Every now and then, news stories emerge about people who fake their own kidnappings. They never have happy endings.
The latest person to attempt an abduction caper and fail is 40-year-old Sherri Papini of Redding, California, who faces a year and a half in prison. Papini received that sentence on Sept. 19 for staging an elaborate hoax in 2016 to receive disability payments.
Papini pleaded guilty in April to one count of making false statements to FBI agents about her disappearance and one count of mail fraud. Papini disappeared in November 2016, prompting her husband to issue a public plea for her return.
Three weeks later, a truck driver spotted her at the side of a road 140 miles from her last known location. She had “various bindings” on her body, including a chain around her waist, authorities said. Papini told them two Hispanic women abducted her at gunpoint, tied her up, and beat her.
Papini repeated the story for more than four years while law enforcement continued to investigate, hoping to identify her kidnappers. In time, though, they learned the truth: It was all a hoax. Her goal was “to receive benefits as a result of her alleged ‘post-traumatic stress’ from being abducted,” prosecutors said in a statement announcing her recent sentencing.
In addition to the 18-month-sentence, Judge William B. Shubb ordered Papini to pay $309,902 in restitution for losses incurred by the California Victim Compensation Board, the Social Security Administration, the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office, and the FBI.
Papini’s tale demonstrates the risk of faking one’s abduction. Although disappearing for a while without telling anyone might be insensitive, there’s nothing illegal about it — even if you fabricate a story to explain it. The legal problems arise when the disappearance involves a lie and results in harm or unnecessary public costs.
In most states, lying to law enforcement is called “filing a false report,” which is usually a misdemeanor. Typical penalties for a conviction are up to a year in jail and fines of up to $1,000.
A person who makes a false report knowing that it is likely to cause harm or death to someone, however, faces much more serious consequences. Filing a false report with the intention of harming someone is a felony, which means that jail time and fines can be significantly higher.
Also, as the Papini case makes clear, the faker can also be held liable for the costs incurred by law enforcement and other agencies that wasted time and resources searching for nonexistent wrongdoers.
Self-Kidnappers’ Mixed Motivations
Some of the people who fake their own kidnappings create tales and schemes, often elaborate, to enrich themselves.
- A 37-year-old Florida mother of two, Quinn Gray, went missing in 2009 after posting a ransom note on the front door of her family’s $4 million home in Ponte Vedra. She said she’d been abducted by thugs who demanded that her husband pay $50,000. As it turns out, she hatched the scheme in cahoots with her lover, a 25-year-old gas station employee. In 2011, Gray received a sentence of seven years’ probation. The sentencing judge also ordered her to pay $43,000 to the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office for the cost of the investigation.
- In 2018, a 32-year-old California woman, Maria Gonzales, claimed she was kidnapped and robbed by two men who forced themselves into her car at gunpoint. She told authorities she was carrying a large amount of money with which she intended to make payments to subcontractors of her trucking company. Investigators determined she made up the story to get out of making payments of $9,000. Police charged her with a misdemeanor.
- In 2020, police in Chula Vista, California, arrested a 34-year-old man for filing a false kidnapping report after they’d spent hours trying to rescue him. Police learned that he’d staged the kidnapping in an attempt to extort money from his family.
- In January of this year, authorities in South Dakota charged a 22-year-old woman with attempted grand theft and filing a false report of kidnapping. She created the fake tale to extort money from her husband, telling him that kidnappers would kill her if he didn’t send money.
While many fake kidnappers target money as their primary motivation, others create their fabrications for purposes that are sadly amusing:
Whatever your motivations might be, the message should be clear: Faking your own kidnapping is never a good idea. Even if it’s just because you didn’t want to go to work, or if you feared your parents or your girlfriend, you will now have a misdemeanor on your record.
The police will get involved. And they don’t like wasting their time chasing after kidnappers who don’t exist.
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