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California woman sentenced to 18 months in prison in hoax kidnapping case

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.) — A Northern California woman who pleaded guilty to orchestrating an elaborate hoax about being kidnapped and even seared with a branding iron by her abductors was ordered to serve 18 months in prison Monday, more than double the amount of time federal prosecutors recommended.

Sherri Papini, 40, was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Sacramento. After learning her fate, Papini broke into tears as she emerged from the courtroom and was embraced by friends, family and her mother, who was also in tears.

U.S. District Court Judge William Shubb ordered Papini to turn herself in to begin her prison sentence by 2 p.m. on Nov. 8.

Federal prosecutors had requested Shubb to order Papini, a mother of two, to serve her sentence in prison but asked for only eight months.

Prosecutors noted in court documents that Papini continued her fake abduction scheme long after she resurfaced in her hometown of Redding, California, in 2016 and fraudulently amassed more than $300,000 in Social Security disability income, assistance from the California Victim Compensation Board and through a GoFundMe campaign created on her behalf.

Defense attorneys had asked Shubb for mercy, requesting she be allowed to do most of her time under house arrest.

‘I’m guilty of lying’
Shubb concluded that the sentencing recommendations from the prosecution and defense were both insufficient and said Papini would likely still be perpetuating the hoax had she not been caught in a web of lies.

In addition to prison time, Shubb ordered Papini to serve three years of supervised probation when gets out and pay $309,000 in restitution, which the judge said will likely never be paid,

“I would ask rhetorically, who is going to employ her in the future?” Shubb said.

Prior to learning her fate, Papini publicly apologized in court, saying, “I am choosing to humbly accept responsibility.”

“I am guilty of lying. I am guilty of dishonor. I stand before you willing to accept, to repent and to concede,” Papini said. “What was done cannot be undone. It can never be erased. I am not choosing to stay frozen like I was in 2016. I am choosing to commit to healing the parts of myself that were so very broken.”

Papini pleaded guilty on April 18 to two counts of engaging in mail fraud and making false statements that were part of a 35-count indictment. In exchange for her plea, prosecutors agreed to a sentence at the lower end of federal sentencing guidelines.

Papini vanished on Nov. 2, 2016, while out for a jog in her Redding neighborhood. A massive search was launched for her and family members — including her husband, Keith Papini, who has since filed for divorce — pleaded with the public for information on her whereabouts.

“The events of the past two months have been shocking and devastating,” Keith Papini said in a statement released after the sentencing hearing. “My current focus is on moving on and doing everything I can to provide my two children with as normal, healthy and happy of a life as possible.”

Sherri Papini’s sister, Shelia Koester, posted a lengthy statement on Facebook, apologizing to the Redding community for her sibling’s deceit. She said didn’t know her sister fabricated the kidnapping until she told her a day before she pleaded guilty.

“That Sherri could intentionally mislead her own beautiful children, her devoted husband, Keith, our families, the authorities, and all of you for so long is beyond comprehension and was done for reasons for which only she is aware,” Shelia Koester said.

She added, “Sadly, despite what she has expressed to the media, she feels no remorse or guilt for the untold damage she has caused nor for taking advantage of critical criminal, financial, and mental health resources that should have gone to help real victims in need. It deeply pains me to say this, but my sister is very disturbed, and I hope, for her children’s sake, once she is released, she will finally get the treatment she clearly so desperately needs.”

A ‘deliberate, well-planned and sophisticated’ hoax
On Thanksgiving Day 2016, Papini, who is white, resurfaced alongside a freeway more than 100 miles from Redding, telling investigators, including FBI agents, that she had been kidnapped at gunpoint by two Hispanic women, who tortured her and branded her, authorities said.

But prosecutors said the whole time Papini was missing, she was with an ex-boyfriend in Southern California and that the injuries she displayed, including the brand on her shoulder, were self-inflicted.

“Over the next four-plus years, Papini repeated a detailed false story about two Hispanic women taking her at gunpoint and inflicting abuse upon her while holding her against her will. Papini’s kidnapping hoax was deliberate, well-planned and sophisticated,” prosecutors said in court filings, adding that prior to staging the abduction she communicated with her ex-boyfriend using prepaid cellphones.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Veronica Alegria and Shelley Weger wrote in court papers that “the nation is watching the outcome of Papini’s sentencing hearing.”

“The public needs to know that there will be more than a slap on the wrist for committing financial fraud and making false statements to law enforcement, particularly when those false statements result in the expenditure of substantial resources and implicate innocent people,” the prosecutors wrote.

Papini declined to comment to reporters as she entered the Sacramento courthouse Monday escorted by her attorney, William Portanova.

“I do know that whatever happened five years ago, that’s a different Sherri Papini than the person you see here today,” said Portanova, who in court documents described Papini as “outwardly sweet and loving, yet capable of intense deceit.”

ABC News’ Matt Gutman, Sabina Ghebremedhin, Santina Leuci and Erving Last contributed to this report.

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