California woman's alleged fake abduction cost the public hundreds of thousands of dollars, authorities say
By Dakin Andone, CNN
(CNN) -- A California woman's abduction claim, which federal prosecutors allege was false, cost the public hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to statements from authorities and court documents.
Sherri Papini vanished in November 2016, launching a massive search, only for the Northern California mother of two to turn up three weeks later, telling investigators she'd been kidnapped, beaten and branded.
The Justice Department says Papini made the whole thing up. She was arrested last Thursday and has been charged with making false statements to a law enforcement officer and mail fraud, the department said in a news release.
Papini, who had been detained since her arrest, appeared before a judge via Zoom on Tuesday.
US Magistrate Judge Jeremy Peterson ruled she could be released on an $120,000 bond, with certain conditions, including that her travel be limited to only one part of California, that she must receive psychiatric treatment, must surrender her passport and cannot use firearms, among other terms.
The judge addressed Papini directly, warning her that if she violated those conditions, there would be further penalties.
Assistant US Attorney Veronica Alegria argued against Papini's release, claiming Papini is an "extreme flight risk" and has a "lengthy pattern of dishonesty."
Papini's alleged fraudulent disappearance was not without consequences to others: It cost upward of $230,000 and "countless hours" of manpower, according to officials.
"Ultimately, the investigation revealed that there was no kidnapping," US Attorney Phillip A. Talbert said in the DOJ news release, "and that time and resources that could have been used to investigate actual crime, protect the community, and provide resources to victims were wasted based on the defendant's conduct."
CNN has reached out multiples times to Michael Borges, an attorney for Papini, for comment. During Tuesday's virtual court appearance, Borges said his client has no intention to flee while she awaits trial.
Sheriff: Investigation took resources from real cases
Papini's husband reported her missing November 2, 2016, after she failed to pick up her kids at day care. She was found three weeks later, alone on Interstate 5 about 140 miles from home. She told police she had been kidnapped by two women who wore masks and spoke Spanish. They held her at gunpoint, she said, kept her chained in a closet and branded her.
But last week, the Justice Department said Papini was actually with an ex-boyfriend in Southern California and that she caused her own injuries in support of her abduction claim.
In all, the cost of the investigation borne by public safety agencies was around $150,000 -- a conservative estimate, Shasta County Sheriff Michael Johnson said in a statement on Facebook last week.
But the cost isn't only measured in dollars, Johnson said. Papini's case and her story diverted resources from real cases with real victims.
"Not only did this charade take valuable resources away from real criminal investigative matters," the sheriff said, "but in a time where there is serious human trafficking cases with legitimate victims Sherri Papini used this tragic societal phenomenon to gain notoriety and financial gain."
"Finally," he added, "all of law enforcement in Shasta (County) was put on a national stage and subjected to scrutiny and criticism for the handling (of) this case."
Papini's case cost the public in other ways, too.
According to an affidavit in support of the criminal complaint, between 2017 and 2021, Papini received $30,000 from the California Victim Compensation Board, which assists and reimburses victims of violent crimes for "crime-related expenses" they suffer.
In Papini's case, the affidavit says, $1,000 was used so Papini could buy blinds for her home and nearly $2,000 were paid to the ambulance provider who transported Papini after she was found. The rest of the money were payments for Papini's therapy and treatment for anxiety and post-traumatic stress stemming from her supposed kidnapping.
Then, there was the GoFundMe campaign that allegedly netted just over $49,000.
Per the affidavit, donors were told the funds would be used to "find and bring Sherri home." In fact, federal prosecutors say, more than $30,000 was withdrawn by a family member from the campaign's bank account and more than $11,000 was used to pay off the family's personal credit cards.
The remaining amount was "spent on personal expenses," the affidavit says.
A GoFundMe spokesperson told CNN the fundraiser has been removed from the platform and has not been actively receiving donations since 2016. "We are working with law enforcement to assist with their ongoing investigation," the spokesperson said.
Regarding the GoFundMe campaign, family spokesman Chris Thomas referred questions to Borges, the attorney for Papini.
Last week, Thomas criticized Papini's arrest, which the spokesperson said happened in front of her children.
"If requested, Sherri would have fully complied and come to the police station," he said, "as she has done multiple times before, where this could have been handled in a more appropriate way."
Papini and her husband "cooperated" with law enforcement, Thomas said, adding, "We are confused by several aspects of the charges and hope to get clarification in the coming days."
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