her to his apartment. Papini told him that her husband, Keith Papini, was abusive, and she needed to escape, per People.

Papini's entire abduction was deliberately plotted — she and the ex-boyfriend contacted each other over pre-paid phones to solidify their plans ahead of time. According to the criminal complaint filed against Papini, she and her ex-boyfriend started talking as early as December 2015. Once she arrived at her ex-boyfriend's home, she lived a comfortable life and never left the apartment. The ex-boyfriend bought her clothes at TJ Maxx, Target, and Ross, and she slept in a bedroom while the ex-boyfriend slept on a couch. As Thanksgiving neared, Papini said she missed her children and requested to be returned home, even though the ex-boyfriend assumed she would stay longer.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

She branded and bruised herself

While staying at her ex-boyfriend's apartment, Sherri Papini began to form her hostage story. She cut off her hair and created her injuries by bruising and burning herself. At times, she requested the ex-boyfriend's help; although he refused to physically harm her, he agreed to brand her arm with a wood-burning tool he bought at Hobby Lobby. He told investigators he couldn't recall the phrase he branded. He also wanted to keep the tool, but Papini forced him to throw it away. In another instance, he "shot a puck off her leg, lightly" at her request, according to the criminal complaint filed against Papini.

She began eating less to lose weight. The ex-boyfriend told investigators that she would minimize her intake, such as eating half a banana instead of a whole one. Papini developed a rash during her stay, which was perhaps a result of using cleaning supplies. According to the criminal complaint, the entire experience left the ex-boyfriend "rattled." He told his cousin that Papini asked him to punch her in the face, but he refused. To create her injuries, she hit herself on the bathtub and bathroom floor.

In an interview with law enforcement, Papini described a table she was tied to as she was being branded by her abductors. That description fit a table found at the ex-boyfriend's apartment. Further, the closet in the bedroom she stayed in had the same "lag bolt" that she described in her hostage narrative, per the criminal complaint.

She lied to the family of a real kidnapped victim

Sherri Papini's supposed abduction eerily mirrored the disappearance of a former classmate of hers back in 1998. Sixteen-year-old Tera Smith was the homecoming queen at Central Valley High School and only a year apart from Papini. She had gone out jogging on Old Oregon Trail — the same road Papini disappeared from — in the early evening of August 22, 1998. Sierra Smith reminded her sister that their parents forbade them to leave alone at night, but Tera left anyway. She was never seen again, according to SFGate.

Eighteen years later, when Papini disappeared, her grieving family reached out to Smith's father, Terry, for advice. Their daughters were now both victims to a similar crime. When she returned home, Papini herself spoke to the family and dined with them. Sierra said Papini visited several times and ate dinner with her parents. Papini's arrest and the disclosure of her fabrication were disconcerting for Sierra, who said Papini had to be "sick" and "not well" to make up such a lie (per KRCR News). She called Papini's situation "upsetting," which made it difficult for her to sympathize.

She doubled down on her lies to federal agents

On August 13, 2020, suspecting that Sherri Papini had invented everything, law enforcement warned her of the consequences of lying to federal agents. According to the District Attorney's press release of her arrest, a Shasta County detective and a federal agent presented Papini with evidence that she hadn't been abducted. Regardless, Papini forged ahead with her chosen narrative.

In the interview with her husband Keith present, Papini recounted descriptions of her supposed abductors. The investigators presented her with a lineup of Hispanic women, but Papini recognized none of them, according to the criminal complaint filed against Papini. They then presented her with several pictures of her ex-boyfriend's apartment, with several rooms and objects that matched her prior descriptions, but she claimed she recognized none of it. When given a picture of his bathroom, she denied it was the same one, saying there was a crack in the tile where she was held captive. The investigators then presented her with a photo of the tile crack in the ex-boyfriend's bathroom, but Papini still relented. It was only until her husband left the room that Papini admitted she had been in contact with her ex-boyfriend, but she still maintained that she was abducted by two Hispanic women. Per the criminal complaint, when describing the abductor who supposedly let her go, Papini told the investigators, "You know who she is. I know you do."

Her racist blog posts were investigated

Sherri Papini's claims that Hispanic women were behind her kidnapping emboldened doubters. An old blog post written in 2007 on the now-inoperative website "Skinheadz" began circulating online since it was authored by someone named Sherri Graeff, Papini's maiden name. In the post, Graeff describes being attacked by a group of Latinos who call her father a "Nazi," per HuffPost and the criminal complaint filed against Papini. Graeff then describes herself heroically fighting the group of Latinos, whose main gripe against Graeff was that she was "drug-free, white, and proud of my blood and heritage."

According to the criminal complaint, the post originally appeared on a MySpace page. The Shasta County detectives confronted Papini about the post, and she told them she had previously hired an attorney to try to get it removed. She called the post "awful" and believed someone else had written it under her name. David Dreyfus, Papini's ex-husband, told the Daily Mail that the blog post was a result of a high school prank. Dreyfus claims that Papini isn't racist. Papini also had a Pinterest account that contained a section titled "Cultural Differences," which contained memes concerning undocumented immigrants and Muslims, according to The Sacramento Bee.

Her damages were exorbitant

Sherry Papini's antics cost the California Victim's Compensation Board over $30,000 in assistance money, which went toward her therapy sessions, "blinds," and her ambulance trip to the hospital, according to the official criminal complaint filed against her. Papini applied for the money on November 28, 2016, a few days after she returned home. She answered the program's questionnaire and detailed her kidnapping under penalty of perjury. She was awarded 35 payments from January 2017 to March 2021.

To make matters worse, Papini used her family's crowdsourced funds from their GoFundMe campaign to pay off her credit card debt. On November 4, 2016, two days after she disappeared, a family friend created the campaign "Help Find Sherri Papini." The campaign's page promised that all funds would be used for search efforts to bring her home safely by "any means necessary." They managed to raise $49,070. On December 6, 2016, several days after Papini returned, her husband transferred $31,818 to his and Papini's personal bank accounts, which was then used for credit card debt and personal expenses, according to the criminal complaint.

She resisted arrest and ran from an FBI agent

Sherri Papini's arrest was almost as amusing as her fake kidnapping. Law enforcement and officials followed Papini from her home to her children's music lesson. In order to separate Papini physically from her children and protect them in case her arrest resulted in gunfire, Papini was told there was an accident involving her car so that she came out alone, according to the Redding Record Searchlight. Once she was outside, an FBI agent told her she was under arrest, to which Papini yelled "no," ran away, and threw her phone 20 feet away. Papini didn't manage to escape and was soon brought into custody.

In order to fight charges of resisting arrest, Papini's attorney said she was merely caught by surprise and was instinctively trying to protect her children, who were nearby watching.  Shortly after, Papini was released on a $120,000 bond on the conditions of surrendering her passport, refraining from alcohol, and providing a DNA sample. She also had to seek psychiatric treatment.

She pleaded guilty

On Monday, April 18, 2022, Sherri Papini pleaded guilty to charges of mail fraud and making false statements to a federal agent, saying she was "ashamed" of her behavior and promised to embark on a lifelong mission to compensate for it, per CNN. In her court appearance, Papini revealed that she had been in treatment for anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder since 2016. She faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison and up to $500,000 fines.

In addition to fines, Papini would have to pay restitution to the various establishments that helped solve her fake kidnapping. She owes $127,000 to the U.S. Social Security Administration, $148,866 to the Shasta County Sheriff's Office, and $2,558 to the FBI. Papini signed a plea agreement on April 13 that allowed her to receive the mildest possible punishment, according to People. According to former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani, Papini is likely to receive a sentence of eight months in federal prison and no significant fines.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.