true crime

Real-life ‘Gone Girl’: The twisted story of Sherri Papini.

As each day dragged into the next, Keith Papini desperately tried not to give up hope. 

He’d last seen his wife, Sherri, when he left for work on November 2, 2016. 

But when he returned that afternoon, expecting to be greeted by the blonde “super mum”, their Californian home was completely empty. 

His concern quickly escalated when he discovered she also hadn’t picked up their four-year-old and two-year-old kids from preschool. 

Using the Find My Phone app, Keith traced the 34-year-old’s phone and found it discarded on a popular walking trail next to her headphones, 1.5 kilometres from home. 

He immediately reported her missing, fearing she’d been abducted while out for her daily run. 

Within days, Sherri’s story dominated headlines around the world, her beaming smile and doe eyes splashed across every major news site. As hundreds of locals formed search parties, a reward was offered for information that would lead to Sherri’s safe return. 

An emotional Keith also begged for any help to bring her home to their kids, who missed her immensley. 

But as three weeks stretched on, all hope seemed lost. 

Then, on day 22, a miracle happened.

On November 24, in the early hours of the morning, Sherri was found by motorists on the side of a highway more than 200km from where she’d last been seen.

Distressed and emaciated, Sherri’s arms were tied behind her back. 

Her signature blonde hair had been hacked off and she had lost a lot of weight.


She was covered in “multi-colour bruises”, had a broken nose and had been branded on her shoulder. 

It was clear that the 22 days she’d been missing had been hellish.

WATCH: Keith Papini talked about his wife's abduction and how she survived. Post continues below. 

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Keith described the moment he was reunited with his wife as a “mixture of horror and elation”. 

Sherri told police she’d been abducted by two Hispanic women armed with a handgun, "one younger with long curly hair, thin eyebrows, pierced ears and a thick Spanish accent". The other, she said, had "straight black and grey hair and thick eyebrows".

She told them the women had worn masks the entire time, played loud music and kept her chained to a pole, hitting her and branding her. She also claimed to have overheard a conversation about a “buyer’, implying they intended to sell her into sex trafficking.

But then without warning, perhaps spooked by the widespread media attention Sherri’s disappearance was getting, they dumped her on the side of the road.

Investigators had very little to go off.


Sherri couldn’t recall where she’d been held and the only DNA they found on her clothes belonged to a male who wasn’t Keith.

As the weeks wore on, both locals and authorities began to question Sherri’s story.

The speculation was fuelled by old racist blog posts, published in Sherri’s maiden name, that surfaced. In them, the unverified author described breaking the nose of a Hispanic girl after her father was accused of being a “Nazi”. Sherri’s father quickly denied the incident ever happened, labelling it “garbage”.

Keith also defended his wife against what he called “rumours, assumptions, lies, and hate”, telling PEOPLE in a statement it was a “fabricated race war” and that it was “Sherri’s will to survive that brought her home”. 

As years dragged on with no updates, Sherri’s “miraculous” return faded from the headlines as she sought treatment for her trauma, billing more than $40,000 to a victim compensation board. 

Then, in March 2022, there was finally a break in the case. But it wasn’t a pair of Hispanic women they arrested.

It was Sherri. 

The FBI charged her with lying to investigators about being kidnapped and fraudulently getting money from the state’s compensation board. Using familial DNA methods, investigators had discovered the DNA found on Sherri’s clothes belonged to her ex-boyfriend.

When questioned, he passed a polygraph test saying Sherri had been with him. She told him she needed to get away from Keith because he was abusive – a claim that is unfounded.


Sherri had asked the ex-boyfriend to rent a car and drive nine hours to pick her up before returning to his home in Costa Mesa, California. 

But three weeks in, Sherri told him she missed her kids and wanted to return home. 

Source: Facebook. 

According to investigators, her wounds were mostly self-inflicted, and she’d hacked off her own hair to make her story of abduction believable. She’d then convinced her ex to brand her with indistinguishable letters using a wood-burning tool before dropping her on the side of the road. 


Sherri was quickly coined the real-life "Gone Girl”, with prosecutors claiming she copied the plot of the popular psychological thriller novel in which a woman fakes her own disappearance before making a miraculous return after framing her ex for holding her captive.

The next month, Sherri Papini, now 41, pled guilty to making false statements and mail fraud.

"I am deeply ashamed of myself for my behaviour and so sorry for the pain I've caused my family, my friends, all the good people who needlessly suffered because of my story and those who worked so hard to try to help me," the mother-of-two said in a statement. 

"I will work the rest of my life to make amends for what I have done."

She was sentenced to 18 months in jail.

But in Late August 2023, the 41-year-old was released to serve the rest of her sentence under “community confinement”.

Meanwhile, Keith – who had stayed faithful to his wife until her arrest – has been left to pick up the pieces ever since.

“I’m the idiot husband who stayed around the whole time,” he said. 

He also told PEOPLE: “My current focus is doing everything I can to provide my two children with as normal, happy and healthy of a life as possible.” 

Feature image: Facebook.

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