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California woman sentenced to 18 months in prison in hoax kidnapping case

Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.) — A Northern California woman who pleaded guilty to orchestrating an elaborate hoax about being kidnapped and even seared with a branding iron by her abductors was ordered to serve 18 months in prison Monday, more than double the amount of time federal prosecutors recommended.

Sherri Papini, 40, was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Sacramento. After learning her fate, Papini broke into tears as she emerged from the courtroom and was embraced by friends, family and her mother, who was also in tears.

U.S. District Court Judge William Shubb ordered Papini to turn herself in to begin her prison sentence by 2 p.m. on Nov. 8.

Federal prosecutors had requested Shubb to order Papini, a mother of two, to serve her sentence in prison but asked for only eight months.

Prosecutors noted in court documents that Papini continued her fake abduction scheme long after she resurfaced in her hometown of Redding, California, in 2016 and fraudulently amassed more than $300,000 in Social Security disability income, assistance from the California Victim Compensation Board and through a GoFundMe campaign created on her behalf.

“A lesser sentence, such as the one-month imprisonment recommended by probation or home detention in lieu of incarceration, is not sufficient to achieve the purpose of sentencing,” prosecutors said in a motion filed last week.

Defense attorneys are asking Shubb for mercy, requesting she be allowed to do most of her time under house arrest.

Papini pleaded guilty on April 18 to two counts of engaging in mail fraud and making false statements that were part of a 35-count indictment. In exchange for her plea, prosecutors agreed to a sentence at the lower end of federal sentencing guidelines.

Papini vanished on Nov. 2, 2016, while out for a jog in her Redding neighborhood. A massive search was launched for her and family members — including her husband, who has since filed for divorce — pleaded with the public for information on her whereabouts.

On Thanksgiving Day 2016, Papini, who is white, resurfaced in Redding, telling investigators, including FBI agents, that she had been kidnapped at gunpoint by two Hispanic women, who tortured her and branded her, authorities said.

But prosecutors said the whole time Papini was missing, she was with an ex-boyfriend in Southern California and that the injuries she displayed, including the brand on her shoulder, were self-inflicted.

“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,” prosecutors said in court filings, adding that prior to staging the abduction she communicated with her ex-boyfriend using prepaid cellphones.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Veronica Alegria and Shelley Weger wrote in court papers that “the nation is watching the outcome of Papini’s sentencing hearing.”

“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,” the prosecutors wrote.

Papini declined to comment to reporters as she entered the Sacramento courthouse Monday escorted by her attorney, William Portanova.

“I do know that whatever happened five years ago, that’s a different Sherri Papini than the person you see here today,” Portanova said. “Today is the day the judge will make his decision as to how much punishment is necessary for what she went through. I fully expect the judge will do the right thing and no matter what that sentence is, it will be justice and this case will be over.”

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