A married mother of two has been sentenced to 18 months in prison for faking her own kidnapping so she could go back to a former boyfriend, which led to a three-week, multi-state search in the US before she resurfaced.
Sherri Papini, 40, from northern California, pleaded guilty last spring under a plea bargain that requires her to pay more than 300,000 dollars (£260,000) in restitution.
Probation officers and Papini’s lawyer had recommended she spend a month in custody and seven months in supervised home detention, but Senior US District Judge William Shubb said he opted for an 18-month sentence to deter others.
The judge said he considered the seriousness of the offence and “the sheer number of people who were impacted”.
Defence lawyer William Portanova said that Papini – “in pursuit of a nonsensical fantasy” – fled to a former boyfriend in southern California, nearly 600 miles south of her home in Redding.
He later dropped her off along Interstate 5 about 150 miles from her home after she said she wanted to go home.
Passers-by found her on Thanksgiving Day in 2016 with bindings on her body, a swollen nose, a blurred “brand” on her right shoulder, bruises and rashes across her body, ligature marks on her wrists and ankles, and burns on her left forearm.
All the injuries were self-inflicted and were designed to substantiate her story that she had been abducted at gunpoint by two Hispanic women while she was out for a run.
The wounds were a manifestation of her “unsettled masochism” and “self-inflicted penance”, Mr Portanova wrote, and once she began, “each lie demanded another lie”.
Papini, who was emotional throughout the sentencing hearing, quietly answered “Yes sir” when the judge asked if she understood the sentence. Previously she was in tears as she gave a statement to the court accepting responsibility and admitting her guilt.
She accepts her sentence as part of her recovery, Mr Portanova said after the hearing.
He had previously said Papini was troubled and disgraced and that she should serve most of her sentence at home. Prosecutors said it was imperative that she spend her full term in prison.
She did not speak to reporters as she was surrounded by more than a dozen supporters outside the courtroom, some of whom hugged her tightly. They included her husband’s sister, with whom she has been living she split with her husband, who filed for divorce and sought custody of their children after she pleaded guilty.
Speaking briefly outside the courthouse after the hearing, Mr Portanova called it “a fair sentence, even though it’s longer than we wished”.
His client was ordered to report to federal prison on November 8.
“Papini’s kidnapping hoax was deliberate, well planned and sophisticated,” prosecutors wrote in their court filing, and she was still falsely telling people she had been kidnapped months after she pleaded guilty in April to staging the abduction and lying to the FBI about it.
“The nation is watching the outcome of Papini’s sentencing hearing,” assistant US attorneys Veronica Alegria and Shelley Weger 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.”
“Outwardly sweet and loving, yet capable of intense deceit… Ms Papini’s chameleonic personalities drove her to simultaneously crave family security and the freedom of youth,” Mr Portanova wrote in his responding court filing.
Prosecutors said Papini’s ruse harmed more than just herself and her family. “An entire community believed the hoax and lived in fear that Hispanic women were roving the streets to abduct and sell women,” they wrote.
They agreed to seek a sentence at the low end of the sentencing range in exchange for Papini’s guilty plea. That was projected to be between eight and 14 months, down from the maximum 25 years for the two charges.
She has offered no rationale for her actions, which stumped even independent mental health experts who said her actions did not conform with any typical diagnosis.
“Papini’s painful early years twisted and froze her in myriad ways,” Mr Portanova said in arguing for home confinement.
With her deception finally revealed, he said, “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”.
After her arrest in March, Papini received more than 30,000 dollars (£26,000) of psychiatric care for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She billed the state’s victim compensation fund for the treatment, and now must pay it back as part of her restitution.
As part of the plea agreement, she has agreed to reimburse law enforcement agencies more than 150,000 dollars (£130,000) for the costs of the search for her and her non-existent kidnappers, and repay the 128,000 dollars she received in disability payments after her return.