California mom Sherri Papini ‘copied plot of Gone Girl’ when she faked 2016 kidnapping’

Sherri Papini with her husband Keith. Her ex-boyfriend told police she convinced him that Keith was abusing her and that she wanted help to get away from him so convinced the ex-boyfriend to pick her up

California mother Sherri Papini mimicked the plot of Gone Girl by telling an ex-boyfriend to ‘save’ her from her abusive husband when she vanished in 2016, then spent two weeks living in his apartment after taking over his bedroom where she starved herself, injured herself and convinced him to burn her skin, according to federal prosecutors.  

Papini’s husband Keith reported her missing on November 2, 2016, after returning home to find her gone and their kids still at daycare, where their mother would have collected them. 

For weeks, America watched in angst as police tried to find her. She appeared on Thanksgiving Day, some two weeks later, miraculously showing up on the side of the road where she claimed she’d been dropped off by her Hispanic kidnappers. 

Sherri then spun a tale of violence at the hands of her two female captors who she claimed beat her, fed her ‘tortillas’, forced her to use kitty litter and who she said played ‘that annoying Mexican music’ all the time. 

Safe at home in Redding, California, she retreated from public view to recuperate and recover from the seemingly traumatic ordeal.

But it has now been claimed by federal prosecutors that Papini staged the disappearance and was in fact with an unnamed ex-boyfriend for the duration of the search for her. 

She spent the 22 days hidden away in his apartment in Costa Mesa, a seven-hour drive south of where she lived, starving herself and inflicting injuries on herself before convincing him to drive her home because she missed her kids. 

The ex-boyfriend says he only became aware of what she had involved him in after he returned her home and saw news stories. 

He said they used to date in 2006 and that he assumed their relationship would be romantic when she made contact again in 2016, but that they never slept together while she was in his home.    

Papini told her ex-boyfriend to pick her up on November 2 from her home in Redding, California. She then sat in the backseat, lying down, while he drove seven hours south to Costa Mesa. For two weeks, they stayed in his apartment. She occupied the bedroom and he slept on the couch, according to prosecutors. He then drove her home

Papini told her ex-boyfriend to pick her up on November 2 from her home in Redding, California. She then sat in the backseat, lying down, while he drove seven hours south to Costa Mesa. For two weeks, they stayed in his apartment. She occupied the bedroom and he slept on the couch, according to prosecutors. He then drove her home 

Pike’s character Amy Dunne ends up seeking solace in ex-boyfriend Desi Collings. She accuses on-screen husband Ben Affleck of abusing her. 

The affidavit that accompanies Papini’s arrest sheds more light on their plot. 

‘Ex-boyfriend explained that Papini was ‘a good friend; and she had asked him for help. Papini told him that her husband was beating and raping her and she was trying to escape. 

‘Papini told ex-Boyfriend that she had filed police reports, but the police were not doing anything to stop her husband’s abuse. Ex-Boyfriend said “she had something planned up” and he was trying to help her get away from husband and be a good friend.’ 

Papini never filed any domestic violence complaints against her husband, according to federal prosecutors.     

In the months before her disappearance, she called the ex-boyfriend and told him she wanted to run away with him. 

She claimed that she’d been saving money for it. He advised her to buy a prepaid phone for them to communicate with. 

They planned for him to pick her up on November 2. He hired a car through a friend, drove from Southern California to Redding then waited to hear from her, the affidavit says. 

The boyfriend went to Trader Joe’s to ‘buy some stuff’ and also went to Starbucks before Papini messaged him.

She told him to collect her on a road near her home. When she arrived, she was in athletic gear and sweaty. 

She got into the car and immediately climbed into the backseat where she lay down and hid for the entire journey to Southern California, according to the affidavit.   

Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne and Neil Patrick Harris as Desi Collings in Gone Girl. Pike's character pretends her husband (Ben Affleck) is abusive towards her and she confides in Collings, her ex-boyfriend, after going on the run

Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne and Neil Patrick Harris as Desi Collings in Gone Girl. Pike’s character pretends her husband (Ben Affleck) is abusive towards her and she confides in Collings, her ex-boyfriend, after going on the run 

Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne in Gone Girl

Sherri Papini and her husband Keith on their wedding day

Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne in Gone Girl, Amy’s unwitting husband. Right, Sherri Papini and her husband Keith on their wedding day 

For the next two weeks, they lived in his apartment in Costa Mesa. There was no TV, so he did not see the news reports about her disappearance, but he became suspicious when she started injuring herself. 


The 55-page arrest affidavit reveals some of what Papini told police about the ‘Hispanic women’ who kidnapped her. 

Below are excerpts from that affidavit: 

‘They would play music loudly. That really annoying Mexican music. And theywould watch TV . . . There was a fireplace, I could smell it. I could hear that sound, you know when you move the handle to open the fireplace. It made like a creaky sound . . . and it was cold. It was always cold. And it seemed like it rained almost every night.’

‘I heard birds. I never heard anything else ……. they put the stereo right outsidemy door and . . . played it super loud.’

‘Papini said her abductors fed her once a day, maybe rice or tortillas, and Sometimes apples’

Papini claims that two Hispanic women driving an SUV abducted her but covered their faces. These sketches were released of them almost a year after she went missing

Papini claims that two Hispanic women driving an SUV abducted her but covered their faces. These sketches were released of them almost a year after she went missing 

‘Papini said the women put her in a closet with a bucket with kitty litter in it for her to use as a toilet. She described the closet as containing shelves and a metal pole to which the women hooked a cable and a chain to, with the other end of the chain hooked around her waist. There was enough length on it for Papini to reach the bed, but she could not reach the door. The chain was unmovable because it was bolted into the ceiling. Papini escribed how, when she did not listen to the women, they would lock her in the closet. 

‘Papini stated that there were boards on the windows of the room she was kept in”

‘I tried to get out the first time and that’s when she branded me.’ 

Papini described how her abductors brought a table in, hit her back, and tied her to the table. When they branded Papini, her skin made “a sizzling popping sound” and it was very painful. Later in this same interview, Papini  said her abductors told her that her buyer wanted Papini branded because’ 

She spent most of her days locked away in his bedroom after claiming it while he was forced to sleep on the couch, the man said.

She cut her hair, burned herself, and asked him to shoot her with a pellet gun to inflict a small bruise on her leg. 

Papini – who he said was ‘already tiny’ – starved herself while she was living with him, eating only ‘small portions’. 

In the days before Thanksgiving, she told him she was ready to go home to her kids. Before they left, she convinced him to burn a ‘phrase’ into her skin with a heated tool. 

He then drove her seven hours north, back to Shasta County, and dropped her off on the side of the road. She hid in the backseat again for that journey. 

She brought with her a bag that contained hand ties which she wrapped around herself in the car to make it look as if she had been bound. 

After he dropped her off, the ex-boyfriend drove himself back to San Pedro, had Thanksgiving Dinner at his aunt’s house and then returned his rental car the next day. 

It was only when he saw the intense media coverage of Papini returning home that he started to panic, he said. 

He said he never came forward because he thought that police would approach him if he had done something wrong, so he stayed quiet. 

In August 2020, police confronted Papini with the evidence but she continued to deny it and say there is ‘no way’ it could have been the ex-boyfriend. 

She admitted speaking with him over text, as she did with other men, but said it was merely a mistake and nothing criminal. 

‘When I went out of town for work. I talked with other guys ……… I made a mistake and I talked to other men and I shouldn’t have,’ she said. 

In the five years since she allegedly faked the disappearance, Papini claimed $30,000 from the Victim Compensation Board.   

On November 2, Papini’s husband Keith reported her missing at 5.50pm after returning home from work. She was nowhere to be found and their two children were still at daycare. 

Keith then used the ‘Find My iPhone’ app to locate Sherri’s phone, that was sitting on the side of the road near their home next to her earbuds, which were tangled in blonde hair.  

He told authorities he thought it looked as though the phone had been ‘placed’ there and that it was positioned strangely. 

Keith said the pair argued like any other married couple but had no serious marital issues. He said their last argument was the previous month and was over a messy room, and that Papini could be ‘loud’. 

Police started searching her phone and quickly discovered two men’s phone numbers that were saved under women’s names, the affidavit claims. 

Neither was the ex-boyfriend she spent her ‘missing’ weeks with, but authorities interviewed them and one of her old bosses. 

The day before she went missing, Papini texted one of the men and discussed meeting up in Redding, California, near her home. 

That man lived in Michigan and had been in California for a work trip. He told police he’d met Papini in 2011 on a work trip and that the pair ‘spent the weekend together’. 

They continued to exchange flirtatious messages for years, he said, but he did not end up meeting the weekend he was in California, before she disappeared. 

The second man told police that he met Papini in 2000-2001 through a a Friday Night Live  youth program. He said she was a liar who liked attention and would ‘tell stories’ to get it.

He said she once told him she was the victim of abuse in her family. 

‘Man 2 described Papini as an attention-hungry person who told stories to try to get people’s attention. Man 2 stated that Papini fabricated stories of being the victim of abuse from her family, father, and then Man 2 after the couple broke up,’ the affidavit reads. 

Papini and her husband Keith are pictured for Halloween with their two children

Papini and her husband Keith are pictured for Halloween with their two children

On the day Papini went missing, her husband Keith said he had first become concerned about her whereabouts when she stopped answering her phone

On the day Papini went missing, her husband Keith said he had first become concerned about her whereabouts when she stopped answering her phone

Investigators also spoke with Papini’s boss at the Friday Night Live youth program, and he said he worried about having her in the program because 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.’  

Papini was married once before she met Keith. 

Her first husband was in the military. Keith told police that their entire marriage was a sham designed to get her onto his medical insurance so that she could receive treatment for a persistent heart murmur. 

Prosecutors charged Sherri Papini, 39, (pictured) for lying to federal agents about being kidnapped and defrauding the state's victim compensation board of $30,000

Prosecutors charged Sherri Papini, 39, (pictured) for lying to federal agents about being kidnapped and defrauding the state’s victim compensation board of $30,000 

When police spoke to the first husband, he said she told him she needed the insurance due to ‘complications from regular egg donations’. 

Papini’s mother said she’d told her she ‘traveled the world’ with her first husband when in reality, they had only traveled together once. 

The ex-husband told police that after they divorced, he was told by mutual friends that she had a history of lying. 

The hoax was unraveled by the DNA match to the ex-boyfriend’s father. 

Local investigators in California asked the DOJ to run a familial search of the DNA they had collected from Papini’s clothing in 2016. It was found on her underwear, sweatshirt and pants, and belonged to a man – even though she had told investigators she had been kidnapped by two women. 

The search pinged a partial match for the ex-boyfriend’s father. 

It remains unclear if his DNA was on file because it was in the criminal database, or if he had submitted to an at-home DNA test. 

Authorities then staked out the ex-boyfriend’s home. They collected a bottle of Honest Honey Green Tea in June 2020,  

She faces a mail fraud charge related to the reimbursement requests that carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison, while lying to a federal officer has a maximum five-year sentence.

‘Everyone involved in this investigation had one common goal: to find the truth about what happened on Nov. 2, 2016, with Sherri Papini and who was responsible,’ said Shasta County Sheriff Michael Johnson.

That 22-day search and five-year investigation not only cost money and time, he said, ‘but caused the general public to be fearful of their own safety, a fear that they should not have had to endure.’

The mother-of-two, dubbed a ‘supermom’ by her sister Sheila Koester, 36, disappeared while out jogging on November 2, 2016.

On the day she went missing, her husband Keith said he had first become concerned about her whereabouts when she stopped answering her phone. 

Neighbors told that shortly after returning home Papini had been living as 'a recluse' but had begun to make more frequent appearances in 2017

Neighbors told that shortly after returning home Papini had been living as ‘a recluse’ but had begun to make more frequent appearances in 2017

The area where Sherri Papini was found near the I-5 freeway outside of Yolo, California

The area where Sherri Papini was found near the I-5 freeway outside of Yolo, California

When he discovered she hadn’t picked the kids up from daycare, he flew into full blown panic.

‘I couldn’t find her, so I called the day care to see what time she picked up the kids. The kids were never picked up so I got freaked out, I hit the Find My iPhone app thing,’ he said. ‘I found her phone; it’s got like hair ripped out of it, like, in the headphones.’

Her phone was discovered a mile away at the intersection of Sunrise Drive and Old Oregon Highway – neatly placed on the ground and with the headphones tidily wrapped around it.

Keith, who said at the time that his wife would never leave him or their children voluntarily, also launched an appeal – a GoFundMe account raising cash to pay for the search which eventually raised close to $50,000.


‘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. 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.’

After being found three weeks later, with her hair hacked off and branded with a threatening message, Papini claimed she had been kidnapped by two Hispanic women who could not be identified because they constantly covered their faces. 

Papini said the women had been driving a dark-colored SUV with ‘a large rear side window’ at the time of the kidnapping but has so far been unable to give details of the make and model.

However, police also revealed that male DNA that did not belong to husband Keith was found on her clothing and said she had been texting another man before her disappearance.

Cops investigating the kidnapping had discovered Papini’s texts and tracked down the man in Detroit, Michigan on November 9 – a week after she disappeared. 

Following her return, Papini was said to be living a quiet existence at her family home which occupies a shady plot of land on the outskirts of Shasta Lake; a small town of 10,000 people in Northern California.

Neighbors told that she had been living as ‘a recluse’ but had begun to make more frequent appearances in 2017.

That year she was spotted doing the school run and relaxing in her yard with a book.

Further skepticism about why she disappeared emerged after it was revealed she had previously run away as a teenager.

And according to the Sacramento Bee, uncovered documents from 13 years ago outlined how Papini’s mother, Loretta Graeff, called police asking for help after her daughter was allegedly self-harming and trying to blame the wounds on her.

The incident report, filed in December 2003, is just two lines long and reads: ‘RP states her 21y/o daughter that was living with her was harming herself and blaming it on the RP.

‘RP states female is coming back to live with them and she wants advice.’

The newspaper also found two other incidents involving Papini, where her father and sister both claimed she damaged their property.

In 2000, Richard Graeff said his daughter ‘burglarized his residence,’ before Sheila Koester, ‘alleged her back door had been kicked in and she believed Papini was the suspect’, the Bee reported.

In retrospect, ‘we are relieved that the community is not endangered by unknown, violent kidnappers,’ said Sean Ragan, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Sacramento Field Office.


Nov. 2, 2016

10:37 a.m.: Sherri Papini sends a text message to her husband, Keith Papini, to ask whether he will be home for lunch. He replies later in the afternoon that he won’t.

About 5 p.m.: Keith Papini returns to the Mountain Gate home he shares with his wife, Sherri Papini, and cannot find her or their two children. He learns the children had not been picked up from daycare and uses the Find My iPhone app to track her phone less than a mile from their home to the intersection of Old Oregon Trail and Sunrise Drive. Her earbuds are wrapped loosely around the phone, and there are strands of hair.

5:51 p.m.: Keith Papini reports to the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office his wife is missing with suspicious circumstances.

Arriving deputies canvass the area; witnesses report last seeing Sherri Papini wearing a pink running jacket and jogging on Sunrise Drive. One recalls seeing her at 11 a.m. and another at 2 p.m.

Nov. 3, 2016

Search and rescue teams with the sheriff’s office comb the area of Sunrise Drive and Old Oregon Trail. The California Highway Patrol assists with an aerial search. Patrol deputies and detectives begin to make checks on 290 registered sex offenders who live in the area. Sherri Papini’s sister, Sheila Koester, says the family thinks she has been abducted.

Nov. 4, 2016

Secret Witness of Shasta County announces a $10,000 reward for information. Volunteers with community groups show up at the Papini home to help in the search.

Nov. 5, 2016

Family members add $40,000 to the reward, bringing the total to $50,000.

Nov. 7, 2016

The family refocuses search efforts to get the attention of national news organizations and social media networks.

Nov. 9, 2016

Sheriff’s Lt. Anthony Bertain announces Keith Papini is not a person of interest in the case after he passes a lie-detector test and no physical evidence links him to the disappearance.

Nov. 13, 2016

Family hires a private investigator.

Nov. 15, 2016

Koester and Keith Papini attend the Redding City Council meeting to thank supporters and announce they will release balloons at a future date to get Sherri Papini’s face “around the world.”

Nov. 17, 2016

An anonymous person sets up the website to offer an undisclosed ransom for Sherri Papini’s immediate release, setting a deadline of 5 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 23. A letter provides instruction to “the person who has Sherri Papini” and names Cameron Gamble as the middleman. Gamble, who describes himself as a kidnap and ransom consultant and is connected to Bethel Church’s missions, says he is acting independently from law enforcement and family.

Sheriff Tom Bosenko says there still is not enough evidence to classify the disappearance as an abduction and cautions the approach could make the family a target of scam artists.

Nov. 20, 2016

The sheriff’s office confirms it has served more than 20 search warrants and received about 400 tips.

Nov. 22, 2016

Gamble says he believes the purported abductors are “still in decision-making mode,” while Rod Rodriguez, Keith Papini’s step-father, warns on Facebook that if the deadline expires without information, the money will turn into a reward after the deadline passes. Gamble declines to say how much the alleged abductor would receive, but says a tipster who helps get Sherri Papini home safely will receive a six-figure reward.

Nov. 23, 2016

Gamble posts a new video saying the ransom has been withdrawn and the money will be combined with the $50,000 reward previously posted.

Nov. 24, 2016

4:30 a.m.: Sherri Papini is spotted by a motorist on Interstate 5 near Woodland, about 150 miles south of Redding.

10:31 a.m.: The sheriff’s office makes public the big break in the investigation, stating she is safe, receiving medical clearance and reunited with her husband.

2 p.m.: Bosenko describes her captors as two Hispanic women with a handgun driving in a dark-colored SUV. He says one of the captors left her alongside County Road 17 off the freeway, where she was bound by restraints. She was treated for non-life-threatening injuries and released from a hospital in Yolo County, Bosenko says. He declines to elaborate on her injuries or whether she was sexually assaulted.

Nov. 25, 2016

Koester in a press conference credits social media for bringing attention to her sister’s case. Bosenko says his office has no reason to doubt Sherri Papini’s story, and authorities are combing surveillance videos and traffic cameras to identify the perpetrators.

Nov. 26, 2016

Audio of the 911 call and response to the discovery of Sherri Papini reveals that California Highway Patrol officers found her “chained to something” and “heavily battered.”

Nov. 29, 2016

Keith Papini issues a written statement to “Good Morning America” that his wife was branded, covered in bruises from repeated beatings and starved down to 87 pounds. Her “signature long, blond hair had been chopped off” and she was thrown from a vehicle with a chain around her waist, attached to her wrists and a bag over her head.

Bosenko says after her release, Papini walked to a nearby church. But nobody was there, so she walked to Interstate 5 and County Road 17 where she flagged down a motorist. His office still does not know whether Sherri Papini was targeted or abducted at random.

Nov. 30, 2016

Bosenko holds another news conference. He elaborates on the description of the two suspects and reveals they branded a “message” into Papini’s skin.

One is younger, with long curly hair, thin eyebrows, pierced ears and a thick Spanish accent. The other woman is older with straight black and gray hair and thick eyebrows. Bosenko says he does not have specific information to know if the case was related to a cartel or human trafficking.

Bosenko also reveals to the “Today” show that Papini’s phone and earbuds appeared to be neatly placed on the ground rather than lost in a struggle, with the screen facing up and the earbuds loosely wrapped around the phone.

Cameron Gamble, in an interview with KRCR News Channel 7, says “history was made” with this case and speaks about Redding serving as a test case for a model that can be duplicated on other abduction cases. He says “no money exchanged hands at any point in time” but the community and media played their part in spreading awareness about the case.

Dec. 1, 2016

Bill Garcia, the private investigator hired by the family of Sherri Papini, on the “Today” show says he believes sex trafficking may be a motive. Hostage experts cast doubts on that theory.

Dec. 2, 2016

Keith Papini gives an interview to ABC’s “20/20” in which he describes the ordeal and reveals, among other things, the family is not staying at home but at an undisclosed location.

Dec. 3, 2016

Redding-area residents gather to take a Welcome Home Sherri Community Holiday Photo on the lawn in front of the Redding Civic Auditorium

February 2017

The mystery man who offered a reward for “supermom” Sherri Papini’s return says he thinks the Redding woman was kidnapped last year for sex trafficking.

The man, who anonymously offered a $100,000 reward for her return, made the claim on the television show “Crime Watch with Chris Hansen.”

April 2017

Call records obtained by the Sacramento Bee reveal that Sherri Papini in 2003 allegedly had been harming herself and blaming her mother for her injuries. The revelations, reported by the Bee, were the latest in the Papini saga.

Loretta Graeff, Papini’s mother, in a December 2003 Shasta County Sheriff’s Office incident report called authorities to ask for help with her daughter, who Graeff alleged had been hurting herself and blaming the injuries on Graeff, the Bee reported. The Bee received the report after filing requests under the California Public Records Act. The report doesn’t say whether investigators found evidence that Papini had harmed herself.

Papini’s family, in a statement to ABC News, ripped the Bee story, calling it “shameful.”

October 2017

Detectives still don’t know who abducted Sherri Papini or why, but they reveal that texts with a man in Detroit, male DNA that didn’t come from her husband and a brawl Papini described between her and one of her captors have all been part of the investigation.

Shasta County Sgt. Brian Jackson says one of the angles detectives pursued is Papini’s alleged relationship with a “male acquaintance from Michigan.” Jackson saysPapini planned to meet the man days before she disappeared because he was coming to California for business, but investigators later determined he wasn’t involved in her disappearance.

Jackson also says officials found DNA from two people on Papini — that of a man and a woman. Jackson says authorities collected the woman’s DNA from Papini’s body, while the man’s was found on the clothes she wore when found.

He says the male DNA was not that of her husband, Keith Papini.

November 2017

The Shasta County Sheriff’s Office releases video of Sherri Papini shortly after she was released from her alleged abductors in Yolo County.

The Nov. 24, 2016, video was captured by a church near the northbound on ramp to Interstate 5.

Papini can be seen running to the church north on Highway 99W and then south on Highway 99W until she goes out of view, heading toward the I-5 northbound on ramp.

The Sheriff’s Office said the video surveillance date and time were validated by detectives as occurring at 4:15 a.m.

November 2019

Three years after the Redding-area mom vanished and re-appeared, officials say they still have no identifiable suspects except for two sketches of Hispanic women Papini says held her captive for three weeks.

“When you say something’s cold, (it means) we just don’t have an active lead to work on at the moment,” Shasta County sheriff’s Capt. Pat Kropholler said. “But it doesn’t mean the case is closed.”

Meanwhile, some experts believe the truth could be hiding in DNA samples collected from her clothes and body.

June 2021

The Record Searchlight reports that Sherri Papini’s alleged kidnapping is one of 22 cases dating to 1984 in Shasta County that remain unsolved.

Secret Witness of Shasta County was still offering up to $10,000 was still offering for information leading to the arrest or conviction of the culprits. 

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