When Sherri Papini vanished while jogging near her home on 2 November 2016, it sent a shockwave through the small city of Redding in Northern California.
Hundreds of residents joined in a massive law enforcement operation combining trails, roads and waterways of Shasta County searching for any trace of the missing mother of two.
Ms Papini was found three weeks later on Thanksgiving Day 150 miles away, and claimed to have been abducted at gunpoint by two Hispanic women who beat and shackled her, shaved her long blonde hair off, placed her in an adult diaper, and branded her in preparation to sell her to a human trafficking ring.
But from the moment she was found covered in injuries to her face and body, troubling anomalies began to emerge in her story, Shasta County Sheriff Michael Johnson told The Independent.
These concerns were shared by many in the community, as stories emerged of Ms Papini being a serial liar.
This week, the FBI arrested and charged Ms Papini, 39, with making false statements to a federal law enforcement officer and engaging in mail fraud, which together carry a prison sentence of up to 25 years.
Investigators traced DNA found on her clothing to an ex-boyfriend, who confessed the pair had carefully planned the staged abduction using burner mobile phones.
He admitted he picked up with Ms Papini and that she spent the three weeks with him in his apartment, according to an affidavit released by the US Attorney’s Office for Eastern California.
For residents of Redding, news of her arrest brought vindication, but also frustration. Some are wondering, what took so long?
‘I didn’t believe it for a moment’
Sherri Papini’s husband Keith made a frantic 911 call late on the afternoon of 2 November 2016 after she failed to pick up their two children from daycare. Using Findmyphone, he located her smart phone on the side of the road and found strands of hair in her earbuds, sparking a huge, multi-state search involving canine units and helicopters.
The case quickly attracted national news, and nearly $50,000 was raised to a fundraising page to help with search efforts.
Among those to join the search was Tim Scarbrough, a 58-year-old banker and father of three daughters.
I have told The Independent news of a suspected abduction brought “fear to the community”.
After Ms Papini was located, she initially refused to speak to investigators from the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office.
Instead she was allowed to recount her story to her husband Keith from her hospital bed about being abducted at gunpoint by two masked Hispanic women who put her in an adult diaper, played “that really annoying Mexican music”, fed her “leftover crap” and directed insults at her in Spanish.
Sheriff Johnson refused to comment on why detectives allowed her statement to be taken by her husband.
She later provided descriptions of the women she claimed had abducted her to an FBI sketch artist.
Mr Scarbrough began investigating and blogging about the case, visiting key locations and scouring news reports and expert analysis. He went to the spot where Ms Papini said she was abducted, and a church where Ms Papini claimed she had pounded on the door after making her escape from her.
“There was so much that questioned the validity of her story. I didn’t believe it for a moment,” he said.
A few weeks later, Mr Scarbrough wrote an article summarizing the many holes in Ms Papini’s story on his personal blog. To his surprise, the post went viral, racking up 50,000 views in a few days and many hundreds of comments.
Mr Scarbrough told The Independent he started receiving threats in comments on the blog, including from Ms Papini’s sister, who publicly described her as a “supermom”.
“I had people coming after me saying ‘leave her alone, she’s a victim’. What I was suspicious of at the time, there was a good reason for it.”
He felt like he was in over his head and removed the post.
Soon, Facebook groups sprung up expressing doubts about the case, including one titled “I Don’t Belini Sherri Papini.”
Mr Papini’s GoFundMe page which had been seen an outpouring of sympathy was quickly inundated with messages expressing doubt about Ms Papini’s story and asking if the money would be returned.
Jamie Atkins, who was friends with Keith Papini in high school, told The Independent the alleged abduction “had us essentially on a witch hunt.”
“There were numerous posts on local social media group pages of ‘sightings’ of women who looked like the suspects or similar vehicle descriptions had a lot of women on edge,” she said.
“When she miraculously reappeared Thanksgiving morning we were relieved but shortly after when the details or lack there of started coming out, things didn’t really add up.”
In the absence of any statements from authorities or Ms Papini herself, the case “just fizzled away”, Ms Atkins said.
Ms Papini returned to the family home in Shasta Lake, just north of Redding, and became a “recluse”.
“There was no more media coverage and the family basically went quiet,” said Ms Atkins.
Between 2017 and 2021, Ms Papini received more than $30,000 aid from the California Victim’s Compensation Board.
The case was passed to the FBI, who continued to investigate Ms Papini’s background.
They located her first husband, who was serving in the US military. According to a charging document, he said they had got married in 2006 in order for Ms Papini to qualify for medical insurance.
Other former boyfriends described her as “attention hungry” and having made up allegations of abuse before.
A director at a Friday Night Live youth program that Ms Papini worked for told investigators she “was good at creating different realities for people so that they would see what she wanted them to see, which got her really good attention”.
According to a 2003 police report, Ms Papini ran away as a teenager and falsely accused her parents of abuse.
‘We took a lot of lumps’
Sheriff Johnson said the 22-day search for Ms Papini had cost in excess of $150,000, and that his office had unfairly endured years of criticism for their handling of the investigation.
“We took a lot of lumps. But there were good reasons why it took so long to build the case.”
He said they had faced delays due to Covid, officers involved in the initial stages were promoted or transferred, and it had taken a lot of man-hours to track down suspects and witnesses.
“There is overwhelming evidence of her guilt, and I’m glad she is being held accountable,” he told The Independent.
The case had also taken “critical law enforcement resources away from legitimate investigations”, he said.
Residents pointed to the case of Stacey Smart, who disappeared from the nearby town of Lewiston in Trinity County in 2016. No trace of Ms Smart has ever been found, and although a private investigator has identified a suspect in the case, no one has ever been arrested.
After her arrest on Thursday, Ms Papini’s family put out a statement criticizing police for what they said was unnecessary use of force.
“We love Sherri and are appalled by the way in which law enforcement ambushed her this afternoon in a dramatic and unnecessary manner in front of her children,” the family said in a statement released through Salt Lake City PR firm Intrepid, which represented kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart.
“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.
“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.”
For the residents of Redding, Ms Papini’s arrest has brought vindication as well as some frustration that the “hoax” was perpetrated on them.
“It angers me that someone would do this and falsify this,” said Mr Scarbrough.
“I think she wanted to leave her family, and made it look like she was abducted, and it got a lot bigger than she thought it would. Then she wanted to come back and she was trying to figure out how to do that.
“I think it got much more out of control than she ever dreamed it would.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.