Years ago, she told police she had been abducted, beaten and branded. Now she's charged with making it all up

In this 2016 file photo, Sherri Papini is seen on a sign reporting her missing in Northern California.

By Jay Croft and Melissa Alonso, CNN

(CNN) -- When she was found after a three-week search in 2016, a Northern California woman told police she had been abducted and branded by two women who kept her chained in a closet.

She gave an elaborate story of her kidnapping and treatment at the hands of the supposed assailants, whom she said wore masks, spoke Spanish and held her at gunpoint.

Now, Sherri Papini, 39, has been arrested and charged with making false statements to a federal law enforcement officer and mail fraud, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said in a news release.

Papini was arrested on Thursday. On Friday, Papini made her initial appearance before US Magistrate Judge Jeremy Peterson, according to Lauren Horwood, a spokesperson for the US Attorney's Office of the Eastern District of California. Papini was represented by attorney Michael Borges, Horwood said. CNN has reached out to Borges for comment, but has not heard back.

Papini was ordered detained as a danger and flight risk until Tuesday, March 8, at 2 pm, for a detention hearing before Peterson to determine her custody status, Horwood said. Besides her detention hearing, Papini's next court date is March 18 at 2 pm.

Late Thursday, Chris Thomas, a spokesperson for Papini, her husband Keith and her family, criticized police for her arrest, which he said occurred in front of her children. Sherri Papini would have gone to the police station, Thomas said.

"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," Thomas said. "We are confused by several aspects of the charges and hope to get clarification in the coming days."

"When a young mother went missing in broad daylight, a community was filled with fear and concern," said US Attorney Phillip A. Talbert in the DOJ's initial release. "Countless hours were spent following leads, all in an effort to bring this woman back to her family. Three weeks later, she was found 146 miles south of where she disappeared, and the focus went from trying to find her to trying to find her abductors.

"Ultimately, the investigation revealed that there was no kidnapping 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."

Husband reported her missing

Keith Papini reported Sherri Papini missing on November 2, 2016, after she failed to pick up their kids at day care. She was last seen jogging near her house in Shasta County.

Three weeks later, on Thanksgiving Day, she was found alone on Interstate 5 about 140 miles from home.

Based on her account, police searched for two Hispanic women matching Papini's description. But investigators ultimately found Papini had made it up, according to prosecutors. They say Papini was staying voluntarily with an ex-boyfriend during her alleged disappearance, and had caused her own injuries to support her lies.

DNA evidence eventually led them to the ex-boyfriend, according to the press release and the criminal complaint prosecutors filed in US District Court.

In August 2020, Papini was "warned that it was a crime to lie to federal agents" during an interview with federal and local investigators, said the press release.

"She was presented with evidence that showed she had not been abducted. Instead of retracting her kidnapping story, Papini continued to make false statements about her purported abductors," said the DOJ press release.

Additionally, Papini received about 35 payments totaling more than $30,000 from the California Victim's Compensation Board, the release said. The money covered expenses, including visits to her therapist and an ambulance that took her to the hospital after she reemerged.

Papini faces up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 if convicted of making false statements, and a maximum 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on the mail fraud charge.

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