The Piece of Evidence that Broke Open the Sherri Papini Case

Sherri Papini admitted her purported 2016 kidnapping was all a hoax

Sherri Papini
Sherri and Keith Papini. Photo: Courtesy Keith Papini

Editor's note: Sherri Papini signed an agreement with federal prosecutors to plead guilty to counts of lying to a federal officer and mail fraud, thus putting an end to a saga that began in 2016 when the California mom claimed she'd been kidnapped at gunpoint.

In a statement released through her attorney, William Portanova, Papini said, "I am deeply ashamed of myself for my behavior and so sorry for the pain I've caused my family, my friends, all the good people who needlessly suffered because of my story and those who worked so hard to try to help me. I will work the rest of my life to make amends for what I have done."

Papini faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for the false statements charge, and a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for the mail fraud count.

Below is PEOPLE's story following Papini's March arrest on how authorities broke open the case against her, learning that what she'd claimed to be a violent kidnapping was actually a hoax.

Shasta County Sheriff's Office Captain Brian Jackson, one of the lead detectives on the notorious 2016 case of Sherri Papini, the 34-year-old mother of two who disappeared while out on a jog in rural Redding, Calif., said he felt serious pressure to find her alleged abductors.

"I shop here, I've lived here all my life," Jackson tells PEOPLE. "There was a weight, for sure, because people wanted answers, and we had a community to protect. There wasn't a day or a week or a meeting, family get together, or department stuff that myself, as well as many other detectives that were known for being on this case [were asked], 'Hey, what's going on with Sherri's case?' And it was like, 'We're working it and hopefully we'll get some answers.' It was a daily reminder."

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Papini's case was high-profile from the start. Her neighbors in Redding banded together on exhaustive searches for the missing mom and formed a tight-knit circle of support around her husband, Keith, and the couple's young kids. A GoFundMe account for the family raised more than $49,000. The story was covered by news outlets around the globe.

There was great joy — and heightened talk — when Papini reappeared just as suddenly as she'd vanished, 22 days later and 150 miles south of Redding, wandering along a highway around 4 a.m. She was emaciated, covered in bruises, burns and rashes. She had a chain around her waist and clamps around her wrists. Her long blond hair had been chopped off. Authorities announced that Papini had been branded on her right shoulder.

Courtesy Keith Papini
Sherri and Keith Papini.

Papini told authorities she had been abducted at gunpoint and held captive by two armed and masked Hispanic women, one in her 20s or 30s and the other between 40 and 50, who spoke Spanish most of the time.

She remembered a few highly specific details: She described the older woman as "really mean" with breath that smelled like sweetened coffee. She said she'd spent much of captivity chained in a room with boarded-up windows and that the women played loud music. And yet none of the things she remembered helped authorities track her alleged abductors.

It wasn't until the spring of 2017 that investigators found the piece of evidence that would lead them to the shocking conclusion that Sherri Papini wasn't abducted — she ran away, they say.

According to a 53-page charging document released last week by a U.S. District Court, the telltale clue was male DNA on the sweatpants and underwear that Papini was wearing when she was found on Thanksgiving Day 2016. The DNA didn't belong to her female abductors. Nor did it belong to Papini's husband, authorities concluded.

RELATED VIDEO: Sherri Papini Charged with Making False Statements to Law Enforcement 5 Years After Alleged Abduction

Still, Jackson was certain that what investigators found on Papini's clothing would ultimately solve their mystery.

"Once we had the DNA, I knew we'd be able to find something, and I just kept telling our guys and our ladies, be patient it's going to happen and we just kept pushing on," he said.

It took Jackson, his colleagues and his partners at the FBI until 2019 before they decoded the story of the DNA. That was when they requested a "familial DNA" search, a technique that searches offender DNA databanks for a father, son or brother of an unknown perpetrator.

According to the indictment, in March of 2020 investigators were notified that a potential male relative of the unknown male whose DNA was found on Papini's clothing had been identified — and that family member was related to an ex-boyfriend of Papini.

Suspect sketches. FBI

Three months later, on June 9, investigators collected a bottle of Honest Honey Green Tea from the trash outside her ex-boyfriend's apartment. The following day, a law enforcement lab "concluded that the DNA obtained from the mouth area of the Honest Honey Green Tea bottle matched the unknown male DNA collected from Papini's clothing," according to the complaint.

On Aug. 10 investigators interviewed the ex-boyfriend, and he admitted that he had helped Papini "run away" because she had told him that her husband had abused her, the complaint states. After further questioning, the boyfriend said that he and Papini had communicated over prepaid phones and concocted a scheme to pick her up in Redding and drive her back to his two-bedroom apartment in Costa Mesa.

During her stay, Papini was "purposefully trying to lose weight," chopped off her own hair and "created the injuries while staying with him, including hitting herself to create bruises and burning herself on her arms," according to the complaint.

"Ex-Boyfriend said he helped her create some of the injuries, although he never laid his hands directly on her; for example, she told him, 'bank a puck off my leg,' so [he] shot a puck off her leg, lightly," the complaint states.

The former boyfriend allegedly told investigators that Papini asked him to brand her. He bought a wood-burning tool from Hobby Lobby and branded her right shoulder.

"Ex-Boyfriend said he was nervous and wanted to hold steady while doing the brand because the tool was so hot it glowed red," the complaint states.

The former boyfriend allegedly told investigators he "wasn't sure of Papini's intentions during her stay with him, but he believed they might end up in a romantic relationship again." The two had previously been in a relationship that ended in 2006, he said.

But, shortly before Thanksgiving, Papini informed him she missed her kids and wanted to go home. He drove her back to Northern California on Thanksgiving Day and dropped her off on a country road where she was later found with the chain around her waist.

Sherri Papini Missing Sign
Andrew Seng/The Sacramento Bee via AP

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Almost six years later, on March 3, 2022, Papini was arrested and charged with making false statements to a federal agent and mail fraud. Papini's defense attorney said Papini was taken into custody at her children's piano practice, the Sacramento Bee reported. Papini was released on a $120,000 bail. During a virtual court hearing, Papini was told she had to surrender her passport and ordered to participate in a psychiatric program.

Jackson, who says the department fielded over 800 tips and conducted hundreds of interviews during the investigation, tells PEOPLE he has mixed feelings about the outcome.

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"Frustration, irritability, all that kind of stuff," he says. "It's just all emotions because yes, you're excited that you've 'cracked the case,' but then you're also a little irritated because we didn't have to have this. You know what I mean? It didn't have to go this route, didn't have to go this long if somebody would've just come forward and told us the truth in the beginning, and that's where the frustration comes in."

"I want to know the reason behind it," he adds. "Hopefully, as this progresses out, we get even some more clarity."

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