Sherri Papini's ex-husband still dumbfounded by her kidnapping hoax: 'Driven by attention'

In 2006, much to Keith Papini’s delight, the blue-eyed girl who’d given him his first kiss in 7th grade returned to Redding, California, a picturesque town in the northern part of the state.

Keith and Sherri connected and caught up.

“Next thing I know, I took her out on a date, and it was just immediate,” he says, snapping his fingers. “I thought she was really beautiful. She liked all the things that I liked.”

They wed in 2009 and welcomed two children, a son Tyler and daughter Violet. Keith says he and Sherri were “tied at the hip,” and their marriage in “almost a constant honeymoon” state. “I truly felt like we had an amazing happy family,” he says.

But as the adage goes, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. “Now I know maybe she was lying about every single thing,” he says. “But she's very good at her craft.”

On Nov. 2, 2016, Sherri staged her own abduction. She left her kids at day care and discarded her phone along a street near their home, which Keith found. After he saw strands of his wife’s long, blond hair entangled in her headphones he dialed 9-1-1. “I’m totally freaking out thinking somebody grabbed her,” a panicked Keith told an operator.

Sherri surfaced 22 days later on Thanksgiving, near Interstate 5, about 150 miles from her home. She appeared to have been beaten and branded by kidnappers, who also chopped her long hair. In actuality, Sherri’s wounds were of her own design, inflicted while she stayed with an ex-boyfriend named James Reyes, in Costa Mesa. The saga that sounds like the plot for a Gillian Flynn novel is the focus of a three-part documentary “Perfect Wife: The Mysterious Disappearance of Sherri Papini,” streaming now on Hulu.

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“I think that what this story afforded us was an ability to really explore that kind of manipulation,” says director Michael Beach Nichols. “We have all of these police recordings with Sherri as she's fooling them and then we have Keith documenting the six-year period of time with her in their home movies and that's another thing people had never seen.”

Keith also handed over personal photographs and voicemails. Filmmakers spoke with friends of the Papinis and three FBI agents assigned to the case. Investigators linked Reyes to the hoax after discovering his DNA on Sherri’s clothes in 2020. Phone records also helped their case. Sherri pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements and one count of mail fraud on April 18, 2022. Her sentencing included more than $300,000 in restitution. She served 10 months of an 18-month sentence.

Keith says his intuition told him the moment he reunited with his wife after her kidnapping that she was lying. He was surprised that after the length of her abduction she was alive. And she gave him a look that he interpreted as only someone who’s known the other intimately can.

“The way she looked at me in that moment it was almost like she got caught,” he says. “Like she was just like, ‘Here we go. This is the one person that might be able to figure this thing out.’”

Keith and Sherri Papini pose for wedding portraits.
Keith and Sherri Papini pose for wedding portraits.

His suspicions quieted when he saw the extent of Sherri’s injuries. She had a broken nose and was so thin (he later found out Sherri broke her nose with the use of a hockey stick and decreased her food intake to appear starved). She had bruises and scabs, indicating she'd been beaten, and had been branded on her right shoulder.

When his doubts resurfaced, which happened “all the time,” Sherri always had an excuse. Plus, “there was no evidence of anything,” he says. Keith would think his wife was acting strangely, but then he’d think, “How do you act if you're held in a dark room for 22 days and beaten and you have a chain on you?” He’d wonder how anyone would really be smart enough to pull this off and capable of abandoning their kids.

But when he realized his fears had transformed into the truth, Keith felt understandably devastated, but also to his surprise, “almost a little bit of a relief.

“I know that sounds probably funny, but I was being prepped and prepared that I will never know who did this to my wife and it was constantly on my mind every single day,” he adds. “I couldn't just move past it.”

Keith is at a loss to Sherri’s motivation for her disappearance.

“I've definitely thought about a million things,” he admits. “If I did have to give an answer for that, I think it was driven by attention” that Sherri would receive and Keith as a “knight in shining armor” who would rescue her. “And then she was going to live off that attention,” he guesses.

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Though Sherri previously said in a 2022 statement that she would “work the rest of my life to make amends for what I have done,” Keith says his ex-wife has never apologized.

“I feel there's absolutely zero remorse for what she has done,” he says. “I don't even think she understands how big of a lie – and I've used the term ripple effect – that she has caused throughout so many lives. I don't think she cares, personally.”

Keith has full custody of the children and says he and Sherri no longer speak. They only see each other for court appearances. When it’s mentioned that people are searching on Google for where he is now, Keith says with a laugh, “I'm on my way up.”

Time has helped, he says. “I try to be very positive. I want to move forward. I want to give my children the best possible childhood I can and just surround them with loving people and that's my biggest goal right now.”

With his focus on family, Keith says he hasn’t been dating.

“But I would imagine I will in the future, put myself out there, just not yet.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sherri Papini's ex-husband still can't understand her faked abduction