Sherri Papini's kidnapping stoked racial division and fear. Investigators say it was all a lie

FILE - In this Nov. 10, 2016, file photo, a "missing" sign for Mountain Gate, Calif., resident Sherri Papini, is seen along Sunrise Drive, near the location where the mom of two is believed to have gone missing while on an afternoon jog. Papini, whose disappearance and mysterious reappearance set off a frantic three-week search more than five years earlier, was arrested Thursday, March 3, 2022, on charges of lying to federal agents about being kidnapped and defrauding the state's victim compensation board of $30,000. (Andrew Seng/The Sacramento Bee via AP, File)
A "missing" sign for Sherri Papini posted in Mountain Gate, Calif., in November 2016. On Thursday, Papini was arrested and charged with lying to federal agents and defrauding the state's victim compensation fund. (Andrew Seng / Sacramento Bee)

Sherri Papini disappeared in 2016 while on a run around her Shasta County neighborhood. Twenty-two days later, she returned, beaten, bound and branded, claiming that her kidnappers were women who spoke Spanish and that one had long and curly hair, thin eyebrows and a thick accent.

On Thursday, authorities arrested Papini, 39, charging her with lying to federal agents in faking her abduction and defrauding a California victims compensation fund of more than $30,000 meant for therapy and other costs. She faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted.

The racial undertones behind the case are hard to ignore for many who were put on high alert after Papini shared her story about mysterious, menacing Latina abductors.

"Saying that these two Hispanic women kidnapped her, and then for all the lies that came out of the story — it's just too much," said Araceli Gutierrez, a coaching and business consultant who works with Latinas in Northern California. "All this falsification in her story, it’s just nasty and disturbing."

Gutierrez, who is also a radio host with the bilingual station Stereo Salvaje in Tehama County, said Papini's story fed into racist tropes and was especially incendiary coming in November 2016, after Donald Trump had made offensive remarks about Mexican people throughout his presidential campaign.

"The Papini story just gave a lot of people reason to believe in Trump's rhetoric," Gutierrez said. "It really sowed division."

As Papini told it, two Latina women held her at gunpoint and kept her in a small closet during three weeks of captivity. Investigators say she was actually spending time in Orange County with an ex-boyfriend, whom she had asked to pick her up in Northern California.

Papini claimed her kidnappers drove a dark SUV and made her lie down in the back, saying her hips became sore after lying prone for more than 40 minutes. In a 55-page affidavit filed Thursday in federal court, prosecutors said her ex-boyfriend picked her up in a rented sports car. She slipped into the back seat and at one point took a nap as he drove her to Southern California.

She told investigators that her kidnappers played "really annoying Mexican music" and that she heard slivers of a plan to sell her to someone in law enforcement as part of a human-trafficking deal. During the time she was missing, prosecutors said, she never left her ex-boyfriend's home in Orange County.

"Ever since 2016, many of our Latino/Hispanic residents were forced to feel like the criminals in a twisted scheme that never, ever happened," Shasta County resident Alan Phillips, who is part Latino and part Indigenous, wrote in an email.

Many Latinos in the community avoided walking in pairs or traveling together in a van for fear they might appear suspicious because of Papini's story, Phillips said.

"They were sent into shock during a time of already growing and rampant anti-immigrant and [anti-] people of color politicking and hatred," Phillips said.

Investigators said they looked into whether there were racial motivations behind Papini's kidnapping story. A 2007 blog post signed by Sherri Graeff, Papini's maiden name, told a story about her getting into fights with Latina girls because she was "drug-free, white and proud of my blood and heritage."

Papini told investigators she did not write the post and described it as "awful," according to the affidavit. Investigators did not say whether they tracked down the post's author.

What was clear, according to the affidavit, was that Papini had a reputation for lying. Several men whom she had dated told investigators that she fabricated stories about being the victim of abuse in her home.

Shauhin Davari dated Papini when he was 15 and she was 20. He was not interviewed by federal investigators but spoke to reporters about the relationship, telling the Sacramento Bee on Thursday that Papini was a habitual liar.

"She was allergic to the truth," Davari later told The Times. "I can’t even really explain it. She would lie about absolutely anything. Even stuff that was irrelevant."

Months before her disappearance, Papini was in contact with the unnamed ex-boyfriend who investigators say brought her to Costa Mesa, according to court documents.

The ex-boyfriend told investigators that he helped Papini "run away" and that she said her husband, Keith, beat and raped her. She told her ex-boyfriend that the Shasta County police had refused to help her, but local law enforcement said there were no records of abuse reports from the Papini home.

While Papini stayed at her ex-boyfriend's home in Costa Mesa, search parties in Shasta County scoured the wilderness and hiking trails looking for the mother of two. The community was on edge.

"I love to run by myself. When that kidnapping story went down, there were many sleepless nights," said Erin Friedman, a singer-songwriter who lives south of Redding, in Cottonwood. "I was worried about her and her kids. It put a crimp into the joy of being outside by yourself at the time."

Friedman bought pepper spray and took it with her during runs around Shasta County's riverfront trails. Learning that investigators said none of Papini's story was real left Friedman in disbelief.

"It seemed like such a kick to the teeth to a community that didn’t deserve to be treated like that," she said. "She stabbed our community in the back with every step she took."

Papini is accused of hitting herself to create bruises and burning herself on the arms to support her story — injuries her ex-boyfriend said she inflicted around the time he drove her back to Northern California. He brought her back because she said she missed her children, according to federal investigators.

Papini's family issued a statement Thursday through a public relations firm saying they were "appalled" by the way she was arrested, "ambushed" by law enforcement in front of her children.

At a Friday court appearance, Papini was ordered detained as a flight risk. She remains jailed, with a hearing set for Tuesday to determine whether she can be released.

"If requested, Sherri would have fully complied and come to the police station, as she has done multiple times before, where this could have been handled in a more appropriate way," the family's statement said. "Sherri and Keith have cooperated with law enforcement’s requests despite repeated attempts to unnecessarily pit them against each other, empty threats to publicly embarrass them and other conduct that was less than professional. We are confused by several aspects of the charges and hope to get clarification in the coming days."

The firm did not respond to requests for an interview.

Until May 2018, Keith Papini called federal investigators with updates from his wife as she revealed more details about her supposed captors. In the final update, he said his wife remembered one of her kidnappers trying to pour a sticky substance down her throat. He said she "wiped her mouth off with her underwear" and then fell asleep, leaving the substance on her underwear, according to the affidavit.

Forensic analysis revealed an unknown man's DNA on Papini's underwear. In March 2020, investigators received a hit identifying a potential relative of the unknown male whose DNA was on Papini's underwear. The subject had two biological sons. One of them was her ex-boyfriend.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.