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Sherri Papini pleads guilty in faked kidnapping, awaits sentencing in Sacramento court

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — An emotional Sherri Papini formally admitted Monday that she made up her 2016 “kidnapping” from Redding, pleading guilty in federal court in Sacramento to a count of making false statements to a federal agent and mail fraud, part of a plea agreement she worked out after her arrest six weeks ago.

Papini, 39, appearing before Senior U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb via Zoom, wiped her nose and appeared on the verge of tears as she sat in her lawyer’s office for the 35-minute hearing and told the judge she was guilty of the hoax.

“How do you feel today?” the judge asked as he began inquiring about whether she was mentally fit to enter her plea.

“I’m sorry, your honor,” Papini answered. “I’m sad. I feel very sad, your honor. I feel very sad.”

Papini’s attorney, Sacramento defense lawyer William J. Portanova, sat at a table with her in his downtown Sacramento office as Papini explained to the judge that she had been seeing a psychiatrist for treatment of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Portanova worked out the agreement with federal prosecutors and is expected to argue for a minimal prison sentence for his client, who could face up to 20 years in prison on the mail fraud count and five years for lying.

Papini was charged last week with 34 counts of mail fraud and one count of lying to the FBI, but prosecutors agreed to drop all but two counts in exchange for her guilty plea.

She already has issued a statement apologizing for her behavior and expressing remorse for the hoax that began in November 2016 with her purported kidnapping by what she later described as “two Hispanic women.”

“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,” Papini said in a statement released by Portanova, a former federal prosecutor. “I will work the rest of my life to make amends for what I have done.”

The judge, appearing in person in his 14th-floor courtroom while Portanova, Papini and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Veronica Alegria and Shelley Weger appeared by video, asked Papini bluntly whether she had committed the crimes she was pleading guilty to.

“Were you kidnapped?” he asked.

“No, your honor.”

“Did you lie to government agents when you told them you were kidnapped?”

“Yes, your honor.”

He also warned her that he could impose a sentence much harsher than she might expect, and she could not withdraw her plea.

“The bottom line here is, if the sentence turns out to be more than you expected you’ll still be bound by your plea and you can’t withdraw it,” Shubb said.

The mail fraud charge stems from her use of more than $30,000 she received from the California Victim Compensation Board, which she spent on therapy sessions, ambulance services and $1,000 to buy window blinds for her home, court documents say.

The judge said she may be ordered to pay restitution, including $30,694.15 to the California Victim Compensation Board, $127,567.60 for Social Security benefits she falsely claimed, $148,866.23 to the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office and $2,558.35 to the FBI.

“That’s what it covers, at least,” Shubb said. “It could be more than that.”

He added that she cannot file bankruptcy to get out from paying restitution.

Officials now say an ex-boyfriend helped her leave her Redding-area home and hide out in his Costa Mesa apartment for three weeks as Papini’s husband and friends raised frantic alarms about her disappearance and the supposed kidnapping became worldwide news.

Alegria explained that prosecutors have evidence that Papini and her ex-boyfriend plotted to make her disappearance look like a kidnapping, buying burner cellphones and leaving hers by the side of the road when she disappeared while allegedly out jogging.

Papini reappeared three weeks later on Thanksgiving morning near Woodland, with a chain around her waist and one arm.

FBI agents and Shasta County sheriff’s investigators continued to probe the case and in 2020 matched DNA found on Papini’s clothing when she reappeared to that of the ex-boyfriend, who told investigators he had helped her disappear, court records say.

Court documents say Papini lied to investigators even after being warned that lying to them was a federal crime.

“She repeatedly told law enforcement that she had been kidnapped by two Hispanic women and she told them she had been abducted at gunpoint,” Alegria told the judge.

She added that Papini went so far as to describe the women to an FBI sketch artist and told agents the younger woman let her go while the older one was abusive and mean to her.

Papini faces sentencing July 11.

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